Posts Tagged ‘King Arthur Legend’

Well, my computer has been glitchy for a week, blue-screening out and restarting every time I tried to use the internet. But I think (knock on wood) that I may have gotten it back on its feet. At least, it was stable all day yesterday. Meanwhile, I’ve got a back-up ordered.

So, back to the Arthurian legend and what there may be of an historical basis for it.

Gildas was a sixth-century monk, trained at Llanilltud Fawr monastery in southeastern Wales, though he later emigrated to Brittany, which may be why his writing survived. (Though there were certainly monasteries that were centers of learning in Britain and there must have been people writing, very little survives from Britain of the Dark Ages and most of that is copies made hundreds of years later.) What Gildas wrote wasn’t a history or the beginning of the Arthurian legend. In fact, he never mentioned Arthur’s name. The nearest modern equivalent I can come up with for what Gildas wrote, is a very angry letter to the editor—only there weren’t newspapers or newspaper editors in the sixth century. The title, translated from the Latin is On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.

Gildas begins with a brief history, including the arrival of Hengist and Horsa in Kent, at the invitation of Vortigern. Although Gildas never mentions Vortigern either, but merely refers to the superbus tyrannus. That’s usually interpreted as a play on Vortigern’s name, which means something like “High King” or “Generalissimo” or “Most Kingly”. He goes on to praise Ambrosius effusively for holding back the Saxons, calling him the “last of the Romans”. And then, in the next paragraph, he mentions the Battle of Badon Hill, without using any names. Because it is the next paragraph, sometimes this is interpreted to imply that Ambrosius was the leader of the Britons in that battle, but, again, Gildas doesn’t name anyone in that paragraph and never uses Arthur’s name at all.

One thing he does say, though, is that he was born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill, which he places forty-four years before writing this text. This means that Gildas’s life would have overlapped Arthur’s—if there was an Arthur. And he would certainly have known and grown up around people who had lived through that time.

Back to On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. Gildas goes on to criticize the Britons for continuing to fight amongst themselves rather than unite against the Saxons. He denounces the governments as corrupt. And he particularly condemns five contemporary rulers for everything from adultery to murder and sacrilege. Some of that criticism, particularly of Constantine of Dumnonia, has some interesting parallels with some obscure parts of Arthurian legend, but I’ll get back to that.

All of this would seem to indicate that there never was an Arthur. Surely Gildas would have mentioned him if there had been, right? Although, Gildas seems to have been a man of strong opinions and, if there was some reason he didn’t want to praise Arthur he might just not use Arthur’s name as he also refused to use Vortigern’s.

But there’s one little fragment to be found in Scotland—or at least in a poem about a battle that took place on the border between what are now Scotland and England, Y Goddodin. This poem was likely composed shortly after the battle, which probably occurred around the year 600, but the only surviving copies are much later—and probably amended over that time. However, there is one part that, at least according to some, seems to be original. The word forms, apparently, are older and they are integral to the rhyme. (I’m no linguist. I have to take their word for it.) And this part praises one particular warrior for being totally awesome in this battle and the last line of that stanza translates as “though he was no Arthur”.

This would mean a couple of things. First, that some kind of story about Arthur had made it all the way to Scotland by that time. Second, that the poet could reasonably expect his audience to know immediately who Arthur had been and what he was famous for—apparently being a badass warrior.

So, we can place Arthur—if he existed—in the Dark Ages. That it was the Dark Ages means a few things. It means Arthur certainly wasn’t High King of all Britain. There’s no way the fractious British tribal rulers would have accepted any such thing. There wouldn’t be a king even of most of England until Alfred the Great about three centuries later.

And his companions weren’t knights—certainly not in the medieval form. They might have worn chain mail, though leather armor or none at all, other than helmets, was more likely. But they certainly didn’t wear head-to-toe plate mail, because that hadn’t been invented yet. And they didn’t joust, either, because the stirrup, invented on the Eurasian steppes, had not reached Western Europe yet. I can only imagine that a Dark Ages warrior would have laughed himself silly at the concept of chivalry and courtly love.

So where did all that we think of as the legend of Arthur come from?

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My previous posts cover my research, so far. Now I’m going to delve into some general thoughts about the legend itself–and how it got to be the legend we know.

A legend is defined as “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” But, we know that at least some legends, like the Trojan War, have been shown to have at least some historical basis.

So, some legends may have a kernel of historical truth at their core. Sometimes, it’s a very small kernel. And, sometimes, that kernel is not what most people think of when they think of the legend. If the legend of King Arthur has such a core, I think it is the fight by the Romano-Celtic Britons against the encroaching “Saxons”. In particular, the Battle of Badon Hill, which, in Arthurian tradition, is the decisive battle in which the Saxons were defeated badly enough not to try to take more territory from the Britons for several decades. (“Saxons” seems to be the term used for all Germanic tribes in the legend—even if they were in fact Angles or Jutes, rather than actual Saxons.)

Yes, I know the fight against the Saxons is not what most people think of when they think of the story of Arthur. Many modern versions of the legend either completely ignore the Saxons or dispense with them quite early and get on with the shinier parts of the story—parts that mostly were added later. Because what turns history into legend is that the story grows in the telling.

If that is the origin or core of the Arthur story, then we can place it during the Dark Ages, either in the fifth century or very early in the sixth century. It can’t be earlier than that because the Romans controlled Britannia from the middle of the first century until the beginning of the fifth century. The Romans were really, really good at a number of things—roads, aqueducts, military tactics, and bureaucracy. They kept records and wrote histories, most of which have survived. If the Romans had still been in charge when the Battle of Badon Hill took place, there wouldn’t be any doubt about the site of the battle. At the very least, we’d know what civitas it took place in. And, if there ever was a real Arthur, he’d be mentioned. It also can’t be later, for a couple of reasons. The establishment of the early Saxon kingdoms (other than Kent) spans from the late fifth to the early sixth century. And, besides, we have a mention of the Battle of Badon Hill, placing that battle probably between 470 and 500. That mention is found in Gildas’s On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain.

More about that and what history can be pieced together in my next post.

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And now I’m going to start (I think) a series of posts on the major characters of this version of the Arthur legend. At least as they’ll appear in my story.

As I’m currently writing it, Merlin’s Gambit will start during the time of Vortigern and Ambrosius. Vortigern was quite possibly an historical character and Ambrosius almost certainly was. They may well have been roughly contemporaneous.

The “best” historical reference for that time that we have is Gildas, writing within a couple of generations of that time. Gildas was a sixth-century British monk, likely born and/or living somewhere in south Wales. He eventually moved to Brittany. In his own writing, he claimed to have been born in the same year as the Battle of Badon Hill–the battle in which Arthur is supposed to have decisively defeated the Saxons, but he never mentions Arthur. He also wasn’t writing a history, but a diatribe on the rulers of his time who weren’t living up to the example set by their predecessors in keeping the Saxons back. The title of his work, translated, is On the Ruin of Britain and he didn’t have much nice to say about any of the sixth-century rulers.

Gildas doesn’t name Vortigern, though his “superbus tyrannus” may be a play on Vortigern’s name which means something like “high king”. The superbus tyrannus, at any rate, is the one Gildas blames for letting the Saxons into Britain. Archaeologically, this seems a little unfair. It looks like several different regional rulers were using Saxons–or Angles, or Jutes–to defend their borders. Nevertheless, Vortigern certainly gets the blame in virtually all of the tales and he’ll get at least a share of it in mine, too.

Southern Britain Map New

I’ve included the map for reference.

To the extent that anything can be determined about Vortigern after about 1500 years, it looks like his power base would have been the area around Gloucester, or the territory of a Romano-Celtic tribe called the Dobunni and extending up the Severn Valley into the part of Wales that would later become Powys (territory of the Cornovi). He likely also exerted some political influence over other parts of Wales as well. And there’s good historical reason for bad blood between the Dobunni and the, in Roman terms, civitas to the south of them, the Belgae because the Romans had taken land away from the Dobunni to create the civitas of the Belgae (which is the likely center of Ambrosius’s power).

How Vortigern also held power of any kind in Kent (on the far southeastern corner of England and on the other side of the territory of several rival tribes) is a little trickier. I’m going to have to work a bit on that part. But all the legends claim it was Vortigern who invited Hengist and Horsa into England and that they landed in and eventually were given or took control of Kent (territory of the Canti). Kent became the first foothold of a Saxon (or possibly Jutish) kingdom in England.

But there’s some good drama in Vortigern’s story. He was, supposedly, married to Sevira, the daughter of Magnus Maximus (a very historical person who took legions and militia from Britain in the late 4th century in a failed attempt to make himself Emperor of Rome). Later, presumably after Sevira’s death, he is supposed to have become enamored of Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, ceding Kent (which wasn’t his) to Hengist in exchange for Rowena’s hand in marriage.

In some versions of the story, Vortigern is killed in battle with Ambrosius.

Yep, my story is definitely starting with Vortigern–or, actually, with Merlin trying to deal with and influence Vortigern.

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