All about King Arthur

King Arthur:  was he real?  was he even a king?  Someone reached my blog the other day by typing in “King Arthur wasn’t Welsh”.  What?  Clearly that person needed to be pointed in the proper direction and I’m glad my blog was here to do it.

I have written extensively about King Arthur in many places on this blog, and with that poor lost soul in mind, I realized that it might be of some benefit to put these posts all in the same place.  To find out about the origins of King Arthur, see:

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Historical Sources for King Arthur

Possible King Arthur (s)

Was King Arthur Real?

Who Was Guinevere?


Morgan/Morgana/Morgan le Fey

The British (Welsh/Cymry) High Council

For information on the places associated with King Arthur:

The Holy Grail and Dinas Bran

King Arthur’s Round Table–or why it wasn’t just found in Chester

Mount Badon

Mount Badon/Caer Faddon (part 2)

The Roman Fort of Caerleon (and Arthur’s Camelot?)

Tintagel Castle

For a discussion of fictional/mythological aspects of King Arthur:

The Best and Worst of King Arthur Movies

The Fictional King Arthur (rant)–or why stories about King Arthur drive me crazy sometimes.

King Arthur’s Family Tree

Thirteen Treasures of Britain

Triumph of Medieval Propaganda

Historical Sources for King Arthur

cmh blogHistorians are not in agreement as to whether or not the ‘real’ Arthur—the living, breathing, fighting human being—ever existed. The original sources for the legend of King Arthur come from a few Welsh texts. These are:

1) Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin, with it’s passing mention of Arthur. The author refers to the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600 and describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.

2) Gildas, a 6th century British cleric who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). He never mentions Arthur, although he states that his own birth was in the year of the siege of Mount Badon. The fact that he does not mention Arthur, and yet is our only historian of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians suspect that King Arthur never existed.

3) Taliesin, a 6th century poet, to whom The Spoils of Annwn, is ascribed.  This poem is only one of several in which he mentions Arthur.

4)  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.”

5) Native Welsh Tales: These connected works of Welsh mythology were named the Mabinogion in the 19th century by their first translator, Lady Charlotte Guest.  These include the story of Culhwch and Olwen, in which Arthur and his men track down the thirteen treasures of Britain, and The Dream of Rhonabwy.  These stories are found in the Red Book of Hergest and/or the White Book of Rhydderch, both copied in the mid-14th century.

6) The Annales Cambriae. This book is a Welsh chronicle compiled no later than the 10th century AD. It consists of a series of dates, two of which mention Arthur: “Year 72, The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors. Year 93, The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”    The early dates of the above works indicate little or no relation to the later English/French embellishments of Arthur, which Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized.

Later texts that are built on the above works, in chronological order, are:

1) 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 from 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.

2) 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.

3) 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.”

4) The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, dating to the middle 12th century. This is the beginning of the King Arthur legend as we know it. Geoffrey was born in Wales, but worked for his patron, Robert of Gloucester, who was particularly interested in legitimizing the claim of his sister (Matilda) to the English crown. Thus, the confusion of landmarks which moved Arthur from Wales to England proper, and the romanticizing of the tale, including the notion that Britain was originally conquered by Brutus, the son of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and thus Britain was ‘classical’ in origin.

5) Roman y Brut (The Romance of Brutus) is the translation of Geoffrey’s work into Anglo-Norman verse. It takes much of Geoffrey’s story and adds the round table, courtly love, and chivalry, thus transforming Arthur from a Welsh warrior to a medieval, Anglo-French knight.  From this point, the Welsh Arthur is all but lost, and the Anglo/Norman/French ‘King Arthur’ is paramount.

By 1191, the monks of Glastonbury were claiming knowledge of his grave, and soon after, the link between Arthur and the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly brought there. By 1225, monks in France had written The Vulgate Cycle, telling of the holy grail from the death of Jesus Christ to the death of Arthur, and included the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. This story became the standard version used throughout Europe.

One critic stands out, however:  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.]

Guest Post: Anna Elliott, author of “Twilight of Avalon”

Why I love Arthurian Stories

In the Spring of 2007, I woke up from a very vivid dream of telling my mother that I was going to write a book about the daughter of Modred, son of Arthur and the great villain of the Arthurian cycle of tales.  I’d been writing historical fiction and sending books around to agents and editors, always coming close to being published but never actually getting a book sold.  I was four months pregnant with my first baby at the time, and had been starting to think that as much as I loved writing, maybe a professional career wasn’t going to happen for me–or at least not for some time.

            Something about this dream, though, just wouldn’t let me go.  I had been an English major in college with a focus on Medieval literature and history, and had fallen in love with the Arthurian world and the Arthur legends then.  I started to do some preliminary research, reading books that explored the possibility of a real, historical Arthur–who if he existed at all would, scholars agreed, have been a 5th century British warlord, possibly one who made a victorious stand against the Saxon tribes invading Britain at the time–a far cry from the king of Camelot who’s come down to us in the tales. 

            At the same time, though, I was reminded of why I’d fallen in love with the Arthur stories in the first place.  The world of the legends is a recognizably historical one, part of our own past–and yet it’s also a world that has the wonderful potential for magic and enchantment.  So as I was reading, I started to build my own version of that world in my head–one that was a blending of legend and late 5th century British history, truth and tale.

            In my dream, I’d known only that the main character of my book was going to be Modred’s daughter.  It was only when I was looking over name lists trying to decide on one for my heroine that the name “Isolde” leaped off the page at me and made me turn back to the story of Trystan and Isolde.  The Trystan and Isolde legend is a later addition to the Arthurian cycle, very much grounded in a courtly, chivalric, 13th century world.  And yet it, too, has its roots in earlier legends and traditions that still echo faintly in the story as it has come down to us today.  I started to wonder what those earliest traditions might have been, what the story might have looked like at its first inception during the chaos and violence of Dark Age Britain, the “real” Arthurian age.

            That was how the story started to frame itself in my mind as a trilogy: Twilight of Avalon, Dark Moon of Avalon, and Sunrise of Avalon.  Three books that would weave together the scraps we knew of 5th century British history with the earliest versions of both the Arthurian and the Trystan and Isolde tales.

            From the first, I’d known that my story was going to be a kind of sequel to the Arthur tales, a chance to explore what might have happened after the battle of Camlann, after Arthur was wounded and carried away to be healed on the mist shrouded Isle of Avalon.  And that idea, too, held tremendous appeal for me, in that it gave me a chance to see a different side of the Arthurian story. 

            I think one of the most captivating, the most moving aspects of the Arthur stories is their ability to show us the highest potentials for human nobility, human honor and courage.  And yet the story always ends in tragedy, with the battle of Camlann where Arthur falls, betrayed by all those he loved best. 

            His legend though, still lives, still gives us an ideal to strive for.  That was the feeling that stayed with me in reading the original Arthur stories–and the feeling I wanted the characters in my trilogy to have, as well.  The title of my book is Twilight of Avalon, because in many ways it’s set at a turning point, the end of the age defined by Arthur the king.  But I wanted my Trystan and Isolde to be able to hold onto the ideals of the Arthurian world, even if that world was forever gone.  Because even in the wake of tragedy, life goes on–and there’s always the possibility that someday those ideals will end in victory instead of defeat.  For me, that was one of the joys of writing Twilight of Avalon: to know that this time, in my small corner of the great Arthurian tapestry, the story didn’t have to end at Camlann.

Mount Badon / Caer Faddon (part 2)

Mount Badon, if it exists at all, should appear on the map somewhere.  But where?

There are many, many possibilities.

First of all, we should note where Mount Badon is not.  For all that Geoffrey of Monmouth embellished and expanded the Arthurian legend, he did history a disservice in supposing that King Arthur ruled all of England, Scotland and Wales.  Geoffrey wrote his book under the patronage of Robert of Gloucester, who was trying to justify the rule of England by his half-sister, Maud.  Thus, because Maud had roots in Normandy, so did Arthur; because Maud was hoping to rule all of Great Britain, so did Arthur; because Maud’s power base was in and around Gloucester, so was Arthur’s.

Yet even in the twelfth century, for one king to control all of Great Britain by force of arms was extremely difficult.  Gloucester himself was unable to spread his influence east, into the territory controlled by King Stephen, whose rule centered on London.  Both pretenders to the throne had trouble controlling Ranulf, the Earl of Chester, who’d stretched his domain across the north of England from Chester to Lincoln.  Looking at the situation objectively, to think that a Dark Age king (Arthur) could have ruled all of Normandy, Wales, Scotland, and England when the Romans couldn’t do it, William the Conquerer couldn’t do it, and no King of England could do it until 1745 (with the exception of Normandy, which had been lost to France), defies all reasonable reading of history.

Therefore, the historical Mt. Badon (if it is a true place) has to exist within striking distance of Wales–the last bastion of the Britons facing a Saxon advance–and circumscribed within an area no further east than Birmingham, south of Gloucester, or north of Chester.

Early British Kingdoms has this to say:

“It was at the Battle of Mount Badon that tradition says the Saxon advance into Britain was finally halted. It was Arthur’s greatest victory and, not surprisingly, there are many claimants for its location. Forts are preferred since Gildas, in his De Excidio Britanniae, more properly called the battle a “siege”  . . . Possibilities include Bowden Hill, Lothian; Dumbarton Rock, Strathclyde; Mynydd Baedan, Glamorgan; Little Solway Hill, Somerset; or Brent Knoll, Somerset. Modern theory, however, suggests one of the many Badburys around the country: in Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. Liddington Castle, near Badbury in Wiltshire, seems most popular at present. Welsh tradition backed up by Geoffrey of Monmouth is, however, almost certainly correct in identifying the battle site with Bath, Caer Baddon, or, at least somewhere in its vicinity. Bathampton Down has been suggested.”

Bath lies just south of Gloucester.  Not a surprise, given Geoffrey’s patron.

The Welsh word for ‘Bath’ is ‘Caer Faddon’ (  It is the Welsh translation of an English name, not the Welsh word for ‘bath’ itself, which is ymdrochfeydd.  This observation leads to another possible location for Mt. Badon, one mentioned in one the Welsh myths, The Dream of Rhonabwy.  In this poem, Arthur and his men dismount below Caer Faddon, within a half-day’s ride of the ford of Rhyd-y-Groes (ford of the cross).  The ford is not near Bath, but is an actual, well established, geographic site.  It is located on the Severn (Hafren in Welsh) River, east of Welshpool.

In looking at a map, or Google Earth for that matter, there are a whole host of possible locations for a Dark Age siege within a half-day’s ride of this ford, including Breiddon Hill, an enormous iron age hill fort.  The range of mountains in which Breiddon is located sits on the eastern edge of what became known as the ‘Marche’–the borderland between Wales and England–and adjacent to Offa’s Dyke, which dates to the 700s AD and was built by the Saxons to pen the Welsh into their mountains.

Identifying the Mount Badon of the Anglo-Norman Arthurian tales with the Caer Faddon of the Dream of Rhonabwy at last connects the continental Arthur with the native Welsh tales.  It also de-links King Arthur from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Gloucester-centric perspective and perhaps finally brings us closer to finding the geographic center of the historic, battle-leader named Arthur.

Mount Badon

In the Arthurian legend, as well as in the historical record, Mount Badon (or Caer Baddon) is the location of Arthur’s last battle that pushed the Saxons back into England for a generation.  All the literary sources, including Geoffrey of Monmouth, the last of the historical and first of the mythical, indicate its significance.  This is what they have to say:

Nennius:  “The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns. ” Writing in 796 AD  (Historia Britonum, Page 35)

Annales Cambriae:   “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.” (Welsh Annals), circa 796.  Page 45.

Gildas:    “From then on victory went now to our countrymen, now to their enemies: so that in this people the Lord could make trial (as he tends to) of his latter-day Israel to see whether it loves him or not. This lasted right up till the year of the siege of Badon Hill, pretty well the last defeat of the villains, and certainly not the least. That was the year of my birth; as I know, one month of the forty-fourth year since then has already passed.” Writing in 544. (De Excidio et Conquestu Britannie, Pages 27-28) 

Bede:  “Their leader at that time was a certain Ambrosius Aurelianus, a discreet man, who was, as it happened, the sole member of the Roman race who had survived this storm in which his parents, who bore a royal and famous name, had perished. Under his leadership the Britons regained their strength, challenged their victors to battle, and, with God’s help, won the day. From that time on, first the Britons won and then the enemy were victorious until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when the Britons slaughtered no small number of their foes about forty-four years after their arrival in Britain.”  Writing in 731 AD  (Historia Ecclesiastica. Pages 54-55)

And Geoffrey of Monmouth, written in 1136 AD, an excerpt of which can be found here:

His version, we have to believe could be wholly inaccurate, if only because most of what else he wrote is a great story, but with little factual basis. 

My next post will be on the location of Mt. Badon, which remains a mystery, although there are some interesting clues and possiblities, including a link to the an actual, Welsh site, Caer Faddon.