Historians are not in agreement as to whether or not the ‘real’ King Arthur—the living, breathing, fighting human being—ever existed. The original sources for the legend of King Arthur come from a few Welsh sources, including:
1) Gildas was a 6th century Welsh 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 chronicler of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians suspect that King Arthur never existed.
2) Taliesin, a 6th century Welsh poet, and thus a contemporary of Gildas, wrote several poems about Arthur. Including the lines: “ . . . 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.”
3) Aneirin, a 7th century Welsh poet, wrote Y Goddodin, which mentions Arthur in passing. In writing about the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600, he describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur.”
4) Nennius was a 9th century Welsh monk who wrote, Historia Brittonum, of a “History of the Britons”. In it he says, “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) Finally we have some connected works of Welsh mythology called The Mabinogion. 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, a tale of Arthur that takes place after the Battle of Camlann (thus indicating that he survived it) and includes directions to ‘Mount Badon’ or Caer Faddon, as the Welsh call it. 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 but no longer written by Welshmen are, in chronological order:
1) William, Chaplain to Bishop Eudo of Leon – “Legend of St. Goeznovius, preface” (c. 1019)
2) William of Malmesbury – “The Deeds of the Kings of England (De Gestis Regum Anglorum)” (c. 1125)
3) Henry of Huntingdon – “History of the English” (Historia Anglorum, c. 1130)
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 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.
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.
Whether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query. He either was or he wasn’t. Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile such as myself 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 ‘wasn’t’—or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possible wasn’t even a king.
As a side note, the Welsh sources, particularly the dream of Dream of Rhonabwy, make Modred Arthur’s nephew and foster-son, not his illegitimate son as many readers might know him. This version of events is carried through to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the Arthurian story. Arthur’s illicit/incestuous relationship with his sister, Morgause or Morgan, is a later (French) addition.
For the purposes of my book Cold My Heart, I choose to believe that Arthur was real, that he was backed into a corner by his duplicitous nephew, Modred, and—as in the Dream of Rhonabwy—he did not die at Camlann as the Norman/French/Anglo version says, but lived to see his country securely in the hands of a worthy heir. At the same time, the world of Cold My Heart rests in the balance between the historical Wales of 537 AD, and the quasi-medieval Arthurian world that readers have grown to love throughout the ages.
Some points in particular where Cold My Heart is less than historically accurate:
1) The Christian Church was not as full blown and organized as portrayed in Cold My Heart. Although St. Dafydd was appointed Archbishop around this time, he did not have ecclesiastical control over Christianity throughout Wales and organized Christianity tended to center on small groups of monks/nuns or hermitages. Many people remained pagan.
2) Saxons had only just begun to fight on horseback. They rode horses, of course, but cavalry weren’t necessarily part of their repertoire. Nor the use of bows.
3) A ‘knight’ is a medieval notion, but it is impossible to portray Geraint, Bedwyr, Gareth, and Gawain without using the word. Forgive me.
These are all my King Arthur posts:
The Best and Worst of King Arthur Movies
The Welsh/British High Council
The Fictional King Arthur (rant)
The Fictive and Historical King Arthur
Historical Sources for King Arthur
King Arthur (2004) movie review
Mount Badon/Caer Faddon (part 2)
The Roman Fort of Caerleon (and Arthur’s Camelot?)
Triumph of Medieval Propaganda