creating community through celebration

Who Was He Anyway?

As part of my preparation for this year’s Christmas Revels, I recently re-read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, his magnificent treatment of Mallory’s King Arthur stories. As I reflected upon the book, my delight was mixed with curiosity. Under all of the tall tales and extravagant fantasy associated with Arthurian legend, is there an underlying “true” story? Did a King Arthur ever really exist?


It is common to wonder about the historical existence of legendary figures. Some, such as Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar are historically verifiable. Even though their epic status has perhaps outgrown and distorted the historical reality, they nonetheless walked this earth at some point. Others, such as Odysseus, Beowulf, or Siegfried did not. They are clearly mythological constructs. They weren’t real, historical individuals, but were created instead to represent cultural values and aspirations in an emblematic way. They are children of the collective imagination whose significant exploits have been embellished and refined over the centuries to reflect the image of the culture in which their stories are told.

It might seem, given the various contradictory and mutually exclusive twists and turns of Arthurian legend, that Arthur himself falls into this category of invented myth. Not necessarily. There is another category of epic figure, one that is tied not so much to the existence and deeds of the eponymous hero as to an antecedent individual – someone who actually lived and whose actions form an armature for the extravagant stories that are layered on by succeeding generations. The Norwegian character of Peer Gynt is one such figure. King Arthur could well be another.

There are basically two ways to establish the historicity of an individual. One is to look for their name in the historical records of the time. Anyone who has taken on his or her family’s genealogy is probably familiar with this approach. The other way is to seek archeological verification of places, objects or events associated with the individual.

This latter approach has been applied rather exhaustively to King Arthur. The existence of “authentic” Arthurian landmarks and locales is something of a cottage industry in England and Wales. From Tintagel in Cornwall (Arthur’s claimed birthplace and concurrently a residence of Merlin), to South Cadbury where the “Camelot Committee” spent significant (and ultimately futile) efforts trying to identify a hill fort as the site of Arthur’s court, the countryside is dotted with wells, crossroads, stones and landforms all valued as having a role in the great legend.

Probably the most redolent site of all is Glastonbury, variously claimed as the Isle of Avalon, the final resting place (among many) of the Holy Grail, the site of a tree sprung from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff, and overshadowing all, the site where Arthur and Guinevere were interred, and then disinterred, and then re-interred in the 12th century. One Giraldus Cambrensis attested to all of this. He adds that a leaden cross which graced the tomb was later lost, although nowadays in several villages, a small admission will afford you a glimpse of the real thing.

While an abundance of historical stuff exists that can be claimed to prove the existence of Arthur, it is difficult to resolve the inconsistencies of date, location, verification and duplication that constantly arise. In Winchester, for example, hangs Arthur’s round table. It bears painted motifs ordered by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century and was constructed from wood dated to the 13th century. It is unlikely that Arthur and Guinevere received it as a wedding present at that time as the legend has it, because Edward I was sitting on the throne just then and he was already a noted Arthurian enthusiast. Despite the existence of plenty of artifacts, no one can say with certainty that they are in possession of something that King Arthur actually handled, wore or sat on. And so we turn to the written historical record for clues about when and where the “real” King Arthur might have lived.

As it happens, there is a generally agreed-upon “first mention” of Arthur. He doesn’t show up in the writings of the Blessed Bede (A History of the English Church and People ca. 731) or of Gildas Badonicus (De Excidio, ca. 6th cent.), but of a little-known Welshman, whose citation is ascribed, shakily, to the early 7th century. That would be Aneirin, a poet who, in writing about a siege near the Firth of Forth sometime around 600 AD, mentions that one Gwawrddur “glutted the black ravens on the rampart wall though he was no Arthur.” And that’s it - nothing about Camelot or round tables or Lancelot - just an assertion that somebody was “no Arthur”. It hardly seems possible that a great king could have existed in this age, wielding the influence and performing the deeds ascribed to King Arthur and merit no more historical mention than that somebody was not him.

Unless he went by another name. Perhaps we’re looking for an antecedent figure who, for whatever reasons, only later became known as Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon and King of Albion.

It is the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth that first gave extensive credence to the existence of a kingly figure by the name of Arthur. His History of the Kings of Britain, written in the early twelfth century, devotes much of its length to the deeds and exploits of fifth century military leader he identifies as Arthur. The manuscript, now largely discredited as a historical document, is the source of the Arthurian narrative of liberating Britain from the Saxons, as well as his death at the hands of Mordred and his departure to Avalon. In drawing the genealogy of this Arthur, Geoffrey posits the existence of Uther Pendragon, brother of Ambrosius, and also of Uther’s wizard, Merlin. His writing, widely disseminated and accepted at the time as factual, is the wellspring of many of the structural elements of the legendary Arthur.

But of the various characters mentioned in Geoffrey’s narrative, Ambrosius Aurelianus stands out as the only individual referred to in other more reliable histories of the time. He indeed led the Britons in numerous battles, and is claimed by some to have been the victor of the Battle of Badon Hill – perhaps the prototype of Arthur’s final battle. Indeed, Nennius, in his 9th century Historia Brittonum calls the victor of Badon Hill “Arthur”. Is it possible that Geoffrey of Monmouth, in creating his imaginative version of early British history, (and having read the work of his predecessors) seized upon the story of Ambrosius as the armature upon which he would sculpt his influential version of the legend of Arthur?

It certainly seems possible, but what of the fact that earlier writers were already making reference to a dux bellorum named Arthur? And very importantly, why does a leader as influential as Arthur fail to appear in other accounts of fifth century British history? Even though Geoffrey of Monmouth may have laid the mantle of Arthurian identity across the shoulders of Ambrosius, it seems that legend precedes even him.

There is one more antecedent possibility, one who has gained in favor with modern Arthurian scholars. His documented history aligns well with the major events in the later legends. He lived in Roman-occupied Britain in the second century and his name was Lucius Artorius Castus. One more fact: his middle name, or gens nomen, Artorius, translates as Arthur.

A close study of the life of Castus reveals a myriad of details which could plausibly have provided not only the foundation of the Arthurian legend, but also many of its dimensions, structures and ornamentations.

For example, Castus commanded a legion of Samarian cavalry (armoured knights who fought with long lances and carried shields) brought in from Dalmatia. The Samarian herald was a dragon. They dined at circular tables, worshipped a war god whose emblem was a sword thrust into the ground above a grave, told stories of questing for a golden cup, and even revered a hero who was said to have died after his sword was thrown into a lake.

Records indicate that Castus commanded the Roman forces in twelve battles against the Caledonii, which roughly align with the twelve battles ascribed to Arthur. He was born in Campania, Italy and after being mortally wounded in his final battle, may have boarded a boat and expired attempting to return to his hometown of Avellinum.

It seems plausible that many of these details, expanded, amended and molded by oral tradition were passed down the centuries. Embellished by monastic clerics, troubadours and Welsh poets, the stories would have spread and intertwined until they gained the status of legend. They would have become disconnected from the Second century historical antecedent and the tales of Arthur would have taken on a life of their own. This was the stuff that Geoffrey of Monmouth mixed with the story of Ambrosius, and presented to the world as a factual portrayal of fifth century Britain.

And so, it was Geoffrey of Monmouth who most influentially cast these legends into the mold of history, and in an ironic turn, it is Geoffrey’s embellished historical Arthur that in turn became the basis for the Arthur of the greatly expanded legends to follow. This pattern, history into legend, back into history and back into legend gives rise to the Arthurian stories we retell today.

Did a King Arthur really live? It appears that the answer is ‘yes’. Someone we can call Arthur once did tread the soil of ancient Britain, and the Arthur he later became certainly lives on in the imagination of the modern world. In both a historical and legendary sense, he is The Once and Future King.

- David Parr, Artistic Director