Arthur the King
Compiled by Mick Baker, 9 July 2002. Updated
31 July 2004
Arthur, it seems, is claimed as king of nearly every
post-Roman Celtic kingdom known. The sixth century certainly saw many
men named Arthur born into the Celtic royal families of Britain but,
despite attempts to identify the great man himself amongst them, there
can be little doubt that most of these people were only named in his
honour. Princes with other names are also sometimes identified with
'Arthwyr' which is thought by some to be a title that's similar to
Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded Arthur as a high king
of Britain. He was the son of his predecessor, Uther Pendragon, and
nephew of King Ambrosius.
So-called High King Eudaf Hen of the Roman empire
period in Britain had a nephew named Conan Meriadoc. Arthur's
grandfather, Ambrosius the Elder, had crossed the Channel from Armorica
(modern Brittany) and established the dynasty in Caer Glou at the
beginning of the fifth century. The Breton King Aldrien had been asked
to rescue Britain from the turmoil in which it found itself after the
Roman administration had been expelled in AD 409 (Aldrien was actually
on the Breton throne in 446-464, so for Aldrien, it's likely that Erbin
should be read instead).
He sent his brother, Constantine, to help. This
Constantine appears to have been the historical self-proclaimed British
Emperor Constantine III who took the last Roman troops from Britain in
a vain attempt to assert his claims on the continent in AD 407.
Chronologically speaking, although the timeline seems a little muddled,
it is just possible he was Arthur's grandfather. Arthur's Breton
ancestry was recorded by Gallet.
Riothamus the king
Geoffrey Ashe argues that Arthur was an historical
king in Brittany known to history as Riothamus, a title meaning
'supreme king' (see the Britain and Armorica timelines around
His army is recorded as having crossed the Channel
to fight the Visigoths in the Loire Valley in 468. Betrayed by the
prefect of Gaul, he later disappeared from history. Ashe does not
discuss Riothamus' ancestry but he, in fact, appears quite
prominently in the pedigree of the kings of Domnonée, despite
attempts to equate him with a prince of Cornouaille named Iaun
Riothamus was probably exiled to Britain during one
of the many civil wars that plagued Armorica. He later returned in
triumph to reclaim his inheritance, but was afterwards killed in an
attempt to expel Germanic invaders. Some may see a problem with this
Arthurian identification as it appears to push Arthur back fifty years
from his traditional period at the beginning of the sixth century (see
Ashe, 1985), but it is much more likely that Arthur's heyday falls
between the 470-500 period.
Welsh tradition also sees Arthur as high king of
Britain but tends to follow the genealogies laid down in the Mostyn
MS117 and the Bonedd yr Arwr. These show Arthur as grandson
of Constantine but, this time, he is Constantine Corneu, king of
Traditional Arthurian legend records three kings
of Dumnonia during Arthur's reign: Constantine's son, Erbin; his
grandson, Gereint; and his great-grandson, Cado. Nowhere is there
any indication that these three were closely related to Arthur, nor
that he had any claim on the Dumnonian kingdom. Nor is their any
explanation of why a Dumnonian prince would have been raised to the
high-kingship of Britain. Arthur's connection with this area of
Britain is purely due to his supposedly being conceived at Tintagel,
the residence of his mother's first husband, and being buried at
Glastonbury, the most ancient Christian site in the country.
This map of Dumnonia shows the presumed situation around AD 400,
when the Dumnonians appeared to be expanding their territory to
include that of the Durotriges people of Dorset (click on image
to view entire sequence of Dumnonia maps)
The Site of the Battle of Badon
ARTHUR THE KING:
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
High Kings of Britain
Roman Empire Britannia
High Kings of Armorica
The True Avalon (August Hunt)
The Scots Clan Campbell trace their tribal pedigree back
to one Arthur ic Uibar: the Arthur son of Uther of tradition. Norma Lorre
Goodrich uses this fact to argue that Arthur was a 'Man of the North'.
This idea was first proposed by the Victorian antiquary, W F Skene, and
there is some evidence to recommend it, especially the possible northern
location of Nennius' twelve battles (see sidebar link).
Goodrich places Arthur's court at Carlisle. As the capital
of the northern British kingdom of Rheged, this seems an unlikely home
for Arthur, who was not of this dynasty and was fighting an enemy that,
by and large, was not threatening the north. Professor Goodrich relies
heavily on late medieval literary sources and draws imaginative conclusions
(see Goodrich 1986 & Skene 1868). However, there remains support for
the idea of a northern Arthur.
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
Introduction to Nennius
The Ancient Kingdom of Elmet
There was a northern British King named Arthwys ap
Mor who lived in the generation previous to Arthur's
traditionally-accepted time. He was of the line of Coel Hen (the Old)
and probably ruled over a large kingdom in the Pennines.
Many of Nennius' Arthurian battles are often said
to have taken place in northern Britain. These and other northern
stories that are associated with Arthur may, in reality, have been
relating the achievements of this near contemporary monarch.
Another northern British Arthwys was the son of
Masgwid Gloff, probably a ruler (magistrate - a Roman rank which
effectively became that of king to the post-Roman Britons) of the Elmet
region of modern West Yorkshire (see sidebar links).
Nothing is known of this prince who was exactly
contemporary with the real king's traditional period of rule. Although
it is unlikely that he held his own kingdom - he may have been a
sub-ruler at best - his exploits may have contributed to Arthur's
A map showing Elmet's probable borders during its greatest
extent, with the grey areas being lost first, and the deep pink
area last, in 617 (click on map to view full size)
There is also the possibility, proposed by August Hunt in
his downloadable book The Road from Avalon [no longer available, but
see The True Avalon, via sidebar links], that the story of Arthur
developed from King Cerdic, founder of the Saxon dynasty of Wessex.
The name Cerdic is Celtic, not Germanic. Cerdic's pedigree
has no independent authority. It has been put together from that of the
Bernician kings and his real ancestry is unknown. He evidently could not
claim descent from any Germanic family of importance.
This seems to strengthen the possibility of him having
position and/or power within Romano-British society. Even the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle describes him and his 'son', Cynric, as ealdormen, a term
normally used in ninth century England for someone who was a prominent
official having authority, both civil and military, over a specific
territory forming part of a kingdom.
One idea is that Cerdic may be equated with Ceredig son
of Cunedda Wledig of Venedotia. Arthur's battles as recorded by Nennius
may be identified with Cerdic's battles in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
albeit the case that the geography for Cerdic's battles was much more
August Hunt, as a second alternative, suggests that
Arthur was really Cadwaladr ap Meirchion of Meirionnydd. His name
translates as 'Battle Leader', exactly identical to Nennius' description
of Arthur as Dux Bellorum; while one probable location for Arthur's
death at the Battle of Camlann is the Camlan Valley on the border of
Meirionnydd and Powys.
The Scotti, although they were fresh from Ireland, also
used the name Arthur for a royal prince. Artur, the son of King Aidan of
Dalriada (574-607), was probably born in the 550s - over half a century
too late for 'the' Arthur. David F Carroll argued that this man was the
real Arthur, ruling Manau Gododdin from Camelon (alias Camelot) in
Stirlingshire. Details could formerly be found on the author's website
(Carroll 1996), now defunct.
Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman identify Arthur as
Owain Ddantwyn (White-Tooth), a late fifth century prince of the House
of Cunedda (more specifically of Venedotia - Gwynedd). Their arguments,
however, are wholly unconvincing, and contain many unresolved
Owain's son, Cuneglasus (known from Welsh pedigrees as
Cynlas) was among the five Celtic kings condemned in the writings of
Gildas (see sidebar link). Through a misinterpretation of this account,
Keatman and Phillips imply that Cuneglasus was the son of one Arth, ie
Arthur. They further claim that he, and therefore his father before him,
Owain, must have ruled Powys as this is the only kingdom that remains
un-reconciled with Gildas' kings.
However, Cynlas lived at Din Arth in Rhôs. He was not
the son of Arth. In traditional Celtic manner the kingdom of
Venedotia/Gwynedd had been divided between his father, Owain, who
received eastern Gwynedd (ie. Rhos), and his uncle, Cadwallon Lawhir
(Long-Hand) who took the major western portion. During this period,
Cyngen Glodrydd (the Renowned) was ruling Powys (see Phillips &
This theory only breaks down with the Powys contention.
It can be suggested that the above is all quite acceptable with the
following amendment: Owain ruled Rhôs, not Powys, although in truth
there may well have been annexations of parts of Powys during his
reign. Owain succeeded to the greater part of Gwynedd on the death
of his brother, Cadwallon.
Within a couple of years of his accession, Cadwallon's
son, Maelgwn (Mordred?) rose up and, with the possible collusion of
Owain's son – Cuneglasus – seized the kingdom, killing his uncle at
the battle of Camlann. Cuneglasus received his inheritance – Rhôs –
as a reward from a grateful Maelgwn, his cousin.
A much simpler and thoroughly more convincing thesis
from Mark Devere Davies suggests that Arthur may have been Cuneglasus
of Rhôs himself. If the author's original work can be found, it is
recommended that this be studied for further details.
A King Arthwyr ruled in Dyfed in the late sixth century.
He was the son of King Pedr ap Cyngar, but little else is known of him.
Although it is probable that he was merely named after the great man, it
is possible that some of his accomplishments may have become attached to
the traditional legend.
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
Introduction to Gildas
Baram Blackett and Alan Wilson have theorised that
the legendary King Arthur was an amalgam of two historical characters:
Anwn of Dyfed (alias Arthun), the British king who supposedly conquered
Greece; and Athrwys (alias Athrwys ap Meurig) the king of Gwent and
Arthun was a son of British Emperor Magnus Maximus
(see sidebar link), who lived in the late fourth century. He is better
known as Anwn (alias Dynod) and his title 'King of Greece' is generally
thought to be a misreading of his Latin name, Antonius Gregorius. He
actually ruled much of south Wales.
Athrwys of Glwyssing and Gwent is widely accepted as
being a seventh century king who lived in south-east Wales. His home
in the traditional Arthurian region around Caerleon is part of this
man's attraction. Blackett and Wilson argue, not unconvincingly, that
he really lived in the early sixth century and that his father, Meurig,
was called 'Uther Pendragon', a title meaning 'wonderful commander'.
They also make the important assertion that Arthur lived, not in Cerniw
(ie Cornwall), but in Cernyw (ie. Glywyssing) (see Blackett and Wilson,
St Arthmael the king
Like Blackett and Wilson, Chris Barber and David Pykitt
identify Arthur with King Athrwys of Gwent and Glywyssing. However, here
the similarity stops, for there are important differences in the
identification of people, places, and events. Their major addition is the
supposition that after Camlann, Arthur/Athrwys abdicated and retired to
Brittany where he became an important evangeliser. He was known as St
Armel (or Arthmael) and his shrine can still be seen at St
Armel-des-Boschaux. Their ideas have much to commend them and make
compelling reading (see Barber & Pykitt, 1993).
It has been suggested, many times over the years, that
Arthur may have been a descendant of one Lucius Artorius Castus. He was
an historical second century Dalmatian general who was stationed in
Britain and who commanded the Roman auxiliary troops, known as Sarmatians,
on an expedition to crush an uprising in Armorica. It is highly unlikely
that the two had any connection with each other.
RULERS OF BRITAIN:
Text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature
for the History Files.