King Arthur: Commentary|
What the Historians and Writers Say About Him
Below, you'll read what over 80 historians, writers and commentators (some mainstream, some not) across nearly 1500 years have written about the historical Arthur.
Gildas - "On the Ruin of Britain" (De Excidio Britanniae, 25-6; c. 540)
"...that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, kind been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory. After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Bath-hill [ed. note: Mount Badon, mons badonicus], when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity."
[ed. note: the significance of Gildas is that he is our one near-contemporary source for the times that King Arthur would have flourished, and we find that he is totally silent concerning him. Gildas allows for a King Arthur to have been the victor of the battle of Mount Badon, but doesn't mention him by name. Many take that silence to mean that Arthur didn't exist. That argument, persuasive to some, is countered by the fact that Gildas didn't mention Vortigern by name, either, but no one doubts Vortigern's existence, for that same reason.]
Aneirin - "Y Gododdin, Stanza 98" (c. 600.)
He thrust beyond three hundred, most bold, he cut down the centre and far wing.
He proved worthy, leading noble men; he gave from his herd steeds for winter.
He brought black crows to a fort's wall, though he was not Arthur.
He made his strength a refuge, the front line's bulwark, Gwawrddur.
[ed. note: The original poem is believed to have been written around 600, although extant copies date only from 13th C. It is not known whether the mention of Arthur was part of the original; it may be a late addition. If so, Y Gododdin is invalidated as a useful Arthurian source. We must also question which Arthur is the subject of this stanza of Aneirin's poem. Arthur, son of Aedan of Dalriada lived in close proximity in time and space to the place where this battle took place [Catraeth, Catterick] and he was a local hero, so it could be he that Aneirin is praising, here. .]
Bede, the Venerable - "Ecclesiastical History" (Historia Ecclesiae, 731)
"They had at that time for their leader, Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man of worth, who alone, by chance, of the Roman nation had survived the storm, in which his parents, who were of the royal race, had perished. Under him the Britons revived, and offering battle to the victors, by the help of God, gained the victory. From that day, sometimes the natives, and sometimes their enemies, prevailed, till the year of the siege of Badon-hill, when they made no small slaughter of those enemies, about forty-four years after their arrival in England. But of this hereafter. "
[ed. note: Like Gildas, whom he used as a source, Bede, one of most careful and respected of the early historians, also makes no mention of Arthur.]
Nennius - "History of the Britons" (Historia Brittonum, c. 829-30)
"Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror."
[ed. note: Arthur doesn't become a king until Geoffrey of Monmouth makes him one. If the date of 1019 can be believed for the writing of the Legend of St. Goeznovious - see below - then the idea of Arthur as king of the Britons cannot be attributed to Geoffrey.]
Unknown chronicler/compiler - "Annals of Wales" (Annales Cambriae; c. late 10th C.)
Entry for year 516 - The 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.
Entry for year 537 - The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.
William, Chaplain to Bishop Eudo of Leon - "Legend of St. Goeznovius, preface" (c. 1019)
"In the course of time, the usurping king Vortigern, to buttress the defence of the kingdom of Great Britain which he unrighteously held, summoned warlike men from the land of Saxony and made them his allies in the kingdom. Since they were pagans and of devilish character, lusting by their nature to shed human blood, they drew many evils upon the Britons. Presently their pride was checked for a while through the great Arthur, king of the Britons. They were largely cleared from the island and reduced to subjection. But when this same Arthur, after many victories which he won gloriously in Britain and in Gaul, was summoned at last from human activity, the way was open for the Saxons to go again into the islane, and there was great oppression of the Britons, destruction of churches and persecution of saints. This persecution went on through the times of many kings, Saxons and Britons striving back and forth. In those days, many holy men gave themselves up to martyrdom; others, in conformity to the Gsopel, left the greater Britain which is now the Saxon's homeland, and sailed across to the lesser Britain [ed. note: Brittany]."
[ed. note: There are enough similarities with Geoffrey's "History" that some have questioned whether Goeznovious might be of later date, i.e. post-Geoffrey. But, unless William's original source, "Ystoria Britannica," is found and proves otherwise, we have to consider the possibility that Geoffrey may have used Goeznovious as a source.]
William of Malmesbury - "The Deeds of the Kings of England (De Gestis Regum Anglorum)" (c. 1125)
"When he [ed. note: Vortigern's son, Vortimer] died the strength of the Britons diminished and all hope left them. They would soon have been altogether destroyed if Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans who became king after Vortigern, had not defeated the presumptuous barbarians with the powerful aid of the warlike Arthur. This is that Arthur of whom the trifling of the Britons talks such nonsense even today; a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories, as one who long sustained his tottering country, and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war."
Henry of Huntingdon - "History of the English" (Historia Anglorum, c. 1130)
"The valiant Arthur, who was at that time the commander of the soldiers and kings of Britain, fought against [the invaders] invincibly. Twelve times he led in battle. Twelve times was he victorious in battle. The twelfth and hardest battle that Arthur fought against the Saxons was on Mount Badon, where 440 of his men died in the attack that day, and no Briton stayed to support him, the Lord alone strengthening him."
Geoffrey of Monmouth - "History of the Kings of Britain" (Historia Regum Britanniae; c. 1136)
"And even the renowned king Arthur himself was mortally wounded; and being carried thence to the isle of Avalon to be cured of his wounds, he gave up the crown of Britain to his kinsman Constantine, the son of Cador, duke of Cornwall, in the five hundred and forty-second year of our Lord's incarnation."
Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) - "On the Instruction of a Prince" (De principis instructione, c. 1193)
"The memory of King Arthur, that most renowned King of the Britons, will endure for ever...In our own lifetime, Arthur's body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot."
Alain de Lille - (12th C.)
"Whither has not the flying fame spread and familiarized the name of Arthur the Briton, even as far as the empire of Christendom extends? Who, I say, does not speak of Arthur the Briton, since he is almost better known to the peoples of Asia than to the Britanni, as our palmers returning from the East inform us? The Eastern peoples speak of him, as do the Western, though separated by the width of the whole earth . . .Rome, queen of cities, sings his deeds, nor are Arthur's wars unknown to her former rival Carthage, Antioch, Armenia, Palestine celebrate his acts."
William of Newburgh - "History of English Affairs" (Historia rerum Anglicarum, c. 1198)
"For the purpose of washing out those stains from the character of the Britons, a writer in our times has started up and invented the most ridiculous fictions concerning them, and with unblushing effrontery, extols them far above the Macedonians and Romans. He is called Geoffrey, surnamed Arthur, from having given, in a Latin version, the fabulous exploits of Arthur, drawn from the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own, and endeavored to dignify them with the name of authentic history."
[ed. note: Amid the near universal chorus of hosannas heard throughout Europe for Geoffrey of Monmouth and his "History of the Kings of Britain," William of Newburgh stands out as, perhaps, the first and certainly his most ardent critic. In fact, the full preface to his 'History' is taken up with ever-crescendoing criticsm, of which the above quote is only the opening salvo. CLICK HERE to read William of Newburgh's full preface.]
Gervase of Tilbury - "Imperial Leisure" (Otia Imperialia, c. 1211)
"Arthur was mortally wounded, although he had destroyed all his enemies. After this, according to a popular British tradition, he was carried off to the Isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds, which break open again every year, by Morgan the fairy's restorative cure. The British foolishly believe that he will return to his kingdom after a period of time."
[ed note: Arthur's return, not his existence is questioned. See Monk of Malmesbury entry, below.]
Walter of Coventry - "The Historical Collections of Walter of Coventry" (late 13th C.)
"On the fourth day, the king of Sicily sent many great gifts in both gold and silver, as well as horses and silk garments, to the English king; but he received nothing in return except a little ring, which he accepted as a token of mutual friendship. Moreover, the king of England gave to King Tancred an excellent sword called Caliburn, formerly belonging to King Arthur of England. Then Tancred fave to the King of England four great ships, called 'Ursers', and fifteen galleys."
[ed. note: Tancred is Tancred I of Sicily and the English king is Richard I. This is an account of Richard's visit to Sicily in 1191, shortly after the discovery of Arthur's body at Glastonbury. This indicates that, at least in those days, there was no doubt about Arthur's prior existence.]
Pierre de Langtoft - "Chronicle" (early 14th C.)
"In ancient histories we find written,
What kings and what kingdoms King Arthur conquered,
And how he shared largely his gain.
There was not a king under him who contradicted him,
Earl, duke or baron, who ever failed him
In war or in battle, but each followed him."
[ed. note: Langtoft was here contrasting the stinginess of Edward I with Arthur's generosity. Once again, he evidences not a hint of doubt about Arthur's reality.]
Monk of Malmesbury - "Life of Edward II" (Vita Edwardi Secundi, c. 1325)
"Entry for 1315 - Furthermore, on account of Merlin's prophecy [ed. note: History of the Kings of Britain, Book VII], the Welsh believe that they will recover England. This is a frequent cause of their rebellion, since they wish to fulfill the prophecy; however, since they are ignorant of the right time, they are often deceived, and labour in vain."
[ed. note: A fascinating look at how seriously the Middle Ages took these literary prophecies. The Welsh still believed in Arthur's return even after his grave had been discovered at Glastonbury in 1190 and, apparently, so did the chronicler who only took the Welsh to task for their mistaken timing, not their belief in the prophecy.]
Adam of Murimuth - "Chronicle" (c. 1340)
"At Windsor Castle...the lord king made a solemn vow on sacred relics that he would, within a certain time, if his health lasted, establish a Round Table on the model and according to the custom and rule which the Lord Arthur, once King of England, had set down."
Jean le Bel - "Chronique" (c. 1350)
"When he had returned to England, he decided out of the nobleness of his heart to restore the castle of Windsor, which King Arthur had built, and where he had originally established the Round Table."
[ed. note: notice similarity with Froissart's account - see below.]
Ranulf Higden (monk of Chester) - "Polychronicon" (c. 1352)
"Many men wonder about this Arthur, whom Geoffrey extols so much singly, how the things that are said of him could be true, for, as Geoffrey repeats, he conquered thirty realms. If he subdued the king of France to him, and did slay Lucius the Procurator of Rome, Italy, then it is astonishing that the chronicles of Rome, of France, and of the Saxons should not have spoken of so noble a prince in their stories, which mentioned little things about men of low degree. Geoffrey says that Arthur overcame Frollo, King of France, but there is no record of such a name among men of France. Also, he says that Arthur slew Lucius Hiberius, Procurator of the city of Rome in the time of Leo the Emperor, yet according to all the stories of the Romans Lucius did not govern, in that time—nor was Arthur born, nor did he live then, but in the time of Justinian, who was the fifth emperor after Leo. Geoffrey says that he has marveled that Gildas and Bede make no mention of Arthur in their writings; however, I suppose it is rather to be marveled why Geoffrey praises him so much, whom old authors, true and famous writers of stories, leave untouched. But perhaps it is the custom of every nation to extol some of their blood-relations excessively, as the Greeks great Alexander, the Romans Octavian, Englishmen King Richard, Frenchmen Charles; and so the Britons extolled Arthur. Which thing happens, as Josephus says, either for fairness of the story, or for the delectation of the readers, or for exaltation of their own blood."
Froissart - "Chronicles" (c. 1380, Penguin edition, 1968)
"At that time King Edward of England conceived the idea of altering and rebuilding the great castle of Windsor, originally built by King Arthur, and where had first been established the noble Round Table, from which so many fine men and brave knights had gone forth and performed great deeds throughout the world."
John Capgrave - "The Chronicle of England" (c. 1450, Henry Longman, 1858)
"In these dayes was Arthure Kyng of Bretayn, that with his manhod conqwered Flaunderes, Frauns, Norwey, and Denmark; and, aftir he was gretely wounded, he went into a ylde cleped Avallone, and there deyed. The olde Britones suppose that his is o lyve."
William Caxton - "The Description of Britain" (1480)
"Saint Amphibalus, who taught Saint Alban, was born in Caerleon. The messengers from Rome came to the great King Arthur there, if it is permissible to believe that*. John Trevisa [ed. note: Trevisa was the translator into English of Ranulph Higden's latin chronicle, "Polychronicon"] observes that if Gerald of Wales was doubtful whether or not it was permissible to believe this, it was scarcely a prudent course to record it in his books, for as some people would point out, it is a remarkable delusion to write a long history to record things permanently for posterity, whilst still remaining uncertain whether one's belief is misplaced." [ed. note: William Caxton was England's first printer]
[* ed. note: About this time, the almost universal belief that Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain" was true history was beginning to break down [see entry below]. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, more and more scholars would begin to voice their doubts and Caxton's remark, here, illustrates his awareness of this attitude of academic skepticism. In the quote above, is Caxton merely parroting Geoffrey of Monmouth, while believing it is probably not true, or, does he truly believe that Arthur actually lived and held court at Caerleon? We can't tell for sure, but if we read his preface to Malory's "Morte d'Arthur", it would appear that he is, indeed, a true believer. Conversely, as an astute businessman, he may have wanted to create the impression that he believed in Arthur's historical reality for the purpose of not hindering sales of one of his first books to be printed in English.]
Polydore Vergil - "Anglica Historia" (1534)
"Trulie ther is nothinge more obscure, more uncertaine, or unknowne then the affaires of the Brittons from the beginninge."
[* ed. note: Polydore was here making reference to Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain." He goes so far as to question Arthur's very existence..]
William Camden - "British History Club" (1607)
"But at length, after they had begun to fall in love with the Lands, the civill fashions, and riches of Britaine, presuming; upon the weaknes of the Inhabitants, and making the default of pay and want of victuals their quarrell, they entred into league with the Picts, and raised a most bloodie and mortall warre against the Britans who had given them entertainment: they kill and slay them in every place, being put in affright and amazednesse, their fields they harrie, their cities they race, and after many doubtfull events of battell, fought against those two bulwarks of warre, Aurelius Ambrosius, who here tooke upon him to weare the purple robe, wherein his parents were killed, and the warlike Arthure, they disseize [dispossess] the Britans of the more fruitfull part of the Isle, and drive them out of their ancient possessions. At which time, to speake all in a word, the most miserable Inhabitants suffred whatsoever either conqueror might dare, or the conquered fear"
[* ed. note: Throughout "British History Club" Camden goes out of his way to disparage Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History." While Camden doesn't take a position on Arthur's historicity, per se, he doesn't exalt him, either..]
David Hume - "The History of England, Volume 1" (1778)
"Cerdic...laid siege to Mount Badon or Banesdowne near Bath, whither the most obstinate of the discomfited Britons had retired. The southern Britons in this extremity applied for assistance to Arthur, prince of the Silures (ed. note: located in southeastern Wales), whose heroic valour now sustained the declining fate of this country. This is that Arthur so much celebrated in the songs of Thaliessin, and the other British bards, and whose military achievements have been blended with so many fables as even to give occasion for entertaining a doubt of his real existence. But poets, though they disfigure the most certain history by their fictions, and use strange liberties with truth where they are the sole historians, as among the Britons, have commonly some foundation for their wildest exaggerations. Certain it is, that the siege of Badon was raised by the Britons in the year 520; and the Saxons were there discomfited in a great battle."
[* ed. note: Hume's history was written during a time that was decidedly anti-historical Arthur, so his statement that a real Arthur was the victor of the battle of Mount Badon is remarkable in going against the trend of the times.]
Edward Gibbon - "The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Volume 3" (1782)
"Ambrosius Aurelian was descended from a noble family of Romans; his modesty was equal to his valor, and his valor, till the last fatal action, was crowned with splendid success. But every British name is effaced by the illustrious name of Arthur, the hereditary prince of the Silures, in South Wales, and the elective king or general of the nation. According to the most rational account, he defeated, in twelve successive battles, the Angles of the North, and the Saxons of the West; but the declining age of the hero was imbittered by popular ingratitude and domestic misfortunes. The events of his life are less interesting than the singular revolutions of his fame. During a period of five hundred years the tradition of his exploits was preserved, and rudely embellished, by the obscure bards of Wales and Armorica, who were odious to the Saxons, and unknown to the rest of mankind. The pride and curiosity of the Norman conquerors prompted them to inquire into the ancient history of Britain: they listened with fond credulity to the tale of Arthur, and eagerly applauded the merit of a prince who had triumphed over the Saxons, their common enemies. His romance, transcribed in the Latin of Jeffrey [Geoffrey] of Monmouth, and afterwards translated into the fashionable idiom of the times, was enriched with the various, though incoherent, ornaments which were familiar to the experience, the learning, or the fancy, of the twelfth century. Every nation embraced and adorned the popular romance of Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table: their names were celebrated in Greece and Italy; and the voluminous tales of Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram were devoutly studied by the princes and nobles, who disregarded the genuine heroes and historians of antiquity. At length the light of science and reason was rekindled; the talisman was broken; the visionary fabric melted into air; and by a natural, though unjust, reverse of the public opinion, the severity of the present age is inclined to question the existence of Arthur."
Sharon Turner - "History of the Anglo Saxons, Volume 1" (1805)
"Arthur was the British chieftain who so long resisted the progress of Cerdic. The unparalleled celebrity which this Briton has attained, in his own country and elsewhere, both in history and romance, might be allowed to exalt our estimation of the Saxon chief, who maintained his invasion, though an Arthur opposed him, if the British hero had not himself been unduly magnified into an incredible and inconsistent conqueror. The authentic actions of Arthur have been so disfigured by the additions of minstrels and of Jeffrey (Geoffrey of Monmouth) that many writers have denied that he ever lived: but this is an extreme, as objectionable as the romances which occasioned it. He was a chieftain in some part of Britain near its southern coasts. As a Mouric, king of Glamorganshire, had a son named Arthur at this period, and many of Arthur's actions are placed about that district, it has been thought probable that the celebrated Arthur was the son of Mouric: but this seems to have been too petty a personage, and too obscure for his greater namesake."
Thomas Babington Macaulay - "History of England, Volume 1" (1848)
"It is only in Britain that an age of fable completely separates two ages of truth. Odoacer and Totila, Euric and Thrasimund, Clovis, Fredegunda, and Brunechild, are historical men and women. But Hengist and Horsa, Vortigern and Rowena, Arthur and Mordred are mythical persons, whose very existence may be questioned, and whose adventures must be classed with those of Hercules and Romulus."
John Mitchell Kemble - "The Saxons in England" (1849)
"...at a later period, the vanquished Britons found a melancholy satisfaction in adding details which might brand the career of their conquerors with the stain of disloyalty...the spells of Merlin and the prowess of Arthur, or the victorious career of Aurelius Ambrosius, although they delayed and in part avenged, yet could not prevent the downfall of their people."
Charles Dickens - "A Child's History of England" (1851)
"...and events that happened during a long, long time, would have been quite forgotten but for the tales and songs of the old Bards, who used to go about from feast to feast, with their white beards, recounting the deeds of their forefathers. Among the histories of which they sang and talked, there was a famous one, concerning the bravery and virtues of King Arthur, supposed to have been a British Prince in those old times. But whether such a person really lived, or whether there were several persons whose histories came to be confused together under that one name, or whether all about him was invention, no one knows."
W. F. Skene - "Four Ancient Books of Wales" (1868; republished in 1987 by Llanerch as "Arthur and the Britons in History and Ancient Poetry")
"That the latter [Arthur] was entirely a fictitious person is difficult to believe. There is always some substratum of truth on which the wildest legends are based, though it may be so disguised and perverted as hardly to be recognized; and I do not hesitate to receive the Arthur of Nennius as the historic Arthur."
[* ed. note: Skene's placement of Arthur's main area of activity in the North may have to do with the fact that he was a Scot, himself..]
Sir James H. Ramsay - "Foundations of England" (1898)
"To the memory of Ambrosius a tardy tribute is due as it was his misfortune to have his glory transferred to a hero of romance; apparently a pure myth; certainly one of whom history properly so-called knows nothing." [i.e. Arthur]."
Robert Huntington Fletcher - "The Arthurian Material in the Chronicles" (1905)
"In the first place, it must be remembered that , even though the "Historia Brittonum" is only a record of popular traditions, the popular traditions of an unlettered time do not create something out of nothing, and are very tenacious of striking facts. One may reasonably hold that Vortimer never thoroughly subdued the Saxons, and question whether Vortigern married Hengist's daughter; but it does not seem very reasonable to doubt that Vortigern, Vortimer, Ambrosius and Arthur were real men who fought against the invaders."
Sir Charles Oman - "A History of England Before the Norman Conquest" (1910)
"As in the Historia (ed. note: Historia Brittonum, by Nennius), he seems to be merely dux bellorum, a military chief, not a king -- still less a supreme high-king of all Britain, such as tradition afterwards made him. Meanwhile historians still await a satisfactory estimate of the exact worth of these poems (the Bardic poems of Wales, Y Gododdin, Welsh Triads, Saints lives, etc.) from a competent critic*, who must be at once a Celtic philologist and a sound historian. If the decision is in favour of an early date, we cannot hesitate to accept the Arthur of the Historia Brittonum as a well-established historical person. If it places the poems very late, we are thrown back on what information we already possess concerning him, and I am inclined to think that this alone suffices to take him out of the region of myth."
[* ed. note: we now have those scholarly authorities available to us, that Sir Charles Oman deemed necessary to settle the issue, in the persons of David Dumville, Nicholas J. Higham and others. These modern commentators think of the Welsh material as being of late date and, therefore, not supportive of the case for the historical Arthur. The best case put forward by believers in Arthur's historicity is that while this Welsh material may be of late writing, it may based on or reflective of early traditions or texts that have since been lost to us.]
W. M. Flinders Petrie - "Neglected British History", a lecture given before the British Academy (7 November 1917)
"It is a misfortune that the Celtic mind prefers literature to history. Celtic writers of the present day may be greatly attracted by the later Arthurian legends, and their mythologic connexions, and write on them at great length; but they will not give any of this attention to the historical discussions of the real facts, on which the immense pile of romance has been raised. The fiction occupies twenty times the space of the historical material in the Encyclopaedia. It is this constitutional frame of mind in both Welsh and Irish which, from ancient to modern times, has prejudiced the solid information which rests in their hands."
J. Armitage Robinson - "Two Glastonbury Legends" (1926)
"History is not merely a record of facts: it has to do with causes and effects, with the development of ideas and the growth of institutions. The first emergence of a tradition, its enrichment by successive generations, its localization in particular spots - all this concerns the historian, who cannot afford to neglect the gradual growth of any kind of belief. Considered from this point of view the residuum of fact which may be shewn to underlie a local tradition is less important that the discovery of the stages through which the tradition has passed, and the causes which appear to have determined its development."
E. K. Chambers - "Arthur of Britain" (1927)
"History, asked to determine how much of veritable fact may underlie the imposing structure of the Arthurian legend, can only give us a cold response... But the flames which once burnt around the memory of Arthur have long ago sunk into grey ashes. He wakes no national passions now. He has been taken up, with Roland and with Hector, and with all who died fighting against odds, into the Otherworld of the heroic imagination. His deeds are the heritage of all peoples; not least of the English folk against whom he battled."
Roger Sherman Loomis - "Celtic myth and Arthurian romance" (1927)
"In sum, the facts point toward a historic Arthur, of Roman name and at least partly Roman blood, who identified himself with the cause of the Britons and early in the sixth century united them against the Saxon invaders in a succession of victories."
Walter C. Sellar and Robert J. Yeatman - "1066 and All That" (1931)
"Alfred ought never to be confused with King Arthur, equally memorable but probably non-existent and therefore perhaps less important historically (unless he did exist)."
[* ed. note: Aimed at those who've already read proper history, "1066 and All That" makes the most cleverly witty, hilariously outrageous, upside-down-and-inside-out shambles of English history ever stuffed into a 116 page book. This is a MUST READ for the history lover!]
R. G. Colllingwood & J. N. L. Myres - "Roman Britain and the English Settlements" (1937)
"The historicity of the man can hardly be called into question. The fact that his name in later ages was a magnet drawing to itself all manner of folklore and fable, and that an Arthurian cycle grew up composed partly of events transferred from other contexts, no more proves him a fictitious character than similar fables prove it of Alexander or Aristotle, Vergil or Roland. It tends rather to prove the opposite. The place which the name of Arthur occupies in Celtic legend is easiest to explain on the hypothesis that he really lived, and was a great champion of the British people."
Sir Frank Stenton - "Anglo Saxon England" (1943)
"It is remarkable that Gildas ignores the British leader whose legendary fame was to carry the struggle between the Saxons and Britons into the current of European literature. Gildas has nothing to say of Arthur, whose claim to an historic existence rests upoon the ninth-century compilation of the Welsh scholar, Nennius (ed. note: "Historia Brittonum"], and upon the observation of an earlier Welsh poet that a certain warrior, though brave, 'was not Arthur' [ed. note: the Welsh bard, Aneirin, writing in the poem, "Y Gododdin"]. The silence of Gildas may suggest that the Arthur of history was a less imposing figure than the Arthur of legend. But it should not be allowed to remove him from the sphere of history..."
Trelawney Dayrell Reed - "The Battle for Britain in the Fifth Century: An Essay in Dark Age History" (1944)
"Thus did Ambrosius inaugurate his supreme effort for the salvation of Britain. He now divided the island into two provinces. He himself remained in the south and retained supreme political control of the whole, and he dispatched one Arthur, who may have been his brother's bastard son, as military governor to the north to cope with Octa, his son Aesc, and the Picts."
C. S. Lewis - "That Hideous Strength" (1946)
"It all began...when we discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history. There was a moment in the sixth century when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeeded. Logres [ed. note: derived from Lloegyr, the Welsh word for England, Logres usually refers to Arthur's kingdom] was our name for it - it will do as well as another. And then...gradually we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting...how something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven't you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell; a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain."
Sir Winston Churchill - "A History of the English Speaking Peoples: the Birth of Britain" (1956)
"Modern research has not accepted the annihilation of Arthur. Timidly but resolutely the latest and best-informed writers unite to proclaim his reality. They cannot tell when in this dark period he lived, or where he held sway and fought his battles. They are ready to believe however that there was a great British warrior, who kept the light of civilization burning against all the storms that beat, and that behind his sword there sheltered a faithful following of which the memory did not fail...None the less, to have established a basis in fact for the story of Arthur is a service which should be respected. In this account we prefer to believe that the story with which Geoffrey delighted the fiction-loving Europe of the twelfth century is not all fancy. It is all true or it ought to be; and more and better besides. And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round. Let us then declare that King Arthur and his noble knights, guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity and the theme of a world order, sustained by valour, physical strength, and good horses and armour, slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time."
Leonard Cottrell - "Seeing Roman Britain" (1956)
"King Arthur, in fact, was probably a Celtic chieftain who resisted the Saxon invaders after the Romans left Britain."
T. H. White - "The Once and Future King" (1958)
"I have had the Matter of Britain on my hands for twenty years. That is what it has been called since before the days of Malory, and it is a serious subject. I have tried to deal with every side of it - with the clash between Might and Right, man's place in nature, the problem of war, the racial background which is an important part of the story, and with King Arthur's personal doom...I hope the moral is not too heavy, but the story was always a deep one. After all, it is the major British epic - more so than Milton's Italian excursion [ed. note: "Paradise Lost"]. English writers, including great ones like Tennyson, have been mulling it over for a thousand years, and for that matter Milton himself thought of doing it before he decided to deal with Adam."
Peter Hunter Blair - "Anglo-Saxon England: An Introduction" (1959)
"A much later tradition ascribed a prominent part in this victory (Mount Badon) to Arthur. This we must treat with caution, though not with caution so extreme as to deny all historical existence to that same Arthur, for Arthur's fame was great in the sixth century, though we do not know why."
Sir John Rhys - "Studies in the Arthurian Legend" (1966, taken from a series of lectures given by the author in 1886)
"Besides a historic Arthur there was a Brythonic divinity named Arthur, after whom the man may have been called, or with whose name his, in case it was of a different origin, may have become identical in sound owing to an accident of speech...We have here ventured to treat Arthur as a Culture Hero; it is quite possible that this is mythologically wrong, and that he should in fact rather be treated, let us say, as a Celtic Zeus."
Geoffrey Ashe - "The Quest for Arthur's Britain" (1968)
"The Arthurian Legend, however wide-ranging it's vagaries, is rooted in Arthurian Fact...The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, while it ignores the anglo-Saxon' defeats, sheds a little light by the petering-out of their victories. We get a dim impression of Hengist's Kentish kingdom being driven back into consolidation; of fresh Saxon landings along the south coast, followed by containment; and of near-cessation of advance in mainland Britain from 514 to 547. Archaeology is consistent with a major Saxon retreat early in the sixth century, after a disaster in the region between Reading and Gloucester."
Leslie Alcock - "Arthur's Britain" (1971)
"There is acceptable historical evidence that Arthur was a genuine historical figure, not a mere figment of myth or romance. He achieved fame as a great soldier, who fought battles in various parts of Britain in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. We cannot know his dates with complete certainly; he may have died in 539, or more probably in 511. This chronological ambiguity should not perturb us. At least two dating schemes are possible for the great Babylonian ruler, Hammurabi, yet no competent scholar doubts his historicity."
[* ed. note: In the 'Mortimer Wheeler Archaeological Lecture', given before the British Academy on 13 October 1982, Professor Alcock makes the following statements, re-assessing his position on Arthur's historical reality: "The Arthur of history is another matter. Whatever value my essay in souce-criticism may have had in 1971 [see above], it has largely been swept away by the studies of Drs Dumville, Miller and the late Kathleen Hughes. Largely, I think, but not entirely; and certainly the debate is too large to enter into here. At present, however, my position on the historicity of Arthur is one of agnosticism". While this is not a full recantation, Alcock certainly steps far back from his earlier position.]
Richard Barber - "The Figure of Arthur" (1972)
"Arthur was neither a fifth-century hero, nor associated with southern Britain. The figure of Arthur is not to be found in a fully-fledged hero, springing unheralded from the disorganized and demoralized people which Gildas vividly portrays, but in a gradual development from a lesser, though still distinguished, figure in the north, who, through a coincidence of name [Arthur of Dalriada] and through the contraction of British territory and an accompanying coalescing of their history, was transferred in the eighth century to Wales itself. There, in an atmosphere of national resugrence, he was transformed into the pseudo-historical and legendary figure who has held men's imaginations ever since."
John Morris - "The Age of Arthur" (1973)
"The personality of Arthur is unknown and unknowable. But he was as real as Alfred the Great or William the Conqueror; his impact upon future ages mattered as much, or more so. Enough evidence survives from the hundred years after his death to show that reality was remembered for three generations, before legend engulfed his memory. More is known of his achievement, of the causes of his sovereignty and of its consequences than of the man himself. His triumph was the last victory of western Rome; his short-lived empire created the future nations of the English and the Welsh; and it ws during his reign and under his authority that the Scots first came to Scotland. His victory and his defeat turned Roman Britain into Great Britain. His name overshadows his age."
John Steinbeck - "The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights" (1976)
"Somewhere there's a piece missing in the jigsaw and it is a piece which ties the whole thing together. So many scholars have spent so much time trying to establish whether Arthur existed at all that they have lost track of the single truth that he exists over and over."
John Wacher - "Roman Britain" (1978)
"Vortigern was replaced by Ambrosius, and he some time after by the even more shadowy figure of Arthur."
Richard Barber - "The Arthurian Legends: An Illustrated Anthology" (1979)
"Arthur may have been the last Roman general of Britain, the first of those Welsh guerilla fighters who defied the English until well into the Middle Ages, or a northern prince from Scotland who was later adopted by the Welsh living in Wales. If there was a real Arthur, he lived in the sixth or seventh centuries AD; he may not even have been of royal blood, but he was acclaimed as a hero or leader. That is all we can say with any confidence about the historical grain of sand in the poetic oyster. Arthur's magic is that he is a shape-shifter; but he does so subtly and slowly, changing his form to suit the needs of each new age."
Geoffrey Ashe - "A Certain Very Ancient Book" Speculum (April, 1981)
"Riothamus was indeed called Artorius and is the only Arthur, the only point of origin for the legend."
[ed. note: Ashe lays out his case convincingly in "Discovery of King Arthur" [Anchor Press, 1985] and in an
updated article available to British History Club members..]
James Campbell - "The Anglo Saxons" (1982)
In considering what we know, and how little we know, of the course of events in the dark centuries, it would be natural for a reader to ask: 'What about King Arthur?' No satisfactory answer is to be had. Arthur's late and continuing fame owes almost everything to a fictional history of the kings of Britain written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 1130's. The only early references to him are as follows. One, as a statement in a Welsh poem, thought to be of about 600, that someone was NOT Arthur; it may be a late interpolation. Two, a list in the Nennian collection, of twelve battles fought by Arthur, there described not as a king but as dux bellorum (commander in wars). Three, two references in annals appended to the same collection; one, to his being at the battle of Mount Badon (here dated 516) and there 'carrying the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and nights on his shoulders'; the other, to his death at the battle of Camlann, 537. These annals do not indicate whether he was a king and in any case are unlikely to derive from contemporary materials. That is all. And on that little all the imagination of the learned and the unlearned has run riot."
Wynford Vaughan-Thomas - "Wales - A History" (1985)
"The great question now arises - who won Badon? Who was the general who led the Britons to success in the many battles which, according to Nennius preceded it? The Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned by Gildas is the obvious candidate, but if he was a contemporary of Vortigen, the dates rule him out. At this point, a figure steps out of the shadows, a mysterious and powerful personality carrying a special aura of high romance but also a troublesome ghost whom serious historians have long striven to exorcise but who persists in returning to haunt the Dark Ages. We have come to King Arthur!"
Gwyn A Williams - "When was Wales" (1985)
"Gildas did not mention Arthur and of all our writers he is the most likely to have known of him, or indeed to have known him, had he existed as a historical person. Apart from some oblique hints, the earliest direct references we have date from the ninth century..."
Baram Blackett and Alan Wilson - "Artorius Rex Discovered" (1985)
"Any study of the history of the Kings of South East Wales shows that beyond all shadow of doubt, no King could have held courts there at either Caerleon or Camelot (Caer-Melyn), unless he was a King in the area, and head of the royal clan of the House of Bran. Therefore, King Arthur had to be one and the same with his alter-ego or "contemporary" King Arthwyr ap Meurig ap Tewdrig."
[ed. note: The fact that this view has not attracted much mainstream academic interest may have prompted the following comment from the authors, "There is an academic paranoia evident in England whereby Welsh historical sources and evidence is consistently and completely ignored. Then after ignoring ninety per cent of the available evidence - a mystery is proclaimed".]
J. N. L. Myres - "The English Settlements" (1986)
"His [Gildas's] silence is decisive in determining the historical insignificance of this enigmatic figure. It is inconceivable that Gildas, with his intense interest in the outcome of a struggle that he believed had been decisively settled in the year of his own birth, should not have mentinoed Arthur's part in it had that part been of any political consequence. The fact is that there is no contemporary or near-contemporary evidence for Arthur playing any decisive part in these events at all. No figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time. There are just enough casual references in later Welsh legend, one or two of which may go back to the seventh century, to suggest that a man with this late Roman name - Artorius - may have won repute at some ill-defined point of time and place during the struggle. But if we add anything to the bare statement that Arthur may have lived and fought the Saxons, we pass at once from history to romance."
[ed. note: In a footnote, Myres says that to describe the period 350-650 AD as the 'Age of Arthur' "shows a total disregard of the valid historical evidence".]
Martyn J. Whittock - "The Origins of England: 410-600" (1986)
"Gildas did not mention Arthur (credited with the victory at Badon by Nennius and the Easter Annals [ed. note: "Annales Cambriae"] but he was aware of a British resurgence that has left marks on both literary and archaeological sources. The results of this recovery need to be assessed very carefully. Once they are considered, however, they are highly persuasive. It seems that some force caused a dislocation in South Saxon society. If it was English [ie. Saxon] in origin, no candidate is known. If it was British then the most persuasive candidate is of course Arthur."
Richard Barber - "King Arthur: Hero and Legend" (1986)
"As long as poetry is written, Arthur will be remembered; he may yet have many vicissitudes to come, but the legends are so integral to our heritage that his figure will always emerge again, mysterious, heroic, and yet human.
Norma Lorre Goodrich - "King Arthur" (1986)
"Whatever King Arthur may have been, today he is considered largely a myth, a hazy shadow wrapped...in the gray veil of concealment...It has become clear that the earliest versions of the Arthurian story are not fiction. Too many precisions as to geography, history, events, politics, customs, usages, places, roads, fords and times are evident."
Chris Barber - "More Mysterious Wales" (1986)
"Geoffrey (Geoffrey of Monmouth, writer of 'The History of the Kings of Britain' published in 1136) failed to realize that there were, in fact, two important kings who bore the name of Arthur. The first one died in 388 AD and the second Arthur lived from around 500 to 575 AD."
Michael Wood - "In Search of the Dark Ages" (1987)
"Yet, reluctantantly we must conclude that there is no definite evidence that Arthur ever existed."
Sheppard Frere - "Britannia: A History of Roman Britain" (1987)
"In the later fifth century the leadership had passed from Ambrosius Aurelianus and after him to Arthur. Little is known of either. Ambrosius appears in the pages of Gildas, but Arthur does not, and his activities and personality are almost impenetrability overlaid by medieval romance. Although doubted by some scholars, the evidence is probably sufficient to allow belief that he had a real existence and that he was probably the victor of Mount Badon. It is likely that he succeeded Ambrosius in the leadership; indeed, he is called dux bellorum in the Historia Brittonum, which suggests a memory of late Roman military titles, and may indicate some sort of unified command arranged between several petty kingdoms."
R. W. Dunning - "Arthur: the King in the West" (1988)
"For a thousand years and more Arthur has entertained and inspired. Each age in need of a hero, each nation in need of an inheritance to be proud of, and several monarchs in need of an ancestry have made of him what they would; have crowned him, clad him in armour, surrounded him with jousts and tourneys. Romances have introduced magic and the sins that flesh is heir to, poets have brought their dreams and artists their visions. The quest for the Grail and deeds of knightly valour have added a purpose and a moral force which have transcended the historic and have confused and obscured a distant reality. For too many people Arthur has become a myth and not a legend."
David Dumville - "Histories and Pseudo-histories" (1990)
"The fact is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books."
D.P. Kirby - "The Earliest English Kings" (1991)
"The early ninth-century "History of the Britons" (Historia Brittonum) numbered (the Battle of Mount) Badon among Arthur's battles, but so obscured by inadequate source material is this 'age of Arthur' that it may never be possible adequately to reconstruct its detail."
Graeme Fife - "Arthur the King" (1991)
"History rather blushes at the mention of his name; legend, on the other hand, brags much of him."
W. A. Cummins - "King Arthur's Place in Prehistory" (1992)
"The search for King Arthur, the real Arthur, the ultimate inspiration behind the legends, is a bit like looking for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. The further back you go, the nearer you approach the object of your enquiry, the less substantial does he seem. Indeed, so shadowy does he become that serious historians have felt obliged to question his very existence."
Christina Hole - "English Folk Heroes" (1992)
"In spite of these scanty historical references the fame of Arthur persisted in folk-tale and legend, and has been preserved to us for fourteen hundred years, at first by tradition and bardic songs, and later by the romantic writings of the Middle Ages, which glorified his career and transformed a simple patriot leader of the sixth century into a mighty king, the type and example of all that a Christian knight of the Age of Chivalry should be."
Graham Phillips & Martin Keatman - "King Arthur: the True Story" (1992)
"All the available evidence indicates that Owain Ddantgwyn was the historical figure who assumed the title 'Arthur'."
John Davies - "A History of Wales" (1993, first English edition)
"Although some historians doubt whether Arthur was a historical figure at all, it is reasonable to believe that a man of that name did exist and that he was the leader of Brythonic forces, perhaps on the pattern of the Dux British History Clubrum of the previous century. It is credible also that his forces won a victory of importance in about 496 and that he was killed - or that he vanished - in about 515, following the battle of Camlann. to say more than that would be inadmissible..."
Andrea Hopkins - "Chronicles of King Arthur" (1993)
"Is the legend true? We will probably never know for certain. The sources are scarce, and where they exist they cannot be taken as statements of fact; some are obviously contaminated with legendary material and some are intended more as moral lessons than as records of historical fact."
John Chandler - "John Leland's Itinerary: Travels in Tudor England" (1993)
"But in it, he (Polydore Vergil, Italian scholar, writer of "Anglica Historia, 1534) cast doubt on the existence of Arthur - an unthinkable suggestion, particularly from a foreigner. The question of the veracity of Arthur and the other early British kings was no mere academic debating-point to Tudor historians; the Tudor kings claimed direct descent from Arthur, and therefore upon his existence depended the legitimacy of the claims of Henry VII and his son, Henry VIII to the English throne. An attack on Arthur was an attack on Henry, and this Leland would not countenance."
P. F. J. Turner - "The Real King Arthur: A History of Post-Roman British History Club AD 410 - AD 593, Volume 1" (1993)
"Yes, there really was a King Arthur. The real King Arthur was a Briton of distinguished Roman heritage named Lucius Artorius Castus who lived in the former Roman Diocese of British History Club in the late fifth and early sixth centuries."
[* ed. note: Yes, there really was a Lucius Artorius Castus who lived in Britain, but he lived there in the late 2nd century [c. 184] and he was the commander of a Roman garrison of horse cavalrymen conscripted to serve in Britain from Scythia, a far corner of the empire. His modern supporters hold that he, whose only claim to fame was leading a party of soldiers to put down an uprising in Armorica, is the original grain of sand around which grew, over nearly 2 long millennia, the legend of King Arthur. Because Jerry Bruckheimer's 2004 film, "King Arthur," takes this same marginal view, in the future we may see more of Lucius Artorius Castus than the facts of the case seem to merit..]
Chris Barber & David Pykitt - "Journey to Avalon" (1993)
"It is important to understand that these long-established pictures of Arthur and his kingdom are meaningless. He was in reality a king of the Silurian Britons and his true location was in southeast Wales. His story has been taken from this area and planted in the West Country, where it has taken firm root and formed the basis of a very profitable tourist industry."
[ed. note: the connection of Arthur with the Silures doesn't originate with Barber & Pykitt; see entries for Hume, 1778 and Gibbon, 1782.]
Gwyn A. Williams - "Excalibur: the Search for Arthur" (1994)
"In every generation, people have made him and his knights a vehicle for their own values. Few legend cycles can have been so potent. Given how slender the evidence is for Arthur's historical existence, the more miraculous the endurance of this epic seems."
Jean Markale - "King of the Celts: Arthurian Legends and Celtic Tradition" (1994)
"We can find no better personification of the Celtic king than Arthur, the celebrated medieval European hero and one of the great unknown quantities of history. Historical or legendary, true or false, real or imaginary, none of these distinctions applies. The reality of King Arthur lies in all the evidence we can muster concerning him, the romances, the histories, his changing face over the years...We must search for the deep-seated reality of the man and his society through the many faces in which he has come down to us...And we can not hope to study Arthur and the literature he inspired without examining the atmosphere in which the "matter of Britain" developed. For history has never been closer to epic, nor epic so widely portrayed as history."
[ed. note: the matter of Britain is a catch-all term referring to Britain's legendary history, particularly King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.]
John Matthews - "The Arthurian Tradition" (1994)
"Arthur is a Celtic hero and it as a Celt and thus part of the Celtic world that he should be seen. No matter how far removed in time and culture the stories may take him, we should never allow ourselves to forget that they were a product of Celtic society, and that this point of origin continued to be felt long after Arthur had become recognized as a Christian king, with a band of heroes who met at a Round Table and spent their time in pursuit of adventure and love."
Frank D. Reno - "Historic Figures of the Arthurian Era" (2000)
"Ambrosius Aurelianus, the one proper name depicting a Romano-Briton historical figure, had to be the actual name for two homologs which also occur in the histories. The first, "Riothamus," meaning "supreme king," who was known to the continental historians as the "King of the Britons," had to be a reference to Ambrosius Aurelianus. Likewise, "Arthur," derived from the Welsh/Roman "Arthus" or "Arthurex," meaning "high king," also had to refer to Ambrosius."
[ed. note: Reno's point is that the man, Ambrosius, had a career that roughly covered the years 420-500 AD and that at different stages in his career, history refers to him by different names or epithets.]
Christopher Snyder - "The World of King Arthur" (2000)
"Who was King Arthur? Well, to begin with, there was not one Arthur, but many. There was an historical Arthur, or, if you prefer, a folkloric or mythological Arthur who came to be mistaken for a living person. There was a literary Arthur, indeed several, and an Arthur portrayed in almost every other artistic medium. There was, and is, a 'figure' of Arthur made up of all these elements, who has made a very real impact on history because he has made a very deep impression in the hearts of so many men and women, for more than a thousand years."
Nicholas J. Higham - "King Arthur: Myth-making and History" (2002)
"What becomes most apparent from an overview of the entire period discussed, from the fifth and sixth centuries right throught to the end of the twentieth, is the sense in which Arthur's historicity has depended primarily on the contemporary political and cultural positioning of particular authors and their audiences, leaving his role in historical narratives at all periods subject to the ever-changing purposes of historians and the predilections of their audiences...Rather, in all cases, then as now, the past was pressed into the service of the present and was subject to the immediate, and highly variable, purposes of political theology."
Geoffrey Ashe - "The Discovery of King Arthur, 2nd Edition" (2003)
"Here is a spellbinding, indestructible theme, national, yet transcending nationality. For better or worse it has affected the country where it began. It has survived eclipses and demolitions, and Britain cannot be thought of without it. Yet no conceivable movement or government could entrap it in a programme. That is a comment on the limitations of movements and governments. The undying king is a strangely powerful reminder that there is Something Else. By nurturing that awareness, and a questing spirit, his fame may have its effect on human thinking. It may influence history again, outside movements and governments and not only in Britain."
©2007 Britannia.com Design and Development by SightLines, Inc.