Archive for May, 2016

postheadericon The Gaulish Connection

Photo: David Goodwin, used with permission.

Photo: David Goodwin, used with permission.

The traditional search for an historical Arthur begins with the Welsh sources, because those are the earliest records to mention him. But Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to popularize Arthur’s legend beyond Wales and Cornwall, and the first to paint an image of his court that would set the stage for the legends of a grand kingdom that would follow. To this end, some researchers have taken the approach of exploring Monmouth’s work to see what clues can be gleaned from his story. Monmouth was notorious for distorting facts in his History, but it is also accepted among historians that he was drawing on a handful of genuine sources when composing his work. Thus, the challenge is to discern what elements of his tale were based on fact, and what elements were made up.

Geoffrey Ashe is a prominent historian who has done so much work in the field of Arthurian history, that in 2012 he received an honor from the Queen of England for it. One point that Ashe has picked up on is the fact that Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded Arthur as marching on Rome near the end of his life, but then returning to Britain to defend his kingdom from the usurper, Mordred. In fact, there is a king of the Britons who is on record as having lived during the time typically ascribed to Arthur’s reign, and this king did march on Rome, but not as an invader. Throughout the fifth century, Rome suffered a series of invasions from Visigoths, and in 468 it called out to its allies in Britain for aid. The king Riothamus brought twelve thousand of his troops to march on the invaders, but was routed by the Visigoths before he reached Rome. When a good portion of his army was wiped out, he retreated in the direction of Burgundy, and disappears from the historical record.

“Riothamus” is a Latinization of an Old Brittonic name. When we convert it back to its most likely original form, we get a word that closely resembles “high king” in Old Brittonic – the same title ascribed to Arthur in the legends.

The notion of Riothamus having been the basis of King Arthur’s legends is not new; it was first introduced by the historian Sharon Turner in 1799, but was picked up again by Geoffrey Ashe in the 1980s. Ashe also points to a Chronicle of Anjou, which has survived to us from medieval times. It retells King Arthur’s story, but calls his betrayer “Morvandus.” Arvandus was the name of a Roman prefect in Gaul who sent the Visigoths a warning of the approaching Britons, and was later convicted of treason for it in Rome. Based on this, Ashe believes that “Morvandus” may be a conjunction of “Mordred,” Arthur’s traditional betrayer in Geoffrey of Monmouth, with “Arvandus,” the betrayer of Riothamus. It is possible that a tradition survived into the medieval ages which confirmed that the two men were one and the same. If a medieval scribe had access to sources which recorded Riothamus’ real betrayer, but also did not want to contradict the well-accepted account by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the two names could have become conflated. What’s more, Riothamus’ retreat would have taken him in the direction of a region of Gaul known as Avallon, where there is believed to have been a Roman fort in which he would have been able to find refuge.

But we cannot definitively say that Arthur was Riothamus. There is no indication that Riothamus was ever called “Arthur,” and he disappears from history too early to have been involved in the Battle of Badon, the battle typically recorded in the sources as having been the decisive victory of Arthur’s which drove back the Saxons. There is also no indication that he fought any of the twelve battles in Nennius ‘ battle list.

One explanation for the difference in the names is that either “Arthur” or “Riothamus” could have been titles given to this man to denote respect. We know from the historical record that there was a man named Arthur who fought with Roman cavalry in Britain. Luciius Artorius Castus was a late second-century Roman commander stationed in Britain. In his life, he also brought troops from Britain to Rome. We also know from the sources that someone named Arthur was remembered as a great war leader: the Welsh poem Y Gododdin is the first text to mention him when it praises a warrior’s prowess, but admits that “he was not Arthur.” Poets in Roman and Celtic Britain frequently sung sonnets to their lords, and it was not uncommon for them to compare their lords to other great men of the past. A fifth-century bard could have honored Riothamus by comparing him to Lucious Artorius Castus. The comparison could have become popular and been picked up by society, so that he was frequently referred to as “Arthur” in Britain, but “Riothamus” in Rome and on the Continent. Most knowledge from this time was transmitted orally before it was ever put to paper. As knowledge existed of two leaders of Britain who marched towards Rome, the two men could have become conflated over time, and similarly, later victories by some surviving contingent of Riothamus’ men could have been ascribed to him.

But this is only a theory, and the fact that Riothamus brought troops to Rome may not mean anything. Geoffrey of Monmouth was notorious for distorting history in order to craft his story. It could only be the case that he took the story of Riothamus’ march on Rome and assigned it to Arthur. He did the same thing with Merlin: the story of his birth is taken from an earlier account about a boy named Ambrosius.

The truth is that we do not know for sure any more than what was first written on the matter by Sharon Turner in 1799:

Either this Riothamus was Arthur, or it was from his expedition that Geoffrey, or the Breton bards, took the idea of Arthur’s battles in Gaul.

postheadericon Is the Story of King Arthur Real?


The story of King Arthur is not a true story. It was shaped by a myriad of different storytellers, each of whom wove their own contributions into the legend over the course of a thousand years. While various attempts have been made at pinpointing an historical figure on whom the legends were based, even if such a figure did exist, the legends ascribed to him would not really have occurred.

However, what is not in dispute is the reality of the “Arthurian Fact.” That is, the earliest material to reference an Arthur records that he fought a number of battles driving off the Saxon invaders from Britain during the late fifth century. Archaeological evidence confirms that there was a decline in Saxon settlements during this time and an expansion of the British population, and several reputable documents from this time, including ones which do not mention Arthur, record that the Britons gained a strong foothold over their invaders during this time. Whether this was the result of a single person’s military ability is unknown, but it is mostly undisputed that the Britons gained a significant foothold during the time Arthur is recorded to have lived.

For centuries, Arthur was remembered by the Welsh for the events that were ascribed to him. Over the years, different writers picked up the tale, adding their own stories to the mix. Among other things, King Arthur was given a magical birth, a powerful wizard to shape him into a mighty king, a mighty sword bestowed upon him by a water nymph, and a tragic half death with the promise of his one-day return. His warriors, too, were given gallant adventures of their own, quests on which they sought out great treasure and encountered beautiful damsels possessing items of magic. People during the Middle Ages came to view Arthur’s legends more as we view fables today: not as recordings of history, but as stories meant to entertain and to teach a moral principle. As more storytellers retold the legend, Arthur came to be associated with jousting and holding a royal court – activities which did not exist in fifth-century Britain.

Throughout the ages, King Arthur has represented a remembrance of a golden age of Britain, the symbol of a people struggling to find hope in the face of extreme hopelessness. The endurance of his legend exemplifies the truth in the saying, the pen is mightier than the sword: it is in the strength of his legend that the strength of the people of fifth-century Britain lives on.

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