A popular view holds that Arthur was a real person. By most theories, and in line with the traditional cycle of legends, he was a Romano-British leader fighting against the invading Anglo-Saxons some time between the late 5th century and early 6th century. Archaeological studies show that during Arthur's alleged lifetime, the Anglo-Saxon expansions do seem to have been halted for a whole generation. If he existed, his power base would probably have been in the Celtic areas of Wales, Cornwall and the West Country, the Brythonic 'Old North' (covering modern northern England and southern Scotland) or possibly Brittany. However, controversy over the centre of his supposed power and the extent and kind of power he would have wielded continues to this day.
There are only three early sources that mention Arthur. The earliest, by date of composition, is a British poem, "Gododdin", which was probably composed around the year 600. It refers to a warrior who "glutted black ravens [i.e. killed many men] on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur". The earliest surviving manuscript of this poem dates from about the 11th century, however, so it is possible that this line is a later addition.
The next reference comes from the Historia Brittonum, usually attributed to Nennius, a Welsh ecclesiastic who was probably active in the early ninth century. Nennius lists a dozen battles fought by Arthur, and gives him the title of "dux bellorum", which can be translated as "war commander". Nennius also says that Arthur fought "alongside the King of the Britons", rather than saying that Arthur was himself king. One of the battles Nennius lists appears to be the same as a great British victory mentioned by Gildas in an earlier history, the battle of Mons Badonicus, though Gildas does not give the name Arthur.
The third sources is the Annales Cambriae a series of annals that give the date of Mons Badonicus as 516, and Arthur's death as occurring in 537. These annals survive in a version dating from the tenth century. All other sources relating to Arthur by name are later than these; that is, they were written at least four hundred years later than the events they refer
As the Western Roman Empire crumbled in the 4th and 5th Centuries, a number of ambitious generals in command of provincial armies rebelled and proclaimed themselves emperor. In 383, a leading Roman officer in Britannia, Magnus Maximus (aka Maximianus or Macsen Wledig) proclaimed himself emperor and crossed, with his army, into Gaul. He quickly defeated and killed the Western Emperor Gratian, and for the next five years ruled the Western Empire, until Theodosius I defeated and executed him in 388.
Arthur is also said to have crossed to the continent and fought against Imperial troops. In addition, according to medieval Welsh texts, Arthur is sometimes described as an ymerawdwr (Welsh for "emperor", from the Latin imperator). Maximus himself was from Hispania and could have been born to a family of Celtiberian descent. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, 'Maximianus' was one of the kings of the Britons to precede Arthur. With the name Macsen Wledig, Maximus is featured in a story of the Mabinogion, a collection of Medieval Welsh texts that also feature two stories on Arthur and one on Taliesin.
As the Roman Empire continued to decay, there were numerous generals in Britannia who were 'raised to the purple', if even for a short time. One such was Constantine III, who ruled for four years before being executed; according to Geoffrey, Constantine III was Arthur's grandfather.
Riothamus (aka Rigothamus or Riotimus) was a historical figure whom ancient sources list as "a king of the Britons". He lived in the late 5th century, and most of the stories about him were recorded in the Byzantine historian Jordanes' The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, written in the mid-6th century, only about 80 years after his presumed death.
Circa 460, the Roman diplomat and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris sent a letter to Riothamus, asking his help to quell unrest among the Brettones, British colonists living in Armorica. This letter still survives.
In the year 470, the Western Emperor Anthemius began a campaign against Euric, king of the Visigoths who were invading Gaul. Anthemius requested help from Riothamus, and Jordanes writes that he crossed the ocean into Gaul with 12,000 warriors. The location of Riothamus’s army was betrayed to the Visigoths by the jealous Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, and Euric defeated him in a battle in Burgundy. Riothamus was last seen retreating near a town called Avallon.
Geoffrey Ashe points out that, as above, Arthur is said by the early sources to have crossed into Gaul twice, once to help a Roman emperor and once to subdue a civil war. Assuming that Riothamus was a king in Britain as well as Armorica, he did both. Arthur is also said to have been betrayed by one of his advisors, and Riothamus was betrayed by one of his supposed allies. Finally, it is well known how King Arthur was carried off to Avalon (which Geoffrey of Monmouth spells "Avallon") before he died; Riothamus, escaping death, was last known to have been in the vicinity of a town called Avallon.
It is unknown whether Riothamus was a king in Britain, in Ireland or of Armorica; as Armorica was a British colony and Jordanes writes that Riothamus "crossed the ocean", it is possible both are correct. The name Riothamus itself means "highest king", and so may just have been a title, perhaps borne by someone named Artorius or Arthur. On the other hand, Irish sources claim that Niall of the Nine Hostages, Riothamus (High King) of Ireland, was campaigning in Gaul at this time, possibly dying about 455 in a campaign that went as far as the Alps. "All traditions agree that he died outside of Ireland. According to legend his followers carried his body back to Ireland, fighting seven battles along the way, and whenever they carried Niall's body before them they were unbeatable." The succeeding High King, Feradach Dathí, also known as Nath Í, son of Fiachrae, son of Eochaid Mugmedon, was also said to have made foreign conquests in Gaul at about this time, and died after being struck by lightning in the Alps.
Ambrosius Aurelianus (also sometimes referred to as Aurelius Ambrosius) was a powerful Romano-British leader in Britain. He was renowned for his campaigns against the Saxons, and there is some speculation that he may have commanded the British forces at the Battle of Badon Hill. At any rate, the battle was a clear continuation of his efforts.
According to Gildas (an early British historian and priest who may have been born during Aurelianus’ lifetime) in his sermon, On the Ruin of Britain, following a massive Saxon invasion, Aurelianus was the only person who stayed calm, despite the fact that his parents and most other Roman settlers had been killed in the attacks. Subsequently, Aurelianus became leader of the remaining British (according to the Major Chronicle Annals, he rose to power in 479), organized them, and led them in their first victory against the Saxons, although subsequent battles went both ways. Gildas also writes that Aurelianus’ parents "wore the purple", and thus were apparently descended from Roman emperors. The Aurelii were a noted Roman senatorial family, and it is possible that Ambrosius was descended from them.
Badon Hill, depending on varying sources and archeological evidence, was fought sometime between 491 and 516 (Gildas, born in 494, writes that the battle took place at the year of his birth) with most scholars accepting a date around 500. The location of the battle is thought to have been in southwest England, perhaps near the town of Bath (called Badon by the Saxons) or the nearby Solsbury Hill, where an ancient hill fort existed. However, some believe that Badon Hill is actually somewhere to the north, in or near modern Scotland.
Badon Hill was fought between the British and the invading Saxons, believed to have been the South Saxons under their Bretanwealda (Lord of Britain, also spelled Bretwalda) Aelle, reigned 477-514. This title, used by the Saxons, is an odd one as it may be etymologically related to the Welsh Brythonic 'Gweldig' which some interpret as meaning 'Emperor', applied to a number of British rulers such as Cunedda. The Saxons were utterly defeated by the British (it is theorized that Aelle may have died in the battle), and did not again attack the Celts until 571; even by the 590s the Celts were still inflicting large defeats on the Saxon kingdoms, leaving a final "golden age" for Celtic civilization in Britain.
Gildas fails to name the commander at Badon but he refers to one of his contemporary "fetter kings" as having been "charioteer to the bear". According to the Welsh bard Taliesin, who lived approximately 534-599, the British commander at Badon was the "chief giver of feasts" (supreme commander, perhaps related to dux) Arthur, to whom the victory is attributed in all later accounts. Owing to a possible mistranslation of a word from Gildas, describing Aurelianus as either the "ancestor" or the "grandfather" of his descendants of Gildas’ generation, it is possible that Aurelianus lived in the generation before the Battle of Badon.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain also states that Arthur led the forces at Badon; on the other hand, Geoffrey is notoriously unreliable and much of what he writes is incompatible with factual history. However, Geoffrey makes Aurelianus a king of Britain, and older brother of Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, thus relating Aurelianus and Arthur. He also states that Aurelianus was the son of the usurper emperor Constantine III, although it is extremely unlikely to have actually been true.
Arthnou was an inhabitant of 6th century Tintagel. He is known only from archaeology. A piece of slate bearing his name, and since dubbed the 'Arthur stone', was discovered during excavations of the 6th century layers under Tintagel Castle. It was apparently a practice inscription for a dedicatory plaque within the structure of a building or other edifice. The Latin inscription has been translated by Charles Thomas to read "Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built". Artognou was the primitive Brythonic form of a name that would be pronounced Arthnou, meaning something akin to "bear-like". The prefix certainly links it to the 'Arthur' family of names. From the same area, pieces of expensive 6th century Mediterranean pottery have been excavated, showing that this high-status site was controlled by a rich and powerful noble with trade links with distant civilizations. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth and subsequent medieval writers, King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel. He implies that Arthur is a distant descendant of Old King Cole, whose name could be spelled Coll.
Historians Baram Blackett and Alan Wilson have re-interpreted Old Welsh manuscripts and other evidence to suggest that Arthur was Athrwys ap Meurig, a paramount King of Glamorgan and Gwent, and have published some seven books on the subject. Their investigations have led to the discovery of what they believe to be two Arthurian artefacts of great importance, both of which have been independently examined and tested by experts with encouraging results. The first, discovered in 1983, is the burial stone of Athrwys ap Meurig, which reads, "Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius". The other, an electrum cross weighing some two-and-a-half pounds, discovered in 1990, has been tested three times, contains 79% silver and reads "Pro Anima Artorius" or "for the Soul of Arthur". Chris Barber and David Pykitt have identified Arthur as the same man by similar means. However, they go on to suggest that he emigrated to Brittany in old age and become known as Saint Armel.
Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, in their book, King Arthur: The True Story, argue that the name 'Arthur' was a mere title (see below) and that its recipient was Owain Ddantgwyn, an apparent King of Rhôs whom they relocate to Powys. From a passage in Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae, they interpret the description of Owain's son, Cuneglas, to mean that he was the successor at the 'bear's fort', the 'bear' or 'arth' being his father.
Áedán mac Gabráin was a king of the Dál Riata Scotti from c. 574 to c. 608. He was not British, but could have been an influence on Arthur nonetheless; some theories say that Arthurian legends began in the north, and spread south. It has also been said that the Battle of Badon Hill, supposedly commanded by Arthur, was fought in the north.
Aidan was crowned on the island of Iona by St. Columba, the Irish of the White Martydom. Iona was the centre of Scottish Christianity and the place where the first Christian church in Scotland was built, and Columba the missionary priest who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland. Thus, Iona and Columba can be compared to the southern Avalon and Joseph of Arimathea, both of which are important in Arthurian legend. Iona and Avalon are even similarly named. Columba is said to have been educated in Ireland by a priest taught by Gildas, the chronicler of the Battle of Badon Hill.
Áedán sought to make Dál Riata independent from the Irish whose support Dál Riata had previously required, and in 603 went to war against the pagan Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The resulting Battle of Degsastan (whose location, like Badon Hill, is unknown) could have helped fuel the northern Badon Hill theory, although Aidan lost to the Saxons.
In 608, Áedán died and was buried on Iona, similar to how Arthur was supposedly buried on Avalon. One of his sons, Artuir, is also seen as a possible model for the legendary leader.
Though he was the eldest son of Áedán mac Gabráin, Artuir never became king of Dál Riata; his brother Eochaid Buide ruled after his father's death. When Áedán apparently gave up his role and retired to monastic life, Artuir became war leader, though Áedán was officially still king. Thus it was Artuir who led the Scotti of Dál Riata in a war against the Picts, separate from the later war with Northumbria. By this theory, Artur was predominantly active in the region between the Roman walls — the Gododdin. David F. Caroll argues that Artuir led a loose coalition of the Christian Celts against their pagan invaders — effectively holding them off for about one hundred more years. He was ultimately killed in battle in 582. This is the solution proposed by Michael Wood. However, Artur is merely one of the aforementioned four leaders who were probably named after the original Arthur. In modern times, Artur's name is spelled Artuir. His name is almost certainly connected to the British Arthnou.
Many aspects of the King Arthur legend correspond to Artuir’s life. Artuir made use of an old Roman fortress known as Camelon (possibly the later Camelot), and he died in battle near the river Allan , also known as Camallan (possibly Camlann). Like the Arthur of legend he had a sister called Morgan, and was a contemporary of Myrddin (who later came to be called Merlin). In myth, the mortally wounded Arthur was taken to an island called Avalon. In the 6th century there was an island surrounded by three rivers, Allan, Forth and Teith. On the island was a settlement called Invalone. This island was near the site of the real Artuir’s death and may be the inspiration for Avalon. It should also be noted that the earliest mentions of Arthur are in Welsh. The area of Scotland in which Artuir lived and fought (Strathclyde) was Welsh speaking at this time.
However, this Artuir may have lived too late to be "the" Arthur, and he may have fought the wrong enemies. From the earliest accounts, Arthur's chief enemies were the Saxons, not the Picts, and Áedán fought the Northumbrians after Artur's death. Artuir was part of the generation born after the Battle of Badon Hill, which took place between 491 and 516. He was not the only person named "Artur" or some variant of the name in his time. There was also an Arthur King of Elmet, and an Arthur in Pembroke. By contrast, "Artur[us]" had been a rare name, almost unattested until after Badon was fought — which suggests that he was named after the original Arthur (whose name might have been a nom de guerre or an honorific). Also, Artuir mac Áedán died in battle with the Picts, while Arthur died in battle with Medraut (Mordred) of Lothian, who was not Pictish. While he may not be the original Arthur-figure per se, his story, like that of the other "Arthurs" may well have contributed to the growing legends.
Some theories suggest, however, that Arthur had Roman or even pre-Roman origins:
Writers such as Kemp Malone, C. Scott Littleton, Ann Thomas and Linda A. Malcor suggest that King Arthur should be identified as one Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman dux of the 2nd century, who was praefectus of the VI Legion in Britannia and might have (though this is far from certain) led a numerus of Sarmatian, which was based at Ribchester and which campaigned at and north of Hadrian’s Wall. Castus' alleged military exploits in Britain and Armorica may have been remembered for centuries afterward. This is linked to the original theory of Littleton, Thomas and Malcor which suggests that the folk narratives carried by the Alano-Sarmatians as well as history associated with various groups of Alano-Sarmatians formed the core of the Arthurian tradition (see below).
From 183–185, the Caledonians overran Hadrian’s Wall. It has been suggested that Emperor Commodus sent him to Britannia in the year 181 as commander of the VI Legion and others, and that along with his personal legion, he guarded Hadrian's Wall (the border between Britannia, or Roman England, and Caledonia, or barbarian Scotland) with a contingent of 5,500 Sarmatian heavy cavalry. It is also suggested that Castus’ standard was a large red dragon pennant; auxiliary forces did not use eagle standards. In 185, when his legion collapsed, Castus returned to the northern city of Eboracum, and was then sent by the governor of Britannia to lead cavalry cohorts against an uprising in Armorica (modern Brittany). However, Castus is only known from three inscriptions from Podstrana on the Dalmatian coast; these do not mention command of any other legions (or establish command of VI Victrix — he could have been praefectus castrorum, third-in-command of the legion), provide evidence of command of the Sarmatians, or indicate anything about his standard.
Etymological links can be made tracing the name Arthur to Artorius; it is also true that no other recorded person in Britain, Ireland, or Scotland bears a name similar to Arthur until after Castus’ tour of duty in Britannia was over (however, Arthur is always Latinized into Arthurus, never Artorius, thus suggesting that it was a distinct name). Arthur’s pennant is said to be the Pendragon, a red dragon similar to the modern Welsh flag. In the earliest descriptions of Arthur, he is not a king, but is referred to as a dux bellorum or "commander of war"; as also mentioned above, Castus held the Roman rank of dux.
In the Historia Britonum, written shortly after AD 820, there is a list of twelve battles Arthur is stated to have been victorious in. About three centuries later, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, places these twelve battles in the north against barbarians. Seven of these battles have been matched to battles Castus may have fought; but Castus is not definitely known to have fought in any battles. Geoffrey also adds that Arthur fought a civil war, and twice took troops across the sea to Armorica, once to support the Roman emperor and once to deal with his own rebels. Castus’ own legion mutinied, and he was sent to lead cavalry units in northwest Gaul – the location of the region of Armorica – both against rebels and in support of the Roman emperor.
Earlier sources also place Arthur’s headquarters not at Camelot but at Caerleon, the "Fortress of Legions". Eboracum, sometimes referred to as Urbe Legionum or the "City of the Legion", was the headquarters of both Castus and of legions that supported the Roman forces patrolling Hadrian’s Wall.
In 1978, C. Scott Littleton and Ann C. Thomas expanded on the ideas of Vasily Abaev and Georges Dumezil and published their theory of a connection between the Sarmatian people and the history and later legend of King Arthur. The Alano-Sarmatians were steppe nomads from what is now southern Ukraine, who fought from horseback with a kontus ('lance'), longsword and bow and carried a shield with a tamga marking, similar to heraldry. They wore scale armour and conical helms, and were known in the 2nd century for their skill as heavy cavalry. In 175, Marcus Aurelius hired 8,000 Sarmatians into Roman service. 5,500 of these recruits were sent to the northern borders of Britain where they joined Legio VI Victrix, a legion in which a certain Lucius Artorius Castus served. Rather than being sent home upon the completion of their twenty year term of service, these men were settled in a unique military colony in modern-day Lancashire, where their descendants were still documented as a "troop of Sarmatian veterans" in 428.
The culture of the Sarmatians is also relevant to the legends of Arthur. Apart from their skill as armoured knights, they held great, near religious, fondness for their swords — their tribal worship was directed at a sword sticking up from the ground, similar to the Sword in the Stone motif. They carried standards in the form of dragons, a symbol also used by Arthur and his father Uther Pendragon.
Proponents of the 'Sarmatian connection' theory also look to the legends of the Sarmatians' descendants for evidence. The Ossetians, an Iranian people from Ossetia, a country in the Caucasus, speak the Ossetic language, the only Sarmatian language still spoken. The Ossetian Nart sagas, indigenous epics celebrating the exploits of an ancient tribe of heroes, contain a number of interesting parallels to the Arthurian legends. First, the life of the Nart warrior Batraz is tied to his sword, which must be thrown into the sea at his death. When the wounded Batradz asks his last surviving comrade to do the task for him, his companion tries to fool him twice before finally hurling the weapon into the sea. This is very similar to the tale of Arthur's wondrous sword Excalibur which had to be returned to the Lady of the Lake at his death by his last surving knight, Bedivere. Like Batradz' friend, Bedivere is reluctant to lose such a wonderful sword and lies to his master twice before finally assenting. Additionally, the Nart heroes, Soslan and Sosryko, collect the beards of vanquished enemies to trim their cloaks, which is the practice of Arthur's enemy Rience. Like Rience, Soslan has one last beard to obtain before his cloak is complete. Another similar motif is the Cup of the Narts ("Nartyamonga"), which appeared at feasts, delivered to each person what he liked best to eat, and which was kept by the bravest of the Narts ("Knights") and the magical woman, dressed in white, associated with water, who helps the hero acquire his sword and the Lady of the Lake.
Although they lived hundreds of years too early (the Saxons first came to Britain three centuries later), Lucius Artorius Castus and Sarmatian cavalry may have been remembered in some form, and could have helped to create the basis for the early tales of King Arthur. While most 'Sarmatian connection' supporters tie the origins of the Arthurian legend to Lucius Artorius Castus and his 2nd century cavalry, others suggest that some Sarmatian details, like the Sword in the Stone itself, may have been added later in French romances, possibly entering the tradition as the result of the impact of the Alans on Europe in the fifth century A.D.
However, those who do not accept the Sarmatian connection would argue that the obscurity surrounding Castus makes this identification unlikely, as there seems to be little reason for him to have become a major legendary figure. No Roman historical source actually mentions him, or his alleged exploits in Britain. Nor is there actually any firm evidence that he ever commanded Sarmatians. Also, the greatest resonance of Arthurian tales with Sarmatian ones occur in very late writings, relatively speaking, such as Malory's Le Morte Darthur (when Arthur and his men were already developed into "knights in shining armor") and none appear in the earliest Welsh legends, such as those in the Mabinogion — which lead some to conclude that Sarmatian influence was limited to the development of the tales instead of historical basis, if at all.
The heroes of the 2004 film King Arthur are loosely based on Lucius Artorius Castus and his Sarmatian cavalry. The film's Arthur is a descendant of Artorius and inherits his role of guarding Hadrian's Wall along with a troop of Sarmatian warriors.
Darrah and Cumins propose an Arthur who lived in the Bronze Age, circa 2300 BC. Other sources, including Ed Joyce in The Key to Camelot argue that pulling a sword from a stone and an anvil is a metaphor for setting a bronze sword in a stone mould and hammering it into shape on an anvil. Similarly, the return of prized weaponry to the waters appears to have been a British Iron Age funerary practice, as evidenced by the many such items dredged from large rivers and lakes. Geoffrey of Monmouth writes in 'The History of the Kings of Britain' that Merlin built Stonehenge. The fact that the bluestones at the site were placed at approximately 2300BC has led Cummins and others to speculate that parts of the legends reflect a folk memory of historical events. These ideas are disputed by those who point out that the Sword in the Stone is a late medieval embellishment to the legend.. Roderick MacLeish's fiction book Prince Ombra includes this metaphor in its retelling of the Arthurian legend.
Some hold that Arthur originally was a half-forgotten Celtic deity or hero that devolved into a personage.
The word arth is modern Welsh for "bear", and among Continental Celts (although not in Britain) there were several bear gods named Artos or Artio. Also, artur (Welsh) and arturus (Latin) meant "bear-man". King Arthur was supposedly referred to by some writers as the Bear of Britain.
It has also been suggested that Arthur was originally a Celtic or prehistoric demi-god, whose legends were gradually adapted to fit historical fact as a means of keeping the Celtic legends alive after Christianity was introduced. An example would be the sea-god Llyr, who became the legendary King Lear.
Arthur's story also bears many similarities to Celtic mythologies, such as the hero's possession of a magical weapon (see Gáe Bulg), the Lady of the Lake having many similarities to Celtic water deities, etc.
Still another theory is that Arthur was a completely legendary person, the hero of Celtic bards meant to inspire and enthrall listeners, similar to the Germanic stories of Beowulf (or, in some stories, Bodvar Biarki). In fact, Beowulf was composed (c. late 8th Century) by Saxon settlers in Britain around the time the first stories of Arthur were emerging, and Arthur and Beowulf share several similarities: both were brave war-leaders who later became king; both carried magical swords; both were betrayed by their men; and both died without an heir. Dragons figure prominently in both stories, and like Arthur, the name Beowulf means "bear" (the alternate name for Beowulf, Bodvar Biarki, means "battle bear").
It is conceivable that Beowulf could have provided at least some influence on the emerging legends of King Arthur, or vice-versa, or both; Beowulf is set in the 6th Century, the time period of the early Arthurian legends. Even if the earliest spoken form of the Anglo-Saxon legends did not influence the early stories of Arthur, the written version — first transcribed by monks (who Christianized it, just as they Christianized earlier Celtic legends) in England in the 10th Century, could have influenced later Arthurian writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth (who wrote in Wales in the 12th century).
Arthur also may hold influences from Sigmund of the Volsunga Saga. Both Arthur and Sigmund had royal ties. Both drew a sword in order to prove those ties (Arthur drew his from a stone while Sigmund drew his from the roots of a tree). Both of them also had involvement with incest (and without actual knowledge until afterwards.) and had a bastard son.
A school of thought, with growing numbers since the
publication of Dr. David Dumville's criticisms, argues that
Arthur had no historical existence at all, on the basis that none
of the sources are contemporary or reliable.