King Arthur Didn’t Exist. Or He Did. Or He *Might* Have…
I got an email the other day from a reader about the Once and Future Hearts series. She said, in part:
Wow, I’m really blown away by all the research you’ve done!
I scrambled to quickly correct her impression. Here’s a filled out version of my answer to her about my research for the series.
In fact, I’ve done very little true research for the series, for a very good reason: There are no historical records of the period.
If there was a King Arthur (no expert can agree on this), then it’s likely he existed in the late fifth to early sixth centuries CE — just before the Anglo Saxons invaded Britain and made it England.
No factual records exist from that time period that deal with the history of the Celtic tribes in Britain. None.
That is why they called it the Dark Ages.
Welcome to the Dark Ages
Although now, that title is considered prejudicial and the preferred label is “Sub-Roman Britain”– the period between the departure of the Roman legions, and the final, permanent mass invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.
There are two possible reasons for the lack of records for that time. Or maybe three.
1. The Celts didn’t have a written language
Celtic culture at the time was complex and fascinating. The languages they spoke were nuanced and flexible. But they didn’t have an alphabet. Nothing was written down. The druids, who were the academic professors of the age, spent years memorizing generations worth of knowledge.
When the Celts really felt the need to record their thoughts, they would use Greek or Latin. But that required a high degree of scholarship and skill, so it’s likely that not nearly as much about Celtic life was written down as, say, the Romans of the same period. Everyone in Rome with a small education was able to write…and often did.
The Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand, did have a written language and did keep records, and that is why historical records exist after the mid-sixth century–because they made them.
2. The Anglo-Saxons Conquered Britain
Conquerors were not kind to their defeated enemies, not because they were inherently cruel, but because they needed to hold the land they had just won through mortal combat. Holding lands, maintaining their claim over them, often required removing all evidence of the previous land-owners to ensure they wouldn’t be tempted to return.
Burning and destroying property was common. Scattering the defeated people, so they were forced to live in the extreme fringes of the new land-owners’ domains was also standard operating procedure.
In fact, if you look at a map of modern Britain today, you will see this is exactly what the Anglo-Saxons did. They drove the Celts southwest and north–into what would become the far west of Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, and overseas to Ireland. And these three countries in the United Kingdom all speak a version of the original Celtic — Welsh, Gaelic and Irish. Even Cornwall has a local language, Cornish, which has Celtic roots. (And in Brittany, which was Lesser Britain in Arthur’s time, the Breton they speak has the same roots, as the Anglo-Saxons never conquered Lesser Britain.)
As conquerors remove all traces of the previous land-owners, if the Celts had historical records at all, written in Greek or Latin, then they were likely destroyed by the Anglo-Saxons.
3. Time Destroyed Whatever Records Did Exist
The third reasons why the Dark Ages are so dark could simply be time itself.
We look at the Edwardian Era (just before World War One) and think how quaint it was–women still in corsets and big hats, and cars a new innovation, women still didn’t have the vote, and child mortality rates still alarmingly high.
And that was only 100 years ago!
More than fourteen times as many years have passed since King Arthur ruled the land.
If the Celts had got around to recording their history, there’s a good chance that if the Anglo-Saxons didn’t burn and destroy it all, time itself could have done the deed.
The reason that so many Ancient Egyptian papyrus records still exist is because the climate in and around Egypt is hot and very, very dry. The dryness preserved many of the original records of the pharaohs.
Britain, on the other hand, is damp and cold. Any records made on papyrus would have succumbed to the dampness.
Too, in King Arthur’s time, papyrus scrolls were slowly being replaced by parchment scrolls and later, codex (books). The technology involved in producing parchment was in its infancy, and many of the oldest parchment scrolls simply didn’t last.
So Why Do We Think There Was An Arthur?
There are a handful of sources that Arthurian scholars consult. All of them were written after King Arthur might have existed.
Gildas was an English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) monk who wrote On the Ruin of Britain in the sixth century, which makes him the closest to being Arthur’s contemporary.
The hyperbole in Gildas’ book makes it clear that he isn’t writing a history, but rather a polemic essay chastising Britain’s kings for their shortcomings. He makes no mention of King Arthur (but there is historical evidence that the ruler of the time killed Gildas’ older brother, so…) but he does mention Ambrosius Aurelius, who (Gildas said) ruled approximately a generation before the Battle of Mount Badon. Gildas also reported on the Battle of Mount Badon itself, and historians have deduced from his references that the date of the battle was 493.
The Venerable Bede was also an English monk, active in the eighth century. He wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and unlike Gildas, he clearly intended his book to be a history. Historians feel that his work is more accurate than any of the other sources from that century, but there are still gaping omissions and errors. Neither does Bede mention King Arthur. He does speak of Vortigern. Bede relied heavily on Gildas’ work, though, which perpetuated the original errors.
Then there is the early 9th-century Historia Brittonum (“The History of the Britons”), attributed to Nennius, a Welsh cleric. He is the first source to speak of Arthur, and said he fought at the Battle of Mount Badon. But he did not say he was the ruler of the Celts.
Then there is the wildly inaccurate “history” written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the eleventh century, called The History of the Kings of Britain.
King Arthur is alive and well in Geoffrey’s work, which is far more fiction than it is fact. But Geoffrey laid down the original structure of the Arthurian mythology. As he was pulling from both Gildas and Bede, Vortigern became the ruin of Britain, the Saxon-lover. Ambrosius became Merlin’s father, and brother to Uther, who would sire Arthur.
Geoffrey was a run-away best-seller. His book was translated into all the popular languages of the time, copied endlessly, and read and re-read. He wrote sensational stories about Arthur that readers loved.
Up until the sixteenth century, Geoffrey’s work was considered an accurate history of Britain. Therefore, the “bones” of the Arthurian cycle of stories were taken as fact.
Later authors embroidered upon the mythology and in the fourteenth century, King Arthur reached new heights in interest and fame, with dozens of stories and characters being added to the myth, including Lancelot and Guenivere, Bedivere, etc. The Round Table and the Sword in the Stone were introduced around this time.
This medieval explosion in popularity is the reason why many modern versions of King Arthur stories show “knights” and “Sir Kay” (instead of simply “Cai of xxx”), plate armor and a huge emphasis on 1) Christian values (which Guenivere’s downfall was meant to underline, and the Grail stories to highlight) and 2) knightly codes of ethics, including jousting and dueling, rescuing fair maidens and so forth.
By this point, Arthur and his doings had become pure myth, a hodge-podge of stories taken from English and Welsh sources, mixed up together to make a pleasing whole. It was a pervasive myth that has stuck around until modern times.
Then There’s My Version. 🙂
I planned my series based upon the very few dates and facts that are known about the sub-Roman period, including one date in particular: The Battle of Mount Badon, which has been mentioned multiple times by historians throughout history, and the date has been pretty much confirmed. That date is what I built the rest of the series around.
There was both a kingdom of Dyfed and a kingdom of Brycheiniog, too.
I have done a great deal of reading about the state of Britain in the late fifth and early sixth century, but everyone writing about that period is using the same handful of historical records, and the extrapolations from archeology. No one knows anything for certain.
I’ve even got a book on hold at the library that proposes that King Arthur did exist (even that’s not been established for sure and the current thinking is that he’s probably purely myth) and that he was a Scot and ruled Britain from somewhere up near where Inverness would be established a few centuries later. I’m almost afraid to read that one….!
So, No Research, Per Se
To return to the original reader’s email, about my prodigious amount of research… As you can see, I actually haven’t done any research about King Arthur himself. I’ve spent a lot of time sorting out the mythology, trying to off-load most of the medieval embellishments and bring the stories back to the original roots.
Some of the medieval stories I couldn’t offload. I would hate myself (so would you) if I hadn’t included Lancelot and Guenivere, for example. But I shifted them around a bit so they would fit in with the culture, morals and sensibilities of the Celtic tribes in the sixth century.
And there’s nary a “sir” or piece of plate armor to be found anywhere in the series. 🙂
I studied a lot about King Arthur and have come to believe that he did exist. It’s like Beowful, which was once considered pure story and myth. And yet, the mead hall did exist, as does the mead hall’s location, and as did several of the key characters. Additionally, monsters in the dark ages could be ordinary people–they were often just different via their size, their skin color, their abnormalities, or illnesses that were unnamed, unknown, and deemed unnatural. These were the Other that people feared.
“And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the Ring passed out of all knowledge.” — Lady Galadriel, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Lady G’s statement is true. History told through the ages becomes legend, turned myth. Just as the Illiad and the Odyssey spoke about Troy as if it was a real city, along with the myth of Achilles, Troy was thought to be a myth until it was actually discovered in the 19th century. I’d like to believe that many of these ancient heroes aren’t mythical at all. That they were ordinary people with extraordinary skills, which made them mythical.
How many of today’s myths are actual historical locations and events? How much history is buried beneath the surfaces of our planet that await discovery? In truth, we humans know very little about this planet’s history.
And then, to find a piece of equipment with dozens of intricate gears, called the first computer and dubbed as the “Antikythera Mechanism” found underwater that is over 2,000 years old, well, it just shows how little we know. And, I doubt it’s the first computer.
Oh, you hit my history geek nerve with this post, Tracy! Fantastic information! A fantastic blog.
Clearly, yes, I did hit your geek-bone, didn’t I?
I find history just as fascinating and (obviously) have focused a lot on sub-Roman Britain. I’m not sure I could say with as much certainty as you that King Arthur existed. If he did, I don’t think he would have been a “king” per se. Perhaps a tribal war lord that brought the tribes together to fight the Saxons to a standstill for a while.
But there’s some tantalizing archeological evidence that he might have. Francis Pryor skirts very close to saying yes, he did, in Britain AD. As a history nerd, you’ll love it.