The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend

by Christopher Gidlow

Edition reviewed: Sutton Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-7509-3418-2

"Arthur was a great king. He ruled a land of knights in armour, damsels in distress, dragons and derring-do, home of Merlin the Magician and Morgan le Fay. He was born in Tintagel, became king by a combination of sword, stone and sorcery, and ruled from the castle of Camelot. At his Round Table sat Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and Sir Galahad, seekers of the Holy Grail. Finally, in tragedy, the love of Lancelot and Guenevere brought down the whole kingdom, leaving Arthur sleeping in the Isle of Avalon.

Did this King Arthur really exist? Almost certainly not. He was defined by writers of romance fiction in the twelfth century and refined through the Middle Ages. He inhabited a fabulous world based on that of his medieval audience. It was in this form that Arthur was revived by the Victorians and entered the public imagination.

Could this fantastic king be based on historical reality?"

These paragraphs begin Christopher Gidlow's book, and it is the latter question that he sets out to answer.

The first part of his book is a survey of the earliest historical sources to mention Arthur and/or his battles. Three sources mention Arthur by name, the Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin, the Historia Brittonum, and the Annales Cambriae. Two of these, Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, say that Arthur was the victorious commander at a battle named Badon, and two further sources, Gildas' De Excidio Britanniae and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, mention the battle of Badon but do not mention the name Arthur. What do they actually say?

Y Gododdin mentions Arthur in a single stanza, comparing one of the poem's fallen heroes to Arthur,

"He brought down black crows to feed before the wall
Of the city, though he was no Arthur."

The dates of the battle being described and of the poem itself have been, and still are, the subject of much scholarly debate. Christopher Gidlow quotes linguistic analysis arguing that the oldest verses were composed in a language that pre-dates Old Welsh and thus dates to before the end of the 6th century AD, and these include the Arthur stanza. Arthur's name is the rhyme for the name of the hero, so it is unlikely to have been added in at a later date. If one accepts this analysis, and I see no reason not to do so, a man named Arthur was considered a fitting comparison for a fallen warrior hero in the later sixth century. This would be consistent with a real historical Arthur, known to the poet and his intended audience, who had a successful military career before the poem was composed.

Historia Brittonum (sometimes called Nennius after the name attributed to its author in one - but not all - of the surviving versions of the text) says in its prologue that it was written in about 830 AD. Linguistic analysis similar to that mentioned above for Y Gododdin argues that some of its spellings for names and places are much older than its stated date of composition, and therefore that the writer was drawing on earlier written sources. Historia Brittonum is the source for the details of Arthur's military career:

"Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor."

Some of the battle locations can be identified with reasonable certainty, e.g. the 'City of the Legion' is referred to elsewhere in Historia Brittonum, in Annales Cambraie and by Bede, who helpfully tells us "which the English call Legacastir but the Britons more correctly call Carlegion", and is probably Chester. Calidon is the Roman name Caledonia and presumably refers to somewhere in Scotland. Most of them are uncertain, and legions of enthusiasts have located them all over the country with varying degrees of plausibility. The most interesting thing about the list, which Christopher Gidlow discusses, is that it has no supernatural elements. Arthurian sceptics have used the line, "no one struck them down except Arthur himself" to dismiss the list as the mythical exploits of a superman, but I share Christopher Gidlow's view that the phrase is more likely to reflect the common practice of referring to a victory as the general's, taking the presence of his army for granted. If a modern writer says, "Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo", we don't imagine the two generals slugging it out in single combat, and there's no particular reason to assume that the writer of Historia Brittonum did either. Historia Brittonum's account is a prosaic description of the career of a successful military leader who won a lot of battles. For mythical and legendary elements, like dragons and a fatherless boy with the gift of prophecy, you have to look to the Historia's description of Ambrosius Aurelianus, not to Arthur.

Annales Cambriae, 'The Annals of Wales' contain two entries referring to Arthur:

"516 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 the victors.

537 The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell."

Christopher Gidlow argues that the dates are unlikely to be accurate, partly because the Annals are set out in numbered decades and several of the decades have 9 years or 11 years instead of 10, with obvious potential for miscounting, and partly because the AD dating system was an innovation of Bede in the early 8th century. Prior to Bede the conventional way to reckon dates was by regnal years ("In the seventh year of the reign of King So-and-so"), much as Rome reckoned dates by reference to the serving consuls. Bede makes reference to both systems, and records the dates of important events like major synods according to numerous regnal year systems in different kingdoms (e.g. the Synod of Hatfield was held, "in the tenth year of the reign of King Egfrid of the Northumbrians; in the sixth year of King Ethelfrid of the Mercians...."etc). No wonder Bede felt the system could do with being tidied up if all the kingdoms were to be unified in one church; it was probably a little like railway time replacing local time in Britain during the nineteenth century. So AD dates attributed to events that pre-date Bede are most likely to have been estimated by a post-Bede scholar writing down material from older sources or oral tradition, and their accuracy (or otherwise) is a matter of conjecture. The important point is that the Annales Cambriae mention Arthur's major battle from Historia Brittonum, and 20 years later record his death in a different battle. Again, there is nothing especially unusual or legendary about the entries. They are similar in form to other entries in the Annales, and don't contradict Historia Brittonum.

Gildas and Bede both refer to the battle of Badon, but do not name its commander. Both sources (they are so similar that Bede probably based his account on Gildas) say that after Hengist and Horsa defeated Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus became the leader of the Britons and a period (length unspecified) of back-and-forth warfare began, which lasted up until the siege of Badon when the Britons won a resounding victory. If either source said explicitly that Ambrosius led the British side at Badon there would be a discrepancy with Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae, but neither does. There seems to be no reason why Arthur could not have been the military commander at the battle even if Ambrosius was still overall 'leader', or there may have been a change of leader during the warfare preceding Badon.

This leads Christopher Gidlow to a rather exasperated section on double standards, where he makes the point that the documentary evidence for Maelgwn Gwynedd (usually identified with the Mailcun mentioned in Historia Brittonum and the Maglocunus castigated by Gildas) is no stronger than that for a historical Arthur. He concludes, "Historians cannot have it both ways..... If Maelgwn Gwynedd can be accepted on a balance of probabilities, then so should Arthur". I share this view - I don't mind a historian arguing that Source X is unreliable and should be treated with caution or disregarded altogether, but it does look like cheating when the same author then uses bits of the same source to support a different theory.

Christopher Gidlow concludes the first part with a summary of plausible roles for the figure of Arthur as recorded in these early sources. Arthur could have been a sub-king of a small region that was part of one of the larger kingdoms; a king of one of the kingdoms whose dynasties did not last into the Middle Ages; a high king with power over more than one kingdom; a military leader employed as a Magister Militum by a post-Roman provincial governor or a high king. Any or all of these would fit with the scanty records in the early sources, and Christopher Gidlow makes the important point that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The same man might have held different roles at different points in his life, or been different things to different people.

If one accepts that there was a military hero who led some or all of the British to victory against some or all of the Saxons in a battle at a place called Badon some time in the late 5th or early 6th century - which is not at all implausible - then one might as well accept the name given to him in the same sources and call him Arthur.

The second part of the book charts the development of the Arthur story in surviving Welsh medieval texts, notably the poems in the Black Book of Carmarthen, the stories of Culhwlch and Olwen and the Dream of Rhonabwy, the Triads, various Saints' Lives, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, which arguably is the text that shot Arthur to superstardom. In it, Christopher Gidlow shows how these later texts acquire the mythical trappings that have become so much a part of the Arthur story in the modern form summarised at the top of this post. He makes a convincing case for seeing the process as one by which legendary tales accreted around a historical figure, in the same way as Roman emperor Magnus Maximus became the subject of a dream legend in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, rather than one by which a pseudo-historical figure was invented out of folk tales.

What I chiefly liked about The Reign of Arthur was its approach of starting from the sources and setting out what they say in a reasonably logical order. It makes a refreshing change from proposing a theory and then quoting sources to support it. I once tried assembling the Arthur sources in a similar fashion - though Christopher Gidlow has done it much more thoroughly than I could - and came to much the same conclusions as he has. Which is nice.

In common with much narrative non-fiction, the book doesn't use footnotes to cite sources, which I find mildly annoying. However, the author does make an effort to say in the text where he got information from, which is very useful as it allows the reader to check the source material and decide whether to be convinced by the argument. For example, at one point he argues for a scribal error in Annales Cambriae to resolve a discrepancy with Bede over the date of the seventh-century battle of Chester (not the same as Arthur's battle at the City of the Legion, though very possibly at a similar location). Because he quoted his sources, I could look up Bede's description, and my reading is that Bede's account can accommodate the Annales Cambriae date without needing to postulate a scribal error. So I disagree with the author on this point, but because I can see where it came from I can accept the rest of his argument. In fact, if anything I think my interpretation strengthens his point that the Annales can be regarded as a reasonably historical source. I find it much more convincing when I can follow the author's logic like this.

A clear and scholarly survey of the historical source material for Arthur and its later development into legend.