One of a series of historical essays that appeared on my old blog, here resurrected by popular request. All right, one request 🙂
Dark Age Britain
Once upon a time, exactly when no-one really knows, there was a little myth. This myth was of a brave and fearless Christian warrior, who fought and defeated an invading force of foreign pagans. He and his companions saved their people, and he was revered ever after. Long after, the little myth was appropriated by other peoples, and it grew until it became one of the greatest and most powerful myths of the Western world, endlessly retold and embroidered until the original story was almost forgotten, and the warrior became a king, his companions a knightly order, his realm an empire, his battle a holy quest, and his life a tragedy.
And is any of it true? Well, it ought to be, and more and better besides (as Winston Churchill said); but whether any of it is or not is very debatable.
The beginning of the myth of Arthur was – perhaps, for like everything connected with Arthur, nothing is certain – in the fifth century CE, somewhere in the southern part of the island of Britain. At this time, the land was in a state of flux and uncertainty. After 350 years, Britain was no longer part of the Roman Empire; the last troops had been withdrawn by a general, Flavius Claudius Constantinus, who had declared himself Emperor. Calling himself Constantine III, he took the army to Gaul in 407 to try and seize the throne; he failed, and the troops never returned. This had happened before; one Magnus Maximus had done the same thing in 383, but that time the legitimate Emperor had eventually restored order. (Magnus had a long afterlife in legend, under the Welsh name of Macsen Wledig, Emperor Max). Now Rome had troubles enough elsewhere, and when (unnamed) Britons appealed to the Emperor Honorius for assistance (possibly in 410) he told them to see to their own defence. From here on in, Roman and other continental records say very little about events in Britain for a long time. The Britons were left to organise their own affairs, and it must be said that they didn’t make a success of it.
The Britons then were Celts, or perhaps Romano-Celts, descendants of the people conquered by Aulus Plautius so many years before. They spoke a language which was to eventually evolve into Welsh (and Breton, and Cornish), although possibly some – maybe most – of them used a form of Latin as their daily speech. They were – or at least most of them were – Christians, the official faith of the Roman Empire; how many of them, if any, still followed the old Roman gods, or the Celtic rites of their forefathers, we do not know. (Not many, probably: of the various issues confronting Christian writers of the day, paganism among the Britons isn’t mentioned).
Roman civilisation had been decaying slowly for a long time before the final retreat, and so the shock of being abandoned was perhaps not as sharp as it might have been; for a long while, many people must have expected Rome to return, and in some places some semblance of Roman life continued for quite a long time. But eventually the breach was realised to be permanent, and then, by and large, civil institutions withered away, the economy collapsed, and order broke down. The unified state that the Romans had maintained split up into a number of petty chiefdoms, as local magnates assumed authority over their region, and small turf wars broke out where claims were disputed. Fifth century Britain bore some resemblance to 1990’s Yugoslavia.
Of course such a condition was meat and drink to the ancient enemies of Roman Britain, and they queued up to fall upon the squabbling Britons. From the North the Picts and Scots streamed across the unmanned Wall; from the West Irish pirates raided the coasts of Wales and Cornwall, and from the East came the ships of the most dangerous enemy of all; the Saxons.
The Saxons, and their cousins the Angles, Jutes and Frisians, had been raiding the shores of Britain for years; they were a German, pagan, people, and like most German people had a burning desire to loot the riches of the Empire. The Romans had built a series of forts along the south and east coasts to curb their depredations, under the command of the Comes Littoris Saxonicis, the Count of the Saxon Shore, and given him a fleet, the Classis Britannica, to chase them. Later, Roman policy changed; not enough citizens were joining the Army, so instead they hired German troops to try and keep their cousins out. Some German auxiliaries certainly served in Britain; graffiti on the Wall and names on graves testify to a German presence in these islands long before the fall of Rome. Perhaps they went home and told their family what a nice place Britain was; and now their children were coming on a return visit. Only now the last Count of the Saxon Shore was long dead, and the fleet lay rotting in the mud, and the Germans were on the other side.
To be fair to the Saxons, they were under pressure themselves; far away in the steppes of Central Asia peoples were moving west, and pushing others before them. Mongols migrated into Hun territory, and Huns into Magyars, and Magyars into Goths and Goths into Franks and so on; not for nothing is this period called the Time of Migration. The German peoples, at the western edge of all this movement, were pushed up against the twin barriers of the Rhine and the Empire. For long years the Roman defences held, or were quickly rebuilt if breached, until at last (traditionally dated to December 31, 406) the Roman legions – weakened by civil war and diluted by German auxiliaries – gave way, and a flood of people spilled into the West. (Edward Gibbon, writing in the 18th century, says this is because the Rhine had frozen over – and so it might, but nobody before him ever said so).
The Saxons and their friends and relations were on the northern periphery of Germania, trapped not by the Rhine but by the shores of what they called Garsecg, the cold and pathless sea. They took perforce to boats, but found only Romans on the other shore; for a long time their westward travels were – like the Vikings of a later day – purely for raiding purposes. But when the Romans were gone, and no central authority left to organise defence, the Saxons were able to turn their thoughts from piracy to settlement; the westward pressure of peoples left them with very little alternative. It was either emigrate or go under. And so, from their homes in Saxony, Angeln and Jutland, the ancestors of the English descended on Britain.
This is the milieu in which the story of Arthur – the real Arthur, if such there was, not the legendary king in Camelot – is set. It ought to be said at once that there are no contemporary accounts of his life and deeds whatever; in fact there are no truly reliable records that even mention his very existence. Indeed there is only one nearly contemporary account of events in Britain, and it does not mention Arthur at all. So did he even exist?
Well, nobody can prove it, but many people think he did. Someone led the Britons in their battles, and no source puts any other name forward for all the battles, so why not Arthur? It is not necessarily true that the source of myths and legends has to exist (there may never really have been a Robin Hood, and there never was a William Tell), but many writers have let the hole in the history be filled by the name from the folk-tales; Arthur, leader of the Britons.
Gildas the Querulous
So much for opinion; what of the facts? There are few enough of them, and given the way continental chroniclers ignored Britain in those centuries, they are culled from just four more or less trustworthy written sources.
The only near-contemporary written chronicle is titled De Excidio et Conquestu Brittaniae, On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, by one Gildas, a Briton (probably), a monk (almost certainly), and a right royal pain in the neck (without a doubt). Written in Latin, it is not really a history at all, but a very tiresome religious tract, the tenor of which is that the Britons were divided and defeated not by the Saxons but by their own sins, and if they had all lived upright Christian lives instead of breaking the laws of God none of this would have happened. Most of the later part of the work is taken up with denunciations of some of the rulers of Britain in Gildas’ time, who, it seems, fall short of Gildas’ Christian ideals. In short, it is exactly the sort of crackpot religious maniac rant that always appears in time of trouble; it could have appeared as a Puritan pamphlet in Charles the First’s time, or on an evangelical TV channel in Alabama.
An account is given of the coming of the Saxons and other pagan invaders, and the defeat of the Britons, but Gildas never once sets down clearly what happened, who did it, and when, or in what order; instead his work is a confused mess of religious allegory, scriptural allusion and theological rambling. Gildas describes his work as a “querulous book”, and this is very apt, because for the most part it is just one long whinge. He is very shy of giving names, which when you consider that he was accusing the leaders of the Britons of the sins of Babylon is perhaps understandable, and even shyer of dates. If any other contemporary references had survived, Gildas would have been consigned to the waste bin, and good riddance. But he is all we have, and so he has been studied to death.
His work has just two virtues; firstly, it was, it seems, written only thirty or forty years after the events it never quite describes, and secondly Gildas does occasionally turn aside from berating the sinful Britons to let slip some hard information, especially in the first part of the work.
The English, according to Gildas, first came to Britain as hired mercenaries, brought over by an unnamed British leader, identified only as superbus tyrannus, ‘supreme tyrant’ (or perhaps ‘proud usurper’) to aid them in his wars against Pictish raiders and his own British rivals. This leader hired the services of some German chiefs, and together with their warriors and families, settled them in Britain. But later, a great plague struck Western Europe, and other Saxon invaders seized the chance to fall upon Britain. The English allies of the supreme tyrant seized their own chance; they rebelled against the British, made common cause with the Saxons, and set themselves up as an independent kingdom. After that, war between pagan Saxon and Christian Briton was more or less continuous, according to Gildas, and (he says) a just reward for the shocking sins of the British.
However, even Gildas had to allow that not all his countrymen were steeped in sin, and one he expresses grudging admiration for is one Ambrosius Aurelianus, “perhaps the last of the Romans”, who organised some resistance against the Saxons, and was for a time successful. His family, Gildas says, had “worn the purple”, which might mean anything from a local magistracy to a connection with the Imperial throne; just possibly – a phrase found a lot in any Arthurian discussion – there might be a link with the usurper Constantine III, or even Magnus Maximus.
Ambrosius can therefore be with some certitude said to have existed; but, like Arthur, and Magnus, he also appears in later Welsh legend, under the name Emrys Wledig (Emperor Ambrose), where he is sometimes presented as Arthur’s predecessor, and in one version, his grandfather. In other tales either he or his son is the bard and sorcerer Merddin Emrys, better known by his Latin name of Merlinus Ambrosius.
The other important fact leaked by Gildas is the name of a battle, one the Britons won, “the last if not the greatest slaughter of the pagans, the last great victory of the fatherland”; called by him obsessio Mons Badonicus, or the siege of Mount Badon. Gildas remarks that he has cause to remember the year of the battle, for that was also the year of Gildas’ birth. Typically, he then omits to tell us which year that was. (Most historians put it about the year 500, but quite frankly it could be fifty years either side of that). Since then, says Gildas, there has been peace, which was currently being endangered by the sinful ways of the current leaders, five of whom he traduces in vigorous fashion. We shall return to Badon later, but it may be noted that Gildas does not give the name of the leader of the victorious Britons at the battle; if it was Ambrosius, why not say so?
So there we have it; one name, one battle. Poor return for wading through Gildas’ querulousness. Why, if Arthur was as significant as later legend insists, does Gildas not mention him? Well, there are several possible explanations; firstly, it ought to be pointed out that Gildas mentions very few other names (bar Biblical ones), and so in omitting Arthur he was only treating him the same as nearly everyone else. The only other people mentioned by name beside Ambrosius are Constantine, King of Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall); Aurelius Conanus, a petty king in Wales; Vortiporius, King of Dyfed; Cuneglas ‘the bear’ (a local lord in South Wales) and Maglocunus, usually identified as Maelgwn, King of Gwynedd. These lords thus excoriated are presented as contemporaries of Gildas, wasters of the peace bequeathed by victory at Badon. Only Ambrosius is named in the account of the battles of the Britons against the invaders. Secondly, it is perhaps true that Arthur did not fit Gildas’ thesis, which was that the Britons were a bunch of losers, undone by their ungodly ways. Arthur is remembered as both a winner and a Christian. (In which case, why mention Ambrosius?). Finally, perhaps Gildas does mention Arthur; one of Gildas’ sinful lords, Cuneglas, is bynamed “The Bear”, and we might note that an old Welsh word for bear was Arth. This might be no more than a coincidence, but whole (not very reliable) histories have been based on that one possible reference.
The next source, chronologically, was also a monk, but a somewhat less annoying one. Bede (later promoted to being the Venerable Bede, two rungs below sainthood) was an English monk, who lived and wrote in the monastery at Jarrow. In the year 731, he completed his great work, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, the History of the English Church and People. Like Gildas – indeed, like most writers of history in the medieval era – he was not chiefly concerned with presenting an objective chronicle of events, but in preaching. Bede’s sermon was the usual one: the ancestors who founded the English Church were Godly men, and today’s Church was corrupt and sinful and fallen into worldly ways, and so on and so forth and so what. Fortunately for us, he did not confine himself solely to preaching and Church matters; he gives some account of the coming of the English to Britain, and their doings in the years after.
Of course, by Bede’s time, the victory of Badon was long past and almost forgotten; the Angles and Saxons had overcome this setback, and gone on to decisively defeat the British and conquer most of the southern part of the island. Since then, they had settled down, organised their own kingdoms, become Christianised, and called themselves the English. (The Celts, however, continued to call them Saxons, and still do; Sais in Welsh, Sassenach in Gaelic).
Bede, of course, gives the story from the English side, drawing chiefly on the records of the English kingdoms and churches, but he was, for his day, a very fair historian; Jarrow had a large library to draw on, and he sent researchers out to other libraries, even to Rome, to gather information and verify facts. He also pioneered a number of new techniques which became important; notably, he used and popularised the method of dating by years BC and AD, and not only that, he is careful to give dates, where he can. Secondly, he takes care to distinguish between different peoples; Gildas, in the Roman manner, had differentiated only between citizens and barbarians, or between Christians and pagans. To him, Ambrosius’ opponents were merely “the enemy”, and their ethnicity did not concern him. Bede, by contrast, carefully divided up the inhabitants of Britain into peoples, based on the language they spoke; he called them Bretti, Angli, Picti and Scotti; British, English, Picts and Scots. He further divided the English into Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and these divisions, however broadly based, and whatever subtleties they may conceal, have been largely accepted by historians ever since. Given his painstaking methods, and extensive research, we may take his account to be relatively trustworthy, remembering always that he was writing two hundred years and more after the event, and also that he was both chiefly concerned with sermonising and (naturally) biased toward the English. Biased or not, he had clearly read Gildas, and uses his story in the construction of his own, but he also adds a little to it.
For a start, he identifies Gildas’ superbus tyrannus as one Vurtigernus, or Vertigernus, king of south eastern Britain. Stripped of the Latin suffix, he is usually referred to as Vortigern, which may be a name or a title; it has been interpreted as the British Celtic title Wor Tigern; where wor means ‘great’, and tigern ‘ruler’, this being a more or less straight translation of the Latin Superbus Tyrannus. It could also be a proper name; several British personal names (such as St. Kentigern) end in ‘-tigern’. (In later Welsh legend Vortigern is named Gwrtheryn Gwrtheneu, Vortigern the Thin). Title or not, it is as Vortigern he has gone down in history and legend.
It was in 430, says Bede, that Vortigern invited the Jutish chiefs Hengest and Horsa to settle in Kent, to fight both the Picts and (notably) Ambrosius Aurelianus. Bede dates the plague and the rebellion to 447, and makes the brothers Hengest and Horsa founders of the Jutish kingdom of Kent. (Hengest means ‘stallion’, or ‘gelding’, and Horsa, unsurprisingly, ‘horse’, and this duplication of horse names has cast considerable doubt on their historicity). After that he agrees with Gildas that there were various battles between the English (as we might call them, though of course it was a long while before the concepts of England and Englishness gained any currency) and the British, and that eventually the English conquered most of what we now call England and drive the British back to Wales, Cornwall, and Cumbria. (We shall consider later what this process may have involved in terms of population movement). Of Badon and the great British victory, no more is said than was related by Gildas: and not a breath of the name of Arthur.
‘Nennius’ and the History of the Britons
You may well be asking at this point where Arthur comes from at all, given that we are now 250 years after his supposed lifetime and no-one has mentioned his name yet. Which brings us to our next source. And yes, it is another monk (who else had the time and knowledge?). This one is traditionally identified as ‘Nennius’, who was a real monk (aka Nemnius or Nemvius) who lived in Wales, in Powys (or Gwynedd), in the 9th century (died 809, according to one source). The work in question is known as the Historia Brittonum, and the attribution to Nennius is controversial, to put it mildly, especially since the work can be dated to c.828, or twenty years after Nennius’ death. This is irrelevant, however, and I shall use ‘Nennius’ to mean ‘author of the Historia, who may or may not have been Nennius’ henceforward.
Nennius freely admits from the outset that his History of the Britons is not a coherent, concise or consistent work: he says he merely ‘made a great heap of all he could find’. And, of course, the heap he made has been selected so as to present a case, not to give any kind of record of events. The case made is the glorification of the Britons (Welsh) in general, and the dynasty of Gwynedd in particular, with a nice side-line in hagiography (SS Patrick and Germanus of Auxerre) and lists of the various wonders and marvels that might be found in the island of Britain.
Two of Nennius’ sources for his heap are clearly Gildas and Bede, but he also says he used ‘our traditions’ – presumably meaning oral, rather than written, material. This is perhaps where the Arthur references come from, and there are two (at long last). One is a famous piece of Arthuriana, much quoted and discussed, and the other … isn’t.
But first Nennius expands considerably on the histories of Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus, but not in a manner that gives much comfort to those who would like to treat the Historia as a reliable historical record. Vortigern is introduced as the king who allowed the Saxons to settle in Britain, in exchange, it is now said, for the hand of Hengest’s daughter. The next passage, however, is decidedly legendary: Vortigern tries to build a stronghold in Snowdonia (later known as Dinas Emrys), but each time he tries to build the foundations, they sink into the ground. Vortigern consults the local wise men, who advise him to sprinkle the blood of a boy born without a father over the works. Somehow just such a boy is found – Ambrosius. But before the youngster can be sacrificed, in a most un-Christian fashion, he speaks up and tells them to dig into the foundations and discover the true source of the problem. So they do, and lo, they find two serpents (or dragons), one red and one white, having a fight. Ambrosius interprets them as the symbols of the British and the English respectively (the red dragon of Wales and the white wyvern of Wessex) and foretells that the red will eventually defeat the white. (Not much of a prophet, then, unless he was talking about rugby).
Further gleanings from the heap present Vortigern and Ambrosius as inveterate enemies, and Vortigern as a double-dyed villain guilty of incest (among other things), but also contradicts itself, saying now that the two were enemies on opposite sides of a civil war, and then elsewhere that Vortigern ruled in fear of Ambrosius, and also that Ambrosius granted land in Powys to Vortigern’s son Pascient, and finally that Vortigern handed over a fortress and all the western kingdoms of Britain to Ambrosius, who became king of all kings of the British nation. There is also a battle mentioned between Ambrosius and one Vitolinus (who is otherwise unexplained) at a place called Guoloph. Enthusiasts for the historicity of Nennius have identified this as the village of Wallop (in Wiltshire), which is to be sure a most suitable name for a battlefield. It is not at all clear that all these Vortigerns and Ambrosiuses are the same two people, or are referred to by the right name. The accusation of incest, for example, might be a confusion with Vortipor (King of Dyfed) who Gildas accuses of the same crime.
The reason why there are enthusiasts for the historicity of Nennius at all is because of the most famous passage in the work, in chapter 56, where Nennius gives all the glory of the battles against the Saxons, including Badon, not to any Ambrosius, but to Arthur.
In those days, he says, speaking of the time after the establishment of the kingdom of Kent and the death of Hengest, Arthur fought against them (the Saxons) alongside the kings of the British, but Arthur it was who was the commander in war (dux bellorum). (This implies that Arthur was not a king himself). He gives a list of battles, twelve of them, all won by Arthur (which contradicts Gildas’ remark that the fortunes of war favoured first one side, now the other). They are named as 1. At the mouth of the river Glein; 2, 3, 4 and 5. Above the river Dubglas in the region of Linnuis; 6. Above the river Bassas; 7. In the forest of Celidon; 8. The fortress of Guinnion; 9. At the City of the Legion; 10. On the banks of the river Tribuit; 11. On Mount Agnet; and 12 and last, on Mount Badon, where Arthur himself slew 960 men in a single charge. (Very impressive, if true).
Where are these places? Apart from Celidon, which could be the Caledonian Forest in Scotland, and the City of the Legion, which is either Caerleon or Chester, your guess is as good as anybody’s, which hasn’t stopped several generations of Arthurians confidently identifying the sites (and not agreeing with one another). It is often thought that this battle list is derived from a heroic Welsh poem, but no such verse has ever turned up, or been referenced elsewhere. In fact, the only one of these battles that is associated with Arthur anywhere else at all (in writings not obviously derived from the Historia) is Tribuit, which might be a battle named Tryfwyd in a Welsh poem … but its historical value is somewhat limited, given that Arthur’s opponents are there given not as Saxons, but as men with dogs’ heads. There have been many attempts to identify Badon, in particular: Geoffrey of Monmouth placed it in Bath, and a popular site today is Liddington Camp in Wiltshire, but quite frankly it could have been in Wembley Stadium for all anybody knows.
The second reference to Arthur in the Historia is strangely overlooked by Arthurian enthusiasts. In Chapter 73, amongst a list of marvels and wonders of Britain, is mentioned the ‘Carn Cabal’, a magical footprint left by Arthur’s dog during the hunt for the great (and magical) boar Twrch Trwyth. Nearby, apparently, is the grave of Anir ‘son of Arthur the soldier’ (slain by Arthur himself) which no man can measure the length of, because it keeps changing every time. One can see why Arthurians shy away from this passage, and we might also note that Anir (Amr, Amhar), while referenced in various Welsh poems and legends, never makes it into what we might call ‘classical’ Arthurian myth.
The final vaguely credible source is another document, in some manuscripts found appended to the Historia, known as the Annales Cambriae. As the name implies, it is a list of years, with the principal events (if any) of each listed against them, concerned mainly, but not exclusively, with events in Wales. It seems to have been compiled in the late 10th century, and the annals run from the year 445 to 977: the last year with a recorded event in is 954. The match of the years is not certain, or reliable: it can be shown that several of the entries against events with a known date are wrong.
Against the year 516 is recorded: The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors. (Shoulders here is possibly a confusion between words: the old Welsh for shoulder was scuid, but for shield, scuit). The Historia gives a similar exploit for Arthur in its battle-list, only there he carries the Virgin Mary, and it is at Castle Guinnion.
Against 537, we read: The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell and there was death in Britain and in Ireland. Medraut here is the first reference to the character better known as Mordred.
And, finally, against 573 there is: The Battle of Armterid, between the sons of Elifer and Guendoleu son of Keidau in which battle Guendoleu fell and Merlin went mad. (Another bit of Arthuriana that never made the final cut).
It will be seen at once that as evidence of events in the sixth century these annals are somewhat dubious: they can hardly have been entered much before 954, and since the earliest copy of the manuscript is dated to somewhere between 1100 and 1130, may even have been inserted by a copyist long after that.
And … that’s it. That’s all the even slightly credible historical documentation concerning events in Britain in the ‘Arthurian Period’. Anything further written about Arthur, the coming of the Saxons, and the wars of the Britons belongs firmly to the realm of legend and lies. We have seen in the Historia that Arthur was in the realm of legend already, even as his name entered the historical record. From here on in, he lies wholly within the legendary sphere.
Poems, Stories and Saints
There are the aforementioned Welsh poems and stories, which may date to before the year 1000 or so, but none are known in original MS, and how much of the matter actually dates back to before the later medieval period is impossible to say. It is interesting to note that they don’t say all that much about Arthur: he gets walk-on parts in others people’s stories, mostly, and he sometimes appears not as a hero but as rather a bad hat, wandering about Britain with his homies Bedwyr and Cai fighting people and ravaging places. None of the poems and stories have any value as history, being concerned with such things as magic cauldrons and the previously mentioned dogheaded men. They do, however, introduce some new characters to the story, notably Cai (Kay), Bedwyr (Bedivere), Gwalchmei (Gawain) and Uther Pendragon, and while the Historia did not make Arthur a king, the Welsh (and Breton) folktales do. No tales before the later medieval period associate Arthur with Cornwall at all.
One poem usually reckoned to be fairly early in date is Y Gododdin, a heroic battle poem attributed to Aneirin, in which one fellow is commended for being suitably martial ‘though he was not Arthur’. But having said who Arthur is not, Aneirin then omits to mention who he is.
On another level of mythmaking are the hagiographies. Britain in the early medieval period was pretty much overrun with saints, and monastic scribes fell over themselves to write encomiums of their local favourite. ‘Saint’ here doesn’t mean ‘canonised by the Vatican’, so much as ‘local holy man’, especially one who did missionary work among the heathen. Although many of the saints are described as living in the ‘Arthurian’ era, none of the surviving hagiographies date from that time, but mostly from much later, after the establishment of large monasteries keen to attract pilgrims. Some of them mention Arthur: one such is a hagiography of our own not beloved St. Gildas: since it was written in the early 12th century its historical value is nil, but it does introduce the character of Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar. The hagiographies are full of stock miracles, as one might expect: so many saints are said to have sailed to Ireland on stones that you wonder whether they took block bookings. This has not stopped some Arthurians from trying to use them as evidence.
The English, for their part, had their own stories, which were collected into writing in the annals known to us as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: these were first compiled in the 880s, probably at the behest of King Alfred. For their annals in the 5th and 6th centuries they rely almost wholly on Bede, but add some local detail derived from tradition, and some transparently made up out of whole cloth to bolster dynastic and land claims, such as the invention of a founding father named ‘Port’ to ‘explain’ the name of Portsmouth. They go on to add a further litany of unidentifiable battle sites, but this time the victories are all English ones. Badon is notably not mentioned, and they do not, of course, mention Arthur at all.
None of these fictional sources add very much to the details of the Arthur story, but now comes the writer who will give the story the form by which it has come to be best known.
Here Comes Geoffrey
Geoffrey of Monmouth (another monk, later titular bishop of St. Asaph) finished his great work, Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) in 1138, and at once it became one of the most popular and influential books of the day, and for many a day long after. He claimed that the original details with which his work was filled had been taken from a certain ‘very ancient’ book ‘in the British tongue’ lent to him by Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford. Said book was not produced then or after, and the suspicion that Geoffrey had in fact made most of it up sprang up immediately. (His near contemporary William of Newburgh accused Geoffrey of ‘an inveterate love of lying’). Most readers then and for many centuries later, however, accepted Geoff’s account of the doings of the rulers of Britain from before the Romans to the 7th century as veritable history.
It isn’t. It begins with the notion (stolen from Virgil) that Britain had been founded by exiles from Troy after its fall, and continues through a fanciful and imaginative account of the history of the Britons from then until the Saxon conquest. Where his account can be compared to more reliable sources (such as Julius Caesar’s British campaigns) he is seen to be wildly inaccurate. There is no reason to suppose that his Arthurian narrative is any more historical.
He cites both Gildas and Bede in his sources, but also borrows uncited from the Historia Brittonum and the Welsh stories. The narrative he weaves from these sources, however, is all his own: Geoffrey it was who made Uther Pendragon Arthur’s father by his adultery with Igerna, wife of Gorlois of Tintagel, Geoffrey who first makes Merlin the magical counsellor of Arthur’s court, Geoffrey who makes Mordred the villain of the piece, and Geoff who first sent Arthur on his magic trip to Avalon after the last battle of Camlann, which he also places in Cornwall. Arthur had a magic sword in the Welsh stories, name of Caledfwlch, but Geoffrey (who doesn’t seem to have had much Welsh) called it Caliburnus (which via French hands became Excalibur).
Once released into the world via Geoffrey’s wildly popular book, the new Arthur story took hold and spread like wildfire. It was fed back into Welsh and Breton folktales, the later examples of which are clearly Geoff-inspired, and became known as the Matter of Britain, a rival cycle of tales to the Matter of France (stories inspired by Charlemagne and Roland, and almost equally as fictional).
New writers, mainly French, took it up, and added new elements: Robert Wace of Jersey added the Round Table (1155); Chrétien de Troyes added Camelot, the Lancelot story, the Percival story, and the Holy Grail and the Fisher King (1170 – 1190); Robert de Boron added the Lady in the Lake and the Sword in the Stone in the late 12th or early 13th century; Galahad first appears in the early 13th century; and at the same time the originally separate tale of Tristan and Iseult was grafted into the cycle and Mordred (nephew of Arthur in Geoffrey) was made the result of an incestuous union between Arthur and his sister.
Other people sought to exploit the story: the abbey of Glastonbury dug up what they claimed were the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191, sparking a healthy pilgrimage industry (and a much later plague of hippies). Edward I had a Round Table made, and King Henry VII not only named his first son Arthur, after his own supposed ancestor, but also had Edward’s Round Table painted with the names of Arthur’s knights (and a big Tudor Rose). (I have a coaster of this table, still to be seen in Winchester, on my desk).
Finally, one Thomas Malory (of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, probably) put together a compilation of all the existing stories, to make the first complete, coherent Arthurian narrative in English, and for good measure added some original material (the Gareth story … odd how such an archetypically Welsh name should appear so late in the day). The work was one of the first printed and published by William Caxton, in 1485, under the title Le Morte D’Arthur, and became a huge bestseller. When people talk of ‘the Arthur story’ today, it is Malory’s version that is referred to, and nearly all variations written since are based on it.
So, what really happened, then?
… is a very difficult question. Concerning events in 5th and 6th century Britain, confining ourselves to verifiable, reliably-sourced facts, we can say this:
At the beginning of the period, circa 400, most of Britain south of the Wall remained a province of Rome, however shakily, but was subject to much nuisance raiding by various Picts, Scots, assorted Germans and who knows who else. People spoke British or Latin, and were Christian. After the attempt by the would-be usurper styled Constantine III to create his own realm, Britain fell out of the Roman orbit, cut off from Italy by Frankish and other invasions of Gaul: and after 476 the Western Roman Empire ceased to exist as a polity even in theory. Documentary evidence from or about Britain from this time on is almost non-existent. During or perhaps even before this period, the raiding Germans became settling Germans, some of them at the invitation of local authorities. A proud usurper, possibly named Vortigern, is involved. The former province of Britain was split up into various fiefs organised, if at all, by unknown authority, and there is some conflict between them and the various invaders, and amongst themselves. One Ambrosius Aurelianus is prominent in these conflicts. A little later, a great battle is fought at Mount Badon, possibly between Saxons and Britons, possibly not. And then by the end of the period the most part of lowland Britain isn’t Romano-British or Christian, but now ruled by pagan chiefs who spoke Old English, ruling over peoples who it seems also mainly spoke Old English, if we are to judge by the almost complete replacement of Latin and Celtic placenames by English ones. Finally, in 597, Pope Gregory the Great decided the Angles were actually angels and sent Augustine to Canterbury to convert them to Christianity (which he and others did, in a century or so, no martyrs involved) and after that recorded history slowly starts up again.
That’s all we can say with any degree of certainty. Saying anything more would be entering the field of speculation. We call it the Dark Age mostly because it is hidden from us.
It’s not much to say about two hundred years or so of our history, is it? Pretty vital history, at that: at the start there is the Roman provinces of Britannia, with the mainly Pictish and British petty kingdoms of Caledonia to the North: and by the end there are the recognisable beginnings of England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. It’s no wonder Geoffrey of Monmouth felt moved to fill the void up with his imaginative stories.
Archaeology was once thought to be the answer to filling up the void more fruitfully, and there were many enthusiastic and sometimes even professional expeditions to find the site of Mount Badon, or Camelot, or any Dark Age site whatever … and after many years the results are rather disappointing. Britain is a famously wet land, and wooden structures mostly rot, and nobody in our period was building anything very much in stone. And of course most of the sites settled by the Saxons later became the towns or cities of England, and all the older archaeology was effectively obliterated by the deeper foundations needed by the later more substantial buildings. Graves there are, but identifying graves as ‘Saxon’ or ‘British’ turned out not to be as easy as once thought: graves that might on all other criteria have been identified as one or the other have been found with crosses in, or Saxon jewellery, or some other anomalous find. (Telling Angles apart from Saxons has proved impossible). Most of them, of course haven’t got anything in at all, not even bones, and even bones can’t tell you what language they spoke. Nobody has ever found a convincing Dark Age battle site, and while some old Iron Age forts have been shown to have been re-used in the period, we can’t tell who by or why. Tying what archaeology there is to the history has proved all but impossible: dating techniques aren’t accurate enough to place old bones to within ten or twenty years. (There’s also the problem that the dates we have aren’t very accurate, either, see later).
What archaeology has managed to show is that the traditional picture of Saxons arriving on the beaches like so many early medieval landing craft, and then fighting their way inland, is untenable. In particular, the founding myth of Wessex, as told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, is clearly shown to be complete rubbish: the core of the kingdom wasn’t by the coast, founded by Cerdic and Ceawlin leaping from the traditional ‘three keels’, but in Kingston on Thames and Dorchester on Thames: the West Saxons came up the Thames, and then worked their way up the river valleys into Hampshire and Wiltshire and Oxfordshire from there.
This leads us to the greatest mystery of the age … why do we speak English? Other Roman provinces taken over by Germanic ‘barbarians’ don’t speak Germanic languages, but descendants of Latin. It used to be thought that the answer was because the Angles and Saxons (and Jutes and whoever) came across in great numbers, and simply slaughtered and drove off all the British, a view reinforced by the bloodthirsty lists of battles in Nennius and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. As evidence, it was pointed out that there are very few words of Celtic origin in Old and Middle English. Surely, you would expect some Celtic loanwords if the two populations had lived peacefully together? It has since been further pointed out that every single piece of surviving writing from Roman Britain – not just official matter, but personal letters, inscriptions on votive offerings and graffiti – is in Latin, and if Britain followed the pattern of every other Western Roman province, the daily language of most of the population would have been Latin, not British Celtic. The survival of Welsh and Cornish and Cumbrian into latter days shows that not all Britons spoke Latin, and a further knock to the idea of peaceful co-existence is that there isn’t an awful lot of Latin in Old English, either, and most of what there is, is related to the Christian religion. That said, few now believe the English slaughtered all the British, or arrived in huge numbers. Perhaps the difference in language between what happened in Britain and what happened in Gaul is that the Franks and others who became rulers in Gaul (and Italy, and Spain) were already Christian and partly Romanised when they arrived, whereas the various German tribes who settled in Britain seem to have been wholly pagan. Maybe that was enough to prevent easy mixing of societies; or maybe the plague mentioned by Gildas affected the Romano-British more than the English, or maybe there were more Angles and whatnot in Britain than there were Franks in Gaul. Speculation, as you can see.
And the more you look at the evidence the less certain everything is: those dates confidently given by Bede that are the foundation of every other date ascribed to events in the 5th and 6th centuries begin to look very dubious when examined closely. (Remembering always that the only primary source, Gildas, is dateless). He gives dates for events on the Continent that can be shown to be wrong, and his dates for events in Britain are based on assumptions Bede has made about Gildas’ narrative: if Gildas didn’t actually say the things Bede thought he had (and Gildas’ Latin is very tortuous, vague and stylized) than not only are the dates dubious, but so is the whole narrative of events Bede has constructed: the arrival of ‘Hengest and Horsa’ at Vortigern’s invitation, the plague, the revolt, the wars of Ambrosius, the final battle of Badon. Latin scholars have gone back to Gildas and tried to read him (poor souls) without imposing Bede’s narrative on it, and several very different readings have emerged. For example, suppose Gildas’ superbus tyrannus isn’t referring to some 5th century Vortigern, but to Magnus Maximus back in the 380s? The dating of Gildas to c.540 is dependent on the identity of his Maglocunus with the Maelgwn who was king of Gwynedd – if it’s some other chap of the same name, then Gildas could have been writing any time from about 480 to about 590 … that’s a long period of vagueness.
It isn’t even clear that the epic struggle between Christian Britons and pagan Saxons which Bede and everybody after him believes Gildas was describing was actually what he described. Gildas was writing a sermon, directed principally at Maglocunus and his associates, not a record for posterity, and it suited him to present his hero of an earlier age, Ambrosius, as a good Christian who fought virtuously against pagans, as opposed to his unworthy successors. And doubtless Britons did fight against Saxons … but if later and better recorded history is any guide, Britons also fought against Britons and Saxons against Saxons, and Britons sometimes allied themselves with Saxons when it suited them. (The very pagan 7th century King Penda of the Mark – a realm usually Latinised as ‘Mercia’ – often allied with the Christian Welsh to fight his mortal enemies the Northumbrians). Even Bede records that Vortigern hired his Jutes to fight not only Picts but also Ambrosius. Bede’s source for this observation is unknown, but it sounds altogether more likely than the holy war of Briton against Saxon that later legend inserted Arthur into.
Ah, yes, him. What can we reliably say about Arthur? In terms of strict historical fact, nothing whatever. We have seen that the name enters the historical record (to use the phrase loosely) only with the Historia Brittonum, a work (or a heap) that is not only composed three hundred years later than his purported lifetime, but is moreover filled with all manner of miracles, marvels, fables, legends and fairy stories, some of them about Arthur himself. Its value as a historical record is as close to nil as makes no matter.
So, facts failing us, let us speculate. If you want to carve a space for a historical Arthur then it must be as the victor of Badon. I believe that the lists of other battles attributed to him are garbled versions of the victories (and defeats) of Ambrosius; but Gildas does not explicitly associate Ambrosius with Badon, while clearly regarding the battle as a significant event. One reading of Gildas’ Mons Badonicus passage is to place the battle as forty years after Ambrosius’ battles, making the latter very unlikely to have also fought at Badon. So, we have an unknown leader at this great battle, whom later tradition makes out to be Arthur (a tradition Bede was seemingly unaware of). We can’t dismiss Arthur solely on the grounds that there are legends about him: there are legends about Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig), Ambrosius Aurelianus (Emrys Wledig) and Vortigern (Gwrtheryn Gwrtheneu), too, and at least the first two of those are reckoned to be real enough. Let it be so: Arthur as the victor of Badon. What else he did, who his parents were*, where and when Badon was, and why Gildas didn’t give his (or any other) name remain and probably always will remain unknown.
We could speculate more, and plenty of people have, but in the end it would just be what it always is, picking through the documents (and the folktales and the hagiographies and the later medieval literature) for items that support a pre-conceived case, while rejecting everything that doesn’t. A pointless endeavour at the best of times. There is enough pseudo-history in the world without adding to it (yes, Arthur does turn up in The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail, why are you not surprised?).
It might seem a disappointing conclusion, but it’s the only one that can be come to honestly: the Arthur of history, if he really existed – and he might have done – is irretrievably lost.
The legendary Arthur remains to be enjoyed, however, and can and should and does still inspire wonder. But that’s another story.
There is a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur, a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword; the world’s wonder a grave for Arthur. – The Black Book of Carmarthen (13th century).
Footnote: * – probably not a hamster and someone smelling of elderberries.
An Appendix about Peoples
In an attempt to keep the narrative brief I have rather shamelessly used various ethnic identities in rather a broad manner. A little further explanation is called for.
British is shorthand for ‘peoples native to Roman Britain, speaking British Celtic languages, i.e. those ancestral to Welsh, Cornish, Cumbrian and Breton’. Cumbrian died out before the Norman conquest (probably), Cornish in the 18th century. Welsh and Breton are still with us (the latter not for long, probably). The Bretons emigrated to Armorica in Gaul from Cornwall during our ‘dark age’ period, driven by Irish aggression rather than by Saxon. They took the stories of King Mark of Cornwall and Tristan (who may have been real people) with them, and later mixed them up with the Arthur stories. In the days of which we speak, British (P-Celtic, to give the technical term) was spoken throughout what is now England and Wales, and across much of the lowlands of what is now Scotland. (Some people prefer to use the term Brythonic for the ancient language, to distinguish it from later uses of the word British).
English/Saxon: used interchangeably to mean ‘pagan Germanic speaking peoples from Northern Germany, Denmark and the northern Netherlands, who settled in Britain’. Bede, famously, divided them up into Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and elsewhere, less famously, he also mentions Frisians, Rugians, Danes, Huns (who are usually not believed to have been German) and Boruhware (possibly Rhineland Franks). Whether, for example, all the English people of Kent were Jutes, or just their leaders, is one of those unknown things there are so many of in these histories. The terms ‘England’ and ‘English’ post date our period by many centuries, of course, but since the Welsh still call us all Saxons anyway it hardly seems to matter.
Scots: Whilst all this was going on in the Southern parts of Britain, at very much the same time a number of Irish peoples were emigrating from Ulster across the sea to the western parts of Scotland. Heretofore the peoples of Caledonia had spoken British and/or Pictish languages, but these immigrant Irish brought their Gaelic tongue with them, and became known as Scots. (Gaelic is the other major branch of the Celtic language family, Q-Celtic (don’t ask) giving rise to Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic: Manx is extinct as a living language of daily use, Irish is very nearly so and Scots Gaelic clings on only in the Western Isles). Eventually the Scots established a powerful kingdom, arranged a corporate merger with the Kingdom of the Picts, and called the result Scotland.
Picts: H’m, yes. The Picts, you see, are a bit of unknown quantity. Little to nothing is known of the Kingdom of the Picts bar some possibly dubious king lists. The kingdom was in the top right hand part of what is now Scotland, and it seems that the language spoken was British Celtic. Bede, however, distinguished them from the rest of the British … no-one is entirely sure why, but there are hints that their culture was different, reckoning descent through the mother, for example, and there is a certain amount of evidence (some of the names of kings, and a disputed inscription, some late folk tales) that some of the Picts spoke a different language. Romantics have seized on this and made the Picts speakers of a pre-Indo European language, a relic of the peoples of Britain before the Celts came. This is to push the evidence too far.
Oh, all right then. Not everybody in Ireland spoke Irish … there is evidence of a people known in Irish as Cruithne who lived in the eastern parts of Ulster, and seem to have spoken British. And not all the Irish lived in Ireland: Irish raiders harried the coasts of Wales and Cornwall, and place names and inscriptions show there were Irish settlements there and also in Cumbria. Plus, of course, the Scots. Confused? Welcome to Dark Age Britain.