What do Confucius, Pythagoras, Sun Tzu, William Shakespeare, Homer, Mulan, Robin Hood, William Tell, Sybil Ludington, Pope Joan, John Henry, St. Christopher, Lycurgus of Sparta, Laozi, even Jesus of Nazareth have in common with King Arthur?
Some say these people never existed.
The historicity of Arthur, whether a king, a Dux Bellorum, a petty warlord, or a Roman general is a topic that raises some surprisingly bitter, and I mean shockingly so, arguments among people interested in the subject. You would think some of these people are defending their entire livelihoods on the answer.
In some cases, that’s not far off. Some authors have published based on the claim that they have “The Truth!” Some academics have what they perceive to be their reputations entirely bound up in the defense of their own theses. If you’ve ever followed some of the exchanges between folks on different sides of the arguments, you’d be surprised at how often they actually devolve into name-calling.
Anyone claiming to know the truth about this time period is either a fraud, under-educated or doesn’t understand the difference between evidence and proof. It is no more valid to say that Arthur absolutely existed than it is to say that he absolutely did not. Anyone interested in the truth, or at least as close as we can get to it, should not be mentally shackled to a particular argument.
The truth is that there is some evidence that Arthur did exist, even if not enough to be called proof. But there is zero evidence that he did not exist. I do not claim to know for sure, but, on balance, I think the evidence tilts well in favour of his existence. And isn’t that much more interesting than Arthur being a myth?
So what evidence exists for a historical Arthur? Physical evidence of historical people is pretty rare the further back in time you go. Coins have been a good way to identify some rulers, but Britons in this period did not mint coins. Writings are our primary way of knowing about people.
Unfortunately, there are precious few surviving contemporary records from Britain in this era. Only two, in fact. One by Gildas, and the other by St. Patrick (which barely counts, because he was a Briton in Ireland, but writing to a British king). Both deal with religious issues and, unfortunately, neither mentions Arthur, probably because he wasn’t the subject of their ire.
There is another contemporary record from Gaul (France) that might reference Arthur. It’s a letter from a Gallo-Roman aristocrat named Sidonius Apollinaris, to a British king he called Riothamus. Some say “Riothamus” is just a name, but others say it’s a title because it comes from the Brittonic for “Highest King”. This is part of the framework of evidence assembled by the famed British historian, Geoffrey Ashe, in his book, The Discovery of King Arthur, which is the basis for my own historical novel The Retreat to Avalon in the series, The Arthurian Age.
So we have to look beyond records contemporary with Arthur, but this poses a new challenge. The Britons were primarily an oral history culture. It was only under Roman influence that they kept written records. When Rome left, Britain quickly reverted to its original culture, mostly. This is not to say that we can’t trust anything from oral history cultures. Out of necessity, these cultures develop ways to transmit memories very accurately.
The druids of Britain, Gaul and Ireland are a good example. The druids were known to be literate, but forbade the recording of their knowledge. It had to be memorized. One of the three branches of the druids were the bards. They were the poets, musicians and keepers of history. The traditions of the Bards appear to have lasted far in the medieval era, long after the rest of the Druidic religion had disappeared. We know that the number three was important to the pagan Druids, and what is interesting is that we have a series of Welsh poems, called The Triads of the Island of Britain, which are poems arranged in groups of three. The oldest surviving copies of these poems were written down in the 1200’s, but they refer to much older customs, events and people, including Arthur. It’s easy to see how oral history could be passed on by these poems. Changes would alter the rhyme and rhythm of the poems. Many people today use mnemonic methods to memorize things.
So poetry can preserve very ancient memories. The oldest surviving written mention of Arthur is in a different sort of poem, composed by the bard, Aneirin, called Y Gododdin. It describes a doomed attack by Britons against an enemy stronghold (thought to be at Catterick, Yorkshire). The oldest surviving written copy is from the late 1200’s, but linguistic evidence suggests that the poem is much, much older. Probably from around the early to mid 600’s. The poem describes one of the warriors, Guortur, as being generous, fierce and deadly in combat. All the same, “he was no Arthur.” Clearly, about a century after he would have lived, Arthur was the bar against which all other British warriors were measured. It is also one of the clearest clues that Arthur did exist.
Ok, to understand how Y Gododdin shows that Arthur was a very early reference, you have to really get into the arcane world of historical linguistics. I’m not going to do that to you. I’ll give you the gist of the argument, and if you are interested, it will point you in the direction of more research.
The researcher, John Koch, has shown that for the rhyming pattern of the poem to work, the people who transcribed it had to use the phonetic pronunciation of words as they existed in the 6th century. By about 650, Old Welsh, Cumbric and other languages were evolving from the earlier Common Brittonic language, and sounds and spellings changed. Because the scribes tried to keep the rhyme and rhythm the same as the old poems, they were sometimes forced to use archaic words and terms. Imagine something along the lines of reading original Shakespeare today. There’s not much difference in time from Arthur to the scribes as it is from Shakespeare to us.
There is another clue for the historical existence of Arthur. His name. Some claim it is Brittonic for “bear-man”, but it is not, and there are clear linguistic reasons that would need another article. Arthur comes from the Roman gens (sort of like a clan) name, Artorius and was virtually unknown in Britain until Arthur. But there is a burst of names based on Arthur in the 6th and 7th centuries, and then the use of the name dies out again for a long time. It appears that a number of parents wanted to name their sons after someone famous at this early time period.
These are the earliest indications that someone named Arthur existed, and made enough of an impact to be remembered. There are other poems referring to Arthur that may have early origins, but the first major mention of Arthur is in the Historia Brittonum, which was written in the early 800’s by a British monk called Nennius. This book was a compilation of stories that some Britons at the time believed to describe their history. Much of it is myth, such as the founding of Britain by refugees from the fall of Troy. But it does include historical facts, and it’s the first surviving story about Arthur. He’s described, not as a king, but as a general, and it lists twelve major battles that Arthur is said to have won.
Little of these early legends and virtually none of the history is reflected in the well-known Arthurian Romances of the 12th to 15th centuries. But while they may not have Lancelot and a Grail, they have a mystery and excitement that challenges anything in the later stories, and a foundation in history. I hope I’m able to bring alive the image of Arthur and his era in my own series, The Arthurian Age.
Title The Retreat to Avalon
Author Sean Poage
Genre Historical fiction, Historical Fantasy
Publisher Made Global Publishing
After three generations of struggle against ruthless invaders, Britain has finally clawed its way back within reach of peace and prosperity. Across the sea, Rome is crumbling under an onslaught of barbarian attacks, internal corruption and civil war. Desperate for allies, Rome’s last great emperor looks to Britain and the rising fame of her High King, Arthur.
Arthur believes the coming war is inevitable, but many are opposed. Dissension, intrigue and betrayal threaten to tear the fragile British alliance apart from within, while the enemies of Britain wait for the first sign of weakness.
Gawain, a young warrior craving fame, is swept up in Arthur’s wake as the king raises an army. While his wife and kin face their own struggles at home, Gawain finds himself taking on more than he bargained for, while heading into the greatest battle his people have faced in generations.
“Avalon, so the story goes, is a mythic place where King Arthur fades from view after his last battle. But in his ground-breaking novel The Retreat to Avalon, Sean Poage tells us otherwise. Avalon, he says, is a real location on the map, and a real Arthur did go there. We can even fix the date.
Told through a group of vivid characters, The Retreat to Avalon brilliantly opens up a world which historical research has only recently begun to discover.” - Geoffrey Ashe, MBE FRSL, historian and author of The Discovery of King Arthur
Arthur moved to within a few bowshots of the lines and observed the battle. Bedwyr ensured that the initial charge was feeble, and the Vesi surged against the Britons with increased confidence, believing they faced weak opponents. But the Britons held, and the battle continued sporadically, the wounded and dead carried away between clashes.
After some time, Bedwyr had his men press forward, and the Vesi lines wavered, their commander sending cavalry to the weak spots. Shortly after, a column of enemy infantry appeared, marching to reinforce their comrades. It was time to continue the retreat.
Bedwyr had groups of men begin peeling off from the rear of his formations. A disordered withdrawal would be more convincing but would waste lives. Arthur led his heavy cavalry up to prevent an actual collapse as Bedwyr started pulling more men out. The mounted warriors pressed up against the thinning locations, stabbing with their long spears, over the heads of their fellows and into the faces of the enemy. The light and medium cavalry remained on the wings, dodging scattered flights of arrows that the Vesi cavalry haphazardly fired from extreme range. Gawain watched impatiently with the others as Arthur surveyed the melee from his saddle.
The conflict grew intense as the Vesi pressed their attack, sensing victory against the receding British ranks. But as they pushed onto the higher ground that the Britons had occupied, they found their sides unprotected by the marsh. Arthur launched his cavalry fully into the fray against the enemy flanks, bringing them to a panicked halt.
Bedwyr’s infantry were now able to withdraw and began hustling along the road as the Vesi commander tried to reorganize his troops against the waves of cavalry attacks. Suddenly, Arthur rose up in his saddle, pointed his spear at the centre of the Vesi formation and roared, “By God’s hand, now!”
His horse leapt forward, and it was a testament to the discipline of his household guard that none missed a beat. A shout blasted forth as they spurred their mounts toward the enemy spearmen, their lance points dropping down to aim for standing men. Behind the first lines of riders and from the light and medium cavalry who were not engaged came a racket of shouts and the bellow of horns.
Arthur could sense the timing to initiate a charge like no other. The sudden noise and the sight of the onrushing mass of beast, rider and glittering steel had its intended effect on men already in a state of confusion. Panic erupted, some trying to find a way out of the path of the horses, others trying to push back through the lines. A few made futile attempts to rally their fellows.
The thrill of battle rushed through Gawain, intensifying his focus, merging with Keincaled, whose red ears pinned back against his head as he launched into such a dash that Gawain had to rein him in to avoid outpacing his line. From the corner of his right eye, he kept track of Arthur, in the centre of the charge and slightly ahead, four places down.
Arthur led his men as a warlord should, in the front and centre. His white cloak streamed behind, revealing his gilded scale armour and his famous sword, Caliburn, in its jewelled scabbard. His white shield bore the Chi-Rho in red, with an image of the Virgin painted inside the shield, above the handle. His dark steel helm was adorned only with scars of battle and a gold dragon crest.
Behind Arthur, Tegyr carried the Dragon banner, a pole topped by a gold dragon’s head with an open mouth allowing the air streaming through to extend a red silk tail for several feet. The enemy would have no doubts about who this was.
Gawain focused on the enemy line, seconds away. There was no room to maneuver so there would be little choosing of targets and no swerving to avoid an opposing spear. Gawain identified the man he faced—a grim, heavy man with a bald head and reddish-blond beard, wearing a thickly padded leather breastplate. He looked determined to hold the line and bellowed encouragement and curses at his fellows. But they were beginning to scramble away as the oncoming charge shook the ground beneath them.
The man glanced over his shoulders to see the space clearing behind him. He began fidgeting and, as Gawain expected, he lost his nerve, dropped his spear and tried to protect himself with both hands on his shield. It did him no good.
Gawain and his fellows hit the disordered Vesi lines in a dreadful cacophony of shattered wood, ringing steel, rent flesh and terrified screams. Gawain’s spear struck the shield of his target, smashing the man down, snapping the point off and wrenching the shaft out of Gawain’s grasp. In the space of a breath after Keincaled crushed the hapless soldier, Gawain drew his sword and joined his comrades in slashing, stabbing and trampling the enemy ranks.
A rout loomed, but that was not what Arthur intended, and within a minute or so, Tegyr sounded a horn call that told the Britons to withdraw. Gawain and the others moved in closer to Arthur and shielded him as they cantered out of the carnage of their assault. A few had minor wounds, and Arthur’s cousin, Siawn, had lost his horse, so he rode out behind his brother, Moren, until they could bring up a replacement for him.
There was little threat at this point, as the Vesi commanders struggled to reorganise. A few of their horsemen approached to launch arrows at the Britons but fled from Bedwyr’s light cavalry.
“It appears Euric’s men do have serious intentions towards us,” Bedwyr called out, riding up to join Arthur. He was flushed with battle and grinning to both ears. Arthur, too, was animated and laughed in response.
“Your spearmen should be able to put some distance between themselves and the enemy,” Arthur responded. “I doubt the Vesi will be able to organise another attack before nightfall.”
Historical fiction author, Sean Poage, has had an exciting and varied life, as a laborer, soldier, police officer, investigator, computer geek and author. Travelling the world to see history up close is his passion.
These days he works in the tech world, writes when he can, and spends the rest of the time with his family, which usually means chores and home improvement projects, with occasional time for a motorcycle ride, scuba dive, or a hike in the beautiful Maine outdoors.
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