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Historical Arthur

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According to medieval pseudo-histories and romances, King Arthur led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the early 6th century, then went on to reign throughout a period of peace and abundance. The details of Arthur's story are mainly composed of folklore and literary invention, and his historical existence is debated and disputed by modern historians.

HistoryEdit

Warriors

Romano-Britons rally for war.

The historical basis for the King Arthur legend has long been debated by scholars. One school of thought, citing entries in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales), sees Arthur as a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British leader who fought decisive against the invading Saxons sometime in the late 5th to early 6th century. His battles culminated in the Battle of Mount Badon, where Arthur led his warriors to victory over the invaders, and thence to a period of relative peace throughout the land.

The first datable mention of Arthur is in the 9th-century Latin text, the Historia Brittonum, a historical compilation written in around 828, and attributed in some late manuscripts to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, which lists twelve battles that Arthur fought. Recent critical studies, however, question the reliability of the Historia Brittonum; David Dumville has concluded that the work underwent several anonymous revisions before reaching the forms that now survive in the various families of manuscripts.

Another text that seems to support the case for Arthur's historical existence is the 10th-century Annales Cambriae, or Annals of Wales, which also link Arthur with the Battle of Mount Badon. The Annales date this battle to 516–518, and also list the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Mordred (here spelled "Medraut") were both killed, dated to 537–539. These details have often been used to bolster confidence in Nennius's account, and to confirm that Arthur really did fight at Mount Badon.

Problems have been identified, however, with using this source to support the Historia Brittonum account. Recent research shows that the Annales Cambriae were based on a chronicle begun in the late 8th century. Additionally, the complex textual history of the Annales Cambriae precludes any certainty that the Arthurian annals were added to it even that early. They were more likely added at some point in the 10th century, as late as 970 according to some scholars, and might never have existed in any earlier set of annals. The Mount Badon entry probably derived from the Historia Brittonum, as the two share similar language and no other entry in the Annales is as verbose.

An earlier tract, Gildas' 6th-century polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written within living memory of Mount Badon, mentions the battle but does not mention Arthur. According to Gildas, another Romano-Briton of the period led the forces battling the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon, namely Ambrosius Aurelianus. Neither is Arthur mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or named in any surviving manuscript written between 400 and 820. He is absent from Bede's early-8th-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, another major early source for post-Roman history that mentions Mount Badon.

It also remains uncertain in these early texts whether Arthur was considered a king. Neither the Historia nor the Annales calls him "rex": the former calls him instead "dux bellorum" (leader of battles) and "miles" (soldier).

Arthur-modena

Pseudo-HistoryEdit

The lack of convincing early evidence is the reason many recent historians exclude Arthur from their accounts of sub-Roman Britain. In the view of historian Thomas Charles-Edwards, "at this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur [but ...] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him". These modern admissions of ignorance are a relatively recent trend; earlier generations of historians were less sceptical. Historian John Morris made the putative reign of Arthur the organising principle of his history of sub-Roman Britain and Ireland, The Age of Arthur (1973). Even so, he found little to say about a historical Arthur, bearing out Charles-Edwards' later analysis.

Partly in reaction to such uncritical theories, another school of thought emerged which argued that Arthur had no historical existence at all. Morris's Age of Arthur prompted archaeologist Nowell Myres to observe that "no figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time". Dumville has written: "I think we can dispose of him [Arthur] quite briefly. He owes his place in our history books to a 'no smoke without fire' school of thought ... The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books."

Celtic-warriorsZ

Iron Age warriors of Britain.

FolkloreEdit

Other scholars argue that Arthur might originally have been a fictional hero of folklore — or even a half-forgotten Celtic deity — who was later credited with real deeds in the distant past. They cite parallels with Anglo figures such as Beowulf, and the Kentish totemic horse-gods Hengist and Horsa, who later became historicised. (In the 7th century, Bede ascribed to these legendary figures a historical role in the 5th-century Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain.) Parallels with the Welsh hero-deity Bran have been drawn to corroborate this school of thought, as has the use of Arthur's name in Welsh battle poetry, such as the Gododdin, as a kind of uber-warrior.

Historical documents for the post-Roman period are scarce, so a definitive answer to the question of Arthur's historical existence is unlikely. Sites and places have been identified as "Arthurian" at least since the 12th century, but archaeology can confidently reveal names only through inscriptions found in secure contexts. The so-called "Arthur stone", discovered in 1998 among the ruins at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall in securely dated 6th-century contexts, created a brief stir but proved irrelevant. Other inscriptional evidence for Arthur, including the Glastonbury cross, is tainted with the suggestion of forgery. And although several historical figures have been proposed as the basis for Arthur, no convincing evidence for these identifications has emerged.
Mosaic arthur

On balance it may be that the singular figure we identify as Arthur was in truth a composite figure, to whom the deeds and activities of several personages, historical and fictive, were later attached.

NameEdit

It is commonly accepted that "Arthur" is a Celtic form of the Roman Artorius. Other scholars have proposed alternatives to this theory. E. W. B. Nicholson sees Arthur as a combination of two Celtic words: artos (“bear”) and viros (“man”), which would make Arthur’s name a metaphor for a strong warrior: “Bear-Man.” A. Holder proposed a connection with the Irish art (“stone”). These other theories have not won wide acceptance.

Proposed Historical FiguresEdit

There are no contemporary records from the fifth century telling us about a King Arthur (or any other Arthur for that matter). As a result, various men who have left some track in the historical record have been identified as "the real King Arthur." The contribution of such a figure may range from simply having a name like Arthur to having fought a battle or accomplished some other historical deed which became incorporated into the biography of King Arthur. It is also possible that all of these historic figures contributed somehow into the legendary figure.

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