The Grail Code 
What we think we know about Arthur in history

It’s time to take stock of what we think we know about Arthur so far, because we’re about to enter an entirely different phase of our quest. Specifically, we’re about to meet Geoffrey of Monmouth, and after him everything changes.

So here’s what we’ve seen so far:

1. Gildas leaves an Arthur-shaped hole in history. He doesn’t mention Arthur’s name, but Gildas is not in the habit of mentioning names. We do know from Gildas that the battle of Badon was historical, because Gildas mentions that he was born in the very year that great battle took place.

2. The Annals of Wales mention Arthur as the hero of Badon. They also mention his last battle, Camlann, when “Arthur and Medraut fell.”

The trouble with the Annals is that we don’t know when they were first written down. And as a literary form, annals are particularly inviting to interpolators. The Annals could even have been written after Nennius, or the Arthurian references added later by copyists who thought Arthur shouldn’t be left out.

3. Nennius gives us a list of Arthur’s battles.

It seems reasonable to take Nennius at his word when he says that he merely compiles old traditions. He seems to have put a lot of work into collecting them, though little into sorting them out.

Both Nennius and the Annals of Wales have Arthur going into battle with an image on his “shoulders”—which sounds unlikely, unless some translator misinterpreted the old British word for “shield.” That seems very likely, and if it’s true, it suggests that the original British source was much older than the translation—old enough for the language to have changed considerably. That would put the original source much closer to Arthur’s time.

That Nennius and the Annals have Arthur carrying different images in different battles suggests that one is not derived from the other, but both from a common original source, and at least one through several intervening layers of copying and interpretation. That again suggests some distance in time, putting the first Latin translation of the British source considerably before Nennius or the Annals. And, as I said, that Latin translation must have been made a long time after the original British source was written. Just to have enough time for all these evolutions in the text, it looks as though we’ll have to put the original British source fairly close to Arthur’s time.

4. Miscellaneous scraps of Welsh tradition mention Arthur as the pattern of the perfect warrior.

5. Other scraps of Welsh tradition paint Arthur as a bloodthirsty tyrant.

The conflicting portraits of Arthur fit well with Gildas’ picture of Britain as divided by civil war in Arthur’s time. And the fact that Arthur is often portrayed as a villain in saints’ lives may give us another reason why Gildas doesn’t mention him: he might not have been popular in the British church,

So what’s our conclusion? The historical evidence for Arthur is a bit meager, but it all seems to fit together. It’s consistent and on the whole persuasive. Considering the evidence, I’m inclined to say that our skeleton outline of Arthur’s life is probably true history:

1. He united the previously disunited Britons.

2. He defeated the Saxon English at the famous battle of Badon.

3. He ruled in peace and security for some time after that.

4. He died in battle with Mordred.

(I’m a little less sure about the fourth item, but I’ll leave it there for now.)

When William Caxton printed his famous edition of Malory, he wrote in his preface that he had at first thought that Arthur was nothing but legend. But he was persuaded by a certain noble gentleman that “in hym that shold say or thynke that there was neuer suche a kynge callyd Arthur myght wel be aretted grete folye and blyndenesse. For he sayd that there were many euydences of the contrarye.”

I’m not ready to accuse people who say there was no Arthur of “great folly and blindness.” But I do agree with Mr. Caxton’s friend that there are “many evidences to the contrary,” and the evidences are enough to make me think that there probably was an Arthur, and that he probably did the things tradition says he did.

Now that we’ve taken stock of the oldest traditions, we can move on to the wonderful world of Geoffrey of Monmouth. But first, we’ll have a bit of a digression. Before we meet Arthur in Geoffrey, we’re going to take stock of what we know about another famous character in Geoffrey: Merlin, the wise man and wizard.

2 Responses to “What we think we know about Arthur in history”

  1. Furor Says:

    I don’t know why you aren’t getting many comments on this, but I would just like to say that the material you’ve been posting about these Arthurian conundrums has been particularly wonderful to read. I don’t know what I’ll ever do with this information, but I am absolutely thrilled that somebody is putting serious work into the matter.

    If it can prevent another movie like King Arthur from being made, it will have been reward enough in itself. I will be buying a copy of your book, too, once the cash flow comes back.

    Thanks for all your hard work.

  2. The Grail Code» Blog Archive » The historical Merlin? Says:

    [...] I think it’s very likely that there was a real Arthur whose life followed the skeleton outline we came up with a while ago. The historical sources and traditions, meager though they are, all seem to point toward one historically plausible man. [...]

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(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey