Discover more from Aurochs, Arthur, and the Anvil
Who Is the Real Arthur?
My article from Man's World 7, looking at three historical figures who influenced Arthurian legend.
Originally published in Man’s World 7 and reprinted with permission of the editor. To get the full experience with @babygravy9’s amazing layout and graphics you can find issue 7 here, Download, Flipbook, as well as a prodigious amount of other fantastic articles.
“Mention King Arthur, and the name conjures up a romantic image. The image is richly complex, comprising not merely a single figure but a group, and a constellation of themes. Beside the king stand his queen, Guinevere, and his enchanter, Merlin. Their home is Camelot, the royal centre of a mysterious, wonderful Britain. Camelot houses the Round Table, at which Arthur presides over a company of knights headed by Lancelot, dedicated to noble ideals. In war he quells his enemies with a magic sword, Excalibur. If we explore the scene more deeply, we see a brooding tragedy overshadowing it. The king’s reign, however splendid, is only a ‘brief shining moment’; he is doomed to be plotted against, betrayed and brought down. Camelot must fall.”
An ancient bull's thoughts. is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
— Geoffrey Ashe
King Arthur exists as a figure so absurdly plausible, but so shrouded in myth and legend that the general public knows who he was, but cannot tell you when or where he lived other than Camelot, and what his kingdom was, outside of media references. Many will quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a chuckle
King Arthur: How do you do, good lady? I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Whose castle is that?
Woman: King of the who?
King Arthur: King of the Britons.
Woman: Who are the Britons?
King Arthur: Well, we all are. We are all Britons. And I am your king.
Others will fondly remember John Boorman’s iconic ‘Excalibur’ and chant The Charm of Making and recall Perceval and the Grail.
Some of the more ‘in the know’ kind of folks will either say he was a real warlord of sub-roman britain, or quickly quip that “he never existed” or only exists in legend, some will even suggest he is a euhemerized pagan god.
According to the Annales Cambriae, or Welsh Annals it has been 1485 years since Arthur fell at the Battle of Camlann. In the almost 15 centuries between the present and Camlann, Arthur has been an ever-developing figure, starting with a single reference in Aneirin’s Poem Y Gododdin, likely written 40 to 100 years after Arthur’s death at Camlann.
He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur
Among the powerful ones in battle
In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade
Within living memory of Arthur, we have reference to a warrior of great renown, a Brythonic Telemonian Ajax, but still incomparable to Arthur.
After this we begin to see the legendary Arthur develop in Welsh legend and folktales, which I will refer to as the Pre-Galfridian tradition, or tradition before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work Historia Regum Britanniae.
The Pre-Galfridian Arthur, found in sources such as the fragmentary ‘Pa gur yv y porthaur?’, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, and ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ all of which feature an already Legendary and mythologised Arthur, but one much more close in history to the Arthurian period itself. The less mythologised snippets come from numerous post-Roman saint’s vitae, the Annales Cambriae, and Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, as well as the Welsh Triads.
The Pre-Galfridian tradition paints a very different picture of Arthur than what you will find in later sources, A warlord who fights not only the Saxons, but monsters, great beasts, giants, and even raids the underworld itself. Arthur’s warband includes gods alongside his early warriors. Some of these early sources still view Arthur as a historical figure however. Nennius, who was compiling his work Historia Brittonum in the 9th century, certainly viewed Arthur as a historical figure. Aneirin also seems to reference Arthur as a historical person as well. This Arthur seems to have a root somewhere in history, and with enough digging I think we can get close.
Enter Geoffrey of Monmouth, and his infamous work Historia Regum Britanniae. Geoffrey changed Arthur forever, with his attempt at creating a coherent (but largely fictional) narrative of the history of the Britons, but one must not throw the baby out with the bathwater here, as there are precious kernels of truth embedded within. Geoffrey’s Arthur is the start of the modern Arthur. Many will know the highlights of the post-Galfridian Arthur. The boy king who pulled the sword from the stone, tutored by Merlin, and ultimately dying in battle against his son/nephew Mordred. This Arthur is rooted in the post-Galfridian tradition, and especially influenced by Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur. Finding kernels of truth here is almost impossible, though pieces do survive. We find Percivale, Merlin, Trystram, Mordred, Mark, Lancelot, Galahad, and Arthur himself of course, all who have historical origins. So where do we start in trying to find this original Arthur?
The first step is placing him in his proper time. We can do this by looking to the Annales Cambriae, a compilation of chronicles attempting to date important events in the history of Wales. Here we get two mentions of Arthur both associated with battles.
Year 72 (c. 516) 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.
Year 93 (c. 537) The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell and there was death in Britain and in Ireland.
This gives us a rough set of dates for when Arthur was active. Badon is also corroborated by the 6th century monk Gildas in his work De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. An entire article could be written on Gildas alone, so I won’t dive in here, but he does mention Badon and he does mention that it took place in the year of his birth. This can introduce an inconsistency but overall I do not think it is important as this does not shift the date of Badon more than 20 years or so, to the 490’s at the earliest. Therefore, we can place the original Arthur in the late 5th and early 6th centuries.
Now we can look at important warlords from the period, and see if we find any leads. The list of potential candidates for ‘the Arthur’ is vast, Riothamas, Vortimer, Magnus Maximus the usurper emperor, Owain Ddantgwyn, Athrwys ap Meurig, Lucius Artorius Castus, Artuir of Dyfed, and Artuir mac Aedan to name a few. All of these have their own merits, and very likely played some part in this story, however I would instead like to focus on three individuals, one well known, and two quite obscure. Ambrosius Aurelianus, Cadell ap Catigern of Powys, and finally Arthwys ap Mar.
Much can be said of the famous Ambrosius Aurelianus, Gildas sums him up quite handily in De Excidio
“a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather's excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.”
Ambrosius on first glance is extremely tempting, as shortly after mentioning him Gildas then mentions Badon. This could lead one to think that Ambrosius was the commander there and many have drawn that conclusion, but Gildas’ wording here seems to imply that a significant amount of time passed between Ambrosius’ victories and Badon. Gildas mentions that his descendants in his day, were “greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence”. The word used here is the latin avita, which has been interpreted by some to mean the more general ‘ancestor’ but the more specific meaning is grandfather. If Gildas was born in the 490’s this would place Ambrosius’ birth sometime likely around the 430-450s. He could have been anywhere between 40 to 60 at Badon, not at all impossible, but this makes the Annales Cambriae date for Camlann extremely unlikely for Ambrosius final battle. Nennius expands upon what we find in Gildas, stating that Vortigern was terrified of the mighty Ambrosius, then expands upon his background giving us the famous story of the two dragons beneath Dinas Emrys, where a young Ambrosius, probably in his early teens at the time explains to Vortigern why he has been unable to build his fortress. Ambrosius reveals in this passage that he is the son of a Roman Consul, though we are not given his name. Vortigern then gives him the fortress, and the western kingdoms surrounding it. Later Nennius notes that Ambrosius was “King of all the Britons”, and after Vortigern's death he dealt fairly with Vortigern’s son Pascent, granting him rule over Gwrtheyrnion and Buellt. Nennius then recounts Ambrosius' battle against Vitolinus, at Wallop, or Guoloph, Vitolinus is generally considered to be the same man as Vortigern. This is likely a continuation of the conflicts from the generation before Ambrosius, where one side was pro-Rome (Ambrosius), and the other anti-Rome (Vortigern). William of Malmesbury later compiling a narrative from prior sources such as Nennius, Gildas, and Bede sums up Abrosius tidily,
“On the death of Vortimer, the strength of the Britons grew faint, their diminished hopes went backwards; and straight-way they would have come to ruin, had not Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans, who was monarch of the realm after Vortigern, repressed the overweening barbarians through the distinguished achievements of the warlike Arthur”
The story of the young Ambrosius and Vortigern was later taken by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae and replaces Ambrosius with the Historical figure Myrddin Wyllt/Lailoken, a late 6th century Bard/Wildman. This all makes Ambrosius a tantalizing figure, but seems too famous in his own right to have become confused with Arthur by the mid-6th century.
Cadell ap Catigern of Powys, a grandson of the infamous Vortigern is an intriguing possibility. Also known as Cadell Ddyrnllwg, sometimes interpreted as Gleaming Hilt, possibly an early reference to a proto-Caledfwlch (the sword that would eventually become Excalibur), but alternatively translated as “king raised from the dust” Cadell comes with his own Post-Galfridian style rags to riches story. Orphaned after his father king Catigern was killed by Irish raiders, he found himself in the service of Benlli, an Irish Chieftain and after slaughtering his only cow to show hospitality to St Germanus of Auxerre, and was restored to his ancestral throne. Cadell’s dates can be stretched quite far, with some thinking he was born as early as 380. This is of course a problem, not only for making him an Arthurian candidate, but also makes the generally accepted later meeting with St. Germanus unlikely, as Cadell would’ve been almost 70 then. If we trust that St Germanus’ second visit took place around 447, Cadell would have had to have been an adult at that point, making him a contemporary of Ambrosius, and possibly even too old to be a grandson of Vortigern as is claimed. With this dating we run into the same trouble with Cadell being too old to possibly have been fighting at Camlann in 537, however we aren’t dead in the water yet. It is possible that St. Germanus was confused with St. Garmon who was active in the late 5th century, which then gives us a later reign for Cadell, in the 470s or 480s. If the battle list of Nennius is plotted in possible locations within modern day Wales, you get a convincing series of defensive battles around Gaer Fawr, one of Cadells supposed strongholds. With this later date he would have likely been in his 40s or 50s during the Battle of Badon, quite perfect for a “Dux Bellorum”, or Lord of Battles as Nennius refers to him, someone who would lead kings into battle, but still quite old for Camlann. You could make a case for an even later date for his birth bringing him closer in line with the elderly king fighting at Camlann however Cadell seems to have died fairly young, once again making him unlikely to have been the Arthur of Badon and Camlann, though he may well have fought at Badon with Arthur.
Now on to a figure so promising but with such frustratingly scant information that it’s hard to exclaim “this is him!” sadly, Arthwys ap Mar. Born sometime around 470 bringing him more in line with the both the early dates for Badon and the Annals date for Camlann. Arthwys is a Coeling, or descendant of Coel Hen. Coel Hen filled the vacuum in the north acting as Dux Britanniarum (probably self appointed) in the Sub-Roman period. Coel controlled a considerable amount of territory in northern Britain, and was probably one of the most powerful kings of his day, his kingdom was split among his sons upon his death, and was further split through the generations, leading us to his great-grandson Arthwys. Arthwys seems to have ruled over the eastern portion of northern Britain, sometimes associated with York, sometimes with Elmet, and likely ruled both. Arthwys has some interesting Arthurian connections within his family tree. Brother of Llennauc and Morydd, possible inspirations for Llenlleog who features in Culhwch and Olwen, and Medraut, or Mordred respectively. Grandfather of the historical Percival, Peredur ap Ellifer, Cousin of the famed Urien Rheged, possibly even great grand uncle to Myrddin Wyllt the historical figure behind Merlin, the list goes on further. This can all be considered circumstantial, but there is another interesting thing about Arthwys that lies hidden within a source many would consider unreliable at best, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. There Geoffrey relates the story of a ruler named Archgallo ruling sometime around 300bc from York. Archgallo was a poor ruler who was eventually replaced with his brother Elidurus, only to be found after five years wandering the “Forests of Calaterium” by Elidurus and reinstated Archgallo as king. The question is, what does this story have to do with a 5th century King of York like Arthwys ap Mar. The key here is Arthwys’ genealogy, as every figure within this tale of Archgallo has a counterpart amongst the Coelings.
While the relationships between these figures are somewhat jumbled, I believe that Geoffrey had a lost chronicle recounting the exploits of the Sub-Roman kings of York, and in his effort to compile his history he placed it where he felt it would fit best, around 800 years before it actually took place. This story shows interesting parallels with later Post-Galfridian stories of civil strife and familial disputes. Arthwys may have been hiding under our noses all along in another place, a work mentioned earlier, Aneirin’s poem Y Gododdin. In stanza 19 it is mentioned that an Athrwys (a later spelling of Arthwys, seen in Athrwys ap Meurig, who was born around the time Y Gododdin was likely composed) was killed by Cydywal, a warrior of the Gododdin, as well as stanza 16 telling of how the Gododdin fought against “meibion Godebawc'' or “The sons of Godebog”, Godebog referring to Coel Hen, whose epithet was Guotepauc or Godebog (meaning Protector), who was Arthwys’ great grandfather. Although the battle commemorated in Y Gododdin took place some 30-100 years after Arthwys’ death many of the elegies in Y Gododdin include figures who are known to have died elsewhere, as well as others who were known to have died much earlier than the battle. This elegy could be a memory of Brythonic civil wars fought between the Coelings and their cousins north of Hadrian’s Wall once again echoing the traditional interpretation of Camlann as a civil war. All of this combined makes Arthwys a very interesting figure in his own right, and makes the Arthurian connections even more promising. Could Arthwys have been the victor at Badon, and the Arthur that fell at Camlann? Could he have been the one to inspire an entire generation to name their children Arthur, as after him we have multiple Artuirs, Athrwys, and other Arthur derived names?
I don’t think we’ve yet cracked the case for who the Arthur that started it all was, The ‘Arthur of Badon’, but I think a pretty good case can be made that these three figures at least contributed to the later composite. Ultimately Arthur as the general public knows him is a composite of many figures both historical, and mythical. Starting with a handful of real men, who were quickly turned legend for their great deeds, and continuing to be morphed into whatever is in vogue at the time. A Godly warlord standing between the Britons and their pagan nemesis the Saxons, a king in shining 15th century armour espousing the best ideals of chivalry, a reluctant leader played by a Hollywood actor. As Malory wrote in Le Morte d’Arthur:
Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus.
Here lies Arthur, The Once, and Future King
An ancient bull's thoughts. is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I have a companion piece here, touching on Arthwys ap Mar a little more, as I find he is a fascinating figure.