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The Origins of Arthur

Part 1 is here.

Ok, now that we've got the basics down we can get down to business and start looking for that Arthur character! In this post I would like to explain the basic situation in England in the 5th century and show some early sources.

This turned out longer than expected, so no knights yet. But we'll get there, I promise.

II. The Origins of Arthur

In Merlin, like in most modern adaptations, King Arthur is depicted as a king from the High Middle Ages – a knight in shining armour (if Merlin does his job). Probably best example in modern media for that is the film Excalibur from 1981. The fanmade trailer linked below is actually one of my favorite examples when I talk about the points made in my last post. It tells us about the „Dark Ages“, it has ominous vague Latin-y chanting. It has knights in such ridiculously shining armour that the fair maidens can use them as mirrors. It has someone (Mordred I guess) in a FREAKING GOLD ARMOUR. Seriously, whose idea was it to make a plate armour out of a metal that soft? That's not impressive, that's stupid.

As we will see in a later post, there is a reason for this – the High Middle Ages bit, not the shininess.

Then eight years ago we had the Clive Owen/Keira Kneightley version who wanted to tell us how it really happened. It showed all the known Arthurian characters in the Early Middle Ages because that's when Arthur is supposed to have lived.

I admit I haven't seen the film, just read the summary and guess what – that's not how anything happened at all.

  1. Albion and Britain

Have you ever wondered what that Albion is that Arthur is supposed to unite? The same thing as Britain, for roughly the last 4500 years at least. It is likely that the name was given by the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas who stumbled upon Britain while looking for resources around 320 BC. The Greeks also used the term Breannikai nesoi, which the Romans adopted. Julius Caesar was especially fond of the term Britannia. We know this because he talked about it a lot in his writings about expeditions for the purpose of getting to know Britannia. Just because of the nice weather of course.

About a hundred years later the Romans did finally start an invasion and in the end managed to conquer a large part of Britain and stay there for a few hundred years.

  1. What might have happened in Britain in the 5th century

Now we come to the main problem of every Arthur-related scientific research: The sources for this time period are.... less than good. The Romans had always produced lots and lots of written material but with all the Germanic tribes moving about they got a bit sloppy. They retreated from Britain to better protect Rome – which fell in 410.

At the same times tribes from the continental North Sea coast started to move towards Britain and settle there for some reason – mostly Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

Actually, no-one is entirely sure when this started or why. All we have is archeological evidence and accounts written at least a hundred years after the events they describe. So the Renaissance people did have a bit of a point there. This does in no way mean that people became dumber or that they didn't write anything after the Romans left. Yes, the Germanic tribes did rely more on oral than on written accounts but the Romans had left the Britons....romanized. We know there must have been some written evidence because later authors used those sources – they just became lost.

The three sources important for Arthur are:

  • Gildas wrote a lament about the downfall of Britain by the hands of the Saxons aound 540 but doesn't explain much of what happened.

  • Nennius wrote a „History of the Britons“ around 830 but his work is full of misunderstandings and mistakes.

  • The Venerable Bede with his „Ecclesial History of the English People“ is the most reliable of them all but lived at the end of the 7th century – about 350 years after the events important to us. He even cites his sources (like a proper historian should. Unless you're on the Internet. Like me. Cough). One of his sources also happens to be Gildas.

  1. So what DID happen?

According to the our sources what happened is this:

During and after the retreat of the Romans the Picts (from today's Scotland) and the Scoti (from Ireland – yes I know it's confusing) attacked the romanized Kelts which then asked for help from the Romans who had other problems at the moment and didn't want to help. So the Kelts asked the Angles, Saxons and Jutes instead who gladly helped but then decided to stay in sunny Britain and take it for themselves. War ensued.

Modern scientific and archaeological research suggests that there was a long, drawn out process of migration spanning from the 4th to the beginning of the 8th century rather than the punctual attack Bede described but that's not important to our search for Arthur.

Gildas and Bede tells us the Celtic king who asked for help from the Anglo-Saxons was called Vortigern but both name a different year for the event: Gildas 429, Bede 449.

Vortigern is sometimes connected to Arthurian Legend but surprisingly gets a more important role in modern adaptions rather than medieval ones – the miniseries Merlin with Sam Neill comes to my mind (I LOVED that series as a child).

So that's the background story. Now we come to the part we're interested in:


What we know is that there was a huge battle at Mount Badon where the Anglo-Saxons were defeated by the Britons and retreated for a while. What we do not know is:

  • the time („about 500“ is a close as we get)

  • the place (probably around Bath but we really don't know)

  • any of the commanders of the battle. Except for maybe one:

Nennius writes:

Then it was, that the magniminous Arthur, with all the kings and military fore 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.

Yep, that's it: First mention of Arthur that we know of, written around 830 AD about a guy who lived 300 years before that. So he's not king, there don't seem to be any sorcerers or dragons around and a battlefield is no place for a big round table.

The problem with his appearance as a commander is that neither Gildas nor Bede mention him, even with all the earlier sources at the latter's disposal and his tendency to be very accurate about this sort of thing.

There also are some Welsh poems from the 5th which mention Arthur but the parts with his name were inserted quite a bit later. Forgery was quite common in the Middle Ages.

So that's why most historians don't believe in a historical Arthur. It's also not a very story base books and films and TV shows on. Yet.

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Very interesting! That's all I got, lol. Thanks for taking the time to research all this!

Very interesting. I love all the history/not-history surrounding the legend.

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