The Arthurian Legend

See also King Arthur and St Petroc's Church, Bodmin



"Worlds of Arthur - Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages" (2013) Professor Guy Halsall at pages vii, viii & 51 to 86


… I was reading the latest populist Arthurian history to hit the shelves. Positive reviews in war-gaming magazines suggested that it presented a plausible, scholarly case. It didn't, and this annoyed me. Almost every bookshop in the UK has at least half a shelf of this sort of book about 'King Arthur'. Written by amateur enthusiasts, each reveals a different 'truth' about the lost king of the Britons. All are mutually incompatible but usually based in whole or part upon the same evidence. Each author fanatically believes his version (and the author is usually a he) to be the true story, hushed up by horrid academics or by political conspiracies (usually by the English) or sometimes his rivals. Obviously they can't all be right. In fact none of them is, because, as this book will make clear, none of them can be. Arthur, if he existed - and he might have done - is irretrievably lost.

Such books sell, no doubt. Interest in 'King Arthur' is enormous. Yet they sell not because the 'interested layman' necessarily has a vested interest in the argument that King Arthur was Scottish, Cornish, Welsh, or from Warwickshire or even, I suspect, in whether or not he existed. They sell because people believe the misleading claims of these books' covers, to reveal the 'truth' or unlock the 'secret'. In other words, they want to know. I could decry the cynicism of publishers who profit from this audience's sincere but ill-informed desire for knowledge and from these authors' dishonesty but I am more troubled by the inactivity of my own, historical profession. Why has it done nothing to help this interested lay audience, by propagating the results of the specialist work that disproves any and all claims to have discovered the real Arthur? Why has it not at least made available some insight into how to judge, and see through, the siren claims of the pseudo-histories, as I will refer to non-academic treatments of this period that ignore recent scholarly analyses?

This book responds to this demand. Before going any further, I should confess to being what might be termed a romantic Arthurian agnostic. That is to say that I wish that Arthur had existed but that I must admit that there is no evidence - at any rate none admissible in any serious 'court of history' - that he ever did so. Simultaneously, though, I also concede that it is impossible to prove for sure that he didn't exist, that one cannot demonstrate for sure that there is no 'fire' behind the 'smoke' of later myth and legend. If that sounds too wishy-washy, I will argue that this is the only attitude that can seriously be held concerning the historicity of the 'once and future king'.

4. The antimatter of Arthur

Reassessing the Written Sources

… This chapter examines the literary evidence again, source by source, in more or less chronological order.

Two extremely important points must be set out at the start. The first is that medieval writers and their audiences … expected different things from 'history'. Unlike 'moderns', medieval people did not have a category of 'factual history' separate from what might today be thought of as 'historical fiction', 'alterna­tive history', or even 'fantasy'. A moral 'truth', a good story with a valuable lesson, was far more important than factual accuracy …

… Closely related to this is the second point: sources must be taken as a whole. You cannot cherry-pick some bits and ignore others accord­ing to what you want to believe. You cannot winnow out fact from fiction solely on the basis of modern ideas …


St Gildas

The basic building block for the traditional political historical narra­tive of fifth- and sixth-century Britain is Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). This was certainly com­posed in Britain during our period but that is about all that can be said with absolute confidence about its date and provenance. We know nothing about Gildas himself … It is impossible to know where Gildas wrote except that it was probably not in a part of Britain con­trolled, in his day, by 'Saxons'. Nor can we say when he was writing. It is frequently claimed that he wrote circa 540 but this date lacks any solid foundation …

… There is some evidence for an 'early Gildas', writing in the late fifth century. This includes Gildas' rhetorical education, his Latin style, his theological concerns, and a rereading of his historical section and where he places himself within it. I tend towards this interpretation, although it cannot be proven. It is unlikely that Gildas wrote before 480/490 or much after about 550; beyond that we cannot go …

… The most significiant discussion for present purposes concerns that oft-cited chronological indicator, Gildas' phrase about Mount Badon …

… Of course we still don't know when Gildas' birth or the siege of Badon Hill were … If pressed, I might plump for the first decade of the century …

… Gildas' failure to mention Arthur has produced all sorts of specu­lation. Later medieval writers invented stories about how Gildas and Arthur fell out but they were, like us, trying to account for - to them - an inexplicable omission … Finally, either 'Arthur' is another name for one of Gildas' characters - Ambrosius Aurelianus, 'the proud tyrant', or the Cuneglasus mentioned in the 'complaint to the kings' and addressed as 'bear' (the arth- element of Arthur's name means 'bear') - or Arthur belongs chronologically after Gildas. The sec­ond option might be possible, especially if Gildas is moved back to the very late fifth century. It is, however, obviously a pretty weak, if convenient, argument to explain a silence which, if Arthur never existed, would need no explanation. None of the suggestions for characters who are 'really' Arthur finds any evidential support. Like the first proposal, they spring from a desire to make the data fit an a priori assumption and thus account for the absence of actual evi­dence.



After Gildas, no insular source describes the 'world of Arthur' until we come to the famous 'Venerable Bede' in early eighth-century Northumbria (in the monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow to be exact). Bede was a chronographer before he was a historian; he was interested in the measurement of time, essentially for theological pur­poses: calculating the proper date of Easter; establishing the age of the world, and so on. This led him to popularize the AD system of dating still in use … he didn't invent it but he might as well have done. In turn it brought about his two chronicles (the lesser and the greater: Chronica Minora and Chronica Majora): lists of years and the events that happened in them. At the end of his life his interest in chronology and belief that the contemporary English Church had degenerated from a putative seventh-century golden age led him to compose his most famous work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (HE), which he completed in 731, shortly before his death (735). We therefore know immensely more about Bede, his life, and circumstances than we do about Gildas.

Bede put his version of British history between the end of Roman rule and St Augustine's arrival in the latter part of Book I of the Ecclesiastical History … It is a fascinating attempt to put together a coherent narrative from diverse components, almost all of which still survive. In other words, Bede apparently knew as little as we do about the period between circa 410 and circa 597. His principal source is Gildas' On the Ruin, which he read as a single narrative of events, probably … a mistake but one which almost everyone who has read Gildas since has made. Into this he wove information from several other sources … The status and origins of the information Bede added to Gildas' story are essentially unknowable …

… We need to emphasize that Bede's is a significant mutation of Gildas' story …

… This neatly underlines how Bede knew almost nothing about the 200 or so years before Augustine's arrival inde­pendently of sources we still have. Thus his account has flimsy and unreliable foundations, and can bear little weight. For Bede that was irrelevant. The point of the Ecclesiastical History was that the Britons had lost control of Britain's green and pleasant land, driven out by the Saxons, chosen by God to be His scourge of a sinful people. Bede felt that the Anglo-Saxons could go the same way if they didn't mend their ways …

… Note, though, that neither Bede, nor any of his sources, oral, legen­dary, or written, says anything about 'Arthur'. For this the most straightforwardi and, given that we still have almost all of Bede's sources, unsurprising explanation is simply that he (and they) didn't know anything about him. It doesn't necessarily imply that Arthur never existed; a perfectly acceptable and consistent qualification of the explanation just given is 'or, if they had heard of him, he didn't matter to their story'.

The History of the Britons

So we come to the first datable source to mention Arthur, othe History of the Britons (HB), written in 828/9, in North Wales. The name Nennius (or Nemnius) was only attached to a later manuscript of this source …

The HB shows just how elaborate legends about the fifth century had become by the early eighth. Structurally the work looks like a mess … Then we come to the 'Battle List of Arthur' … which serves as a linking passage introducing the History's account of northern Britain, mainly in the seventh century … A list of the 'Wonders of Britain', includingg the second passage about Arthur (mentioned in Chapter 1), is appended to the end of the History …

… The HB assembles material from a string of sources, some of which can be identified but almost none of which has any claim to reliability … Much of the story is woven from Bede's and thus, behind that, Gildas' accounts …

… And so we return to Arthur's battles … it is often supposed to represent a fragment of a lost poem celebrating Arthur's achievements. The battles themselves have engendered any number of pseudo-histories, purporting to reconstruct King Arthur's campaigns. Their locations are suggested and a putative military context invented, within the traditionally sup­posed overall situation of a war between defending Britons and invading Anglo-Saxons … Of course the loca­tions are usually chosen with the context in mind, so it is almost invariably a circular argument. On the other hand, sceptics counter by saying that, whether this is a poem or not, we have no way of knowing whether it gives any sort of historical account. By 830 there had been at least 300 years for poems to be composed and elaborated, for characters to be invented, battles made up, for real battles from various contexts to be brought together and ascribed to a mighty, legendary war-leader.

… As we have seen, it seems unlikely that Gildas does say that Badon was won by Ambrosius Aurelianus. The other five locations are found nowhere else in surviving literature, making it at least 'not proven' that they are a diverse medley of famous battles assembled and connected with Arthur.

One other point must be stressed. With the exception of the 'Battle of the Caledonian Forest', which ought to be somewhere north of Hadrian's Wall, and Linnuis, which might be Lindsey (Lincolnshire), the locations of all of these battles are unknown and unknowable. This is of supreme importance if reading modern pseudo-histories so I'll say it again:


The Historia Brittonum is a fascinating, infuriating source. It still holds many secrets, doubtless including ones that no one will ever uncover. Most of them, however, relate to politics and history-writing in early ninth-century Wales. That topic is no less important or interesting than fifth-century history. Let's be clear about that. As with Gildas and Bede, we must identify the questions which the source does address rather than hammering it to fit those which it doesn't.

… By the same token, though, everything that the HB does tell us about Ambrosius is surely fictitious. On this analogy, the dubious nature of the HB as a source for Arthur does not mean that no such person ever lived during the fifth or sixth centuries. In the end, the Historia Brittonum provides no decisive grounds for accepting or rejecting 'the historical Arthur'; 'you pays your money and takes your choice'. However, it cannot be stressed too strongly that the HB does not pro­vide any reliable information about any historical figure of that name.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Our final major source, much used in Arthurian pseudo-histories, is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, first composed at or near King Alfred's court in the 880s and continued in various different manuscripts down to the reign of King Stephen (1135-54). The Chronicle's account of the fifth century is extremely dubious and it is staggering that people took it literally for so long …

The Chronicle's sources were Bede, whom we've already discussed and dismissed as a reliable independent witness for the fifth century, and a range of genealogical and other legendary sources …

There could be snippets of sixth-century fact in the Chronicle but it is impossible now to disentangle them from the narrative and strucure of its authors' propaganda, or from the huge dose of myth, legend, and pun with which they injected it.

The Welsh Annals

Annales Cambriae

The last insular narrative to consider is the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) … this contains two 'Arthurian' entries, one concerning Badon, the other Arthur's death at Camlann. The source itself probably belongs to the later tenth century; its last entry is 954 and the last year counted 977. The earliest manuscript dates to around 1100 (the Annals are appended to a text of the HB), though, and the two other variants belong to the thirteenth century. Immediately, therefore, we note how much later it is than Arthur's alleged existence … There is no persuasive reason to presume that the Welsh Annals simply transmit earlier more contemporary records in unmodi­fied form. A closer look confirms these suspicions.

The second obvious point to remark upon is the similarity between its account of Badon and the HB's description of Castell Guinnion … there is no prima facie reason to take the account very seriously. Like the HB's story it is clearly legendary …

The Camlann entry must come from somewhere else, however. This is the first mention of Arthur's last, climactic battle and of Medraut …

… The Welsh Annals remain a dubious source for 'the historical Arthur'. Their author possibly had access to some Arthurian tradition otherwise lost, different from the account handed down from Gildas via Bede and the HB (an argument, in other words, for the 'bubbling kettle' reading … but it is impossible to argue that these traditions had any better claim to historical reliability.

Welsh 'heroic' Poetry

The other source possibly from before AD 1000 to mention Arthur is the poem Y Gododdin … some suppose Y Gododdin's stanza about Gorddur to be the earliest mention of Arthur. The poem, however, is not clearly datable. The events it describes are generally supposed to relate to the period around 600. Some historians have suggested a half century earlier but on no good grounds …

So where does this leave Gorrdur, who 'was not Arthur' ? It is certainly odd that 'pro-Arthurians' argue that the decisive evidence for Arthur's historical existence is a source saying that someone wasn't Arthur. Stating that someone was or was not 'Arthur' implies nothing about Arthur's existence …

We cannot rule out Arthur's existence on the basis of these doubts, but it is equally impossible to use this stanza from Y Gododdin as evidence that he did exist. All we can say is that, by whatever date this stanza was composed, the poet knew of an Arthur figure who could be used as a benchmark for military prowess. Whether that Arthur was a really existing leader or a mythic figure cannot be deduced.

The issuers just discussed apply to the rest of Welsh 'heroic' verse, including the works of 'Taliesin' about other legendary northern British milittary heroes like Urien and Owain of Rheged, which - highly signifficantly - does not otherwise mention Arthur.

Odds and Ends

The foregoing list encompasses pretty much all of the written mate­rial deemed to be of relevance to reconstructing the 'World of King Arthur'. A little more needs to be said about one or two additional sources.

The Life of St Germanus

Annales Cambriae

… The Life was composed about thirty years after Germanus' death but its author knew people who had known the saint, including Bishop Lupus of Troyes who accompanied Germanus to Britain. That said, it is a work of hagiography (writing about saints), filled with miracles. Telling a sober history as a repository of facts for later schol­ars was no part of its purpose. It has been argued - at one extreme - that the entire Life is a patchwork of hagiographical commonplaces intended as a teaching instrument about proper theological beliefs and the correct role of a bishop. One cannot simply take the Life, ignore the miraculous elements, and sift out the rest as 'proper' his­tory; one must take it as a whole …

The Gallic Chronicle of 452

The other contemporary mainland European source for British events is the Gallic Chronicle of 452. This anonymous work was appar­ently composed somewhere in south-east Gaul (Valence or Marseille have been suggested). It can hardly be called detailed and, like most fifth-century sources, its principal interest is doctrinal controversy. It is a series of fairly terse annalistic entries that stops in 452, hence the name: the whole text seems to have been written at about that date. Amongst these are two British entries. The first mentions that the British provinces were 'laid waste by Saxon invasion'. The second says that the British provinces were 'subjected to the authority of the Saxons' …

… quite what the chronicler (in south-eastern Gaul) or his informants meant when they said that Britain had been subjected to Saxon authority is unknown. We cannot determine whether this and the other Saxon attack were the only British events the chronicler knew of, or whether they were selected for rhetorical or stylistic effect from a more general 'background noise' of tales of Saxon attacks. This makes it impossible to evaluate these events' significance. The evidence of the Gallic Chronicle of 452 cannot bear much weight.

Welsh Sources

Most of the relevant Welsh sources have been discussed already. There are other traditions and legends, which appear in later medieval Welsh and Breton saints' lives and in more Welsh poetry … It does not require detailed analysis. Suffice it to say that these sources are all very late and postdate the florescence of Arthurian legend … The extent of influence from the other Arthurian traditions flourishing by then cannot be assessed. Nor can we identify what might be separate traditions or evaluate the extent to which they might preserve earlier tales. Thus these stories cannot reliably be projected back into the fifth and sixth centuries.


Finally, we have encountered three genuinely historical Arthurs liv­ing in the late sixth century, which some have seen as arguing that a real Arthur existed not long before. This is quite an attractive sugges­tion although it is, of course, not the only factor that could produce three minor royals sharing an unusual name at about the same time. To other writers, one of them actually is our 'King Arthur', the son of Aedan being the most popular candidate. After all, the earliest possi­ble (or, alternatively, most optimistic) date for the stanza referring to Arthur in Y Gododdin would be within a generation of the lives of these three. Sadly we know little or nothing about them. None of them appears to have been particularly noteworthy. This has usually been the basis of attempts to dismiss the idea that one or other of them might be 'King Arthur', the mighty warrior of lore. This is a weak argument, given the scarcity of references to Arthur in the 400 years after their deaths and the failure (evident from the Armes Prydein's silence) of the Historia Brittonum to make a heroic national figure out of its Arthur, at least until Geoffrey of Monmouth took up the cause 300 years later. The fact that even John Morris had to acknowledge that no one else was known to have called their son Arthur for another 500 years or so, until the mid-eleventh century - in other words until about the time of the explosion of Arthurian legend - is further, weighty evidence against any historical Arthur being at all well known, even in legend, in the second half of the first millennium. That the next, eleventh-century, Arthurs we know about are all Normans or Bretons, rather than Welshmen or Scots, supports the notion … that the Arthur legend was largely reintroduced into Great Britain at the Norman Conquest. The possi­bility that one of the late sixth-century Arthurs might, for whatever reason now lost to us, be the reality behind the Arthur legend might very well be the simplest and most prosaic - but also (if I'm honest) slightly disappointing - solution to the whole Arthurian conun­drum.


Britain abounds with 'Arthur' place-names, from Scotland to Cornwall. Most of these lie in the highland areas of the island but there is little or no use that the historian can make of this fact. These names are not recorded until well after the explosion of the Arthurian legend in the eleventh century. That the legendary corpus frequently associated Arthur with the highlands, perhaps through his leadership of the Britons, is reason enough for the popularity of Arthur names in those areas. What is more, landscape features very often have per­sonal names attached to them without there being any historical basis to the association … South Cadbury's 'Camelot' associations may well have grown considerably after John Leland's visit in the sixteenth century. [4]


If you want to believe in a real 'King Arthur', the analysis of the writ­ten sources for fifth- and sixth-century Britain makes depressing reading. With the exception of Gildas (and restricting Gildas' testi­mony mainly to its 'non-historical' elements) and probably the Life of Germanus' account of the bishop's first visit, there is no reliable writ­ten source for this period. Unless some important new written sources are discovered, which is unlikely, the construction of a detailed narrative political historical account is quite out of the ques­tion and always will be. The claim of any book that purports to present such a history should be rejected immediately and out of hand. Such attempts represent fiction, no more and no less. Some of the 'old chestnuts' by which modern pseudo-histories try to circum­vent this unpalatable but ineluctable conclusion are dealt with in Chapter 7. The sources are interesting and useful if pressed into serv­ice in the exploration of other questions - questions they can answer - such as about the idea of history in ninth-century England and Wales. For British political history between 410 and 597 they are quite useless. Shadows of real events and people might survive in the material compiled between the early eighth and the late tenth century but we cannot now identify them. However, if our written evidence is absolutely incapable of proving that Arthur existed, and certainly of telling us anything reliable about him, its faults do not prove that he did not exist. Now, having more or less swept away all the written sources once thought useful for the history of fifth- and sixth-century Britain, we must return to the archaeological evidence and examine whether it makes up for this documentary shortfall.

Professor Guy Halsall has taught at the universities of London and York, where he has been a professor of history since 2006. His early specialism was in the history and archaeology of the Merovingian period (circa 450 - 750), and he has since published widely on a broad range of subjects, including death and burial, age and gender, violence and warfare, barbarian migrations, and humour. This investigation into the 'worlds of Arthur' brings him back to the study of early medieval British history and archaeology with which his scholarly training began.

[4] Editor's note: the first known author to refer to Cadbury as Camelot is John Leland in 1542:

At the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle … The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard Arthur much resorted to Camalat."

The Legend

King Arthur

Although there are innumerable variations of the Arthurian legend, the basic story has remained the same. Arthur was the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon, king of Britain, and Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall. After the death of Uther, Arthur, who had been reared in secrecy, won acknowledgment as king of Britain by successfully withdrawing a sword from a stone. Merlin, the court magician, then revealed the new king's parentage.

Arthur, reigning in his court at Camelot, proved to be a noble king and a mighty warrior. He was the possessor of the miraculous sword Excalibur, given to him by the mysterious Lady of the Lake. At Arthur's death Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur into the lake; a hand rose from the water, caught the sword, and disappeared. Another sword, sometimes mistakenly identified with Excalibur, was drawn from a stone by Arthur to prove his royalty.

How Sir Bedivere cast the sword Excalibur into the water by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Of Arthur's several enemies, the most treacherous were his sister Morgan le Fay and his nephew Mordred. Morgan le Fay was usually represented as an evil sorceress, scheming to win Arthur's throne for herself and her lover. Mordred (or Modred) was variously Arthur's nephew or his son by his sister Morgause. He seized Arthur's throne during the king's absence. Later he was slain in battle by Arthur, but not before he had fatally wounded the king. Arthur was borne away to the isle of Avalon, where it was expected that he would be healed of his wounds and that he would someday return to his people.

Two of the most invincible knights in Arthur's realm were Sir Tristram and Sir Launcelot of the Lake. Both of them, however, were involved in illicit and tragic love unions - Tristram with Isolde, the queen of Tristram's uncle, King Mark; Sir Launcelot with Guinevere, the queen of his sovereign, King Arthur. Other knights of importance include the naive Sir Pelleas, who fell helplessly in love with the heartless Ettarre (or Ettard) and Sir Gawain, Arthur's nephew, who appeared variously as the ideal of knightly courtesy and as the bitter enemy of Launcelot.

Also significant are Sir Balin and Sir Balan, two devoted brothers who unwittingly slew one another; Sir Galahad, Launcelot's son, who was the hero of the quest for the Holy Grail; Sir Kay, Arthur's villainous foster brother; Sir Percivale (or Parsifal); Sir Gareth; Sir Geraint; Sir Bedivere; and other knights of the Round Table.

King Arthur's Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall Tintagel, Cornwall King Arthur's Castle Doorway
King Arthur's Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall
Tinted view of castle ruins
(Francis Frith postcard - 1904)
Tintagel, Cornwall
Tinted view of the Valley
(Francis Frith postcard - 1895)
King Arthur's Castle Doorway, Tintagel, Cornwall
(Francis Frith postcard - 1908)

Ordnance Survey 1907: King Arthur's Castle (Tintagel)

"King Arthur's Legend" (February 2016) Miles Russell & Spencer Mizen, BBC History Magazine at pages 80 to 83

King Arthur. Heroic British warlord who led the fight against marauding Anglo-Saxons, or a figment of a writer's fertile imagination? It's a question that's been puzzling poets, chroniclers, historians and film-makers for more than 1,000 years.

And nowhere does this question have more resonance than on a small, wind­swept, rain-battered headland projecting into the sea off north Cornwall: Tintagel.

Numerous sites across north-west Europe - from Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset to the Forest of Paimpont in Brittany - have trumpeted their connections to King Arthur. Yet surely none are as intimately linked to the legendary warlord as Tintagel.

That this is the case is almost exclusively down to the endeavours of one man: a Welsh cleric going by the name of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In the 1130s, Geoffrey set about writing a history of the kings who had ruled the Britons over the preceding 2,000 years. The resulting Historia Regum Britanniae is among the greatest pieces of medieval history writing - though not an entirely reliable one. It tells us, for example, that Britain was founded by the Trojans, and introduces us to King Lear. Yet, most significant of all, says Miles Russell, senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeol­ogy at Bournemouth University, is what it tells us about Arthur.

"In his Historia Regum Britanniae Geoffrey gathered together a series of legends from western Britain to come up with a single narrative of the past," says Miles. "So, in the case of Arthur, he related a tale that had been passed down by word of mouth through the generations. In this story, Uther Pendragon is besotted with Igraine, beautiful wife of Gor­lois, Duke of Cornwall. Uther is determined to have Igraine for himself and so, with the help of the wizard Merlin, assumes the image of Gorlois and tricks his way into Gorlois' castle at Tintagel. And it is here, Geoffrey tells us, that Arthur is conceived."

It's not hard to divine why Geoffrey chose Tintagel as the site of a key, dramatic scene in his retelling of a shadowy, mythical past. The modern world can seem a long way away when you venture out onto the island fortress on a dark winter's day the wind whipping around you and the sea raging below. Yet there's more to Tintagel's links to Dark Age Britain than atmosphere.

"Geoffrey's decision to choose Tintagel as the site of Arthur's conception would have been informed by history every bit as much as legend", says Miles. "We know that there was a lot of mining activity - primarily for tin - around here in the Iron Age. And, as Tintagel is such a dominant part of the local landscape, it's more than possible that there was an Iron Age fort up here - perhaps ruled by an Arthur-like warlord."

What's beyond dispute is that, by the sixth century, Tintagel was a bustling port - a key link in a thriving trade network that stretched from southern Britain down the Atlantic seaboard to the Mediterranean coastline.

"You would have had ships coming in here from all over southern Europe to buy tin and copper," says Miles, "and, in return, they brought with them exotic goods such as wine and olive oil".

That this is the case is attested by the hundreds of pieces of fifth to seventh-century pottery that have been discovered all over the island. Faint remains of what is thought to have been the resi­dence of a Dark Age ruler also suggest that Tintagel was a site of some importance.

Yet, following its brief heyday, Tintagel slipped back into obscurity - a draughty outpost on the edge of the kingdom. And there it probably would have stayed if it hadn't been for the arrival on the headland of Earl Richard of Cornwall - brother of King Henry III - in the early 13th century.

The great building project that Richard initiated here in the 1230s still dominates Tintagel today. At its centrepiece is his castle and, though it's now nothing more than a ruin, much of Richard's handiwork - in­cluding two courtyards, a curtain wall and a gate tower - continue to defy everything that the Cornish weather can throw at them. But the question is, why did Richard choose to build at Tintagel?

"Like many Norman aristocrats, Richard was entranced by the romance of the Arthur legend," says Miles. "So when he decided to set up residence in northern Cornwall, what better way of establishing a bond with a heroic, Dark Age warlord - and, in doing so, effectively controlling the Cornish people - than by choosing the site where Arthur was conceived? For Richard, building a castle at Tintagel was a canny political move."

Richard's desperation to establish himself as a latter-day Arthur is even reflected in the design of the castle itself.

"Its walls are thin, and it's built out of slate in a mock antiquat­ed style," says Miles. "This tells us that Richard wasn't attempting to build a highly defensible stronghold but a romantic building that harks back to Arthur - part of what you could call a medieval theme park."

If Richard was obsessed with King Arthur, he was far from alone. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae was hugely popular in the Middle Ages - and Arthur was its most feted hero.

"The Normans loved Arthur, and that's partly because he is said to have defeated the Anglo-Saxons, just like they'd done," says Miles. "By identifying with Arthur, the Normans were saying: 'We've got a kinship with an ancient line of British kings, so don't dare question our legitimacy.' You can see this in Henry II's decision to commis­sion Glastonbury's monks to excavate the supposed graves of Arthur and Guinevere."

Polite society

Yet the real genius of Geoffrey of Mon­mouth's text is that it transformed a blood-soaked warlord, battling through the mud of western Britain into a universal hero, celebrated in polite society across Europe. Within decades, Arthur was being championed as a Christian hero during the crusades and celebrated as an icon of knightly chivalry by French writers. And this, says Miles, was a phenomenon with staying power.

"More than 300 years after Geoffrey died, Henry VII named his eldest son Arthur to bolster his hold on the English throne. Henry VIII even used the Arthur legend - and its link to a form of British Christianity that predates the papacy - to justify his break with Rome."

But beneath the chivalry, the romance, and the political agendas, there remain questions: Where did the idea of King Arthur come from? Could the legend be based on a historical figure?

"The trouble with this is that it takes us back to one of the most shadowy eras in British history - the chaotic, confused period that would have followed the departure of the Romans," says Miles Russell. "Sure, there could have been a king going by the name of Arthur - this was, after all, a time of warlords, of kingdom fighting kingdom, of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Yet the reality is that, such is the dearth of evidence, we can never know. There is, for example, no earliest primary source that we can say contains the first secure reference to Arthur. A poem called The Gododdin, possibly from AD 600, compares one of its lead characters to Arthur, which suggests that he may have existed as a model of heroism by the start of the seventh century."

"But the fact is, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthur is a composite character. He's created from multiple different heroes. There could be elements of Magnus Maximus - the Roman commander of Britain who led a massive rebellion against the emperor Gratian. Then there's a British general called Ambrosius Aurelianus. He is a prominent figure in the writings of a sixth-century British monk called Gildas, who described how Aurelianus defeated the English at a great (and seemingly historical) battle at a place called Badon."

Could this English-slaying freedom fighter have been the primary inspiration for the mythical figure that became King Arthur? Again, we may never know. But the fact that men such as Aurelianus lived in the period following Rome's fall - an age when Tintagel was a thriving port and probably a power base - only serves to strengthen the site's association with Arthur.

And it is an association that has drawn visitors to Tintagel for centuries. After Earl Richard's death, the island-fortress went into a long decline and the castle became a romantic ruin. That's how it stayed until the 18th and 19th centuries when a series of artists such as Alfred Tennyson - fired up by a renaissance in interest in ancient Britain - began championing Tintagel's connec­tions to the Arthurian legend through paintings and literature. By the end of the 19th century, tourists were flocking here to witness 'Arthur's castle' and 'Merlin's cave'.

Celebrated creation

While most modern historians agree that it is simply impossible to establish a historical link between Tintagel and Geoffrey of Monmouth's most celebrated creation, those tourists keep coming. Tintagel is now one of English Heritage's top five attrac­tions, drawing up to 3,000 visitors a day in the peak summer season.

With a new outdoor interpretation of Arthur's legend (featuring interactive exhibits and artworks) set to be unveiled in 2016, and plans in place to build a new, 72-metre-long footbridge to link the mainland with the island in 2019, the future is looking bright for this Dark Age site. And that, says Miles Russell, is also the case for Arthur.

"He's moved beyond his status as an obscure British king to one of the world's great mythological figures, and so there will always be another element of his legend that can be drawn out. I don't think his story will ever end".

King Arthur: 5 more places to explore

  1. Cadbury Castle, Somerset, where an ancient fort was upgraded. This Iron Age fortress was first linked with Arthur in 1542, when the antiquary John Leland claimed that Cadbury had been 'Camelot'. Excavations here in the late 1960s demonstrated that there was indeed significant remodification of the prehistoric fort in the post Roman period, but whether this was the headquarters of a monarch who inspired the myth of Arthur is unknown.
  2. Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, where 'Arthur' was reburied. Glastonbury today has strong popular associations with King Arthur. This is in part due to the romantic setting of both the ruined abbey and the Tor, but also because it was here, in 1191, that monks disturbed two graves, supposedly those of Arthur and Guinevere, establishing Glastonbury as 'Avalon'. The bones were reburied by the high altar, providing a lucrative pilgrimage attraction.
  3. The Great Hall, Winchester, where a round table hangs. On the wall of the Great Hall of Winchester hangs a large round table. The round table was added to Arthur's story in the 12th century, and has become a potent aspect of the myth. Dendrochronology suggests that it dates from the late 13th century and it may have been commis­sioned by Edward I, who was a great Arthur enthusiast.
  4. Caerleon, Gwent, Where Arthur may have won a battle. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who may have grown up nearby, frequently mentions Caerleon's Roman legionary fortress in the Historia Regum Britanniae, describing it as a powerful city in Arthur's time. Caerleon could also be the 'City of the Legions', one of the many victories in battle credited to Arthur.
  5. Birdoswald, Cumbria, where it's claimed Arthur was slain. Birdoswald was the Roman fort of Banna, an outpost at the western end of Hadrian's Wall. Some have suggested that the fort provided the basis for the battle of Camlann, where Arthur fell in battle fighting the treacherous Mordred but, as with all things Arthurian, this is much disputed.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology with over 30 years experience of archaeological fieldwork and publication. He graduated from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London in 1988 and worked as a field officer for the UCL Field Archaeology Unit and as a project manager for the Oxford Archaeological Unit, joining Bournemouth University in 1993. He has conducted fieldwork in England, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Germany, Sicily and Russia. He is currently director of Regnum and co-director of the Durotriges Project, both investigating the transition from the Iron Age to Roman period across south-east and south-west Britain. He gained his doctorate, on Neolithic monumental architecture, in 2000 and was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 2006. Miles is a regular contributor to television and radio, his most recent appearances being in Time Team, Time Team: Big Roman Dig, Timewatch, The Seven Ages of Britain, Landscape Mysteries, The One Show, Digging for Britain, Witness, Rome's Lost Legion, Operation Stonehenge: what lies beneath, Discovery, A History of Ancient Britain, The Big Spring Clean, Making History, The Sacred Landscapes of Britain, Border Country: the story of Britain's lost Middleland, Secrets from the Sky and Underground Britain.

The Link to Celtic Mythology


Formerly, it was thought that the Arthurian legend was the work of several inventive poets and romancers of the Middle Ages. The generally accepted theory now is that Arthurian legend developed out of stories of Celtic mythology. The most archaic form in which these occur in British sources is the Welsh Mabinogion, but much of Irish mythology is palpably identical with Arthurian romance. It is not certain how or where (in Wales or in those parts of northern Britain inhabited by Brythonic-speaking Celts) this legend originated or whether the figure Arthur was based on an historical person.

It is possible that traditional Irish hero stories of the iron age fused in Britain with those of the Welsh, the Cornish, and the Celts of North Britain. The resultant legend with its hero, Arthur, was transmitted to their Breton cousins on the Continent probably by the year 1000 AD, but possibly as early as the mid 6th-century (see "Getica" below). The Bretons, famous as wandering minstrels, followed Norman armies over Western Europe and used the legend's stories for their repertory. By 1100 AD, therefore, Arthurian stories were well known even in Italy.

The 6th-century historian Jordanes, in his work Getica, includes mention of the campaign in Gaul of Riotimus (Riothamus) "King of the Brettones" later confused with a Latin name, Artorius, and is the earliest known reference to King Arthur. Riothamus was a Romano-British military leader, who was active circa 470 AD. He fought against the Goths in alliance with the declining Roman Empire. He is called "King of the Britons" by Jordanes, but the extent of his realm is unclear. Riothamus is a Latinisation of the Brythonic personal name "Rigotamos", meaning 'king-most', 'supreme king' or 'highest king'. Though it is still a matter of debate, several scholars consider his life to have been one of the possible sources for the King Arthur legend.

It is not clear whether Jordanes' "Britons" refers to the Britons of Great Britain or of Armorica, which was undergoing significant British settlement and later came to be known as Brittany. The Bretons retained strong links to Britain, as is reflected in the names Kernow (now Cornwall) and Dumnonia (now Devon) being found as Cornouaille and Domnonée in Armorica. The distinction between insular and continental Britons may not have had very much meaning at the time, as ecclesiastics such as St. Winwaloe were associated with Brittany and Great Britain alike, and King Mark ('Hound of the Sea') apparently ruled Britons/Bretons on both sides of the English Channel.

Riothamus has been identified as a candidate for the historical King Arthur by some recent writers and scholars, notably the academic Léon Fleuriot and popular historian Geoffrey Ashe. These authors further note that Riothamus' last known position was near the Burgundian town of Avallon, which they suggest is the basis for the Arthurian connection to Avalon. Riothamus' activities in Gaul may be the seed whence grew the tradition (first recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his "Historia Regum Britanniae") that Arthur crossed the English Channel from Britain and attacked Rome. Geoffrey Ashe has also suggested a link between Riothamus' betrayal by Arvandus and Arthur's betrayal by Mordred in the "Historia Regum Britanniae.

Léon Fleuriot contends that

"De Origine Actibusque Gothorum" or "Getica" (The Origin and Deeds of the Getae\Goths) (551 AD) Jordanes, Chapter XLV at sections 237 & 238

Section 237: Now Euric, king of the Visigoths, perceived the frequent change of Roman Emperors and strove to hold Gaul by his own right. The Emperor Anthemius heard of it and asked the Brittones for aid. Their King Riotimus came with twelve thousand men into the state of the Bituriges by the way of Ocean, and was received as he disembarked from his ships.

Eurichus ergo, Wisigotharum rex, crebram mutationem Romanorum principum cernens, Gallias suo jure nisus est occupare.

Now Aiwa-reik (who lived circa 440 to 484), king of the Visigoths, seeing the frequent change of Roman Emperors, strove to take control of Gaul by his own right.

Quod comperiens, Anthemius Imperator Brittonum solacia postulavit.

The Emperor (of the West) Anthemius (467 to 472 AD) heard of it and asked the Bretons for aid.

Quorum rex Riotimus cum duodecim milibus veniens in Biturigas civitatem Oceano, e navibus egressus susceptus est.

Their King Riotimus (or Riothamus, from Celtic Rigo-tamos "King-most" the origin of King Arthur), coming with twelve thousand men to the city of Bourges by way of Ocean, was taken in as soon as he got off his ships (470 AD).

Section 238: Euric, king of the Visigoths, came against them with an innumerable army, and after a long fight he routed Riotimus, king of the Brittones, before the Romans could join him. So when he had lost a great part of his army, he fled with all the men he could gather together, and came to the Burgundians, a neighboring tribe then allied to the Romans. But Euric, king of the Visigoths, seized the Gallic city of Arverna; for the Emperor Anthemius was now dead.

Ad quos rex Wisigotharum Eurichus innumerum ductans advenit exercitum, diuque pugnans, Riotimum, Brittonum regem, antequam Romani in ejus societatem conjungerentur, effugavit.

Aiwa-reik, king of the Visigoths, arrived leading an innumerable army against them, and after a long fight routed Riotimus, king of the Bretons, before the Romans could join forces with him.

Qui, ampla parte exercitus amissa, cum quibus potuit fugiens, ad Burgundionum gentem vicinam Romanisque in eo tempore faederatam advenit.

After losing a great part of his army, he fled with all the men he could gather together and went to the neighbouring people of the Burgundians (to the place then called Avallon (Appleton), in Arthurian legend "Avalon"), then allied to the Romans.

Eurichus vero, rex Wisigotharum, Arvernam, Galliae civitatem, occupavit, Anthemio principe jam defuncto.

But Aiwa-reik, king of the Visigoths, seized the Gallic district of Auvergne; for the Emperor Anthemius was now dead (472 AD).

Assumptions that a historical Arthur led Welsh resistance to the West Saxon advance from the middle Thames are based on a conflation of two early chroniclers, Gildas and Nennius, and on the "Annales Cambriae" of the late 10th century.

The 9th century "Historia Brittonum" of Nennius records twelve battles fought by Arthur against the Saxons, culminating in a victory at Mons Badonicus. The Arthurian section of this work, however, is from an undetermined source, possibly a poetic text. The "Annales Cambriae" (circa 1150) also mention Arthur's victory at Mons Badonicus (516) and record the Battle of Camlann (537), "in which Arthur and Medraut fell". Gildas' "De excidio et conquestu Britanniae" (mid 6th century) implies that Mons Badonicus was fought in about 500 but does not connect it with Arthur.

Another speculative view, put forward by R.G. Collingwood in "Roman Britain and the English Settlements" (1936) [1], is that Arthur was a professional soldier, serving the British kings and commanding a cavalry force trained on Roman lines, which he switched from place to place to meet the Saxon threat.

Early Welsh literature, however, quickly made Arthur into a king of wonders and marvels. The 12th century prose romance "Culhwch and Olwen" associated him with other heroes, this conception of a heroic band, with Arthur at its head, doubtless leading to the idea of Arthur's court.

Medieval Sources

The Battle of Badon Hill - in which, according to the "Annales Cambriae", Arthur carried the Cross of Jesus on his shoulder (more probably his shield as the words for "shoulder" and "shield" are similar in Old Welsh: scuit - shield and scuid - shoulder) but not Arthur's name, is mentioned (circa 540) by Gildas. The earliest apparent mention of Arthur in any known literature is a brief reference to a mighty warrior in the Welsh poem "Y Gododdin" (circa 600): "He fed black ravens on the wall of the fortress, although he was not Arthur." Arthur next appears in Nennius (circa 800) as a Celtic warrior who fought (circa 600) twelve victorious battles against the Saxon invaders.

These and several subsequent references indicate that his legend had already developed into a considerable literature before Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his "Historia Regum Britanniae" (circa 1136), in which he elaborated on the feats of King Arthur whom he represented as the conqueror of Western Europe. After Geoffrey's "Historia" came Wace's "Roman de Brut" (circa 1155), which infused the legend with the spirit of chivalric romance. The "Brut" (circa 1190 to 1215) of Layamon, modeled on Wace's work, gives one of the best pictures of Arthur as a national hero.

Chrétien de Troyes, a 12th century French poet, wrote five romances dealing with the knights of Arthur's court. His "Perceval, le Conte du Graal" probably written between 1135 and 1190, contains the earliest extant literary version of the quest of the Holy Grail. Two medieval German poets important in the development of Arthurian legend are Wolfram von Eschenbach and Gottfried von Strassburg. The latter's "Tristan" (circa 1210) was the first great literary treatment of the Tristram and Isolde story.

After 1225 no significant medieval Arthurian literature was produced on the Continent. In England, however, the legend continued to flourish. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (circa 1370), one of the best Middle English romances, embodies the ideal of chivalric knighthood.

The last important medieval work dealing with the Arthurian legend is the "Le Morte d'Arthur" of Sir Thomas Malory, first published in 1485, whose tales have become the source for most subsequent Arthurian material. Many writers have used Arthurian themes since Malory, notably

Clan Arthur


The current chief of Clan Arthur is John Alexander MacArthur of that Ilk. The chief bears the undifferenced arms of the name MacArthur, and is the only person legally entitled to these arms under Scots law. The blazon of the chief's armorial shield is Azure, three antique crowns Or and corresponds to one of the attributed arms of the legendary King Arthur.

According to the legendary account of the Highland clans in early Gaelic manuscripts, given by William Forbes Skene in his "Celtic Scotland, a History of Ancient Alban (1876 - 1880)" [2], Cailean Mór Caimbeul, also known as Sir Colin Campbell (died after 1296), from whom the modern chiefs of the Campbells take their patronymic name, was the grandson of Dubgaill Cambel from whom came the name of Campbell. Dubgaill's great-great-grandfather was Duibne who was great-grandson of Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, son of Ambrosius - the legendary King Arthur. Elsewhere in his "Celtic Scotland" Skene has shown that the historic King Arthur fought his battles, not in the south of Wales, as modern readers of Tennyson, Swinburne, Morris and Arnold suppose, but in the lowlands of Scotland and on the fringes of the Highlands, on Loch Lomondside, and the northern district of Northumberland. [3]

The claim of the ancient Gaelic manuscripts for an Arthurian origin of the Clan Arthur and Clan Campbell is not unlikely. There are many enduring memorials of the great King Arthur in Scotland, including some two hundred place-names, from Arthur's Seat in Midlothian to Ben Arthur in Argyll and the ancient Highland Clan Arthur which had its seat under the shadow of Ben Arthur itself on the shore of Loch Fyne.

[2] "Celtic Scotland, a History of Ancient Alban", William Forbes Skene, Volume 3 (1880) at pages 339, 340, 458, 459 & 460

Chapter IX

The Clans and their Genealogies

Analysis of the Irish Pedigrees

The first group consists of the Clan Calin or Campbells, and the Clan Leod or MacLeods, who are brought from a mythic personage, viz., Fergus Leith Berg, son of Nemedh, who led a colony of Nemedians from Ireland to Scotland. This Nemedian colony belongs to the older legendary history of Scotland before the Chronicles were corrupted, and may therefore indicate these clans as forming part of the older inhabitants of the districts they occupy. On examining the genealogy of the Campbells we may consider it as authentic as far back as Duncan, son of Gilleaspie, son of Gillacolum, son of Duibne, who is certainly the Duncan M'Duibhn mentioned in one of the Argyll charters as possessing Lochow and Ardskeodnich, and who was contemporary with Alexander the Second. As the Campbells were undoubtedly known in Gaelic as the Clan O'Duibne, the genealogy as far back as that eponymus of the race is probably authentic; but as soon as we pass that link we find ourselves in contact with Arthur and Uthyr Pendragon, and the other heroes of the Arthurian legend.

Appendix 8

Legendary Descent of the Highland Clans, According to Irish MSS


CLANS supposed to be descended from FERGUS LEITH DERG, son of Nemedh, who led the Nemedian colony to Ireland. Genealogy of the Clan Colin or Campbells, now Campbells.

Sir Colin Cambell of Lochaw (chr. in 1407) son of
Sir Archibald Cambell (has a chr. in 1368 of lands as freely as his progenitor Duncan Mac Duine) son of
Sir Colin Cambell of Lochow son of
Sir Neill Cambell of Lochaw son of
Sir Colin Mor Cambell of Lochaw son of
Gillespie Cambell (1266, Exch. Rolls) son of
Dugald Cambel, from whom came the name of Cambell, son of
Duncan son of
Gillespie son of
Malcolm, called Mac Duine, son of
Duibhne, from whom the name is taken, son of
Fearadoig son of
Smeroie son of
Arthur son of
Uibher, king of the world (Uther Pendragon), son of
Ambrosius son of
Constantine son of
Amgcel son of
Toisid son of
Conruirg son of
Constantine son of
Arthur of the hand, son of
Laimlin son of
Arthur Redhand son of
Bene Briot son of
Arthur son of
Allardoid son of
Arthur of the long church, son of
Lamdoid son of
Findlay son of
Arthur the young, son of
Firmara or the man of the sea, son of
Arthur the great, son of
Bene Briot son of
Briotus son of
Briotan, from whom came the Britons, son of
Fergus Redside, son of

Click "Celtic Scotland, a History of Ancient Alban (Volume 3)" to read online

[3] "Celtic Scotland, a History of Ancient Alban", William Forbes Skene, Volume 1 (1876) at pages 152, 153 & 154

Chapter III

Britain after the Romans

War with Octa and Ebissa's colony

Gildas records no events between the victory, which he attributes to the leader of the Roman party, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and the siege of Mount Badon in 516. Nennius, who connects Ambrosius with the Roman power, and alludes to a discord between him and Guitolin, of which he gives no particulars, but which he places in the year 437, fills up this interval with the exploits of Arthur.

The Arthur of Nennius was, however, a very different personage from the shadowy and mythic monarch of the later Welsh traditions, and of the Arthurian romance. He is described by Nennius as merely a warrior who was a military commander in conjunction with the petty British kings who fought against the Saxons. The Saxons referred to were those whom Nennius had previously described as colonising the regions in the north under Octa and Ebissa, and it is to that part of the country we must look for the sites of the twelve battles which he records. The first was fought at the mouth of the river Glein. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, on another river called Dubglas, in the region of Linnius, and this brings us at once to the Lennox, where two rivers called the Douglas, or Dubhglass, fall into Loch Lomond. This was certainly one of the districts about the wall called 'Guaul' which had been occupied by Octa's colony; and Nennius tells us elsewhere that Severus' wall, which passed by Cairpentaloch to the mouth of the river Clyde, was called in the British speech 'Guaul'. The sixth battle was fought at a river called Bassas. The seventh in the Caledonian wood, which again takes ue to the north for the site of these battles. The eighth in the fastness of Guinnion, which is connected by an old tradition with the church of Wedale, in the vale of the Gala Water. The ninth at the City of the Legion. The tenth on the strand of the river called Tribruit. The eleventh in the mount called Agned, which again brings us to the north for these battles, as there can be no doubt that Edinburgh, called by the Welsh Mynyd Agned, is the place meant, and this battle appears to have been directed against the Picts, who were in league with the Saxons. The twelfth was the battle at Mount Badon, in which Nennius tells us that 960 men of the enemy perished in one day from the onslaught of Arthur, and that he was victorious in all of these battles. Nennius adds that while the Saxons were defeated in all of these battles, they were continually seeking help from Grermany, and being increased in numbers, and obtaining kings from Germany to rule them till the reign of Ida, son of Eobba, who was the first king in Bernicia, with which sentence he closes his narrative, and this still further tends to place these events in the north. So we may accept Arthur as a historic person, and this account of his battles as based on a genuine tradition. The chronicle attached to Nennius tells us that he was slain twenty-one years afterwards in the battle of Camlan, fought in 537 between him and Medraud. As Medraud was the son of Llew of Lothian, this battle again takes us to the north for its site.

Mr. Nash, in his introduction to "Merlin or the Early History of King Arthur" (Early English Text Society, 1845) makes a statement which appears to me well founded: 'Certain it is,' he says, 'that there are two Celtic - we may perhaps say two Cymric - localities, in which the legends of Arthur and Merlin have been deeply implanted, and to this day remain living traditions cherished by the peasantry of these two countries, and that neither of them is Wales or Britain west of the Severn. It is in Brittany and in the old Cumbrian kingdom south of the Firth of Forth that the legends of Arthur and Merlin have taken root and flourished.' To Cumbria, however, may be added Cornwall, where the Arthurian romance places the scene of many of its adventures; and it is rather remarkable that we should find in the second century a tribe termed Damnonii, possessing Cornwall, and a tribe of the same name occupying the ground which forms the scene of his exploits in the north.

Click "Celtic Scotland, a History of Ancient Alban (Volume 1)" to read online


  1. Merlin: magician, seer, and teacher at the court of King Vortigern and later at the court of King Arthur. He was a bard and culture hero in early Celtic folklore. In Arthurian legend he is famous as a magician and as the counselor of King Arthur. In Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" Merlin is imprisoned eternally in an old oak tree by the treacherous Vivien (Lady of the Lake or Nimue), when he reveals the secrets of his knowledge to her.
  2. Morgan le Fay
  3. Lady of the Lake was the ruler of Avalon in the Arthurian legend - a misty, supernatural figure endowed with magic powers, who gave the sword Excalibur to King Arthur. According to one legend she kidnapped the infant Launcelot after the death of his father and brought him to her castle where he lived until manhood. Different writers give her name as Morgan le Fay (Morgaine), Nimue, Viviane (Vivien), Elaine, Niniane, Nivian, Nyneve, and Evienne. However, the poem "The Lady of the Lake", by Sir Walter Scott, is based on a totally different legend.
  4. Avalon: in Celtic mythology, the blissful otherworld of the dead. In medieval romance it was the island to which the mortally wounded King Arthur was taken, and from which it was expected he would someday return. Avalon is often identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, England.
  5. Guinevere, wife of King Arthur. Her illicit and tragic love for Sir Launcelot, which foreshadowed the downfall of Arthur's kingdom, ends with her retirement to a convent. She also figures in several early romances and Celtic legends, her name appearing in various forms (e.g., Guanhamara, Gvenour, and Gwenhwyfars). In different versions of the Arthurian story her name appears as Guenevere and Guinever.
  6. Ettarre (or Ettard): (1) In Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur", Pelleas is a knight who loves Ettarde. After he wins a tournament and declares her the fairest woman, she scorns him. Just so that he can see her, Pelleas lets himself be taken prisoner by her knights even though he has defeated them. Gawain offers to help Pelleas by pretending to have killed him and thereby, presumably, forcing Ettarde to realize that she cares for him. Instead, she is glad to hear he is dead; and Gawain betrays his comrade by sleeping with Ettarde. When Pelleas discovers them together, he places his sword across their throats. Nyneve helps Pelleas by curing his love for Ettarde and at the same time enchanting Ettarde so that she loves him. Eventually, Ettarde dies because of that love, and Pelleas and Nyneve become lovers. Malory writes that Pelleas was one of the four knights who achieved the Grail, a strange statement since in his account and in his source only three of Arthur's knights succeed in the quest and Pelleas is not one of them. Perhaps this statement indicates an early intention to give Pelleas a wider role in the "Morte". (2) In his "Pelleas and Ettarre" idyll, Tennyson recounts Pelleas' love and Gawain's betrayal, which becomes one of several signs of the moral decline of Camelot. Without the assistance and love of Vivien, who is herself a wicked and deceitful figure in Tennyson's poems, Pelleas is driven mad by the betrayal. (3) Pelleas is the narrator of Godfrey Turton's "The Emperor Arthur", in which he has a brief affair with Ettard before finding true love with Vivian. In this novel, he is one of Arthur's knights and fights with him at Badon and at Camlan, where he slays Mordred just as Mordred is wounding Arthur.
  7. Sir Launcelot was the bravest and most celebrated knight at the court of King Arthur. He was kidnapped as an infant by the mysterious Lady of the Lake, from whom he received his education and took his title, Launcelot of the Lake. As a young man he went to the court of King Arthur, where he was knighted and became one of the most feared warriors in all Christendom. Launcelot was the lover of Guinevere, his sovereign's queen. He was also loved by Elaine (the daughter of King Pelles), by whom he was the father of Sir Galahad, and by Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat, who died for love of him. Launcelot's name sometimes appears as Lancelot.
  8. Round Table, is the table at which King Arthur and his knights held court. It was allegedly fashioned at the behest of Arthur to prevent quarrels among the knights over precedence. According to one version it was given to Arthur as a wedding gift by his father-in-law. A round table of undetermined antiquity hangs now in the castle at Winchester. Traditionally King Arthur's, it may be a relic of one of the medieval jousts also called round tables.
  9. Mabinogion is the title given to a collection of eleven prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts. The tales draw on pre-Christian Celtic mythology, international folktale motifs, and early medieval historical traditions. While some details may hark back to older Iron Age traditions, each of these tales is the product of a highly developed medieval Welsh narrative tradition, both oral and written. Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid 19th century was the first to publish English translations of the collection, popularising the name "Mabinogion" at the same time.
  10. Celtic mythology is the mythology of Celtic polytheism, the religion of the Iron Age Celts. Like other Iron Age Europeans, the early Celts maintained a polytheistic mythology and religious structure. It is mostly through contemporary Roman and Christian sources that their mythology has been preserved. The Celtic peoples who maintained either their political or linguistic identities (such as the Gaels, Picts, and Brittonic tribes of Great Britain and Ireland) left vestigial remnants of their ancestral mythologies, put into written form during the Middle Ages.
  11. Getica "De Origine Actibusque Gothorum" or "Getica" (The Origin and Deeds of the Getae\Goths) (551 AD), is described as an obituary of the Gothic nation: "… to condense in my own style in this small book the twelve volumes of (Cassiodorus) Senator on the origin and deeds of the Getae (Goths) from olden times to the present day" per Jordanes in his Preface.
  12. Gildas, (circa 500 to 570), was a 6th century British historian and cleric. He is one of the best documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during this period. His renowned learning and literary style earned him the designation "Gildas the Wise", or Gildas Sapiens. His most well known work is "De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae", which recounts the sub-Roman history of Britain, and which is the only substantial source for history of this period written by a near-contemporary.
  13. Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century and a student of Elvodugus, commonly identified with the bishop Elfodd who convinced British ecclesiastics to accept the Continental dating for Easter, and who died in 809 according to the "Annales Cambriae". Nennius is believed to have lived in the area made up by present day Brecknockshire and Radnorshire counties in Powys, Wales. He lived outside the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, isolated by mountains in a rural society. Because of the lack of evidence concerning the life of Nennius he has become the subject of legend himself. He has traditionally been attributed with the authorship of the "Historia Brittonum" (circa 830), based on the prologue affixed to that work, which attribution is widely considered a secondary (10th century) tradition. The "Historia Brittonum" was highly influential, becoming a major contributor to the Arthurian legend. It also includes the legendary origins of the Picts, Scots, St. Germanus and Vortigern, and documents events associated with the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the 7th century as contributed by a Northumbrian document. Evidence suggests that this medieval literature was a compilation of several sources, some of which are named by Nennius while others are not. Some experts say that this was not the first compiled history of the Britons and that it was largely based on Gildas' "De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae" written some two centuries before.
  14. Mons Badonicus, also known as the Battle of Badon, Battle of Badon Hill or Mount Badon, is a battle thought to have occurred between a force of Britons and an Anglo-Saxon war band in the late 5th or early 6th century. Chiefly known today for the supposed involvement of King Arthur, it is credited in medieval British and Welsh sources as a major political and military event but seems to have passed unremarked in the Anglo-Saxon histories. Because of the limited number of sources, there is no certainty about the date, location, or details of the fighting.
  15. Battle of Camlann, (Welsh: Cad Camlan or Brwydr Camlan) is reputed to have been the final battle of King Arthur, in which he either died or was fatally wounded fighting his enemy Mordred (who was, in some later versions of the tale, his son or his nephew).
  16. Chivalry: a system of ethical ideals that arose from feudalism and had its highest development in the 12th and 13th centuries. Chivalric ethics originated chiefly in France and Spain and spread rapidly to the rest of the Continent and to England. They represented a fusion of Christian and military concepts of morality and still form the basis of gentlemanly conduct. Noble youths became pages in the castles of other nobles at the age of 7; at 14 they trained as squires in the service of knights, learning horsemanship and military techniques, and were themselves knighted, usually at 21. The chief chivalric virtues were piety, honor, valor, courtesy, chastity, and loyalty. The knight's loyalty was due to the spiritual master, God; to the temporal master, the suzerain; and to the mistress of the heart, his sworn love. Love, in the chivalrous sense, was largely platonic; as a rule, only a virgin or another man's wife could be the chosen object of chivalrous love. With the cult of the Virgin Mary, the relegation of noblewomen to a pedestal reached its highest expression. The ideal of militant knighthood was greatly enhanced by the Crusades. The monastic orders of knighthood, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitalers, produced soldiers sworn to uphold the Christian ideal. Besides the battlefield, the tournament was the chief arena in which the virtues of chivalry could be proved. The code of chivalrous conduct was worked out with great subtlety in the courts of love that flourished in France and in Flanders. There the most arduous questions of love and honor were argued before the noble ladies who presided (see courtly love). The French military hero Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard, was said to be the last embodiment of the ideals of chivalry. In practice, chivalric conduct was never free from corruption, increasingly evident in the later Middle Ages. Courtly love often deteriorated into promiscuity and adultery and pious militance into barbarous warfare. Moreover, the chivalric duties were not owed to those outside the bounds of feudal obligation. The outward trappings of chivalry and knighthood declined in the 15th century, by which time wars were fought for victory and individual valor was irrelevant. Artificial orders of chivalry, such as the Order of the Golden Fleece (1423), were created by rulers to promote loyalty; tournaments became ritualised, costly, and comparatively bloodless; the traditions of knighthood became obsolete. Medieval secular literature was primarily concerned with knighthood and chivalry. Two masterpieces of this literature are the Chanson de Roland (circa 1098; see Roland) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Arthurian legend and the chansons de geste furnished bases for many later romances and epics. The work of Chrétien de Troyes and the Roman de la Rose also had tremendous influence on European literature. The endless chivalrous and pastoral romances, still widely read in the 16th century, were satirised by Cervantes in Don Quixote. In the 19th century, however, the romantic movement brought about a revival of chivalrous ideals and literature. [See B. E. Broughton, "Dictionary of Medieval Knighthood and Chivalry" (1986); M. Keen, "Chivalry" (1984); H. Chickering and T. H. Seiler, ed., "The Study of Chivalry" (1988).]
  17. Undifferenced arms (or plain arms) are coats of arms which have no marks distinguishing the bearer by birth order or family position. In the Scottish and English heraldic traditions, these plain coats of arms are legal property transmitted from father to eldest male heir, and are used only by one person at any given time. The other descendants of the original bearer could bear the ancestral arms only with some difference.
  18. Attributed arms are coats of arms given to legendary figures, or to notable persons from times before the rise of heraldry. Beginning in the 12th century, arms were assigned to the knights of the Round Table, and then to biblical figures, to Roman and Greek heroes, and to kings and popes who had not historically borne arms.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon
Edward Burne-Jones (1881)


Tintagel Castle Merlin carving sparks 'Disneyfication' row A rock carving of Merlin at a coastal cave reputedly linked to the legend of King Arthur has been branded a "Disneyfication" of the site.

Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur is an upcoming epic adventure film directed by Guy Ritchie and written by Joby Harold. The film stars Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur and is scheduled to be released on 24 March 2017.

The History Files A review of the 14 principal Celtic cultures claiming King Arthur as their own: Breton, Riothamus, Dumnonian, Cumbrian, Pennine, Elmet, Saxon Ally, Merionydd, Scotti, Powysian, Rhos, Dyfed, Glamorgan, St Arthmael and Roman.

The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page A thirteen part examination of Britain in the "Age of Arthur" - the 5th through the mid-6th centuries A.D. - being a period when the classical age of Greece and Rome gave way to the Germanic "Dark Ages".

Arthurian Legend Comprehensive Arthurian Legend website with search engine exclusively devoted to the Arthurian Legend

Arthurian Archaeology Article detailing the controversial link between legend and history.

Discovery of King Arthur's Tomb - Medieval Sourcebook Excerpt of a 1228 document by Gerald of Wales tells of the purported discovery of Arthur's body at the monastery in Glastonbury.

Melkin's Prophesy Document makes reference to a Celtic soothsayer's prophesy that locates the grave of Joseph of Arimathea, an Arthurian figure.

Time-line of Arthurian Britain Chronology includes both the events in Britain after the Roman exit, and the documentary evidence for Arthur's existence.

What Do Modern Historians Think of King Arthur ? Eighteen scholars from different backgrounds give their opinions as to the validity of historical claims for Arthur's existence.

Arthuriana Scholarly online journal about King Arthur and his era. Research dates and places, peruse the reading list, or access the newsletter and related links.

Celtic Twilight, The Resource dedicated to the legends and mythology of the Round Table. Find renderings of various tales, poetry, and an artist's gallery.

Early British Kingdoms Excerpts from the Britannia Travels as related to King Arthur and his court. Find a narrative history, an Arthurian time-line, and texts.

King Arthur - texts, images, and introductions Learn the background of King Arthur and other characters. Also offers a vast index of writings that examine and perpetuate the legend.

King Arthur on Britannia Link to sites entitled Tom Green's Arthurian Pages, Legends - King Arthur and the Matter of Britain, The Saxon Shore, and Llys Arthur.

The Labyrinth - Arthurian resources Contains links to 27 online sources including the Camelot Project, Arthuriana, the Oxford Arthurian Society and Avalon.

[1] "Roman Britain and the English Settlements", 1936, 515 pages, Robin George Collingwood, John Nowell Linton Myres, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1936. English history from the Roman to Anglo Saxon period.