Guest post by Ian Craine: The mystery of ‘King’ Arthur

My darling husband has written another wonderful post for me, dear friends, as a contribution to my Celtic circle! This is the result of his research on ‘King Arthur’…


Roberta has been hard at work composing blog posts for you all on recipes and TV shows and most recently on the High Kings of Tara. So I thought it was time I made some contribution. So where Roberta is definitely an expert on Brian Boru and all his predecessors I have gathered some little knowledge during my long lifetime on the man we call “King Arthur” though I prefer plain Arthur as we do not know his precise status.


Was there an historical Arthur? Well it depends how you define him. Some of the more historically minded of you may throw up your hands in horror at such weasel words so I shall attempt to justify them. The man we know as Arthur seems to date back to around the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era, or 500AD if you prefer. This was the time that Britain, a land of mainly Celtic speakers was invaded by Saxons and related Germanic tribes- Frisians, Angles etc. These people were the proto-English, but Arthur was most definitely not one of them. He was British, or at least he was fighting for the British (the Brittonic or Brythonic Celts). Despite constant confusion down the centuries British and English are not the same thing. Far from it.

So how am I defining Arthur into existence? I am saying broadly that whoever the man was who led the British resistance to the Saxons that was Arthur. Since the name Arthur only starts appearing after this man’s death it is highly likely that he was known by another name at the time. At least one other name, since chieftains and battle leaders (the duces bellorum) had soubriquets awarded for their military prowess as well as given names.


In passing I should say that Arthur had a second life in France some centuries later, a life of Holy Grails, Round Tables, Camelots, Excaliburs, Merlins, treacherous Lancelots etc etc. The second life could not have existed without the first but for the moment let’s forget all that and look at the possible historical Arthur.

There are three historical figures that have been put forward. The first is Ambrosius Aurelianus, mentioned as a British resistance fighter in the only extant British text of the period (by the monk Gildas). The second is Riothamus, referred to by two or three Continental writers as a King of the Britons. The third is Cunedda, a warrior who was invited down from Scotland principally to fight Irish pirates off the coast of North Wales.


Ambrosius is actually doing my Arthur’s job specification- fighting the Saxons. He could have been Arthur’s predecessor or he could have been Arthur. At the same time Riothamus was fighting in France with a Brittonic army on behalf of the Romans. The Romans had only a generation or so before left Britain, and all this warfare between British and Saxon took place in a country suddenly loosened from the grip of Roman control and security. Legend would go on to say that Arthur fought in Europe so perhaps Arthur was really Riothamus. Cunedda features at the head of a many a Welsh genealogy, the founding father of post-Roman Cymraeg nationhood. And when we pronounce his name as it would have been pronounced with the stress on the first syllable Cune etha (Kenneth today) we can perhaps fancy that “King Arthur” was a misheard version of his name.

So which one was he? That may not be the right question. Remember what I said about given names and soubriquets. Ambrosius Aurelianus seems to be the former, the other two probably the latter. The rio bit of Riothamus means “king” while the dda bit of Cunedda means “good”. Two of these three warriors could well be the same man. Indeed all three could. All had Roman connections. The first had a Roman name and Gildas suggests he was Roman aristocracy. The second willingly put an army in the field for Rome. The third, even in the Welsh genealogies, had a father and a grandfather with Roman names, and seems to have started life as a agent for Rome defending the area between Hadrian’s and the Antonine Wall in what is now southern Scotland. It is also worth pointing out that not only was Britain part of the Roman Empire it had had its own soi-disant Emperor (one of several across Europe competing for the honour) not long before. Magnus Maximus seems to have a daughter, Sevira, who married a British chieftain. Rome had not been forgotten by some British diehards.


One more question if we cannot answer with any certainty who Arthur was. From where did he operate? The Saxons and their northern allies the Angles quite quickly assumed control of the east of the country. The areas declining to accept Germanic suzerainty in Arthur’s time were basically four, the present day provinces and regions of Wales, Scotland, Cumbria and Cornwall. Since engagement with the foe seems to have happened quickly and regularly Wales seems the best bet. The other three are much more remote. Cunedda had settled in Wales and seemingly carved out principalities there for his sons. Welsh legend credits Ambrosius with residency there too. He is fondly remembered as Emrys. Riothamus is known to us only from Continental writers. He seems to have been an important and imposing figure receiving letters from Catholic archbishops and the like. So why is he not known in British history? Isn’t the obvious answer he is, but under another name.

Will this mystery ever be solved? Do we even want to solve it? Is it not perhaps better as it is, the subject of endless speculation? Like this blog post.

By Ian Craine

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