This is the ninth-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!
But who was Arthur?
Before we answer that question, it is necessary we understand the world in which he lived.
ORIGINS OF ARTHUR
If King Arthur was indeed an historical character, we must place his life somewhere between the last decades of the 5th century, and the first decades of the 6th. He is roughly contemporaneous with Fergus Mór, the first Scot-King of Scotland; and with the Scandinavian heroes Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki (whose saga enjoys many points of similarity with the legends of Arthur). He occupies a place as leader of the British resistance against the Anglo-Saxon invaders following Ambrosius Aurelianus (mid-to-late 5th century) and before Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), in the 540s.
The name "Arthur", itself, is the subject of some debate.
It doesn’t appear in usage among the Britons (or any other Celts) till after the mid-6th century. John Morris argues that the name Arthur, appearing as it does suddenly after this time among Scottish, Welsh and Pennine princes, taken with the absence of the name in usage at any time earlier; suggests that in the early 6th century the name became popular amongst the indigenous British due to the celebrity of some great warrior-hero who bore that name: the historical/legendary Arthur (1).
The Brythonic/Celtic word for bear is “Arth”, or “Artos”. One theory is that the name “Arthur” derives from this root. Another possible source of the name may have its roots not in the Celtic languages, but in Etruscan! A Roman officer stationed in Britain in the 2nd or 3rd century bore the name Lucius Artorius Castus; whose family’s origin may have come from Etruria, in Italy. The name may have lived on in Britain after his departure, in a family he may have sired.
Gildas the Monk (the nearest contemporary chronicler of this period in Britain) refers to “the Bear”, or Artos; possibly in reference to Arthur. Unhelpfully, Gildas’ references to “the Bear” are, at best, oblique. Though he writes primarily of the events following the life (of a possible) Arthur, Gildas also mentions such events as the Battle of Badon (Mons Badonicus, or, Mount Badon); an event before his time but fresh in the minds of himself and his contemporaries.
The Battle of Badon is named by later writers as Arthur’s crowning victory. Yet in mentioning Badon, Gildas omits to give credit to Arthur (or Artos). In fact, it has been argued that Gildas' wording could be construed as crediting the victory at Badon to Ambrosius Aurelianus. In any case, if it was indeed Arthur who led the Britons to victory over the Saxons at Badon, why does Gildas’ fail to name him as the hero of that day?
One explanation may be a personal animus borne by Gildas against Arthur.
According to Gildas’ biographer, Caradoc of Llancarfan, Gildas’ brother was one Huail/Hueil ap Caw; a Scot or Pictish warlord from the area near Dumbarton Rock in Strathclyde (though alternate theories place Caw and his warlike son's stronghold to the east, near modern Glasgow). In this theory, Huail was an opponent of Arthur, refusing to acknowledge his leadership. A pirate/raider, he was captured and executed by Arthur in North Wales. Gildas, away on Christian mission in Ireland at the time, was grieved by the news and bore towards Arthur an eternal grudge. For this reason, perhaps, he deliberately and steadfastly refused to acknowledge or even name Arthur in his commentary (one of the many examples in history illustrating the importance of a friendly bard or chronicler to record one's achievements). The chronicler Gerald of Wales even claims that Gildas destroyed "a number of outstanding books", presumably in monastic libraries, which praised Arthur!
With Gildas, the nearest contemporary, obstinately silent as to the existence of Arthur historians are left only with accounts from later sources (Bede, Nennius, the Annales Cambriae, Geoffrey of Monmouth, etc). Trying to piece together the disparate chronicles and legends and to come up with a coherent theory for a “historical Arthur” has been the cause of much spent ink, particularly in the last four decades.
Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, in their book, King Arthur: The True Story (1992) concluded that the true identity of the historical King Arthur was a Welsh prince, named Owain Ddantgwyn (“White Teeth”).
This tenuous identification rests solely on a reference in Gildas’ to a certain contemporary Welsh prince named Cynlas; who Gildas states was “charioteer of the Bear”. In ancient Celtic Britain, chieftains rode into battle in chariots, often driven by their eldest son. Though chariots had long been obsolete in Romano-Celtic Britain, the title of “Charioteer” (chariot driver) may well have continued in usage among the Celtic nobility as a ceremonial one; designating perhaps a chieftain’s heir; his right-hand man; constable; champion or even bodyguard commander.
Phillips and Keatman assumed that the name “the Bear” (Artos) was Arthur’s nickname, rather than his proper name. Then assuming further that as his charioteer, Cynlas must have been his son and heir; the authors then used existing genealogies to arrive at the “true” identity of Artos the Bear: Cynlas’ father, the Welsh prince Owain Ddantgwyn (2).
Thin thread from which to hang such a weighty theory.
Even accepting the premise that “the Bear” for whom Cynlas was “charioteer” is, indeed, Arthur; there is no reason to assume that he was Cynlas’ father. Without knowing the true significance of the title “charioteer” in 6th century Romano-British society, the relationship between Cynlas and Artos the Bear is wildly speculative.
Another, equally specious theory would place Arthur after Gildas, rather than before. This “Northern Arthur” theory identifies Arturius, son of Aidan, king of the 7th century Dalriada Scots, as the model for Arthur! Aidan supported the Britons in their local fights in the north against Angle and Pictish enemies. The documentation for the existence of this Scottish prince comes from the 7th century AD manuscript, known as the 'Vita Columba', written on the remote island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland. While Aidan’s son was indeed a prince named Arturius, to identify him as the historic Arthur solely on their shared name is, at best, a stretch. Morris’ point seems pertinent here: that this Scottish prince was likely named after the famous hero, rather than being the hero.
While some theories have Arthur a northern British hero, others place him in the southwest of Britain.
Geoffrey Ashe placed Arthur in the Sub-Roman British kingdom of Dumnonia; with Camelot, Arthur’s legendary stronghold, at Cadbury Castle, in Somerset. Excavation (primarily by the late Professor Leslie Alcock of the University of Glasgow) has revealed that in the Arthurian period Cadbury was reoccupied and fortified. It may indeed have been a stronghold of a powerful south British warlord. But who this may have been is speculative.
In King Arthur: the truth behind the legend (2000), Rodney Castleden makes a strong case for a Cornish-based Arthur. The ubiquity of Arthur name-sites and related places in the southwest, and particularly in Cornwall (the Camel River and Slaughter Bridge, possible site for Arthur’s last battle, at Camlann; Tintagel, where in the legend Arthur was conceived; and Arthur's Table, near Land's End, to name a few), suggest a strong connection.
Cornwall, in post-Roman Britain, was the western half of the strong Sub-Roman British kingdom of Dumnonia. Dumnonia, in fact, has much to recommend it as a possible base of power for Arthur. Its eastern regions bordered (and perhaps included) the Salisbury Plain, where as discussed previously Arthur’s predecessor and possible kinsman, Ambrosius Aurelianus, may have had his chief stronghold (Amesbury). This also bordered the southern most of the “debatable lands”, the no-man's-land between those regions still under British control and those of the emerging Saxon kingdoms of Sussex and Kent (and, soon, Wessex). Whoever led Dumnonia would perforce have been a prince in the forefront of the war against the Saxon invader.
Another alternative identification for Arthur sinks his roots more deeply in Roman history. C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor have suggested in recent scholarship that the archetype for the Arthur legend lies in the life of Lucius Artorius Castus, a 2nd/3rd century Roman officer. They deduced that this Roman officer’s name and exploits lived on in the memories of the Britons long after his departure from the island (in the early 3rd century?); later attaching themselves to an unknown hero or heroes who led the British resistance against the Saxons.
Though Lucius Artorius Castus had a successful career in Roman service, his exploits were hardly the stuff of legend. Far more celebrated Roman commanders in Britain, such as Agricola or Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig in Welsh) would seem more likely candidates to have their name and exploits handed down to future generations, than this rather obscure figure; whose only real recommendation is the similarity of his name to the legendary hero.
While a direct link seems highly improbable, a connection between Lucius Artorius and the Sarmatian cavalry that were stationed in Britain at the time of his posting is possible. While it is not known for certain if Lucius Artorius Castus actually ever commanded these Sarmatian foederati, Littleton and Malcor attempt to make that case. (Contrary to how he was depicted in the film, "King Arthur" (2004), Lucius Artorius Castus certainly was not a Sarmatian officer in late Roman Britain.)
What is highly likely is a connection between the 5th-6th century Arthur and the descendants of these Sarmatian warriors; and/or northern British cavalrymen who fought in the Sarmatian style. That they provided the nucleus of his mounted strike force seems likely, as will be discussed later.
There are many tantalizing similarities between Sarmatian culture and legends and pieces of the Arthurian legends; too many for mere coincidence. That their customs and legends bled into the Arthur myth seems likely.
Some of these are superficial, such as dragon standards: the Sarmatians used the Draco-windsock as a standard. Arthur, known as "Pendragon", used a similar standard in the legends. The chief British warlords after Arthur are called “Great Dragon of the Island”; perhaps a title adopted by later British and Welsh High Kings in emulation of Arthur. However, we must not put too much store in such a connection. The "Draco" standard was used by the late Romans, and need not be attributed to a Sarmatian connection.
A somewhat more intriguing connection is the similarity of the “Sword-in-the-stone” legend: Arthur pulls the sword of the king from a stone; thus symbolizing his rightful claim to the throne. In Sarmatian religious practice, swords thrust into the ground were part of religious observance, symbols of their god(s).
The strongest connection between the Sarmatians and the Arthurian legends, however, lies in the striking similarities between Arthur and the Sarmatian legendary hero, Batraz.
In the Arthur story, the sword is pulled from the stone. In the Sarmatian tradition, the hero Batraz pulls his magical sword from the roots of a great tree. At his death Arthur commands his close companion, Bedivere, to cast his sword into the lake. This is mirrored in the Sarmatian legend of Batraz: As he lies mortally wounded, Batraz too orders his magical blade cast into the sea. Like Bedivere in the Arthurian myth, Batraz's companion is reluctant to lose such a wonderful sword and lies to his master twice before finally casting the sword into the water. In both legends, an enchanted lady (the "Lady of the Lake" in the Arthurian legends) catches the sword and takes it beneath the waves.
That the Sarmatian settlers in northern Britain retained their national legends (as well as other elements of their culture), and that these in time spread amongst their Celtic neighbors and comrades-in-arms seems a plausible explanation for these similarities. More of this later, but it seems likely that the Sarmatian legends of Batraz merged with those of the Romano-British hero that we know as Arthur; fusing together over the centuries that followed Arthur's death.
If we accept that there can be, at this stage of archeology and scholarship, no certainty of a historical Arthur; we can at least build a plausible theory of who Arthur may have been, within the working premises already established.
(1) Morris, John. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, P.116. Butler and Tanner, Ltd (1973).
(2) Phillips, Graham; Keatman, Martin. King Arthur: The True Story. Arrow Books, Limited; New Ed edition (1993)