History Files


Post-Roman Britain

Now Just Who Was Arthur?

by John Davey, 26 March 2003



Now just who was 'Arthur'? This is just my view. The problem we have with 'Arthur' is his timeless popularity. So many people have jumped onto the Camelot bandwagon over the centuries and adopted him - and then adapted him.

Looking at all the stories, and there are truly so many as to boggle the mind, the first job is to delete the obvious romances and parodies of later years. Then take the earlier offerings and, along with some thought for the political and religious agendas of the periods, and see what we really have.

This takes us back to the twelfth century, and everyone's favourite liar, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Most later works - the ones that weren't total fabrications - were based either on G of M's works, or on similar 'evidence' to that with which he worked. (Now, if that isn't an over-generalisation worthy of a spot in the Guinness Book of Records, then I don't know one!)

My opinion - and this is only an opinion - is as follows:-

In British times names as we know and accept them are seldom recorded. What could be termed 'titles' or 'nicknames' are prevalent. Sometimes two very different people, though famous, noteworthy people in their own right, could have the same 'name' within a generation of each other. Then again, a single person could go through more than one 'title' in their single lifetime. This can obviously lead to some confusion.

Looking at the names/titles involved in the Arthurian stories, and applying them to other histories and documentation as we know them, seems to give us two separate, and clearly defined, targets.

We have two Myrddins for a start. One youthful lad in the mid-fifth century, and one slightly older chap in the mid-sixth century. The century between them eliminates any chance of them being the same person (unless you REALLY believe in magic).

Peredur, Gawain, Uriens and many of the 'Knights' of the 'Round Table' are very much alive and active in Northern Britain in the latter half of the sixth century [in, respectively, Ebrauc (York), Guotodin, and North Rheged].

At that time the Northern British War Chief, ' Great Warrior' or 'PenDragon' to give him his proper title, was one Gwenddolau of Arddrydd [Caer-Guendoleu] (choose your own spelling). It is not a big step from 'King of Arthuret' to 'King Arthur', especially allowing for the British passion for titles and their grammar.

His chief councillor is recorded as one of the Myrddins mentioned above. His wife's name is not recorded, but would likely be titled after him - therefore would be Gwen-something, almost as in Mrs Gwenddolau. So Gwenifar - or Guinevere in later tongues - would not be impossible.

Near his capital is a round circle where Celts have met since the dawn of time. For meetings to be held there, in the neutral open - especially as the so-called 'knights' were all in fact princes 'equal' to Gwenddolau - would be quite feasible. And the Celt's love of pomp and ceremony would near demand it. Oh yes - the nearby hill is still named 'Arthur's Seat'. Hence, perhaps, the 'round table'.

Even Myrddin's sister, a troublemaker beyond belief, makes a good basis for the 'wicked sister' of the later legends. She was also married to the Prince of Din Eidin [Guotodin], one Morgn [Morgan Bulc] of great fame. So her acceptable title could well have been Morganna. Let's hope she wasn't much of a witch - as she seems to have left Morgn to live with St Kentigern.

After Gwenddolau's death, in circa 572, his greatest friend Aiden, soon chief of the Dal Rhiadda Scots, 'named' his next born son Arthur in his memory.

Mere coincidence of course. As are all of the above.

Now further back we have our other Myrddin. He is sat closer to AD 460 and is in Gwynedd (modern North Wales). Here we meet the red and white Dragons. Quite probably an idea based on old Roman cavalry standards (not so old then of course). Nennius, writing in the early 9th century, puts this story in Snowdonia, and Welsh tradition also has it at Dinas Emrys near Beddgelert.

Here we have a youthful Myrddin Ambrosius putting his case forward to King Vortigern for him (Myrddin) to be warlord of the British. And his proven control over the fractious cavalry wins his argument. Ambrosius is said to be of Roman lineage and the two dragons could also be taken from the insignia of the Roman administration of the area. Again, something of a statement as to who controlled what.

From Gwynedd he reputedly moved his base south to Powys. Later poems (Llywarch the Old in the ninth century comes to mind) often referred to the kings of Powys as 'the heirs of Arthur'. This was written well before the glamorised romances of Norman times. Indeed, Viroconium, the capitol of Powys, is shown in excavations as one of, if not the most, sophisticated cities in Britain in the late fifth century. 

A recorded leader in the area during the 490's was one Owain Ddantgwyn [prince of the Gwyneddian sub-kingdom of Rhos]. According to Gildas, Ddantgwyn's battle-title was 'The Bear', or Arth. Also, purely coincidental is that this man's father, Enniaun Girt, was known in battle as the 'Terrible Chief Warrior' - Uthr Pen Dragon.

It seems to me that we have two Arthurs and two Myrddins and PenDragons in both situations.... the later stories seem to have blended much from each. The titles and lineage coming from the fifth century Arthur; the actions, associates, 'round table' etc, from the sixth century Arthur.

Was Arthur a living king? No. 'Arthur' was a real living title.

And two great Princes wore it while unknowingly giving their lives to a greater story.

Either one of them is quite possibly more interesting than the 'literary' Arthur. Indeed, most definitely so.

Just my opinion - as I said. But I hope it helps.



Text copyright The Celtic Kingdom of Elmet & John Davey. Reproduced with permission.