The article below is originally posted in the Mark Adderley website.
Theory 1 : Briton with a Roman-derived Name
As proposed by Alcock Ashe (“Arthurian Fact,”), Kenneth, Hurlstone, Jackson and Morris. Arthur may have been a military genius of the late fifth century; his enemies were the Saxons, possibly also the Picts; he bore a Roman-derived name; his greatest victory was at Mount Badon, in southwest Britain; his campaigns lasted ca. 488-500; he was possibly killed twenty years later, after a period of relative peace, in a civil conflict; he was still remembered at the end of the sixth century, because children were named after him; he became a traditional figure in Welsh literature. The main points of this argument, advanced at first by Geoffrey Ashe and Leslie Alcock, are as follows. (John Morris’s book, which gives a great deal of detail on this theory, has largely been discredited.)
- Gildas describes the conflict between the Saxons and the native Britons, led by Aurelius Ambrosius, culminating in the Saxon defeat at Mons Badonicus, in roughly 500. Unfortunately, Gildas doesn’t name the leader of the Britons at Badon.
- A battle-poem The Gododdin, composed by the Welsh poet Aneirin about 600, compares a warrior to Arthur; about the year 600, four royal families named children Arthur, although the name is extremely uncommon until then. Around the year 600, therefore, it’s likely that Arthur was already famous.
- A document called the Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) records that in 518 occurred “the Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were victors;” in 539 was “the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut both fell; and there was widespread death in Britain and in Ireland.” The dates obviously don’t square with those we can calculate from Gildas.
- Nennius’ History of the Britons, ca. 830, is a collection of documents relating to British history and folklore. It lists twelve battles fought successfully by Arthur, culminating with Badon. There is no mention of Camlann.
- Archaeological digs undertaken at South Cadbury Hill in Somerset, England, in the mid-1960s revealed that the hillfort, which had long been associated with Camelot in local lore, had in fact been re-fortified on a massive scale in the late fifth century.
Theory 2: Lack of Historicity to Arther
As proposed by Dumville and Charles-Edwards. If there was an Arthur, we certainly have no way of knowing anything about him. The documentary evidence for his period is untrustworthy and, at best, can be used to fill out a history that is based upon the archaeological record. This is a skeptical line of reasoning, largely opposed to what David N. Dumville has termed a “no-smoke-without-fire” school of thought. Dumville has argued that an historian can reach no conclusions about an historical period without written testimony from contemporaries—later sources, he claims, are useless to the historian.
- Gildas doesn’t name Arthur; the description of Badon might well apply to Ambrosius Aurelianus; Gildas is unreliable as a historian in any case.
- The Gododdin’s date is too vague to be of use to a historian, and the Arthurian passage is likely to be a late interpolation.
- The Annales Cambriae was compiled in the eighth century, and all dates prior to about 770 were filled in retroactively. Since Arthur was already a figure of legend in the eighth century, the references to him in this document cannot be relied upon.
- Whoever compiled the Historia Brittonum attempted to reconcile several conflicting documents, and produced errors in the process; he also depended upon legendary sources frequently.
Theory 3: Arthur as king of the Britons
As proposed by Ashe, “Very Ancient Book,” Discovery, “Origins” Arthur was actually a king of the Britons, known to history not by his name, but by his title, Riothamus, which means supreme king. (The contention that some fifth-century names are really titles has been seriously challenged by Kenneth Jackson and O. J. Padel [“Recent Work”].) Summoned to Gaul by Emperor Anthemius in 468, he fought against the Visigoths, was betrayed by the Prefect of Gaul, Arvandus, and defeated in the area of Burgundy in about 470. The evidence for this speculation, put forward most forcefully by Geoffrey Ashe, is as follows.
- The Legend of St. Goeznovius, written in 1019, describes Arthur as “king of the Britons,” fighting the Saxons and achieving many victories in Britain and Gaul.
- In his Gothic History, written in 551, the historian Jordanes describes Anthemius calling the British general Riothamus, king of the Britons, to assist him in fighting the Visigoths. Riothamus arrived from “over the Ocean,” and so was not, as some claim, coming merely from Brittany.
- In a letter, Sidonius Apollinaris describes the treachery of the Prefect of Gaul, Arvandus, who, finding himself in financial difficulty, advised Euric, king of the Visigoths, how, when, and where to attack an army of Britons in Gaul.
- Gregory of Tours (539-94), in his History of the Franks, describes the location of the Britons’ defeat as being at Bourg-de-Déols, in the vicinity of Burgundy. Riothamus’s line of retreat would have taken him close to the town of Avallon, which resembles Geoffrey of Monmouth’s characteristic spelling (Insula Avallonis) of what he would have found in Welsh texts as Afallach or Avallach.
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the History of the Kings of Britain (1136), cites a number of the above details, but in relation to Arthur, not Riothamus. He places Arthur’s Gallic wars when the eastern emperor was Leo (457-74), and Simplicius was Pope (468-83). These dates certainly coincide with Riothamus’s.
- The refortification of South Cadbury fits with Riothamus’s period of activity.
Theory 4: Arthur as Folklore Figure
As proposed byPadel and Green. Arthur was not at all a historical figure, but a folkloric one, who was historicized by authors such as the author of the Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth.
- Many medieval authors pretend that folkloric characters were actually historical; it follows, therefore, that we cannot assume Arthur to have been historical because “Nennius” said he was.
- The “historical” sources portray Arthur in folkloric terms. “Nennius,” for example, describes legends about Arthur’s dog and son that show him to be folkloric in the ninth century; the battle of Tribruit recurs as a battle with werewolves in the Welsh poem “Pa gur;” and both the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae describe Arthur as killing unrealistic numbers of warriors single-handedly.
- Neither the Historia Brittonum nor the Annales Cambriae can be taken in isolation, but must be read in the context of other records of Arthur from Wales before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his book. These other sources—“Preiddeu Annwn,” “Pa gur,” “Culhwch and Olwen,” the Triads, the Welsh saints’ lives—all portray Arthur as a folkloric slayer of giants, dragons, and monstrous cats.
Theory 5: iranian origin of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table
As proposed by Nickel, Littleton, and Malcor. The inspiration for Arthur was Lucius Artorius Castus, the prefect of the 6th Legion, stationed in York. Artorius led the 6th Legion overseas to Armorica (Brittany) on a successful punitive raid, and many of the soldiers he led were Sarmatians. There are a number of striking resemblances between the Sarmatians and their beliefs and legends, and elements in the Arthurian legend. The Sarmatians
- were cavalry, unlike most Roman soldiers, protected by jointed armor, just like Arthur’s knights.
- used a dragon standard in battle, as Arthur is in some medieval illustrations.
- venerated a naked sword set in the ground or a platform, resembling the story of the sword in the stone.
- used a cauldron full of hashish in their religious ceremonies, a bit like the Grail.
- told the story of Batradz, a hero whose life was bound up in his sword. Dying, he asked his last companion to cast it into the sea. The companion’s failure to report the sign demanded by Batradz indicates that he has not done so. When he finally throws the sword in, the sea turns blood red. This story certainly resembles the story of Arthur, Excalibur, and Bedivere.
Note: Many of the extracts from chronicles cited above can be found in Chambers’ Arthur of Britain.
Alcock, Leslie. Arthur’s Britain. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
Ashe, Geoffrey. “The Arthurian Fact.” The Quest for Arthur’s Britain. Ed. Geoffrey Ashe. London: Paladin, 1968. 27-57.
– – – . “A Certain Very Ancient Book: Traces of an Arthurian Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History.” Speculum 56 (1981): 301-23.
– – – . The Discovery of King Arthur. New York: Henry Holt, 1985.
– – – . “The Origins of the Arthurian Legend.” Arthuriana 5.3 (1995): 1-23.
Chambers, E. K. Arthur of Britain. London: Sidgewick and Jackson, 1927.
Charles-Edwards, Thomas. “The Arthur of History.” The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature. Ed. Rachel Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman, and Brynley F. Roberts. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1991. 15-32.
Dumville, David N. “Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend.” History 62 (1977): 173-92.
Gildas. The Ruin of Britain and Other Works. Ed. and trans. Michael Winterbottom. Chichester: Phillimore, 1978.
Green, Thomas. Concepts of Arthur: Early Arthurian Tradition and the Origins of the Legend. Stroud: Tempus, 2007.
Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. “The Arthur of History.” Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History. Ed. Roger Sherman Loomis. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959. 1-11.
– – – . “Gildas and the Names of the British Princes.” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 3 (1982): 30-40.
Jordanes. The Gothic History. Trans. C. C. Mierow. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1915.
Littleton, C. Scott, and Ann C. Thomas. “The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail legends.” Journal of American Folklore 91 (1978): 513-27.
– – – , and Linda A. Malcor. From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2000.
Morris, John. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. Vol. 1. Roman Britain and the Empire of Arthur. Chichester: Phillimore, 1973.
Nennius. British History and The Welsh Annals. Ed. and trans. John Morris. London: Phillimore, 1980.
Nickel, Helmut. “The Dawn of Chivalry.” From the Lands of the Scythians. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975. 150-52.
Padel, O. J. Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2000.
– – – . “Recent Work on the Origins of the Arthurian Legend: A Comment.” Arthuriana 5.3 (1995): 103-14.
Sidonius Apollinaris. The Letters. Trans. O. M. Dalton. Oxford: Clarendon, 1915.