Theories for a Historical King Arthur
Maintaining a comprehensible narrative of the sub-Roman period is almost impossible. Most of what we do know (a negligible amount) is rarely agreed upon by historians. We have seen the divided opinion that surrounds the study of characters such as King Vortigern, Hengist and Horsa, and Saint Patrick. As I’ve researched this period, I have continually found it to be a proverbial sink hole of sketchy facts and heated debates, which is fine. As I’m not one to dwell on such things, I’ll take a little time to examine one last debated figure of the period and then try to move us forward to Alfred the Great and the Anglo-Saxon period, a welcome refuge of somewhat sturdier fact and history. Who is this final debated figure of sub-Roman origin? None other than King Arthur.
I realize that no other British historical figure has been more debated than Arthur, so please forgive me for what will be a rather cursory overview. Also, apologies for the main image for this post. When I think of King Arthur, that is the first image my mind conjures up, and I doubt I’m the only one.
Where did the legends about King Arthur begin? They are prevalent throughout Western society today, but the legends surrounding King Arthur are unstably built on a tiny factual basis. Before Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized the more fantastical legends of King Arthur with his 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae, (the validity of which is egregious) Arthur had only been mentioned in vague passing by a few other writers.
Nennius, whom we have previously encountered, wrote the Historia Brittonum. In it, he characterizes Arthur as the “magnanimous” man who led the fight against the Saxon incursions that began to increase late in the 5th century. Thus, most historians place the genesis of Arthurian legend in the late 5th or early 6th century. Nennius further recounts the Battle of Mons Badonicus, the seminal battle associated with Arthur. Nennius claims that Arthur singlehandedly killed 960 men. It is interesting to note that Nennius mentions Arthur as being “with all the kings” of Britain, but not as being one of them. Because Nennius was writing in the 9th century, we know that his account is based completely on other histories.
The problem arises when we look at the only historical sources that are even closely contemporary to the sub-Roman period. Gildas, writing his de Excidio Britanniae in the 6th century, and Bede, writing his Ecclesiastical History in the 8th century have the same problem. Neither writer makes any mention of a figure named Arthur. Bede’s omission is understandable when we remember that his history was largely copied from Gildas. Gildas’ omission of Arthur begs the obvious question, though. Was there a historical King Arthur?
Non-existent Arthur Theory
The most modern theory takes the tack that Arthur did not ever exist. Proponents of this theory point predominantly to the history written in nearest proximity to the 6th century, Gildas’ de Excidio. As previously noted, Gildas makes no mention of Arthur, thus, some historians claim that Arthur is a fiction. They further claim that no written source before 800 AD mentions Arthur. It does seem strange that no contemporary sources, or even sources written within living memory of the Battle of Mons Badonicus, mention the supposed hero of the battle.
Celtic God Theory
Another theory about the origins of Arthur has grown during recent years. This theory claims that the Welsh legends from which the Arthurian figure possibly originated paint him as an almost supernatural being, thus, he started as a Celtic god. They point to the fact that the Celtic word art means “bear,” and that early Celtic mythology contained several “bear-gods” who protected both the people and nature. According to the Celtic-god theory, Arthur was really a god of the early Celtic people and over time they took the protective qualities of the bear-god and transposed them onto a person. While possible, this theory has not gained a large following.
Briton Warlord Theory
A more popular theory claims that there was a historical Arthur, but that he was not a king. Heavy reliance on the account given by Nennius leads to the interpretation that Arthur was a champion warrior who fought against the Saxon incursions. Nennius applies the term “Dux Bellorum” to Arthur. Many interpret this to mean that Arthur was a “duke of battles” who may have served as a military leader for the king at the time. Unfortunately, Nennius’ wording is somewhat vague, and leaves room for the argument that Arthur could still have been an actual king.
King (of What?) Theory
The most prevalent theory is that Arthur was some type of king during the sub-Roman period. As we have seen, the British kingdoms during the period evolved quite frequently. The name Arthur turns up quite frequently in the historical record, but historians drastically differ on the interpretation of that fact. As a result, opinions on Arthur will differ, almost to a person, depending on who you ask. Just about every region of Britain has claimed that Arthur ruled or fought there, but very little evidence exists to support a majority of those claims.
Many of the claims base their argument on family lineage tracing back to someone named Arthur, or a variation thereof. It’s possible then, that Arthur did exist in some form, but we’ll never know for sure.
The proliferation of the name Arthur in quite diverse family lineages during the early 6th century is somewhat strange, because we view Arthur as being a single person. Thus, maybe Arthur was a lone figure, and the proliferation of diverse similar names can be attributed to a trend in naming children after the heroic figure. Obviously, this doesn’t answer questions about Arthur himself, but it does help resolve some obvious discrepancies that exist. My personal theory follows this line, and others have proposed it in better words.
Ultimately, again, we will never have a definitive answer. That theme has been repeated throughout our study of sub-Roman Britain. It’s an interesting period, for sure, but it is obvious that the dearth of historical evidence has directly resulted in the legends and fantasies that are the most popular facets of modern interest.