King Arthur: did he exist? - Sarah Woodbury

King Arthur: did he exist?

I have A LOT to say about King Arthur, most of which can’t fit into a five minute video. But we can make a start. Perhaps the most important question everyone wants answered about King Arthur is: did he exist?

Whether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either lived or he didn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records, much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘didn’t—or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possibly wasn’t even a king. I, however, look at the poetry and tales from the early Middle Ages, and choose to believe he did actually exist.

Medieval people certainly thought he did, and throughout the Middle Ages, an entire body of work developed around his story, much of it mythologized. Historically speaking, however, there are genuine near contemporaneous references to him that predate the kinds of stories we read about now, with the Round Table, the Holy Grail, and the love triangle between Lancelot, Arthur, and Guinevere which is most definitely a later French addition—and one I personally hate.

First of all, we have Gildas, a 6th century Welsh cleric who wrote On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain and never mentions Arthur, even though 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 chronicler of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians assert that King Arthur never existed.

But then we have, a 6th century Welsh bard, making him a contemporary of Arthur too. He wrote several poems about Arthur and his adventures with his men, and this is the first real source of the Arthurian legend. One poem goes:  “ . . . before the door of the gate of hell the lamp was burning.  And when we went with Arthur, a splendid labour,  Except seven, none returned from Caer Vedwyd.”

Shortly thereafter, we have the Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin. He mentions Arthur in passing while talking about the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600. He writes about the battle’s leader, who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”. I get shivers

In the 9th century, another bard, Nennius, wrote the “History of the Britons” and states, “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.”  This work is contemporaneous with many native Welsh Tales, collected in the Mabinogion. This includes the story of Culhwch and Olwen, in which Arthur and his men track down the thirteen treasures of Britain and The Dream of Rhonabwy, a tale of Arthur that takes place after the Battle of Camlann (indicating that he survived it).

Finally, The Annales Cambriae is a Welsh chronicle compiled no later than the 10th century and which 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.” And the Year 93, The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”

What I see here is in denying Arthur’s existence is a modern bias towards the writer of prose, Gildas, over the work of the bards. If you read Gildas’s work, however, you come to realize he wasn’t writing a history as we know it today and had a clear agenda. Historically, however, the bards of Wales were the repository and keepers of knowledge. We shouldn’t dismiss what they wrote just because it came to us as poetry.

Next week we’ll be talking about perhaps the most famous site associated with King Arthur, Tintagel.


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