“The Arthurian legend, however wide-ranging its vagaries, is rooted in an Arthurian Fact.” In this line, Geoffrey Ashe, the renowned historian, puts a face on the difficulty of separating underlying historical facts from the many skewed and glossed chronicles and the glorified literature that brought Arthur’s time and reign to far-reaching popularity.
Very little historical documentation from the Age of Arthur remains, and that which does is mostly unreliable. Roman chroniclers give us quite a number of details on life and historical events during the occupation of Britain, (from the conquest in AD 43 to the withdrawal around 410). However, from the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century until the Renaissance in the sixteenth, events were written down with little or no scholarship. With the Roman withdrawal, all written accounts of Britain after 410 virtually cease.
Society in Britain during the Dark Ages was generally illiterate. Court bards in the mainly Celtic society were probably a form descended from druidic bards of pre-Roman times. Druids had been required to memorize and recite great tracts of history, genealogy, and sagas. Bards of the Dark Ages and later served a similar purpose in passing traditions orally from generation to generation, although at some time they probably lost the rigid memorization requirements and began to embellish the stories on their own. It was not until much later that the “histories” were written down.
The earliest documentation of the Arthurian period survives from Welsh tradition. The work of only two writers contemporary to post-Roman Britain has so far been discovered and preserved. St. Patrick, the famed missionary and patron saint of Ireland, left behind an autobiography and a letter of complaint to the northern British king Coroticus (Ceredig) of Strathclyde.
Gildas, believed to have come from northwestern Britain and to have studied in Wales to become a monk, wrote the De Excidio Brittaniae (The Ruin of Britain) in c.529. Though mostly a tirade against British kings and clergy, the De Excidio does mention the withdrawal of Roman rule as well as some events preceding the withdrawal. Gildas claims to have been born in the year of Badon Hill’s siege, the battle in which Arthur regained control of Britain over the Saxons. Though neither work was intended to be taken as an historical account, they offer our first fleeting glimpses of life in the fifth century.
The Annales Cambriae, (Welsh Annals) were compiled from the late 8th century onward. Medieval annals usually recorded brief descriptions of significant events, mostly pertaining to the local monastic community that produced them. According to specialists, the Welsh Annals appear to have incorporated earlier sets of annals produced in the sixth century. In these earlier sets are the first two records of Arthur in any written document. They do not explain whether he was a king or detail anything about his life, but they mention the siege at Badon and his death in the battle of Camlann.
Preserved with the same group of manuscripts as the Welsh Annals is the ninth century work Historia Brittonum, (History of the Britons) attributed to the cleric Nennius. The narrative makes Arthur a great warleader who fought with the kings of the day, winning twelve battles that defeated the Saxons, and regaining British control of the island. The “history” appears to have relied upon an earlier Welsh vernacular poem rather than actual recorded events. It does not offer solid dates and exaggerates Arthur’s capabilities as a warrior.
The most extensive document which tries to place Arthur historically is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae). Geoffrey was a very patriotic cleric who attempted to write a history encompassing nineteen hundred years of British kings’ reigns, from the first, Brutus, to the last before the Saxon conquest. Writing in the twelfth century, he offers extensive details about the Arthurian period, far more than that of any other period in his work.
Drawing on many earlier sources, Geoffrey claims to have been given “a very ancient book written in the British language” which he translated into Latin for his History. The book he refers to may or may not have existed, but it is clear from his insertions of magic and prophecy, and from his lack of identifiable dates, that he relied heavily on folklore. While some of his personages and events probably were historical, his work, like Nennius’ and others, includes many blatant inaccuracies. Outright patriotic and ecclesiastical posturing also skewed the accuracy of his work. His narrative served to popularize and expand the legend more than provide an accurate account.
An extensive set of Welsh genealogies also includes Arthur and his dynasty. Again, to caution against relying on the accuracy of the document, much of the genealogies’ material was drawn from oral traditions of the fifth and sixth centuries. It should also be remembered that genealogies were often forged in the Middle Ages, meant to create political connections to great rulers of the past and therefore a fabulous heritage, rather than to merely reflect obscure ancestors of whom no one had ever heard.
Two early historically significant documents which contain references to the Arthurian period come from non-native sources. The first is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. It does not mention Arthur, but he does give a simplified view of the various ethnic groups that inhabited Britain from very early times to the eighth century. Secondly, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, begun in the 9th century, does not mention Arthur either, but it does indicate waning Saxon victories during the time Arthur began his campaigns to shrink Saxon territory.
- Ashe, Geoffrey, The Quest for Arthur’s Britain
- Ford, David Nash, Early British Kingdoms website
- Snyder, Christopher, The World of King Arthur