King Arthur

Many people think Arthur was a historical figure of the fifth or sixth centuries. This is not a view I share, which is why I generally leave Arthur aside when discussing early medieval topics. My own view is the one encapsulated by Oliver Padel in 1994, when he examined the key question: Did Arthur exist? Padel suggested that Arthur originated in legend as “a pan-Brittonic figure of local wonder-tales” like the mythical Irish hero Fionn (Finn Mac Cool). The two figures share much in common: both appear in tales of magical beings and places; both were associated with mysterious prehistoric monuments; both were portrayed as saviours of their homelands. Padel argues that just as Fionn made the transition from Irish legends to Irish historical texts, so Arthur made the same transition in a British context, becoming a key figure in pseudo-history as well as remaining an important character of folklore. Hence the list of Arthur’s battles in the Historia Brittonum of c.830, and hence his appearance in the Welsh Annals, while a parallel tradition continued to weave him into tales such as Culhwch and Olwen. But there was no real Arthur, according to Padel, unless the legendary figure was created partly out of a folk-memory of the Roman centurion Lucius Artorius Castus (who led an army from Britain to Gaul in c.200).

Views such as the one expressed by Padel are obviously unpopular with supporters of the Historical Arthur but, when the early medieval sources are examined, the absence of this enigmatic figure is very noticeable. Neither Bede nor Gildas mention him, so why should we regard him as important?

Oliver Padel, ‘The nature of Arthur’. Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (1994), pp.1-31

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This entry was posted in Britons.

6 comments on “King Arthur

  1. Having just been directed to this blog by the Unlocked Wordhoard, I’m reading with great interest, but wonder where in this post (or where in Padel’s argument, which I haven’t yet read, being a bit out of touch with this side of the field) one would fit Ambrosius Aurelianus? There being an argument that he is the prototype for the Arthur figure, the weasel theory would be that this is how ‘Arthur’ appears in Gildas and therefore Bede…

  2. Tim Clarkson says:

    Arthur’s historicity is certainly not helped by the fact that he is ignored by Gildas, who instead presents Ambrosius as the principal war-leader of the Britons. Gildas mentions the great British victory at Mount Badon – credited to Arthur by later Welsh tradition – immediately after mentioning Ambrosius. Padel sees this part of the narrative as continuous, i.e. Gildas is implicitly identifying Ambrosius as the victor at Badon. Like other famous battles (e.g. Breguoin, Celidon, City of the Legion) the event was subsequently acquired by later Arthurian tradition which re-packaged it as a triumph for the legendary hero.

  3. scotbot says:

    Arthur is mentioned as Prince of Strathclyde in Adamnan’s Life of Columba.

    Might not be the same person, but should be a point of study all the same.

  4. Tim says:

    The Arthur mentioned by Adomnan was a son of Áedán mac Gabráin, not a prince of the Clyde Britons. On the other hand, there may have been kinship between Áedán’s family and the royal dynasty of Alt Clut, perhaps by marriage, because the name Arthur is indeed of British (i.e. Brittonic) origin.

    See Michelle Ziegler’s article on Artur mac Aedan of Dalriada in issue 1 of The Heroic Age.

  5. esmeraldamac says:

    The link with prehistoric monuments certainly confuses me. Why is the henge near Penrith described as King Arthur’s Table? Downright peculiar, and I guess, a name it gained in the high medieval period when Arthurian literature was popular.

    I also rather feel that some of the Cumbrian characters in the Arthurian lexicon are good ‘hero’ characters of local history in their own right, and insisting they were Arthur’s knights does them an injustice. I’d rather we looked further into their real history, rather than trying to make them fit with Arthur.

  6. Tim says:

    I suppose one positive aspect of someone like Owain ab Urien becoming an Arthurian hero is that more people get to hear about him, which might generate a bit more interest in 6th century history. But I take your point about separating these characters from Arthur, who does have a tendency to get in the way.

    It’s interesting that you mention the Round Table at Penrith. I’ve been thinking for a while that this may have been the venue for Athelstan’s peace conference in 927. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to Eomotum (i.e. Eamont) which could feasibly mean anywhere along the river, from Dacre down to Brougham. For me, an ancient ritual site such as the Round Table or Mayburgh Henge seems to fit the circumstances rather neatly.

    Btw Diane, I enjoyed reading yesterday’s blogpost on Owain.

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