Dowsing for King Arthur

A few weeks ago, Bob suggested I write a post on the “historical” King Arthur. My immediate reaction was “meh.” Arthur is, of course, quite important to medieval literature: the Matter of Britain is the subject of many important works of Middle English, including Laȝamon’s Brut, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Stanzaic Morte Arthure, The Awntyrs off ArthureSir Gawain and the Green Knight and many more. Finally, in the late Middle English period, Sir Thomas Malory produced Le Morte d’Arthur, in which he brought together disparate stories from French and English sources and attempted to tell the whole tale from beginning to end. As you might expect, Malory’s work has some organizational problems. For instance, I distinctly recall that Lancelot killed the same knight three times in thirty pages. Nonetheless, Malory’s compilation has become the story of Arthur that we all know.

I have from time to time read about the “historical Arthur,” but my main reaction is, “I don’t care” because even if (and it’s a big “if”) Arthur existed, he is so far removed from the Arthur we know as to be unrecognizable. A historical Arthur would have nothing in common with Malory’s king; he’d have precious little in common even with Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the historical Arthur. From time to time, I have watched the BBC series Merlin, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything remotely historical. However, the actors who play Merlin and Arthur in the series, Colin Morgan and Bradley James, also appear in a program in which they gallivant across Wales in search of “The Real Merlin and Arthur,” although Merlin gets pretty short shrift. They arrive late everywhere, but–hey–the scenery is pretty and so are the actors.

Their first stop is the Arthurian Collection in Mold, Flintshire, which houses over 2000 books related to Arthur. Unfortunately, they arrive after the library has closed. Regardless, author Scott Lloyd gamely tells the actors about the documentary evidence for Arthur’s existence. Here it is:

Want to see it again? It’s like this: Arthur is supposed to have fought the Germanic invaders of Britain, briefly halting the Anglo-Saxon advance. This would place him in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Arthur is first mentioned in the 9th century.  The Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin mentions a warrior named Gwawrddur who, though mighty, was “no Arthur.” Unfortunately, Y Gododdin survives in a manuscript from the 13th century. Although there is scholarly debate over the date of composition, it may be as late as the 9th century. Even if the poem is much earlier, say 6th or 7th century, it has undergone extensive changes in its oral and written transmission. There is no way to know whether the almost throwaway reference to Arthur is original.

A more substantive account of Arthur appears in the Historia Brittonum, usually (though quite possibly erroneously) attributed to a Welsh monk named Nennius. The Historia Brittonum is a disorganized mish-mash of material written or compiled in the first half of the 9th century. Arthur is mentioned as a dux bellorum (leader of battles) who fought with the kings of Britain against the Germanic invaders. This would suggest that he was not himself a king, even if he existed. Nennius associates Arthur with a number of wonders or marvels and twelve battles. Of course, the wonders are of extremely dubious historicity, but the battles are questionable as well. Although people have tried to make connections, most of the battles cannot be identified. Furthermore, Nennius claims that Arthur personally killed 960 men in one battle, which seems a tad unlikely.

This battle, the battle of Mount Badon, is, however, almost certainly historical. It is mentioned by Gildas, a 6th-century British monk, in De Excidio et Conquestu de Britanniae. Gildas says that he was born in the year of the battle of Mount Badon, so he would have been a younger contemporary of Arthur’s if Arthur had existed. Guess who isn’t mentioned in Gildas. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the same guy who isn’t mentioned in any works by Anglo-Saxons, such as Bede‘s Chronica Maiora (725) and Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731) or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (begun in the 9th century). They mention other characters from the “historical” Arthur’s story, such as the British king Vortigern, who invited the Germanic mercenaries to Britain. Indeed Bede was probably the first to mention Vortigern. Two manuscripts of Gildas name him, but these are from the 12th and 13th centuries. Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mention the twin brothers Hengest (stallion) and Horsa (horse). Both Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg also mention a fella named Hengest, who may or may not be the same guy.

The “historical” Arthur is largely the creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae, but Geoffrey was writing in the 12th century, more than half a millennium after Arthur’s time. In addition, Geoffrey’s work is not considered historically accurate by any credible authority.

So, that is the documentary evidence: bupkis. Some people cite archeological evidence to support Arthur’s likely existence, and indeed settlements and earthworks have been uncovered from the right time period, including the South Cadbury hill fort in Somerset and Tintagel in Cornwall and several others. But, come on, we know the 5th and 6th centuries existed; we know the Britons fought the Germanic invaders. Evidence of hill forts is not evidence of Arthur.  A few objects have been found with direct, but questionable, links to Arthur. In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury discovered the bodies of a man and woman, along with a lead burial cross that identified them as Arthur and Guinivere. The bodies and the cross disappeared during the Reformation. Most believe this was a pious hoax. At the time, the monks were trying to raise funds to rebuild Glastonbury Abbey which had been gutted by fire. Occasionally, the cross allegedly makes a reappearance, but such glimpses are also the result of hoaxes.

Amateur historians Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett have found another grave of Arthur. They identify Arthur with Athrwys ap Meurig. This is the opening paragraph of their official website:

King Arthur I son of Magnus Maximus of the late 4th Century AD and King Arthur II of the late 6th Century AD, can both trace their family lines back to the British Emperor Constantine the Great, and continue on back to the Holy Family itself which entered Britain in AD 37. Both King Arthur’s continue tracing their bloodline all the way back to King Brutus, himself a great grandson of Aeneas of Troy.

Neither the Da Vinci Code-ish content nor the grammar fill me with confidence. Nor does the fact that they’ve also found the Ark of the Covenant. But let’s look at their findings objectively. In 1983, they discovered a burial stone that reads “Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius,” which supposedly means “King Arthur, the son of Mauricius (Meurig).” In 1990, they discovered an electrum cross that reads “Pro Anima Artorius,” “for the soul of Arthur.” The problem is, as the Bad Archaeologist points out, that “Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius” actually means “King Arthur Mauricius, of the son” and “Pro Anima Artorius” means “Arthur for the soul.” Oh dear. This is not terribly complicated Latin grammar, although one could imagine that it might fool people who put apostrophes in plurals.

There is one inscription that definitely seems not to be a hoax or a forgery: the Artognou stone found at Tintagel. Actually, there are parts of two inscriptions on this piece of slate. Only the letters “AXE” survive from the one inscription. The other reads “+ PATERN… COLIAVIFICIT… ARTOGNOV… COL… FICIT…” The Celtic Inscribed Stones Project translates the inscription as “Artognou descendant of Patern[us] made [this]. Colus made [this].” Artognou and its Old Breton and Old Welsh cognates Arthnou and Arthneu do look a bit like Arthur. This similarity was enough to get people excited, even such an august body as the Archeological Institute of America. The name Arthur may come from the Roman gens name Artorius or it may be a Celtic name which derives in part from arto/arth, meaning “bear.” If it is the latter, then it does share an element with Arthneu, but it is not the same name. Now I admit I know virtually nothing about the Celtic languages; however assuming that “Arthur” and “Arthneu” are close enough to be considered the same guy because both names contain the element “arth” seems to be like assuming that Thorbjorn and Arnbjorn are the same guy because both names contain the element “bjorn,” which means “bear.”

In short, the archeological evidence isn’t much stronger than the documentary evidence. Is there any other kind of evidence? Well, back in Wales, the actors may have found “spiritual” evidence.  On the second day of their trek, they arrive in Gwynedd at the supposed site of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur was mortally wounded. There they meet Santa’s disreputable older brother, Laurence Main

a Druid in a fetching miniskirt, who uses ley lines to dowse for Arthur’s burial site (another one). So, they’re walking around in the dark (they arrived late again), and their rods cross once they run into a tree. It is also possible that Main is unconsciously indicating to them where their rods should cross. At any rate, they hit one of the major ley lines and, Main explains, if it were day time and wintertime with no leaves on the tree, they could see the church where Arthur was buried. What more proof do you need?

The actors seem somewhat disappointed that they didn’t find definitive evidence of a historical Arthur, but at the end, Colin Morgan makes what I think is an excellent point:

Maybe it doesn’t matter because…the legends are always going to be there. They’re always going to be reinvented and reinterpreted, and maybe you don’t need a final answer because that’s what it’s all about: the stories are there to be enjoyed.

And that’s always been true. From very, very early on, the Arthurian legends have looked back nostalgically to a time that never really existed. Every age has reinterpreted the stories to fit the time and culture. A real Arthur probably never existed, and if he did, he had almost nothing to do with the king we know.


8 Responses to Dowsing for King Arthur

  1. Bob says:

    I’ve been known to inspire generations of people to “meh.”


  2. Ken says:

    Is there any information about the dates of the many Arthurian toponyms? Given the number of Seats, Stones, Halls, and Hills, clearly many were named later, perhaps much later, but are there any that can be traced back to the seventh century?

    • Eve says:

      Well, as I’ve said, I’m more interested in the literature than the history, but I don’t believe that any of the “Arthur’s Seats” etc. can be traced back to anything like the right time period–at least not when the name is unambiguous. There is the Tristan Stone or the Drustanus stone in Fowey Cornwall. It is a burial stone that reads “Drustanus Hic Iacit Cunomori Filius,” (Here lies Drustanus the son of Cunomorus). Drustanus is a variant of Tristan, and Cunomorus is supposed to be a Latinized version of Cynvawr, whom Nennius identifies with King Mark. There are problems with this of course. Getting from Cunomorus to Cynvawr to Mark seems a bit of a stretch, and Mark was supposed to be Tristan’s uncle anyway. More importantly though, the Tristan story was probably originally separate from the Arthurian story.

  3. Pacal says:

    King Arthur has been in my opinion a great obstacle in the way of studying post-Roman Britain. People spend their time trying to figure who he may have been rather than tell us anything useful about the time period.

    I personally think that what is important about the period is not King Arthur but the Arthurian fact. The Authorian fact was that the initial Anglo-Saxon drive to conquer England was halted for over a generation with the conquest of part of Britain and even that portion of Britain ceded to the Anglo-Saxons seems to have been permeated by independent Briton enclaves through out this time. When the conquest was resumed it was piecemeal and slow and took over a century to accomplish and certain parts of Britain were never conquered by the Anglo-Saxons. (Wales and Scotland).

    It is the Arthurian fact that needs to be stressed no “King Arthur”. Now Gildas mentions in his account an Ambrosius Aurlianus leading the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons during the initial stages of their counter attack against the Anglo-Saxons. The account seems to imply that he was replaced later and another unnamed leader won the battle of Badon Hill, (probably either Bath or Liddington). This is of course disputed, and Ambrosius could have been the leader. It is possible he had a nickname of Arthur. Gildas in a later part of his book refers to a place he calls the “bear’s” fortress is that an Arthurian reference I don’t know? it does appear to be too much of a stretch.

    It is of interest that in the late 5th and early 6th centuries there was a number of people with names similar to Arthur like Arthwys ap Mar who apparently resided in the kingdom of Elmet, an Arthfael ap Einudd who was King of Glamorgan. We have a Artuir ap Pedr, (who lived c. 550-620 C.E.), and was King of Dyfed. It is possible that the Arthurian stories in the Welsh collection The Mabinogion, given the geography of said stories really ortiginally at least meant him. Artuir mac Aeden the son of Aeden King of Dal-Riata who was killed in battle with the picts in 596 C.E. is another possible Arthur. There is finally a Arthrwys ap Meurig King of Gwent he appears to have lived c. 610-680 C.E., although some date hinm a century earlier. (The dates are based on analyzing Welsh Genealogies which is not an exact Science by a long shot). He apparently won some victories over the Anglo-Saxons. There was also in the late 5th and early 6th century a shadowy figure known as Arthwys of the Pennines. And of course in the late Roman Empire there were those Roman Generals who in a bid for empire used Britain as a base and invaded the mainland. Hence those stories of Arthur invading the continent.

    Well what does it all mean? In my humble opinion there was no one Arthur but a collection of Arthurs and other historical figures who were fused together to create one King Arthur. In otherwords “King Arthur” is a literary construct. However there were “Arthurs” during this time period leading armies into battle. Some of those were combined confabulated and further fused with other figures from later and earlier times to produce “Arthur”. My personal opinion is that Ambrosius Aurlianus led the Britons at Badon Hill. If we ever found a reference to Ambrosius being called the Bear that would clinch Amborsius being not “Arthur” but one of the historical figures on whom the character was based.

    As it is, although finding a real “King Arthur” is a fun game it is second to the task of elucidating and understanding the Arthurian fact, that the conquest of Britain was stopped and when rezumed was piecemeal and slow. Elucidating / understanding that is important in understanding the history of medieval Britain, and it appears that some real historical “Arthurs” played a role in that but there was no “King Arthur”. (Unless of course we find Geoffrey on Monmouths “Welsh Book”).

    As a side issue what also needs to be further explained is the process by which England was made Anglo-Saxon. It appears that although there was signifigant settlement from Jutland and Northern Germany, the native population was not displaced. In fact the ancestry of the modern day English in England seems to be on both the Male and Female side more than 80% “Celtish”.

    • Eve says:

      Interesting and informative. I might quibble with the idea that there were several “Arthurs,” though. There were several people with “bear” names, but their names are not identical to Arthur’s. Beowulf (bee-wolf) is a kenning for “bear.” Some of his Old Norse analogues have bear names and/or are associated with bears. That doesn’t mean that there is a historical basis for the character of Beowulf. I know the situations aren’t exactly parallel: obviously someone (or several someones) stemmed the tide of Anglo-Saxon advancement, but it seems to me that the attempt to connect various leaders named “Arth-” to Arthur may be an example of retrofitting. If only Gildas had been a smidge clearer and more detailed.

      It’s interesting that Ambrosius Aurelianus manages to be a model for both Arthur and Merlin.

      • Pacal says:

        Your right to quibble. That is why I put the name “Arthur” in quotation marks. My point is simply that people with names with the bear term “Arth” existed at the time. I rather doubt that “King Arthur” is anything but a literary construct but I think real historical events were grafted onto this literary construct. The idea of an overall Briton Leader with the name “Arthur” or a variation of it leading the Britons into battle with the Saxons is dounbtful in the extreme. The only likely candidate is Ambrosius and I suspect that he was not nicknamed “Arthur”, but his actual accomplishments were usurped by the literary construct “Arthur” in legend. As for Beowulf not a good comparison given that “Arthur” is much more firmly grounded / attached to actual historical events. Although I agree it doesn’t make “Arthur” historical. After all Isaac Asimov’s novel Pebble in the Sky, which talks about a attempted revolt by Earth against a Galatic Empire in the far future is clearly modled on and makes references that show signifigant borrowing from the actual Historical events in the Roman Empire during the period 1-150 C.E., but it doesn’t make the novel history or the characters historical, it merely makes them based on historical models.

  4. orignal al says:

    “most of the battles cannot be identified.” this is a false statment if you speak welsh you would know all 12 of the battles that the pentdragon (this is a title ) defeated the germanic tribes ,look on a ordenance servey map pre 1983 and you will find all of them also use a welsh dictionary that is 200years old

  5. Pacal says:

    Actually a great many scholars would disagree with you original al about being able to locate the battles. Even a knowledge of Welsh the identification of most of the sites of Arthur’s battles is extremely difficult and subject to serious dispute.

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