Did Arthur Exist?

What do Confucius, Pythagoras, Sun Tzu, William Shakespeare, Homer, Mulan, Robin Hood, William Tell, Sybil Ludington, Pope Joan, John Henry, St. Christopher, Lycurgus of Sparta, Laozi, even Jesus of Nazareth have in common with King Arthur?

Some say these people never existed.

The historicity of Arthur, whether a king, a Dux Bellorum, a petty warlord, a Roman general, or a myth is a topic that raises some surprisingly bitter, and I mean shockingly so, arguments among people interested in the subject. You would think some of these people are defending their entire livelihoods on the answer.

[clip from ‘Seinfeld’]

In some cases, that’s not far off. Some authors have published based on the claim that they have “The Truth”! Some academics have what they perceive to be their reputations entirely bound up in the defence of their own theses. If you’ve ever followed some of the exchanges between folks on different sides of the arguments, you’d be surprised at how often they actually devolve into name-calling.

Anyone claiming to know the truth about this time period is either a fraud, under-educated or doesn’t understand the difference between evidence and proof. It is no more valid to say that Arthur absolutely existed than it is to say that he absolutely did not. Anyone interested in the truth, or at least as close as we can get to it, should not be mentally shackled to a particular argument.

[clip from Monty Python and The Holy Grail]

The truth is that there is some evidence that Arthur did exist, even if not enough to be called proof. But there is zero evidence that he did not exist (I say this in response to the folks who are adamant that he never existed). I don’t claim to know for sure, but, on balance, I think the evidence tilts well in favour of his existence. And isn’t that much more interesting than Arthur being a myth?

So what evidence exists for a historical Arthur? Physical evidence of historical people is pretty rare the further back in time you go. Coins have been a good way to identify some rulers, but Britons in this period did not mint coins. Writings are our primary way of knowing about people.

[art by Joshua Reynolds]

Unfortunately, there are precious few surviving contemporary records from Britain in this era. Only two, in fact. One by Gildas, and the other by St. Patrick (which barely counts, because he was a Briton in Ireland, but writing to a British king). Both deal with religious issues and, unfortunately, neither mentions Arthur (something I’ll discuss in a future post).

There is another contemporary record from Gaul (France) that might reference Arthur. It’s a letter from a Gallo-Roman aristocrat named Sidonius Apollinaris, to a British king he called Riothamus. Some say “Riothamus” is just a name, but others say it’s a title because it comes from the Brittonic for “Highest King”. This is part of the framework of evidence assembled by the famed British historian, Geoffrey Ashe, in his book, The Discovery of King Arthur, which is the basis for my own historical novel The Retreat to Avalon in the series, The Arthurian Age. I’ll talk more about this in future posts.

So we have to look beyond records contemporary with Arthur, but this poses a new challenge. The Britons were primarily an oral history culture. It was only under Roman influence that they kept written records. When Rome left, Britain quickly reverted to its original culture, mostly. This is not to say that we can’t trust anything from oral history cultures. Out of necessity, these cultures develop ways to transmit memories very accurately.

The druids of Britain, Gaul and Ireland are a good example. The druids were known to be literate, but forbade the recording of their knowledge. It had to be memorized. One of the three branches of the druids were the bards. They were the poets, musicians and keepers of history. The traditions of the Bards appear to have lasted far in the medieval era, long after the rest of the Druidic religion had disappeared. We know that the number three was important to the pagan Druids, and what is interesting is that we have a series of Welsh poems, called The Triads of the Island of Britain, which are poems arranged in groups of three. The oldest surviving copies of these poems were written down in the 1200’s, but they refer to much older customs, events and people, including Arthur. It’s easy to see how oral history could be passed on by these poems. Changes would alter the rhyme and rhythm of the poems. Many people today use mnemonic methods to memorize things. These two examples show the framework:

So poetry can preserve very ancient memories. The oldest surviving written mention of Arthur is in a different sort of poem, composed by the bard, Aneirin, called Y Gododdin. It describes a doomed attack by Britons against an enemy stronghold (thought to be at Catterick, Yorkshire). The oldest surviving written copy is from the late 1200’s, but linguistic evidence suggests that the poem is much, much older. Probably from around the early to mid 600’s. The poem describes one of the warriors, Guortur, as being generous, fierce and deadly in combat. All the same, “he was no Arthur.” Clearly, about a century after he would have lived, Arthur was the bar against which all other British warriors were measured. It is also one of the clearest clues that Arthur did exist.

Ok, to understand how Y Gododdin shows that Arthur was a very early reference, you have to really get into the arcane world of historical linguistics. I’m not going to do that to you. I’ll give you the gist of the argument, and if you are interested, it will point you in the direction of more research.

The famed researcher, John Koch, has shown that for the rhyming pattern of the poem to work, the people who transcribed it had to use the phonetic pronunciation of words as they existed in the 6th century. By about 650, Old Welsh, Cumbric and other languages were evolving from the earlier Common Brittonic language, and sounds and spellings changed. Because the scribes tried to keep the rhyme and rhythm the same as the old poems, they were sometimes forced to use archaic words and terms. Imagine something along the lines of reading original Shakespeare today. There’s not much difference in time from Arthur to the scribes as it is from Shakespeare to us.

There is another clue for the historical existence of Arthur. His name. Some claim it is Brittonic for “bear-man”, but it is not, and there are clear linguistic reasons that I’ll discuss in another article. Arthur comes from the Roman gens (sort of like a clan) name, Artorius and was virtually unknown in Britain until Arthur. But there is a burst of names based on Arthur in the 6th and 7th centuries, and then the use of the name dies out again for a long time. It appears that a number of parents wanted to name their sons after someone famous at this early time period.

[Art by N.C. Wyeth]

These are the earliest indications that someone named Arthur existed, and made enough of an impact to be remembered. There are other poems referring to Arthur that may have early origins, but the first major mention of Arthur is in the Historia Brittonum, which was written in the early 800’s by a British monk called Nennius. This book was a compilation of stories that some Britons at the time believed to describe their history. Much of it is myth, such as the founding of Britain by refugees from the fall of Troy. But it does include historical facts, and it’s the first surviving story about Arthur. He’s described, not as a king, but as a general, and it lists twelve major battles that Arthur is said to have won.

Little of these early legends and virtually none of the history is reflected in the well-known Arthurian Romances of the 12th to 15th centuries. But while they may not have Lancelot and a Grail, they have a mystery and excitement that challenges anything in the later stories, and a foundation in history. I hope I’m able to bring alive the image of Arthur and his era in my own series, The Arthurian Age. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoyed the visit.

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