The Background to the Arthurian Trilogy

The search for the ‘original’ Arthur has continued in the last fourteen years, and the literature, both online and offline, grows ever larger. With a little ingenuity, the famous list of battles in the Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius can be made to fit any location one chooses. At one time or another Kent, East Anglia, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales have all been candidates – proof of nothing except that the pull of the legend is as strong as ever. 
Most modern theories of Arthur are based on the principle of starting from a later source, whether Nennius or the Welsh genealogies or Geoffrey of Monmouth, and then arguing backwards towards Gildas and Mount Badon. As others have said before me, this is not a sound methodology – though it does make for good fiction!
One notable exception to this arguing backwards is the idea that Arthur has his origins in Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman soldier of the late 2nd or early 3rd century. Everything known about the life of Artorius Castus comes from two Latin inscriptions found in Podstrana on the Dalmation coast. The inscriptions cannot be dated with any precision as they give no reference to any other historical figures and make no mention of any datable campaigns. Even their translation is not certain since they make extensive use of abbreviations with several possible interpretations, and they have both suffered damage so that crucial parts are either illegible or missing. The much vaunted expedition at the head of British troops to Armorica is based on guesswork. The more likely reading is that Artorius Castus led units who had once served in Britain against the Armenians. Descriptions of his campaigns in northern Britain are fantasy, not history.


The medieval legend of Arthur runs something like this:
Once upon a time there was a great British king or emperor. He defeated the Saxons, Picts and Scots who were in those days harassing Britain, and went on to conquer most of Western Europe. He and his queen, the beautiful Guinevere, ruled this empire from the splendour of his chief city, many towered Camelot, and during his reign there were peace and justice for all. Advised by the magician Merlin, he founded the Round Table, the fellowship of the bravest and boldest knights in all the world. Once the realm was at peace, these knights rode out to seek adventure, and the greatest of these adventures was the Quest of the Holy Grail.
But all ended in tragedy. Arthur’s closest friend and champion, Lancelot, fell in love with Queen Guinevere. Too many of the knights did not return from the Grail Quest. The Queen’s adultery led to civil war, and Arthur’s bastard son and/or nephew Mordred seized both the Queen and the throne. In one last battle Arthur and the few surviving knights of the Round Table defeated Mordred, but Arthur himself was mortally wounded. He was carried away to Avalon to be healed, and he will return to save Britain in the hour of her deadliest danger.
This is the essence of the Matter of Britain, the great cycle of epic stories composed during the Middle Ages, a cycle which reached its finest flowering with Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
The most important single contribution to the evolution of the Matter of Britain was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which appeared in about 1138. It was Geoffrey who invented the prophetic magician Merlin by conflating two different characters from Welsh legend. It was Geoffrey who related the story of Arthur’s conception at Tintagel; Geoffrey who stated that Mordred was Arthur’s nephew; Geoffrey who said that after Camlann the mortally wounded Arthur was carried off to the Isle of Avalon ‘that his wounds might be attended to’.
Later writers added or amplified incidents, or created new characters such as Lancelot and Galahad, but one can see the bare bones of the story in Geoffrey’s account.
In creating his History Geoffrey drew upon a number of sources – including his own imagination! But one of his sources was Welsh tradition, an often contradictory body of legend. Meanwhile, across the Channel, others were drawing upon Breton tales to create their own version of the Arthurian story.
Much of this material is now lost, although enough has survived to show that there must once have been many variants. For example, Arthur did not always die in a final apocalyptic battle at Camlann. The Romanz des Franceis, by André, dating from the late 1100s, claims that Arthur was pushed into a bog by Capalu, a man in the shape of a monstrous cat, ‘and the cat then killed him in war’. This Capalu is presumably a variant on Cath Baluc or Palug’s Cat, which some say was slain by Cei.
John Rhys in Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx records a folk tradition current in Gwynedd during the nineteenth century. According to this Arthur and his men chased an enemy from Dinas Emrys in the direction of Snowdon. They were ambushed in a pass between Llyn Llydaw and the summit of Snowdon, and Arthur fell dead under a hail of arrows. The pass is known as Bwlch y Saethau, the Pass of Arrows. He was buried under a cairn where he fell, so that ‘for as long as his dust rested there no enemy might march that way’. (Above Llyn Llydaw is a cave where his knights are supposed to lie.)
Wherever possible I have drawn upon those Welsh traditions which did not make their way into the legend as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory. At times the weight of the medieval version has been too much: I have, for example, kept Medraut as the villain of Camlann, though there is in fact nothing in the pre-Geoffrey sources to suggest Medraut was anything other than a paragon of valour and courtesy. Elsewhere I have returned to the older tales: thus Cei and Bedwyr are the most important of Arthur’s Companions in the Welsh stories, and although later heroes displaced them they lingered on in European literature as Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere. Gwalchmei has an almost equally venerable pedigree, and for the other names of Arthur’s Companions I have drawn upon the list in the Welsh legend of Culhwch and Olwen.
One major part of the legend I have inverted altogether: Gwenhwyvar the much abducted and unfaithful Queen. Here I have been influenced by the story of Rhiannon in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. This was set down in its present form in about 1060, but – like the Arthurian legend – embodies much older traditions. There is also a particularly obscure Welsh poem which may be a dialogue between Arthur, Gwenhwyvar and Melwas, that might – and I emphasize the might – support the interpretation I have put upon the legend.
The quest into the shadowy realms of the Western Isles is loosely based on the Welsh poem The Spoils of Annwn. This poem is also the origin of the tale told by Teleri at Caer Cadwy, and in both interpretations I have been influenced by the poet Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, and other religions were outlawed by 400. Gildas (of whom more later) seems to have believed that Christianity was universal in Britain prior to the coming of the Saxons. This is not true, either in Britain or indeed anywhere else in the empire, including Italy itself: despite the ban, pagan practices not only survived but flourished. In Gildas’s own day the Church was in decline: its congregations were shrinking, its authority was diminishing, and its wealth was dwindling.


So, was there ever any such person as Arthur?
The simple answer is that we do not know, despite the vast amount of ink that has been expended on the subject.
If he lived at all, he lived during the fifth and sixth centuries. At that time the Roman diocese of Britannia was in the process of dying, and modern Britain composed of the three nations of England, Scotland and Wales was in the process of being born. Two of those nations owe their names and their existence to external invaders: England to the Germanic Anglo-Saxons from the east; Scotland to the Gaelic-speaking Celts from the west. Wales of course derives from the native British who remained unconquered in the mountains.
These two hundred years are the most obscure and infuriating in our history. Obscure because nothing is certain; infuriating because we can catch glimpses of names and personalities, yet no more than glimpses. In effect, this is a prehistoric period for which we have one contemporary written source, and in many ways that source has handicapped rather than eased its study. We do, however, know quite a lot about what later generations imagined had happened (and it is upon their beliefs and legends that I based the Albion trilogy).
During the fifth century the Roman Empire in the West collapsed. Rome herself fell to the Goths in 410, and for the sake of convenience we can assume that Britain ceased to be part of the Empire in that year. There is some evidence that the final break actually came from Britain rather than Rome, and that there was a purge of those loyal to the Empire.
By about 600 most of what was to become lowland England was in Saxon hands. Further north, the Scotti immigrants from Ireland were well established in the western regions of what we now call Scotland.
What we do not know is precisely how this came to pass. Should we, for example, think in terms of a wholesale Saxon migration involving men, women and children? Or should we think in terms of small warrior bands mounting a series of successful coups d’état in existing regional kingdoms? Did the Saxons come as migrant peasant farmers entering an almost empty land, or did they come bearing fire and sword?
How long did the anglicization of Britain take? Was it more or less complete within thirty to forty years, or was it a long slow process spanning several generations? One recent historian argues that the southern lowlands of Britain were under Saxon domination by the mid 440s – in other words, that there was only the briefest period of transition between Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. Another proposes the very opposite. He believes that the Saxon incursions only affected the eastern part of the country, and that the greater part remained “Roman” until the period of Saxon expansion in the late sixth century.
Both opinions are perfectly tenable. We simply do not have enough evidence to be certain. My own feeling would be that the nature and speed of the settlement varied dramatically from place to place.
In Kent, the archaeological evidence from a series of sites suggests the deliberate early settling of Germanic troops by an existing Romano-British authority, and this would of course fit the later legend. In Northumbria, the evidence appears to suggest a small aristocratic Anglian element ruling over a largely British population. The ninth- to twelfth century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates the story of how the dynasty of Cerdic landed at Southampton Water in the closing years of the fifth century and fought their way inland over the next few generations, but the archaeological evidence demonstrates that the origins of Wessex lay in peasant communities along the upper Thames valley dating back a generation before Cerdic’s time.
Archaeological evidence offers insights into a variety of cultural activities – such as burial practices, the exchange of artefacts and the use of space within a settlement. What it cannot do is tell us very much about the social conditions – the political system, the language, the beliefs. For that we need written sources.
Our only contemporary written source for the fifth and sixth centuries is Gildas, a British Christian who probably wrote De Excidio Britanniae; ‘Concerning the Ruin of Britain’ during the 540s. It is a sermon, a piece of dialectic intended to arouse his countrymen from the sin and sloth into which they had fallen, with an ‘historical introduction’ that was meant to establish for his contemporaries that their present afflictions were a consequence of a failure of obedience to God. So by our standards this history is unreliable. Yet it is important, for it forms the basis of every later account, especially that of the Venerable Bede, (early eighth century) through which it gained wide circulation. It has also coloured every modern work.
Gildas describes three phases of the Saxon conquest. (To suit his rhetoric the coming of the Saxons had to be seen in terms of conquest. The vengeance of the Lord upon the backsliding Britons could scarcely be portrayed in terms of peaceful settlement.)
In the first phase, the Britons have been abandoned by the Romans to their fate. The superbus tyrannus (who is almost certainly the same person as the Vortigern of Bede and his successor Nennius) and his counsellors call on the Saxons to help repel the northern Picts. The Saxon mercenaries saw there was nothing to stop them going on the rampage themselves, and duly did so, bringing fire and slaughter to the island. When they had finished looting they went home – presumably to the eastern lands they had been given.
In the second phase, after an unspecified interval, a leader arose among the Britons, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man of distinguished Roman family and ancestry, to whose standard flocked the surviving Romano-British who recognized his sterling qualities. There followed a period of alternating victory and defeat, culminating in the siege of Mount Badon, ‘almost the last and not the least slaughter of the villains’. (Significantly, Gildas does not say who led the British forces at Badon.)
The third phase was Gildas’s own lifetime, forty-four years after Mount Badon. Britain now enjoyed freedom from external attack, though it was still rent by internal struggles. Gildas continued his sermon by attacking five contemporary kings: Constantine of Dumnonia, Aurelius Caninus, Vortepor of Dyfed, Cuneglasus and Maelgwn ‘the dragon of the island’.
What Gildas said about Mount Badon is open to a number of interpretations. The traditional view, and the one I have used in this book, is that it was an overwhelming victory for the Britons that put an end to Saxon expansion for a generation. But one could equally well read it the other way: it was ‘almost the last’ slaughter of the Saxons because thereafter the Saxons were the victors in virtually every engagement. The battle was memorable because it was the last British success, not because it was an overwhelming triumph.
Again, historians from Bede to the present have assumed that Badon had a national significance. But it is quite possible that it was a local affair, of no great importance to Britain as a whole. Gildas tells us Badon took place in the year of his birth. So it was an important event to him. Perhaps all through his childhood, particularly if he was actually born somewhere near the battle site, people reminded him that he first saw the light in the year the Britons defeated the Saxons at the siege of Badon Hill.
What is more (and this is pure speculation), if one adopts Bede’s reading of the text – and we should remember that Bede was working from a copy of the text much closer to the original in age than any now available to us – Badon took place forty-four years after the arrival of the Saxons. In other words, the battle of Mount Badon acted as a pivot around which Gildas could hang his history, a central point forty-four years after the fatal invitation to the enemy, and forty-four years before the time at which he wrote.
It may be, then, that Gildas singled out Badon because it suited his rhetorical purposes rather than because the battle was overwhelmingly decisive.


As the reader will by now have gathered, I do not believe that it is possible to construct the kind of narrative history for the fifth and sixth centuries that one can expect for the fifteenth or sixteenth. The whole issue of chronology is too complex to discuss here in any depth, but the very fact it can be seriously suggested that Gildas wrote in 480 as opposed to 540 – a sixty-year difference – gives some idea of how uncertain is our present state of knowledge.
However, if narrative history fails us, it is still possible to adopt an alternative approach. We can identify certain trends within society, even if we cannot identify the time-scale over which these trends took place.
We know that the central political organization collapsed. The capital cities declined in importance, and public building and work came to an end. The ruling elite disappeared and their place was taken by men of purely local importance.
The centralized economy also collapsed. Large-scale trade, crafts and specialized industries, estate management and specialized agriculture, all became things of the past. The British fell back on local homesteads, small-scale cultivation and a barter economy. Many towns were abandoned to the lower classes, and old strongholds were refurbished or new ones constructed. The native population declined.
For our purpose, perhaps most important of all, a romanticized past was created: a Golden Age when heroes walked the earth.
The Roman diocese of Britain crumbled into a number of mutually hostile successor states, some Celtic, some Germanic. The rulers of these new states constructed elaborate genealogies linking themselves to their predecessors. Thus the kings of Dyfed, the kings of Powys and various northern dynasties all at one time or another claimed to be descended from Macsen Wledig, the Spaniard Magnus Maximus who was proclaimed emperor of Britain in 383. (In this context, Wledig means something like ‘overlord’.)
As part of the same process, the collapse of the old world came to be viewed in terms of a heroic struggle against external raiders and invaders: first the Picts and Scots, then the Saxons. The tale became personalized and filled with a wealth of dramatic detail. So Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Roman ‘gentleman’ (vir modestus) of Gildas, becomes Emrys Wledig, the forerunner of Merlin, the fatherless boy who reveals to Vortigern the reason for the collapse of his tower on Snowdon. Hengest the leader of the Saxons treacherously slays Vortigern’s Council, the three hundred chief nobles of Britain, and holds Vortigern himself to ransom.
By about the ninth century Arthur was firmly accepted as part of this legendary history. Vortimer the son of Vortigern and then Ambrosius had fought against the Saxons with mixed success, but Arthur was the victor in all his battles, the great war leader who defeated the Saxons for a generation.
And as the hero par excellence, the famous victory of Badon belonged to him and him alone.


Early in the ninth century, so the story goes, a certain Nennius decided to write down what he knew of the history of the Britons. Much of his work seems to be a transcription or abbreviation of earlier sources, both British and Saxon, which are now lost to us. The History survives in various manuscripts, some long, some short, the most important of which for our purposes forms part of Harley 3859 in the British Museum. Bound with it – amongst other things – are the Annales Cambriae, or the Welsh Annals, and a series of Welsh genealogies.
The History lists Arthur’s twelve battles, a series culminating in Badon. It does not include Camlann, perhaps because it was a list of his victories. It begins:
Then Arthur was fighting against them [the Saxons] in those days with the kings of the Britons but he himself was leader of battles. The first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. The second and third and fourth and fifth upon another river which is called Dubglas and is in the district Linnuis. The sixth battle upon the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the Caledonian forest, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was in Fort Guinnion in which Arthur carried the image of St Mary ever virgin on his shoulders and the pagans were turned to flight on that day and great slaughter was upon them through the virtue of our Lord Jesus Christ and St Mary the Virgin his mother. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle he fought on the shore of the river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle took place on the mountain which is called Agned [or Breguoin]. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day from one charge by Arthur and no one overthrew them except himself alone. And in all these battles he stood forth as victor.


This sounds suspiciously like a Welsh battle listing poem. But how old was it? One simply cannot say. It may have been sung in some form in front of Arthur himself, if he existed. It may have been composed only a few years before Nennius compiled his history. Likewise there is no guarantee that all or any of the battles were originally ascribed to Arthur – he may well have displaced a number of other heroes.
All one can say is that some of the names sound old, that none of the places can be identified with any certainty, not even Cat Coit Celidon (somewhere in Scotland?), and that the legend of the great war-leader, who may or may not himself be a king, had already taken firm root by Nennius’ time.
Bound with the History are the Welsh Annals. The Annals have two Arthurian entries, one in year 72 of the cycle, the other in year 93. These may be reckoned as about 518 and 539 respectively. The first says:
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.


The second says:
Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.
The text we possess dates from about 1100, copied from a compilation put together in the second half of the tenth century. By their very nature, Easter annals involve a series of entries made at different times, a process of growth not unlike a modern diary where events are entered on a daily basis. Unfortunately we have no means of determining when these particular entries were made, or how old was the tradition on which they were based. Nor are the dates of the entries of any particular significance: they will have been supplied by the chronicler, and in this case were probably deduced from the death of Gildas in year 126 of the cycle.
What we do know is that the association between Arthur and Badon was not universal. The twelfth-century Welsh poet Cynddelw, for example, makes a number of allusions to Badon, but does not connect the battle with Arthur. In contrast, there are plentiful references to Arthur and Medraut at Camlann, which was famous as the most disastrous of the three futile battles of Britain.
So was Arthur a real person?
The evidence against it seems at first sight compelling, and certainly I do not believe for a moment that we will find his grave in Powys, as two recent writers have claimed.
On the other hand there is no need to dismiss a character as altogether mythical simply because he keeps the company of myths. The fact that Sir Francis Drake is sometimes said to lead the Wild Hunt is not generally considered to be proof that he never existed.
The case of Ambrosius is even more instructive. It is clear that Gildas’s text is part of a wider debate; for some reason his book alone survived. If it had not, we would know nothing of Ambrosius the leader of the surviving Britons. All we would have would be the legend according to Nennius.
Nennius tells the story of Vortigern’s attempts to build a citadel in Snowdonia at what was later known as Dinas Emrys: how the masonry crumbled away every night, how his magicians advised him to seek a fatherless boy and sprinkle the building work with his blood, how they found Emrys or Ambrosius, who made the magicians look foolish by revealing the presence of a red monster and a white monster locked in combat deep within the ground. Nennius mentions in passing that Emrys was king among all the kings of the British. Most people are familiar with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version: Geoffrey turns Emrys into Merlin, and the fact he can do so shows what a far cry Emrys is from Ambrosius Aurelianus the Romano-British soldier. Had Gildas not mentioned him, we would have even less evidence for the existence of Ambrosius than we do for the existence of Arthur.
I do not believe we will ever prove the historicity of Arthur, despite the many claims made by various writers past and present. But it is possible, indeed likely, that Ambrosius had a successor. (Gildas says Ambrosius’ descendants were still alive in his day, though much fallen from their grandsire’s excellence.) If there were such a successor we have to call him something, and we might as well call him Arthur – in precisely the same way as we speak of Hengest or Cerdic as leaders among the Saxons.
When history fails us, myth will have to suffice.