Was the original King Arthur Roman or Welsh?
The popular literary King Arthur is thought by some historians to originate with a real but little-known figure called Riothamus who existed in post-Roman Britain in the 5th century AD, and who may also have been called Arturius. Other academics dispute this theory and believe Arthur may have early Welsh origins in the poem ‘Y Gododdin’ which commemorates British warriors who died in a battle at Catraeth during the 5th or 6th centuries when the native Britons fought against Germanic Saxon invaders.
The Welsh King Arthur
There is also an early Welsh poem – ‘Historia Brittonum’ – from around 800, which records that “at that time the Saxons increased in numbers and grew in Britain. After the death of Hengist, Octa, his son, came down from the north part of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and from there are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought at that time against them in those days along with the kings of the Britons, but he was their leader in battles.” The poem lists Arthur’s battles, culminating in his twelfth at Badon Hill.
The poem ‘Annales Cambrie’ from around 900 also gives references to battles: “The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors” and “The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell – and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.” He is mentioned in ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ (The Spoils of Annwn) and ‘Pa gwr’ (Arthur and the Porter) and in the 10th century appears in the ‘Stanzas of the Grave’, a Welsh poem which makes reference to the graves of several Arthurian figures.
Other early references to Arthur
William of Malmesbury in ‘Gesta regum Anglorum’ (c. 1125) wrote “This the Arthur about whom the foolish tales of the Britons rave even today; one who is clearly worthy to be told about in truthful histories rather than to be dreamed about in deceitful fables, since for a long time he sustained his ailing nation, and sharpened the unbroken minds of his people to war.” William of Newburgh in ‘Historia regum anglicarum’ (1196-98) wrote, equally sceptically, “A writer has emerged who, in order to expiate the faults of these Britons, weaves the most ridiculous figments of imagination around them, extolling them with the most impudent vanity above the virtues of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey, and his other name is Arthur, because he has taken up the fables about Arthur from the old, British figments, has added to them himself, and has cloaked them with the honorable name of history by presenting them with the ornaments of the Latin tongue.”
Gerald of Wales (died 1223) claims that he witnessed the exhumation of King Arthur from a grave discovered at Glastonbury Abbey in around 1190 or 1191. He states “And there was a lead cross fixed under… a stone slab. I have seen this cross, and have traced the letters sculpted into it… and they said: ‘Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guenevere his second wife in the island of Avalon.’ Several notable things arise from this inscription: that Arthur had two wives, of whom the second was buried with him, and indeed her bones were found with the bones of her husband… The place which is now called Glastonbury was in the old time called Avalon. And it is like an island, completely surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in the British tongue Inis Avallon, that is, the island of apples… It was here, to this island which is now called Glastonbury, that Morgan, a noble matron and the ruler and patron of those parts, and also close in blood to King Arthur, took Arthur after the battle of Camlann for the healing of his wounds.”
Whatever his early origins, King Arthur and his fabulous entourage of knights and ladies, the Court of Camelot, and other mythical aspects of the legend – the Sangreal (Holy Grail) and the heroic quests of the knights of the Round Table – come to us from medieval literature rather than from post-Roman British history. The popular Arthurian Legend is folklore, not fact.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’
The comprehensive story of King Arthur was first developed in literature by Geoffrey of Monmouth, a monk of Welsh origin, in ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ – “The History of the Kings of Britain” – completed in about 1138 (in Latin). As well as defining the origins of King Arthur, it is also one of the great books of the Middle Ages. Following medieval practice, Geoffrey of Monmouth portrays King Arthur in contemporary terms but places his reign shortly after Britain’s separation from the Roman Empire during its final period in western Europe, around the year 410.
Monmouth’s so-called ‘History’ begins well before the time of King Arthur and goes back to about 1200 BC into a time of Greek and Roman epic. The Trojan Prince, Aeneas, who took refuge in Italy after the fall of Troy, had a grandson called Brutus, who later came to Britain – then known as Albion – with a group of Trojan refugees. They took possession of the island and renamed it “Britain” after Brutus himself and they founded “New Troy”, later called London, on the River Thames. He also details the Roman conquest of Britain and, of later significance, the origins of Brittany, a Roman colony established as a kingdom in its own right during the fourth Century AD, largely by Britons who were allowed to settle there after having served with the Roman Army.
Britain (or what is now England and Wales) was then ravaged by fierce, marauding barbarians – including the Picts (from what is now Scotland) – an onslaught from which it eventually recovered, a period which set the stage for the Arthurian era and the glories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Aid from Rome was coming to an end, and because Britons had lost the nouse to defending themselves independently of Rome, the Archbishop of London went to the kingdom of Brittany and offered the crown of Britain to Brittany’s ruler, Aldroenus, if he would take charge of Britain’s defence. Aldroenus’s brother, Constantine, took up the challenge, and after he had defeated the marauding hordes was crowned king at the city of Silchester. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story, Constantine got married and had three sons: Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, and… enter Uther Pendragon, later the father of King Arthur.
Independence from Rome
In the fifth century AD, Britain was finally independent of Rome. King Constantine continued to reign for ten years until he was assassinated by a Pict. On the advice of a devious nobleman called Vortigern, Constantine’s eldest son, Constans, became King of Britain but he was weak and Vortigern was able to influence how the kingdom was ruled. He took over the treasury, appointed his supporters to important positions, and assembled a force of Pictish guards – some of whom assassinated the young King Constans. Vortigern executed the assassins and took the crown for himself, and the two remaining sons of Constantine, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, fled to safety in Brittany.
At this point, two Saxon refugees, the brothers Hengist and Horsa, landed in Kent with a small force of mercenaries. They offered to help King Vortigern repel the marauding Picts, and in return, Hengist was given parts of Lincolnshire and encouraged to bring more Saxons into Britain – concentrated in Kent. During a royal banquet, the King became smitten with love for Hengist’s beautiful daugher, Renwein (or Rowena) and Hengist agreed to their marriage in exchange for the whole of Kent.
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See also Arthurian Legend homepage.