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The Written Sources for Arthurian Britain

Statue of the legendary King Arthur, at Tintagel, Cornwall

Did King Arthur really exist? That’s a question many people have asked over the centuries, and the answer is not exactly straightforward.

Being a romantic soul, I’d always hoped the answer would be a simple “yes”, but when I delved deeper, what I discovered was an extraordinary array of myths, tantalizing glimpses, and wild imaginings. Anyone trying to find a single verifiable fact about King Arthur is invariably disappointed, but I was keen to take up the challenge, having studied—and enjoyed—Early Medieval History.

Historians like primary sources, which is why I’ve titled this article “The Joy of Texts”. In addition to these, there are archaeological sites and inscribed stones that provide an insight into Arthurian times. Some discoveries are so new that the reports are not yet in the public domain, so I’ve excluded those from this article. Although none of these finds (particularly those at Tintagel) can prove Arthur’s existence as a real person, they don’t disprove it either.

In my opinion, the best proof of the existence of an outstanding warrior named Arthur can be found in Y Gododdin (the double ‘d’ is pronounced like a soft ‘th’), attributed to the legendary Celtic poet Aneirin. Unfortunately, the earliest written text dates to the 13th Century, when the Gododdin poem was added to a document known as the Book of Aneirin. However, the content of this epic relates to events that took place many centuries earlier, and some passages have even been dated to as early as the 6th or 7th Centuries, using the language preserved within the text. If this early dating is correct, the original poem may have been composed only a hundred years after Arthur’s time.

West Stow Anglo-Saxon village, East Anglia

Y Gododdin doesn’t exactly make cheerful reading. It is a list of the lives and deeds of all those killed in the Battle of Catraeth (believed to be the modern-day town of Catterick in Yorkshire). Some of those who fell are compared to men known to have been great warriors in years gone by. Whether those earlier warriors existed within the living memory of the poet or were preserved in oral tradition, is not known. He speaks as if he personally knew some of those who fell in the battle, but perhaps that is part of Aneirin’s skill, to make it seem as if his lament for the fallen is a personal one.

Stanza Ninety-Nine is the one containing mention of Arthur, but as a warrior rather than a king. Unfortunately, the exact date at which this particular stanza was composed cannot be ascertained. One must remember that the poem might have survived for centuries in spoken form before being written down; Aneirin would have been a bard or storyteller rather than a writer. If Y Gododdin was preserved in written form before being copied into the 13th Century manuscript we have today, those early copies no longer exist.

The verse which is so vital to the Arthur story relates to the fallen hero Gwawrddur. According to the poet, he “…fed black ravens on the rampart of the fortress, though he was no Arthur. Among the powerful ones in battle, in the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade.” The words “fed black ravens” indicate that Gwawrrdur slew many of the enemy before he was himself slain.

Changes in the evolution of the Celtic (or Brythonic) languages are one way of dating a Celtic work. Trying to put a poem like Y Gododdin into its historical context is also helpful. So, what do we know?

Page from The Book of Aneirin, 13th century manuscript

It has been firmly established that “Gododdin” was the name of both a place and a people in south-east Scotland. The tribe, known to the Romans as the Votadini, was based at Din Edin (modern-day Edinburgh). Despite this Scottish location, the language of the poem is Old or Early Mediaeval Welsh, so it must have traveled to Wales before it was first encapsulated in written form.

The Gododdin warriors in the poem must, like Arthur, have been fighting against Anglo-Saxon expansion. They did not fight on home ground, but after allegedly feasting for a year with their leader Mynyddog, they moved south to engage their enemy, alongside fighters from North Wales. Unlike the later battles attributed to Arthur, the conflict at Catraeth ended in a disastrous defeat for the native British.

So, Y Gododdin points to the existence of a warrior named Arthur who died sometime before the Battle of Catraeth, which has been dated to c.600 A.D. But can he be pushed back as far as the first half of the 6th Century, where later sources have placed him? And if he was so important, why is he ignored by the writer of the earliest reliable source for British history, Gildas?

Gildas composed his work, Concerning the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, sometime between 510 and 530 A.D. It is essentially a complaint, written in Latin, at the state in which Britain finds herself after the departure of the Romans, resulting in the breakdown of organized society and the rise of local rulers. Gildas is extremely vocal against these, as well as the clergy of his day. It is not his intention to write a history but to record his own opinions, which he supports with inaccurate biblical quotes.

None of the rulers he condemns is named Arthur. We have Constantine, who may have been based in Devon, Aurelius Conanus, Vortipore of Dyfed in Wales, and Cuneglas, a man who appears in early genealogies and is associated with South Gwynedd. One ruler mentioned by Gildas is Maelgwn. The Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) record this man as having been a High King who died around 547 A.D.

Although Arthur’s name does not appear in Gildas’ work, reference is made to a hero called Ambrosius, whose exploits later become attributed to Arthur. According to Gildas, British leader Vortigern invited a group of Saxons to help the British fight the invading Picts and Scots. The Saxons decided to remain in Britain, pushing the native British and Romano-British peoples out of their homelands. Subsequently, local warriors took up arms under a man of Roman lineage named Ambrosius Aurelianus. This war leader achieved a great victory over the Saxons at “obsessionis Badonici Montis”, which translates as “the siege of Mount Badon.” The Annales Cambriae date this conflict to 516 A.D., calling it the “Battle of Badon”, but make it Arthur’s victory, not Ambrosius’.

So, how reliable are the Annales Cambriae? These chronicles, written in Latin, must have been recorded at a religious site, as they were the only known seats of learning in early post-Roman Britain. The original annals may have been compiled in 954 A.D., as this is the last date recorded in the text.

Essentially, an annal is a yearly record of the main event or events that took place in that year. It is possible that whoever kept these records may have missed out the odd year, and the entries were certainly written before Anno Domini dates were in common usage. Those who made copies of these yearly records added in material from Irish and northern British sources and their own knowledge. The dates were added retrospectively, probably after the 11th Century, and modern scholars have attempted to improve the accuracy of these dates.

The Annals refer to “the Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders (shield) and the Britons were the victors.” Another Arthurian battle is dated 537 A.D. This is “The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.”

Sir Mordred (Medraut) from Andrew Lang's Book of Romance, illust. H. J. Ford

These are tantalizing clues suggesting the historical reality of Arthur, but how is it that he is now the victor at Badon and not Ambrosius? Were the two men the same person? Has the name Ambrosius come to be read as Arthur through incorrect translation or due to a scribal error? We simply don’t know.

Perhaps the most comprehensive early history of Britain that mentions Arthur is the Historia Brittonum by a man named Nennius. Also writing in Latin, Nennius admits to having compiled his history from a “heap” of documentary sources. His collation includes Roman and Biblical references, Lives of St. Patrick and St. Germanus, snippets of Anglo-Saxon genealogies and histories, the Tale of Emrys, and The Campaigns of Arthur.

The first version of Nennius’ history must have been circulating by 820 A.D. as it is referenced by another work from that date. The version that has survived must be thought of as a second edition. This is because when this version was created, it copied numerous notes that a previous reader had written into the text. This is not unusual in early manuscripts; the notes are known as “glosses”, and many of them must have been added in when the scribe was making his copy. Before the invention of printing, the only way to proliferate a work was to make hand-written copies, so mistakes and additions are frequently found.

Nennius embellishes the story of Ambrosius, so fleetingly mentioned by Gildas. Appearing in The Tale of Emrys and The Life of St. Germanus, Ambrosius becomes an almost magical character who can talk to wizards and influence kings. He is later described as “the king among all the kings of the British nation.”

Despite the similarities between Ambrosius and Arthur, the latter is referred to as a distinctly different person in The Campaigns of Arthur. Nennius’ Arthur is a “leader in battle” who fought against the Saxons with the kings of the British. His enemy is Ochta, the son of Hengest (the latter died in c.488 A.D.). Twelve battles are recorded, four of which are said to have taken place in Linsey (modern-day Lincolnshire), but no dates are given. During Arthur’s eighth battle, at Guinnon Fort, he is said to have had the image of the Holy Virgin on his shield, which helped him overcome the Saxons.

As is the case in the Annales Cambriae, Ambrosius’ Battle of Badon is now attributed to Arthur. Nennius states that “Nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day from a single charge of Arthur’s and no one laid them low save he alone; he was victorious in all his campaigns.” So, by Nennius’ time, Arthur, like Ambrosius, has become a superhuman figure, more legend than fact.

A more intriguing reference to Arthur is made in the Wonders of Britain chapter. In an area known as Ergyng (in Wales), there was once a tomb by a spring, called Llygad Amr, which translates as “the tomb of Amr”. Amr is referred to by Nennius as a son of the warrior Arthur, who killed and buried him by the spring. Are we to assume that this is the same Arthur who slew nine hundred and sixty Saxons single-handed? And if so, what reason did he have for killing his son? As is often the case with these early writers, their works raise more questions than they answer.

The next writer to touch on Arthur is the scholarly monk William of Malmesbury. Working at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, he had access to a substantial library of historical manuscripts. William’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, which translates as The Deeds of the English Kings, covers the reigns of rulers between c.449 and 1120 A.D. Writing in around 1125, he refers to the existence of “many fables” about Arthur and places him firmly in the early post-Roman era, fighting against the Saxons. William makes Arthur and Ambrosius contemporaries, stating that, “Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans, who became monarch after Vortigern, quelled the presumptuous barbarians by the powerful aid of warlike Arthur.” He mentions the Battle of Mount Badon, clearly using Nennius’ Historia Brittonum as a source.

The historical chronicler who can be credited with creating the fully-fledged myth of King Arthur was William of Malmesbury’s contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey was also a cleric and wrote his History of the Kings of Britain in around 1135. He also wrote The Prophecies of Merlin and The Life of Merlin. Even though he used Gildas, Nennius, and Bede as sources, few of his contemporaries considered his work reliable as history, thinking that he’d embellished it too much from his own imagination.

Illustration from a 15th century Welsh language version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain

Geoffrey created a new version of Arthur for his Norman readers; Arthur became a conqueror, winning Ireland, Iceland, Scotland, the Orkneys, Denmark, Aquitaine, and Gaul through his daring exploits in war. Geoffrey’s work mixed fact with ancient lore and legend, creating a romantic story that will be familiar to the modern reader of the Arthurian myths. In Geoffrey’s book, we encounter the tale of King Uther falling in love with Igerna, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall. When Arthur marries Guenhuuara (Guinevere) and settles down to court life rather than conquest, the familiar adventures begin, with damsels to be rescued and giants and other foes to overcome. Mordred is made into a villain, the deaths of Sir Bedivere and Sir Kay are described, and Arthur travels to Avalon, having sustained a mortal wound.

Remains of medieval castle at Tintagel, Cornwall

Another early source in which Arthur appears is a collection of stories written in Middle Welsh known as the Mabinogion. These tales were preserved by oral transmission, and the language contained within them can be dated to sometime between 1050 and 1120. The earliest complete text to survive was written around the second half of the 14th Century, although earlier fragments of some of the stories have been discovered.

Arthur appears in five tales, as a king rather than a hero, and he has no central role in any of the stories. He appears in Culwwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonabwy, presiding over his court at “Kelli Wig” in Cornwall. However, the other stories, Peredur, Geraint and Enid, and Owain, have Arthur based in South Wales. The language used in Culwwch and Olwen is, however, earlier than that used in the other tales, so the switch to South Wales may be a later addition.

Page from 14th century manuscript Lyffr Gwyn Rhydderch

Some of the stories from the Mabinogion are so similar to those in the work of the French writer, Chretien de Troyes, that both sets of tales may have used the same earlier source, now lost to history. Alternatively, Chretien may have re-worked the Welsh tales to fit his own narrative.

Writing sometime between 1162 and 1191, Chretien introduced new characters into the Arthurian legends. His poems, which included Erec and Enide, and Yvaine, the Knight of the Lion, are known to have greatly influenced succeeding French poets. He is credited with being the creator of Lancelot and inventor of the illicit love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. He is also the first to speak of a court at Camelot but, although he mentions a round table as well, Arthur is not seen as “first among equals”. In Chretien’s version of the Arthurian legends, the king sits at a raised table above his knights with just a favoured few beside him.

Chretien’s rendition of Arthur is very much influenced by the French chivalric codes of his day. Although he is credited with the invention of Lancelot, such a key character in later writings, he may have encountered this knight in an earlier source that has not survived. The idea of the quest for the Holy Grail may also have come from a lost text, but Chretien was the first to write about it, in his unfinished poem Perceval, le Conte du Graal.

Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170 to 1220) is the epic poet of Medieval German literature and is best remembered for Parzival. His poem echoes Chretien’s (whose works he disparages), but he claims to have used as his source a poet called Kyot of Provence, although there is no evidence that such a person ever existed. Wolfram presents Arthur’s court as being somewhat decadent, but despite this, Parzival is eager to join it. His subsequent quest is in search of the Holy Grail, the first time this item appears in the German tradition of Arthur. In this instance, rather than being a cup, the grail is a precious jewel.

15th century illustration of the Parzival story

An adjunct to Arthur’s story is that of Sir Gawain, who has his own marvellous tale, written by an unknown author and preserved in a crudely illustrated manuscript. The descriptions of costume and armour suggest that this alliterative poem was written sometime between 1375 and 1400. Scholars believe that the writer came from Lancashire, partly because of linguistic clues in the text and partly because other minor works about Gawain from that part of Britain suggest that he was a popular hero there.

In this story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is King Arthur’s nephew and one of his leading warriors, just as he is in the story of Culwwch and Olwen from the Mabinogion.

Sir Gawain’s story has a similar starting point to other Arthurian quest stories. It is Christmas, and the king and his court are poised to begin feasting. However, Arthur has vowed not to touch his food (meaning no one else can either) until some adventure presents itself. A giant, riding a green horse, enters the hall. Everything about him is green, including clothes, skin, and hair. He offers to allow one of the assembled company to cut off his head, on condition that the executioner will accept a similar blow from the giant in a year’s time. Despite assuming the giant will be killed instantly so that no return blow can be given, the knights shy away from this challenge, suspecting a trick. When an angry Arthur offers to do it himself, Gawain steps in to save his liege lord’s neck. The blow having been dealt, the giant picks up his head and leaves Arthur’s court, telling Gawain where to find him the following year.

First page of 14th century manuscript of Gawain and the Green Knight

Apparently, this idea of a beheading challenge derives originally from the Middle Irish romance, Bricriu’s Feast, which survives in a manuscript written around 1100. The same story was then taken into French Arthurian romances of the 13th Century. The writer of this Gawain story must have been influenced by these other romances; the courtly behaviour of the characters is French, and there are similarities in the text.

The final, and to many, the definitive work about Arthur is Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory’s was not the first collection of stories with that title, as an alliterative epic called Morte Arthur already existed and was doubtless used a source. Malory also used Norman-French texts, and his version of Arthur is clearly based on that of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

From these various stories, Malory wove a coherent narrative. The first book, Arthur and Lucius, shows Arthur as a conqueror who assumes the mantle of an empire stretching from Britain to Ireland and France, and even, eventually, to Rome. This is a direct parallel of Geoffrey’s Arthurian saga. All-in-all, Malory’s work constitutes the first coherent history of Arthur’s life from cradle to grave. Other tales have been collected and woven into the narrative, including the Celtic story of Tristan and Iseult, which originally had no known connection with the Arthurian romances.

The writer of this digest was a colourful character who seems to have spent much of his life on the wrong side of the law. Sir Thomas Malory originally fought with Edward IV against the Scots but later joined the Lancastrian rebels during the Wars of the Roses. When other rebels were pardoned, Malory was not, and he languished in prison at Newgate from 1468 until his death in 1471. It was during these years of incarceration that he composed his Le Morte d’Arthur, eventually published by Caxton in 1485. Malory has been credited with reviving interest in the Arthurian cycle in Early Modern England.

First page from Caxton's edition of Malory's book

It is fascinating to discover how Arthur’s story expands from his cameo roles in Historia Brittonum and the Welsh Annals into the vast array of literature we have today. In the texts of the Middle Ages, he pops up in different parts of Britain, from Wales to Lincolnshire and Cornwall, then goes on to conquer swathes of Western Europe and even Rome. During the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, when writers like Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach seized on the Arthurian myths, his fame spread throughout France and Germany, too. Somehow Arthur, whether he existed or not, became a magnet for folk tales and legends from a range of sources. When stories that had existed only as oral tradition were written down, Arthur was the perfect way to bring them all together and make them into a coherent collection.

Foundations of Early Medieval buildings excavated at Tintagel, Cornwall

Maybe one day, scholars will have the time and the will to painstakingly separate fact from fiction and present us with a true picture of Arthur as he might have been. Perhaps we’ll discover that he should really be called Ambrosius and that a mistake over the two men’s identities has been perpetuated throughout history. Or maybe Arthur will remain a symbol of romance and chivalry, taking us back to a time that never was, but nonetheless has the power to fire our imaginations and make us believe in a magic often sadly lacking in our everyday lives.

You can read about Elizabeth Keysian's authentic historical romances HERE.

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