King Arthur’s Navy

We’re currently on chapter eight of The Retreat to Avalon, where Arthur leads his army to Gaul to battle Euric’s Visigoths. I’ve been looking forward to this one because today we’re talking about ships, sailors and the concept of a navy in King Arthur’s time.

The idea of Arthur having a navy isn’t something that springs to mind. Yet, there are references to ships in Welsh legend as well as the later Arthurian Romance stories that most are familiar with, such as from Malory or Chretien. More importantly for my historically based Arthur, there are some references that point to the king having a navy of some sort. Yet it probably wasn’t what you think.

Let’s get the references in the Romances out of the way by looking at Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Aside from travelling to and fro on ships, the only reference to any sort of navy is when Lancelot leads a naval siege against King Arthur’s castle of Joyous Gard (thought to be Bamburgh Castle).

There are some references to ship travel in the Welsh legends. For instance, in Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur leads a raid to Ireland in his ship, Prydwen, to capture a magic cauldron for Culhwch’s wedding feast.

The historical King Arthur’s access to ships, if not an actual navy is likely. Welsh legend says he had his own ship, named Prydwen, which is the name I use in my novels. What kind of ship would Arthur have had?

Celtic Ships

Irish raiders in a skin-covered currach.

The Celtic Irish and Britons used light boats called currachs. These were made of wooden frames covered with water-proofed skins. Most were rowed, but some had sails. These were the favored transport of Irish raiders. A coracle is a much smaller variation. Both are still used to this day in parts of Ireland and Wales.

Coracles were light and versatile.

Anglo-Saxon Ships

In the fifth century, Germanic pirates and raiders terrorized the coasts of Britain and Europe, as well as the Mediterranean. The brothers Hengist and Horsa were said to have sailed to Britain with three ships of warriors around 428 AD. Germanic settlers and mercenaries had come to Britain earlier, but this was the beginning of the tide that turned Britain into England.

5th century Germanic ships were very similar to their Viking descendants.

There is some disagreement about the kind of ships used by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others who raided and then settled in Britain. A common belief is that they only used rowed vessels. Why? Because no solid evidence of Germanic sailing ships prior to 800 AD has been found.

Reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo burial ship.

Only three Germanic ships built before the Viking Age have been found. One is the Nydam boat from a bog burial in Denmark. It was built around 320 AD, a century before Hengist’s and Arthur’s era. The Sutton Hoo burial ship, from Britain, and fragments of the Gredstedbro boat from Denmark are both similar in design, and built in the early 600’s, more than a century after Arthur’s time. Only the impression of the boat’s construction remains from the Sutton Hoo burial, but there isn’t evidence that it was equipped with a sailing mast.

Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence.

Dr. Carl Sagan

Yet, there should be no surprise that wooden boats wouldn’t survive the 15 centuries since Arthur’s time. Despite the lack of physical evidence, we can appeal to common sense: Why would Germanic seafarers not use a technology that their neighbors had been using for millennia? Perhaps these non-sailing ships were used for burials because full sailing ships were too valuable to bury?

More importantly, there are hints in the written records of the Roman Empire. Procopius describes the Germanic Heruli as swift sailing and capable of navigating open waters. In 480 AD, the Gallic-Roman politician, Sidonius Apollinaris, described the Saxons (a generic term for pagan West-Germans) as sailing:

Moreover, when the Saxons are setting sail from the continent, and are about to drag their firm-holding anchors from an enemy’s shore, it is their usage, thus homeward bound, to abandon every tenth captive to the slow agony of a watery end, casting lots with perfect equity among the doomed crowd in execution of this iniquitous sentence of death.

Sidonius Apollinaris, Letters (my emphasis added)

If you need any further arguments in favor of early Germanic sailing ships, I’d refer you to two excellent books on the subject. First and foremost, Dark Age Naval Power by John Haywood. Easy to read and very convincing.

Dark Age Naval Power, page 100

The second book I’d recommend is Roman Britain and the Roman Navy by David J.P. Mason. This focuses more on the Romano-Britons and their efforts to combat barbarian pirates.

Roman Britain and the Roman Navy, page 169.

One of the major differences between Germanic ships and those from the Roman world was the manner in which hulls were constructed. Classical shipbuilders attached planks edge to edge using mortise and tenon joints (carvel-built). Germanic ship hulls had the planks attached in an overlapping fashion called “clinker”. This clinker design gives the Viking ships their distinctive, beautiful lines. It also makes the ships lighter, better able to navigate shallow water, and more flexibility for surviving the harsh North Atlantic seas.

King Arthur's Navy clinker versus carvel
Germanic vs Roman ship design.

Romano-British Ships

Roman ship technology changed over the centuries, from their copies and improvements on Greek and Carthaginian warships in the 3rd century BC, to their Greek-Fire spewing Dromons in use to the 12th century AD. The changing threats faced led to the abandonment of rams in favor of arching prows, for instance. Because they more often faced smaller ships that sat lower in the water, Roman ships could use their prows to capsize enemy ships, or crush their oars.

King Arthur's Navy
One form of Roman galley called a Liburna.

The standard Late-Roman warship was a galley called a Liburna. Unfortunately, this was such a broad classification, that it covered many different designs and sizes. The Roman navy operated as blue-water (open seas) or brown-water (lakes, shores and rivers) units, with most of their resources devoted to the brown-water navy, as they were threatened more by barbarian raids along shores and rivers than by major ship battles on the sea.

A small Roman river patrol boat.

Around this time, the Empire established a military command and series of forts along Britain’s eastern and southern coast, as well as along the coasts of Gaul (Belgium and France), called the Saxon Shore. It’s purpose was to deter raiders (the Saxons being notorious for this) and provide safe havens for traders and their goods. The Classis Britannica (British Fleet) was tasked with patrolling the English Channel and protecting Britain from raiders.

King Arthur’s Navy

By King Arthur’s era, the Romano-Britons had been long used to using Roman ships and experienced with a navy. However, Rome’s centralized government and military structures had essentially ceased to exist by the beginning of the 5th century. When then-emperor Honorius responded to the Briton’s pleas for help against barbarian attacks by telling the Britons to “see to their own defenses”, the Britons expelled the remaining Roman magistrates in 410, and Britain would never again be Roman.

King Arthur's Navy
A typical Late-Roman merchant ship, though on the smaller side.

We have scant records from Britain from this time, but there are clues that the former Roman provinces of Britain tried to maintain some sort of Roman-style government and did indeed make efforts to regain the ability to defend themselves. Even as Britain fractured into tribal kingdoms and struggled against the Anglo-Saxons, there are stories of heroic successes. These are the stories behind the rise and fall of the historical and legendary King Arthur.

So what sort of navy might King Arthur have had, sixty years after the end of Roman Britain? Would he have had any navy at all? It seems he must have had access to a fairly substantial fleet, because according to the Roman historian, Jordanes, Riothamus, the “King of the Britons”, brought 12,000 soldiers on ships “by way of ocean” to the region of Bourges, France in around 470 AD.

King Arthur's Navy

If you’re familiar with my Arthurian historical fiction series, The Arthurian Age, you might know that the first book, The Retreat to Avalon, is based on this series of events. The esteemed historian, Geoffrey Ashe, argued convincingly that Riothamus was a title or second name for Arthur.

While organizing and moving an army of 12,000 soldiers would have been an impressive undertaking for any British ruler at this time, it is not out of the question. More difficult than raising an army of 12,000 men, however, would be the logistics of moving them, their equipment and supplies from Britain to Gaul. Assuming the availability of ships able to move 100 men and their gear, that would require 120 ships. Not only is that a massive logistical feat for the time, but even moving a fleet that size up the River Loire to Bourges would have been a challenge.

Without giving away the story, I think I found a plausible way that a powerful warlord with the right resources could have accomplished this feat. If you’ve read up to chapter eight, please let me know what you think of the approach. Until next time, thanks for stopping by, and I love to chat in the comments.

2 thoughts on “King Arthur’s Navy”

  1. Mixed bag of ships possible, Veneti style massive planks and nails edge joined, Roman mortise and tenon, clinker both nailed and sewn. Even hide boats used also by Saxons

    Blackfriars ship has something of the Romano-British building methods and progress towards that can be seen from the Barlands Farm Boat

    On a personal level I am well satisfied with my skin covered coracle and a sailing hide boat from Brittany landed in Cornwall last year and will continue their journey North this year


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