The Composite Arthur Pt. 1
A Multi-faceted Man
As I have stated many times, though I search for the original kernel of truth behind the legendary Arthur, there is no denying that even as early as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s writing Arthur had become a composite. There is much speculation that can be done here, and large number of figures from Britain’s history can be posited as pieces of this puzzle. From Roman conquest era figures such as Cassivellaunus, to King Alfred of Wessex, and his grandson Æthelstan. Here we look at some of these figures, and how they may be part of the overall picture of our later Composite Arthur.
I think the best way to approach this is to look at these figures more or less in chronological order. Keep in mind that being the earliest doesn’t mean that they are the kernel of the historical Arthur, just that their deeds were added on to the core dark-age warlord Arthur.
Cassivellaunus meanwhile was raising an Army. A powerful warlord, probably of the Catuvellauni, he had been fighting constantly against his neighbors, most recently defeating the Trinovantes and their king Imanuentius, sending the kings son Mandubracius into exile
After some failed skirmishes against the Romans, even being routed in one against a foraging party, Cassivellaunus then determined that a direct approach, regardless of the size of his army was probably futile. Cassivellaunus commited to a large scale guerilla campaign, eventually meeting the Roman's while they were crossing the Thames. The Romans managed to cross, regardless of the defending force, and the stakes placed in the ford to slow their advance. Cassivellaunus disbands most of his forces, and using his cavalry and chariots continues to harry the Romans until Mandubracius and others come forward and tell Caesar where Cassivellaunus' Stronghold was. Upon being besieged Cassivellaunus surrendered.
Mandubracius was then reestablished as king of the Trinovantes, and Cassivellaunus fades away from history, promising to never take up arms again. His story doesn't end there though. Cassivellaunus secured himself a place within Brythonic folklore.
Geoffrey of Monmouth remembers him as Cassibelanus and spins an exaggerated account of both Cassibelanus' life and Caesar's invasions. One can see little snippets of history gleaming through the fiction though, the stakes in the River Thames remembered, and the death of a Tribune. Mandubracius is replaced with Androgeus, a nephew of Geoffrey's Cassibelanus, with the betrayal more personal in his story. All of this was no doubt taken from Caesar's writings, though heavily retold through Geoffrey's lens of narrative, itself tweaked by Welsh Tradition.
While it has been generally held that Caswallawn as Cassivellaunus appears, is a late addition to Welsh Folklore, supposed heavily influenced by Monmouth's work, I think it could be more likely that Geoffrey was instead inspired by this tradition. Combining this early tradition with the writings of Caesar himself, you get the hybrid narrative that Geoffrey creates, neither wholly Caesar, or wholly Welsh.
Part of this earlier tradition is his appearance as an opportunistic usurper to Bran the Blessed. Causing the death of his great-nephew Caradog, Bran's son, Caswallawn then becomes king of Prydain. Manawydan, his nephew goes into hiding out of fear of his uncle. Caswallawn fades away shortly after this and isn't mentioned again in the stories remembered by the Mabinogi. It has been suggested that Manawydan is in fact a memory of Mandubracius.
There seems to be fragments of a lost tradition of Caesar and Caswallawn fighting over a woman known as Fflur (literally Flower), possibly even a poetic way of referring to the fight for control of Britain, and seems to be quite old and possibly rather free of Caesar's works.
Cassivellaunus through his brief resistance certainly cemented his place in history, and even exists as part of the template that Geoffrey used for his 'Arthur', a warlord resisting invasion, ultimately betrayed by one of his own.
Lucius Artorius Castus
Instead of rehashing much of what I have written before, you can read more about LAC here
I am generally skeptical of the influence LAC had on the LEGENDS of Arthur, however, the theory isn’t completely bunk.
Sarmatian influence on later Brythonic culture may not have been impossible though, as filtered through the later Roman Military cavalry gained greater importance, and as such, much of Sarmatian cavalry culture seemed to have influence Roman Cavalry.
Roman cavalry then in turn influences early post Roman Brythonic culture, who pride themselves on Horsemanship, with the nobility and their way of fighting, especially in the North revolving around horsemanship.
Much early Brythonic poetry is centered around this Cavalier Aristocracy
"He thrust spears in battle
from astride his horse, fettle
though no heavyweight
his steel slicing in the fight"
-Aneirin, Y Gododdin.
A convincing continuity can be argued for this angle of Sarmatian influence, but other supposed influences on Arthuriana don't quite pan out, however how compelling and interesting they may be.
Maximus was born sometime around 335ad in Gallaecia, the son of general Flavius Julius Eucherius. Maximus claimed relation to Flavius Theodosius, who he served under during The Great Conspiracy. From 367–368 Seemingly coordinated attacks by the Picts, Scotti, Attacotti, Saxons, and Franks harried the Island of Britain, this event is known as The Great Conspiracy. Maximus, under Theodosius proved to be a capable leader, helping to quell The Great Conspiracy, as well as serving in Africa in 373. He was then given a post in Britain in 380, and fought against a Pict and Scotti incursion the next year. In the coming years the emperor Gratian had become increasingly unpopular, eventually leading to Maximus being proclaimed emperor by his own troops. He then led campaigns in Gaul using soldiers from Britain, weakening Britain's defenses considerably. Maximus then used these troops to take on Gratian and his army, eventually defeating him, and leading to Gratian's death.
He then proceeded to rule Britain, Gaul, Spain and Africa from his established capital at Augusta Treverorum. He became known as a defender of the church for some time, and in particular went after heresy harshly. In the ensuing years Magnus became quite popular, though he continued to keep pressure on Valentinian II eventually driving him to Theodosius I, son of the previously mentioned Flavius Theodosius (A relation of Maximus' if we are to believe he was related to Flavius Theodosius) Maximus was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Poetovio, surrendering at Aquileia and was executed. Many of you are probably wondering "what does this have to do with Arthur?" A number of events in Maximus' life tie in to the greater Arthurian legend, with Maximus himself being stated to be an ancestor of Arthur in many sources. Arthur is often stated to have made war in Gaul, and then upon Rome, even killing an Emperor, leading to the creation of his own Western-European Empire. This is likely inspired by Magnus Maximus' exploits as a usurper emperor, warring in Gaul, and eventually leading to Gratian's death. These are eventually wrapped into Arthur’s story and become his deeds instead of Maximus’. Magnus Maximus himself is the subject of a tale in The Mabinogi "The Dream of Macsen Wledig" (Magnus is known in Welsh as Macsen Wledig, Wledig being a title meaning Lord, or Ruler, or Great Land-Owner) In this tale Magnus falls asleep after a hunt and dreams of a beautiful maiden, and upon awakening he sends his men to the ends of the earth to search for her, leading him ultimately to Caernarfon in Gwynedd. It is found to be Elen, the daughter of the Romano-British chieftain Eudaf Hen. The two were married, and Elen was eventually conflated with Helen of Bithynia the Mother of Constantine the Great, giving rise to the myth that Constantine was British.
Magnus Maximus seems to have been remembered fondly in British legened, even though he is likely a root of some of the later troubles as according to Gildas he deprived Britain of it's Roman garrison, warbands, governors, and the "flower of her youth"
Magnus’ exploits, and responsibility for the death of an emperor, were likely appended onto Arthur, giving us the fight against the Romans and slaying of an emperor attributed to Arthur.
Riothamus stands as an interesting figure here, being well attested in history, and known to campaign on the continent. He fought on the same side as the Romans, not against them as Arthur did, but this is an easy point of confusion (or intentional change) Geoffrey Ashe is the most well known proponent of Riothamus as Arthur, and he makes a fascinating case, but I feel that he only strongly identifies the continental campaign as belonging to Riothamus. I speak on this theory and Ashe's work in my substack article on Riothamus.
Most of his argument hinges on ensuring an interpretation that Riothamus crossed the channel from Britain to the Continent, however that is highly up for debate. Riothamus as a name is possibly a title, but could easily be a personal name, and appears as such when taking into account Sidonius’ letter.
No Riothamus appears in Insular Brythonic sources, and Ashe waves this away by just claiming that 'he's there, he's just called Arthur'. This is a necessary assumption when working towards finding ‘Arthur’, though the details are unsatisfactory in my opinion, as this places Arthur immediately succeeding Vortigern directly in power. and places him with a floruit of 460-480, a little less than a generation before the Arthur of the annals. Riothamus does figure within the Breton lists and sources however, as a son of King Deroch II (likely Deroch I though, confused with Deroch II). Other than Geoffrey of Monmouth's word there is no compelling reason to believe there was a cross-channel high-kingship of the Britons.
The life of St. Melor tells of a man that may have been Iaun Reith, a legendary king of Cornaille. "A certain nobleman from beyond the seas, whose name was Lex or Regula, a man of royal race and great wealth . . . after the desolation wrought by the Frisians and duke Corsoldus, fitted out a fleet, crossed the sea and came to our desolate Cornugallia with a great company, took the kingdom and settled there." Reith is likely an adaptation of Regula, with Iaun Reith basically meaning John the King. John is quite possibly the same man as Riothamus, potentially giving some credence to the ‘by way of the ocean’ claims of channel crossing, though this seems to have been a much earlier event, happening in the second quarter of the 5th century, early in Riothamus’ career.
Vortigern as high-king likely did not hold sway over the kings of the north, and Arthwys as high-king in the north likely did not have power over the southern kingdoms during his time, much less in Armorica. This doesn't preclude some ambitious Kings from claiming they did.
The likeliest explanation is that Riothamus, the high-king of the Britons in Armorica, led a campaign against the Goths, bringing his army to bear via the sea instead of a time consuming overland march.
Later writers hear of this grand campaign to aid the Romans and this poorly attested figure is surely the same as the 'Great Arthur' the Britons speak of, and the legend grows, eventually picked up by Geoffrey as what he believes is genuine history. This gives us part of the European campaign later attributed to Arthur.
Geoffrey melds a handful of figures (possibly knowingly, possibly unknowingly) giving us his Arthur, one rooted in both fact and fantasy.
One of the most obvious of figures is the famed Ambrosius Aurelianus, a figure we can confirm as a Historic figure, known through the writings of Gildas. Many have pored over Gildas' words to make an attempt to equate Arthur with Ambrosius, and have made compelling attempts.
The literal reading of the texts confirms that Ambrosius was a Warlord at least who fought against the Saxons, two generations before Gildas was writing, as Gildas mentions contemporaries to the time of his writing as being Ambrosius' grandchildren. His family was of high status, and his parents perished in the initial Saxon wars. Ambrosius is then said to have given the British victory against the Saxons, but the British won sometimes and the Saxons others. Gildas then goes on to add that after some time has passed, and the implication here is that it was more than a few years, that the battle of Badon was fought, and the British won a great victory there like never before. Frustratingly, the commander of this battle remains unnamed
Some have used this to connect Ambrosius as the victorious general of Badon, but unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the implication here. The only person ever directly attributed with winning Badon in other texts is Arthur. One could then stretch and say that Arthur may have been a nom de guerre, or an otherwise acquired name, or possibly a birth name, but there is once again little evidence to draw from on this.
There is also the issue of chronology. As mentioned before, Gildas makes it clear that he is writing while Ambrosius' grandchildren are extant, so we must look two generations before Gildas, so our question becomes when did Gildas write? Dating Gildas' work De Excidio is a much fretted over task, and I have written on it before, but to summarize, there are a handful of clues that can get us in the right direction. The first is that Gildas makes no mention of the plague that swept Britain in the 540s
It would be highly unusual for him to not use this as an example of how God was castigating the wicked princes of Britain, So he was either writing much later or earlier than that. He also writes about the King of Gwynedd of his time, Maglocune (Maelgwn Gwenydd) Maelgwn is said to have died of the Yellow Plague in 547, so Gildas was writing before that. Gildas tells us that Badon happened in the year of his birth forty-three years and one month ago. The Welsh annals give Badon's date at 516, extremely incongruous with this info
However, we must note that many early Annals were recorded only according to the Easter Cycle every 19 years. This gives us a little bit more wiggle room. This is where the Venerable Bede comes into our story. Bede lifts his portion on Badon almost verbatim from Gildas. The main difference is that Bede dates Badon as taking place forty-four years AFTER Saxon arrival in Britain. He gives us said date for the Arrival, 449, giving us a date of 493 for Badon. Considering this, then that gives us a date for Gildas of 536. This is within our parameters quite easily, accounts for Maelgwn's experience, as well as the lack of plague, and taking note of the incongruity caused by the Easter cycle, the taking nineteen years from the Annals date of 497, Badon likely happened then. This brings us again to Gildas words on Ambrosius' grandchildren, who are implied to be adults and likely of the same rough generation of Gildas. With a rough generational gap of 30 years this would place Ambrosius' birth in the mid 430's.
This places Ambrosius' perfectly to be the commander of the early British resistance around the mid 460s. A seasoned commander in his 40s, very possible, even considering that Vortigern's sons Vortimer and Catigern were said to have fought as generals under his command. This would have made him one of the most senior commanders available for a battle in the 490s, in his 60s, easily possible, do if we assume is the victor of Badon and the Arthur mentioned in the Annals then it's likely Camlann also mentioning Arthur was his as well.
If we take the date for Camlann at face value this would make Ambrosius over 100 years old, or even with a more conservative estimate for his Birth almost 90. Even with the 19 year adjustment, he would still be close to 90. So it seems unlikelier and unlikelier that he was Arthur. Ambrosius may have even been present at Badon, and may have been the most seasoned commander there, but it would seem that a younger Prince named Arthur ultimately won the day for the British, possibly as the Annals implies, via a bold cavalry charge into the Saxons.
Arthwys ap Mar
Arthwys ap Mar, the great-grandson of Coel Hen, who reigned the Kingdom of Northern Britain in the early 5th Century, was king of the shallowly attested Brythonic kingdom of Ebrauc (modern day York). Ebrauc arose from the fracturing of Coel’s realm accelerated heavily by the Brythonic practice of splitting kingdoms between a king’s sons. This possibly arose as a way to keep some kind of familial cohesion in a territory, while avoiding the nigh inevitable conflict that arises from multiple sons with only one kingdom to inherit. The practice was extremely detrimental to Brythonic efforts to maintain their territory against Germanic invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries. Arthwys himself was probably born around 470-475, had three (possibly four) brothers, and finds himself, and his family surrounded by later figures of Arthuriana. Amongst his family you can find analogs for Percival (his grandson Peredur of Ebrauc), Uriens (his cousin Urien of Rheged), Mark of the Tristan and Iseult legend (his cousin Cynfarch or Cynfarch’s father Merichion), Yvain (Urien’s son Owain of Rheged), Anierin the famous bard (and the composer of the earliest mention of Arthur we have on record) may have been related to him as well. Arthur’s knight Gwallog was his nephew Gwallog ap Llenneac, and Merlin himself is found in his brother Morydd’s grandson Myrddin Wyllt. His brother Llenneac may have been conflated with the mytic figure of Lugh, giving us Llwch Llawwynnauc an early warrior of Arthur’s as well as his analog Llenlleog the Irishman from Culhwch and Olwen. These figures both may represent proto-Lancelots even, predating Chrétien de Troyes’ later tradition. While these are not necessarily hard proof it is nonetheless interesting that so many of these figures can be found among Coel’s descendants and within the Hen Ogledd (Old North).
There is a significant case to be made that Arthwys is the man at the center of the Historical King Arthur. He doesn’t account for all of the portions of the legend, but he doesn’t have to. If you want to read in depth on Arthwys and the case for him being the core of the historical Arthur you can find a link below to my article discussing him.
Arthwys seems to have been the figure behind the twelve battles of Arthur’s that are found in Nennius’ Historia Brittonum. The most likely sites for the campaign found in Nennius plot roughly along a north-eastern corridor, perfectly poised to be Arthwys’ battles. Unlike most Brythonic kings at this time with a little digging and reasoning we can determine that Arthwys in fact expanded his territorial influence, while most British kingdoms were shrinking. This places him in a position not unlike the ‘High-King’ Arthur is often called. It is unlikely that any High-King at this time controlled the whole isle, as Geoffrey of Monmouth would have you believe, but regional High-Kings were almost a certainty, and it seems that Arthwys was one of these regional High-Kings. As High-King in the north he commanded a larger territory than any other Brythonic king, Even his great-grandfather’s Kingdom of Northern Britain was smaller. There is also the possibility that towards the end of his life he appears as a king of the Picts, being called Gartnait, and ruling from 531 to his death in 537.
This is a figure that would undoubtedly be remembered, yet we find scant traces of him. Maybe it was because when early writers said Arthur, they truly meant Arthwys. Arthwys may even represent an earlier version of the name Arthur!
While Arthwys may not contribute much solid evidence in the way of the later common tropes, he does provide the historical framework for these things to be built upon, absorbing the accomplishments of multiple figures until they are all unrecognizable.
In the next installment we’ll visit some other figures, ranging from Wales to Scotland, and even a figure from amongst the traditional enemies of Arthur, the Saxons.