The transformation of life in the fifth century from Roman rule to self-reliance was not smooth. Periods of poor leadership or no leadership at all created a situation requiring a strong hand. That void was filled by a leader who came to be known as King Arthur. This lesson covers Arthur’s rise to power, the concluding event of Early Arthurian Britain.
Warlord or King? Arthur’s Twelve Battles
Nennius, in the Historia Brittonum, lists twelve battles Arthur fought and won with the kings of Britain against the Saxons. In this document, Arthur is not called a king, but his military prowess is highly touted. The final battle of Mount Badon, likely to have happened at the end of the century, is the final push that broke the Saxons and drove them either into submission or out of Britain altogether. Some of the descriptions in the Historia are on the fantastic side, but that these battles actually occurred is certainly plausible.
The entries regarding Arthur in the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) also mention the battle of Badon. They do not call him a king either. The sixth century Welsh poem Y Gododdin, by Aneirin, portrays Arthur as a warleader instead of a king as well. The poem appears to have no need to explain who Arthur was, as if assuming the audience knew his accomplishments well. The Welsh Triads (Trioedd Ynys Prydein), Welsh bardic lore grouped into sets of three, make him sound like an adventurer, guerilla fighter and clan feuder.
By contrast, Geoffrey of Monmouth calls Arthur “king” directly upon his father’s (Uther) death. Uther is poisoned when Arthur is fifteen years old. The Britons’ leaders gather and suggest to Dubricius, the Archbishop of the City of Legions (Chester) that he should crown Arthur as king. Dubricius and the other archbishops gather and crown the young man at Silchester. Afterward, the sequence of twelve battles against the Saxons begins. Instead of a simple list as Nennius gave, Geoffrey added a substantial amount of detail to each battle.
Many of the locations of the battles can be identified with a fair amount of confidence. Others are completely unknown, although historians have many theories. The battles appear to be quite widespread, indicating campaigns against not only the Saxons but also the Angles in the east and the Picts in the north.
Interestingly, the Welsh genealogies list Arthur as Uther (Uthyr) Pendragon’s son, Arthwyr Pendragon. Uther’s entry includes the title, King of All Britain. Arthur’s does not. However, the epithet Pendragon roughly means something like “head dragon” or “chief dragon.”
Was Arthur a king or a powerful warlord? In the fifth century, the term “king” may have been a cheap title as it was in Ireland, if it was actually used at all. “King,” to the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, carried a lot more importance by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s time in the twelfth century. With Geoffrey’s patriotic slant to his narrative, “king” would have elevated Arthur to a worthy level in the eyes of those the writer intended to impress.
If Arthur existed, he most certainly was a warlord of importance. He was unique enough for his memory to be carried throughout centuries of obscure poetry and folklore, and then into a fabulous legend that continues to grow. Whether he carried the title or not makes little difference, to a struggling nation, he was a king.
If medieval Ireland’s kingship structure can be used as a reliable source for the undisturbed development of Celtic customs, then a clue to Arthur’s ascendance in Britain’s royal hierarchy in the fifth century may be found. With the revival of kingdoms based on tribes and clans, it is a plausible speculation that the choosing of a king rather the strict reliance on inheritance was revived as well. Though this assumption cannot be made summarily, Arthurian Britain and Ireland were similar in their division into many small kingdoms. The successor of each Irish kingdom appears to have been chosen from among the male descendants of a common great-grandfather instead of a directly descending son or sons automatically inheriting. The key similarity is the act of choosing.
Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales, c.AD 1146-1220) mentions an inaugural ritual he observed for an Irish king-elect. The ritual may have been a tradition handed down from Druidic times. It involved the ritual slaying of a mare. The king-elect ate from the animal’s flesh and drank from and bathed in broth made from the carcass. A similar ritual involving a bull is described in the Irish Book of the Dun Cow. It is a divination in which a druid eats the bull’s flesh and drinks its blood. Four other druids put him to sleep and whomever he dreams of will be the new high king. In both of these examples, the king appears to be chosen.
Since the epithet of “king” may have been overly common, other titles may have actually suited Arthur. Some historians have placed him more strongly in the Roman faction, proposing he had a title of dux (duke) or comes (count) of Britain. Others have thought to raise him to the status of emperor, after the previous usurpers Maximus and Constantine III.
Returning to The History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth describes the gathering of prominent bishops to name Arthur as king. In other versions of the story, Arthur must pull a sacred sword from a stone in order to be declared king. The appearance of traditions in the legend similar to early kingship rituals suggests that if Arthur actually held the title of king, he may have had to submit to a ritual gathering or prove himself worthy of kingship. Certainly, as the more than capable warlord who won twelve decisive battles, he should have earned his crown.
The Aftermath of Mount Badon
If the Age of Arthur is difficult to illuminate, the most shadowy part of all is Arthur himself. His personal life is only known through legend and fiction based on obscure traditions. Yet we do know that a period of stability and prosperity returned to Britain in the late fifth and first part of the sixth centuries, the years in which Arthur is proposed to have lived.
According to Gildas, foreign wars ceased after the battle at Mount Badon—assuming he meant the wars against the Saxons and Picts. He tells us that the cities never regained their citizenry after the Saxon revolt. He also tells us that civil war, always present, continued. However, in spite of civil violence, the respite from foreign pressures lasted long enough and was sufficiently strong that the new generation only knew a life of such peace. Then, as civil war worsened, total dissolution of state and church occurred. Gildas likely meant by this that the battle of Camlann, in which both Arthur and the traitor Medraut fell, marked the turning point which thrust Britain back into chaos.
In looking at the period following Mount Badon, a reversal of Germanic migrations is suggested by an account of Saxons moving from Britain to the continent. The account has been questioned, but some archaeology backs it up. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s listings of Saxon victories decline during this period as well. Several battles fought by the leader Cerdic and his followers are mentioned as occurring throughout the first half of the sixth century. The Chronicle also, however, indicates they never gained more than twenty miles of ground until the second half of the century. It ignores Saxon any defeat.
Historians have tried to pinpoint an historical figure on which the Arthur of legend may have been based. Among those prospects are Riothamus and Lucius Artorius Castus, whose lives vaguely paralleled some parts of Arthur’s story. Riothamus fits reasonably close in time, but when comparing the sequence of events in his life to those in Arthur’s, no definite conclusion can be drawn. Lucius Artorius Castus belonged to the second century, making him far too early.
Though some of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s details on Arthur’s life may be based on tiny grains of truth, none of it can be taken for granted. From the time of his work forward, hundreds of variations occur. All that can be said with relative surety, is that a capable, strong and charismatic leader of the Britons must have existed and wielded the ideal of military, political and social unity into reality. His title—or even his name—were not important. What was important were his achievements in creating peace for his people. As a result, the ideal has been powerful enough to last fifteen hundred years and continues to evolve and evoke the wonder in us all.