King Arthur in History

The earliest documentary reference to Arthur by name occurs in the Welsh poem Y Gododdin, a poem which commemorates British warriors who died in a battle at Catraeth, probably Catterick in modern Yorkshire. The period to which the poem refers is the 5th to 6th centuries, when the native Britons fought against Germanic Saxon invaders. Arthur appears simply as a positive comparison to one of the dead warriors being eulogized. You can see the name near the end of the second line from the bottom in the picture at the left: the phrase is ceni bei ef arthur.

Ef guant tratrigant echassaf
ef ladhei auet ac eithaf
oid guiu e mlaen llu llarahaf
godolei o heit meirch e gayaf
gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur
ig kynnor guernor guaurdur.

He pierced over three hundred of the finest
He slew both the centre and the flanks
He was worthy in the front of a most generous army
He gave out gifts of a herd of steeds in the winter
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was no Arthur 
He gave support in battle
In the forefront, an alder-shield was Gwawrddur.

The image above is from the Book of Aneirin, the manuscript that contains the Gododdin (Cardiff Central Library MS 2.81, folio 37r; by permission of Cardiff Libraries and Information Services). The manuscript belongs to the 13th century, though the poem is much older. You can view the whole manuscript on the People’s Collection Wales site.

This map shows Britain at the historical period referred to in the Gododdin.

The Historia Brittonum, compiled around 800 in Wales, includes a description of Arthur as the leader of the Britons in the war against the Saxons. To read a complete version of the text, visit The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, an online collection of documents relating to law, history, and diplomacy. Click here to go directly to the translation of Nennius.

The Latin below is transcribed from the manuscript on the left, starting from the twelfth line from the top. Where you see underlining in the transcription, this means that I have expanded the abbreviations in the manuscript, commonly used by medieval scribes to save space and time. Notice that there are very few obviously upper-case letters in the original, and very little punctuation. It is common to split words across line breaks. While the text of the Historia Brittonum is usually dated to around 800, this manuscript is an 11th-century copy, now British Library MS Harley 3859.

In illo tempore Saxones inualescebant in
multitudine et crescebant in brittannia.
Mortuo autem Hengisto octha filius eius transi-
uit de sinistrali parte brittanie ad reg
-num cantorum. et de ipso orti sunt reges cantorum.
Tunc arthur pugnabat contra illos.
in illis diebus cum regibus brittonum. sed ipse dux erat

[At that time the Saxons increased in numbers and grew in Britain. After the death of Hengist, Octa, his son, came down from the north part of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and from there are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought at that time against them in those days along with the kings of the Britons, but he was their leader in battles.]

This image of folio 187r appears by permission of the British Library. You can flip through the whole manuscript on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site, here. The Historia Brittonum starts on folio 174v. The link takes you to the catalogue description of the manuscript, so you can see what other texts it contains. To open the manuscript viewer, click the image on the catalogue page.

The Historia Brittonum also includes a list of Arthur’s battles, perhaps taken from a Welsh battle poem. The list starts right after the section transcribed above.

The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Linnuis. The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed. The eighth battle was at Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting virgin, on his shoulder, and the heathen were put to flight that day, and there was great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the city of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone, and he was victorious in all his campaigns.

Click here to go to an online reconstruction of the whole of the Latin text.

There are other fragmentary literary references to Arthur in early Welsh literature. Some of the references to Arthur in Welsh are firmly part of the world of battle and their exaggerations seem more epic than fantastic, while others begin to associate Arthur with more clearly legendary material. Of the first sort, in addition to the reference in the Gododdin, mentioned above, Arthur appears in the Stanzas of the Grave, a 10th-century Welsh poem which makes reference to the graves of several Arthurian (or soon to be Arthurian) figures:

8. Bet Gwalchmei ym Peryton
ir diliv y dyneton
in Llan Padarn bet Kinon.

12. Bet mab Ossvran yg Camlan
gvydi llauer kywlavan
bet Bedwir in alld Tryvan.

13. Bet Owein ab Urien im pedryael bid
dan gverid Llan Morvael
in Abererch Riderch Hael.

14. Guydi gurum a choch a chein
a goruytaur maur minrein
in Llan Helet bet Owein.

44. Bet y March, bet y Guythur,
bet y Gugaun Cledyfrut
anoeth bid bet y Arthur

The grave of Gwalchmei is in Peryddon
as a reproach to men;
at Llanbadarn is the grave of Cynon.

The grave of Osfran’s son is at Camlan,
after many a slaughter;
the grave of Bedwyr is on Tryfan hill. 

The grave of Owein son of Urien is in a square grave
under the earth of Llanforfael;
at Abererch is Rhydderch the Generous. 

After things blue and red and fair
and great steeds with taut necks
at Llanheledd is the grave of Owein .

There is a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword;
the world’s wonder/ difficutly (anoeth) a grave for Arthur.

The image above shows the Arthurian reference as it appears in the Black Book of Carmarthen, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 1, fol. 34r (image appears by permission of the NLW). You can view the whole manuscript at the NLW site.

Notice that a later annotator has labelled this part of the text in the margin, writing the name “Arthur.”

Two early Welsh poems suggest an early association of Arthur with clearly legendary material. Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn), c. 900?, tells of a raid by Arthur and his men on the otherworld fortress of Caer Syddi, and makes cryptic references to a mystical cauldron. The speaker is Taliesin, a legendary bard (there was also an historical bard, associated with Urien Rheged, called Taliesin). The poem Pa gwr, or Arthur and the Porter, takes the form of a dialogue in which, in answer to a doorkeeper’s challenge, Arthur lists the accomplishments of himself and his companions, Bedwyr and Cei. Excerpts from both poems follow in translation (for complete versions of these, see John K. Bollard, “Arthur in Early Welsh Tradition,” in The Romance of Arthur, ed. James J. Wilhelm and Laila Zamuelis Gross [New York: Garland, 1984]):

Though Arthur was but playing,
blood was flowing
in the hall of Afarnach
fighting with a hag.
He pierced the cudgel-head
in the halls of Dissethach.
On the mount of Eidyn
they fought with Dog-heads;
by the hundred they fell.
They fell by the hundred
before Bedwyr the Fine-sinewed
on the strand of Tryfrwyd
Fighting with Garwlwyd….
I saw Cei in haste;
prince of plunder,
the tall man was hostile
His revenge was heavy;
his anger was sharp.
When he drank from the buffalo horn
he would drink for four;
when he came into battle
he would strike like a hundred.
Unless it were God who did it,
Cei’s death could not be achieved…

I will praise the Lord, the Sovereign, the King of the land,
who has extended his rule over the strand of the world.
Well equipped was the prison of Gwair in Caer Siddi
according to the story of Pwyll and Pryderi.
None before him went to it,
to the heavy blue chain; it was a faithful servant whom it restrained,
and before the spoils of Annwn sadly he sang.
And until Judgement Day our bardic song will last.
Three shiploads of Prydwen we went to it;
except for seven, none returned from Caer Siddi.I am honoured in praise, song is heard.
In Caer Pedryfan, four-sided,
my eulogy, from the cauldron it was spoken.
By the breath of nine maidens it was kindled.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwyn, what is its custom,
dark about its edge with pearl?
It does not boil a coward’s food; it has not been so destined.
The sword of Lluch Lleawg was raised to it,
and in the hand of Lleminawg it was left.
And before the door of the gate of hell, lanterns burned.
And when we went with Arthur, renowned conflict,
except for seven, none returned from Caer Feddwid…

Pa gwr is in NLW MS Peniarth 1, the Black Book of Carmarthen, starting on folio 47v. Preiddeu Annwn is in NLW MS Peniarth 2, the Book of Taliesin, starting on folio 25v. Click the shelfmarks to go to complete digitizations at the National Library of Wales.

Medieval historians wrote often about Arthur. Some were sceptical, as these excerpts from William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum (c. 1125) and William of Newburgh’s Historia regum anglicarum (1196-98), show:

This is that Arthur about whom the foolish tales of the Britons rave even today; one who is clearly worthy to be told about in truthful histories rather than to be dreamed about in deceitful fables, since for a long time he sustained his ailing nation, and sharpened the unbroken minds of his people to war. (William of Malmesbury)

But in our own days, instead of this practice, a writer has emerged who, in order to expiate the faults of these Britons, weaves the most ridiculous figments of imagination around them, extolling them with the most impudent vanity above the virtues of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey, and his other name is Arthur, because he has taken up the fables about Arthur from the old, British figments, has added to them himself, and has cloaked them with the honorable name of history by presenting them with the ornaments of the Latin tongue. (William of Newburgh)

Gerald of Wales (d. 1223) writes that he was present at the exhumation of King Arthur from a grave discovered at Glastonbury Abbey around 1190 or 1191; this is part of his account:

In our time Arthur’s body, which fables had treated mysteriously, claiming it had, at the end been spirited away to some distant place and had somehow resisted death, was found at Glastonbury hidden deep in the earth in a hollow oak, between two stone pyramids, set up long ago in the cemetery…. And there was a lead cross fixed under… a stone slab. I have seen this cross, and have traced the letters sculpted into it… and they said: “Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guenevere his second wife in the island of Avalon.” Several notable things arise from this inscription: that Arthur had two wives, of whom the second was buried with him, and indeed her bones were found with the bones of her husband… There a tress of female hair, blond, pristine with its original colour, was found, but a monk snatched it with a greedy hand and it immediately dissolved into dust…. [It] was in large part Henry the Second, king of England, who had told the monks, just as he had heard from an old British bard, that they would find the body deep in the earth, that is to say at least sixteen feet deep, and not in a stone tomb but rather in a hollow oak….The place which is now called Glastonbury was in the old time called Avalon. And it is like an island, completely surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in the British tongue Inis Avallon, that is, the island of apples. Apples, indeed, are called aval in the British tongue, and they abound in that place. It was here, to this island which is now called Glastonbury, that Morgan, a noble matron and the ruler and patron of those parts, and also close in blood to King Arthur, took Arthur after the battle of Camlann for the healing of his wounds…. And you should also know that the bones of Arthur which were found were so large, that the poet’s words seemed to be fulfilled in them: “And they will wonder at the size of the buried bones they have unearthed.” For indeed one of the tibia, which the abbot showed me, when it was placed on the ground next to the foot of the tallest man there, reached a good three fingers above that man’s knee. And the skull was like a prodigy, so wide and so large it was, so that the space between the eyebrows and the eyes was as wide as a man’s palm….

On the left is an engraving of the lead cross Gerald describes. The cross disappeared some time in the 18th century. This illustration is found in Britannia, by William Camden (1551-1623); it first appeared in the 1600 edition of the book, and might have been a tracing taken from the actual object.

While there was some scepticism about Geoffrey’s Historia, as the quotation from William of Newburgh above indicates, the text was a medieval bestseller, surviving in more than 200 manuscripts. If you click the images in the gallery below, you will be taken to partial or complete digitizations of some of these manuscripts.

The images, starting from the top left, are from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS latin 8501a, fol. 108v; London, British Library, Arundel MS 10, fol. 10v; London, British Library, Cotton MS Titus A xxvii, fol. 87r; New Haven, Yale, Beinecke Library MS 590, fol. 1r; Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R 7 6, fol. 2v; St Gallen, MS Cod Sang 633, fol. 3r; and London, British Library, Additional MS 15732, fol. 11r.