Monday, 17 November 2014

King Arthur: The Men That Made The Legend

Many have raised the question of whether King Arthur was a real person or an entirely mythical creation.  Unfortunately there is no historical evidence that the King Arthur ever existed.  However, this doesn't mean that he and his accomplishments were merely an invention of the mind.  It's more plausible that King Arthur was a combination of many different men who existed at different points throughout history.  Let's take a look at some of the men who may be connected to the King Arthur we know today.

Magnus Maximus

One of the greatest figures in Britain towards the end of the Roman Empire was Magnus Maximus - the Prince Macsen, the Macsen Wledig of Welsh legend.  General Magnus Clemens Maximus was a Celt and an uncle of the Welsh King Coel Godhehog (believed to have been the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme) by marriage.  Born to a poor Spanish family, Maximus took up a military career and served under Theodasius the Elder in Britain in 369AD and in Africa from 373 to 375AD.  He was rewarded with overall military command in Britain for his efforts, where he successfully campaigned against the Scots and Picts.

The army are said to have been very much dissatisfied with their emperor Gratian.  They were particularly jealous of the privileges given to barbarian units fighting for the emperor, which sparked disagreements between the soldiers.  This led to the British garrison revolting in 383AD, with the soldiers proclaiming Maximus as the new emperor of the west.  When Gratian marched west with his troops to meet with an usurper as Lutetia, his troops deserted him, changing their allegiance to Maximus.  Gratian fled but Maximus 'Master of Horse' caught up with him and Gratian was assasinated.

Maximus established his captial at Treviri, beginning negotiations with Theodasius, who reluctantly recognized him as emperor.  With this recognition, Maximus adopted the name Flavius, portraying himself as a member of the imperial house.  As an orthodox Catholic, Maximus vehemently chased down and punished heretics and pagans.

In 387AD, Maximus made his son, Flavius Victor, co-emperor and invaded Italy, successfully banishing Valentinian II, who fled with his mother to Theodasius in Constantinople.  Maximus then moved to increase his influence but was attacked by Theodasius.  In 388AD, Maximus was captured and, while he pleaded for mercy, was executed.  His sone was also captured and put to death.

Maximus's campaigns against the Picts and Scots probably inspired and influenced some of the later legends of King Arthur's own campaigns against them.

Ambrosius Aurelianus

While too ancient to have been King Arthur,  Ambrosius Aurelianus, sometimes referred to as Aurelius Ambrosius, was a powerful Romano-British leader in Britain.  He was well known for his campaigns against the Saxons and some have questioned whether he may have led the British forces during the Battle of Badon Hill.  The date of the Battle of Badon Hill, while disputed, is widely accepted by scholars to have taken place in around 500AD.

In Gildus's 'On the Ruin of Britain', he tells us that, following a colossal Saxon invasion, Aurelianus was the only person to remain calm, even having suffered the death of his family and countless Roman settlers during the attack.  As a result, Aurelianus became the commander of the survivors and led them in battle against the Saxons, winning them their first victory. the poet says,—"With their unnumbered vows they burden heaven," that they might not be brought to utter destruction, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils, and now his progeny in these our days, although shamefully degenerated from the worthiness of their ancestors, provoke to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtain the victory.

Gildas tells us that Aurelianus' parents 'were adorned with the purple,..implying that he was a descendant of Roman emperors.  While he is spoken of in Gildas' writing, we are not told who commanded during the Battle of Badon.  Many are of the opinion that Aurelianus lived in the generation before the Battle of Badon took place.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is regarded as somewhat unreliable, makes Aurelianus a King of Britain as well as the older brother of Uther Pendragon (Arthur's father), thus forging a connection between King Arthur and Aurelianus.  It is considered unlikely that Aurelianus commanded the British forces during the Battle of Badon, as he is believed to have been in his prime in the early 5th century.  However, his conquests against the Saxons may have influenced the modern view of King Arthur.

Lucius Artorius Castus

Lucius Artorius Castus is believed to have been a Sarmatian cavalry officer during the late 2nd and 3rd century, making him 400 years too young to have actually been King Arthur.  It's believed his deeds had an influence in the later Arthurian tales, along with the Sarmatians and their beliefs.  The theory that King Arthur was ultimately based on Castus was first suggested by Kemp Malone and was revived by C. Scott Littleton and Linda  A. Malcor in 1994.  At this point it was also suggested that the nomadic Alans and Sarmatians, who settled in Western Europe in late Antiquity, also influenced the legends.

All we know of Castus comes from twi Latin inscriptions which were discovered during the 19th century in Podstrana.  After a long and memorable career in the Roman army as a centurian and primus pilus, Castus was promoted to praedectus legionis of the VI Victrix, a unit based in Eboracum (York) from 122AD.  He served as third-in-command of the legion, taking responsibility for the upkeep of the legionary headquarters.  Castus was later given the temporary title of dux legionum, making him responsible for units with British associations in an expedition against an unknown enemy on the Continent.  After this he apparently became a civil governor of the province of Liburnia, where he died and was buried.

Malcor suggests that Castus first fought against the Sarmations early inhis military career.  This gave him valuable insight into their unique fighting style and led to his assignment  of command over a small group of Sarmatians based in Ribchester in 181AD.  Malcor also proposes that Castus also led these Sarmatians during a campaign against invading Cadedonians, who overwhelmed Hadrian's Wall between 183 and 185AD.  After the collapse of Castus' legion, Malcor believes that he returned to the city of Eboracum before he was sent to lead cavalry cohorts against an uprising in what is modern Brittany, then Armorica.

During this time, the Sarmatians were allowed to keep to their own customs, gods and traditions, which included the religious practise of worshipping a 'sword in the stone'.  They fought beneath a windsack-style banner in the shape of a dragon.  Excalibur was originally known as Caliburn meaning white steel.  A tribe of Sarmatian smiths, who were known as Kalybes, had the words chalylous meaning steel and eburnus meaning white.  Some believe that the name Caliburn comes from these two words -  chaly + burn.  Sarmatian legend also tells of a fearsome warrior who wielded an unstoppable sword which had connections with a magical water ritual, with some drawing a connection with Excalibur.  Castus himself fought on horseback beneath a dragon banner, dressed in steel armour, wielding a white-steel sword, making him sound almost medieval.

While some think it nothing more than coincidence, many believe that Castus' very definitive career in the military and the historical customs and traditions of the Sarmatians may have influenced and inspired events in later Arthurian literature and legend.


According to Geoffrey Ashe, who has studied King Arthur for around 50 years, King Arthur could have been inspired by the Dark Age ruler, Riothamus.  Riothamus is historically documented at around the right time to fit in with Arthurian legend.  He is believed to have gone on an expedition to France, on a resuce mission to help one of the last Roman emperors to fight of a barbarian army.  Arthurian legend tells us that King Arthur went to France.

Another link can be made when looking at the defeat of these two men.  Riothamus' defeat came as a result of deadly betrayal, after which he disappeared and was last seen in Avalon in Burgandy.  This gives his story a remarkable resemblence to the legend of King Arthur.   

The only thing that doesn't fit is the name.  Ashe commented, 'He is recorded as Riothamus, which, in Irish, is a title meaning the High King or Supreme King.'  Some wonder if, as Riothamus is merely a title, he may have been King Arthur.  Without historical evidence, however, it is impossible to say.  But with his connection to Avalon, he may have influenced the tales of King Arthur.

Arthur ap meurig Tewdrig

This theory, first proposed in the 18th century, claims that the basis for King Arthur was a historical king of Glamorgan and Gwent: Arthur ap meurig Tewdrig.  He was a Christian based in Caerleon and died in around 575AD, with his body being taken to the coast by ship up the River Ewenny.  According to some sources, he was buried in a cave by a saint who is said to have been Arthur's cousin.  Here his body was left for many years, keeping his death a secret until his son, Morgan, was old enough to take his place.

Alan Wilson and Buram Blackett claimed to have discovered a cave in a wood near the River Ewenny.  The cave itself is called Coed-y-mwstwr and has been described as a man-made cavity or grave.  The body was later buried in St. Peter's Church.  Wilson and Blackett also discovered a 5cwt sword-shaped stone bearing the inscription REX ARTORIUS FILI MARICUS, which translates to King Arthur son of Meurig.  The stone was removed to Cardiff.

While there is no historical record of the deeds Arthur may have committed during his lifetime, his basis in Caerleon and the belief that his body was removed by ship seems to link in with our legendary King Arthur.

Other Possible Links

Graham Phillips suggested that a 5th centiru king who may have ruled one of the last British strongholds may have provided inspiration for King Arthur.  During the Roman times, the four major cities were London, Lincoln, York, and Viriconium.  Where London, Lincoln and York fell to the Saxon onslaught, Viriconium remained and was ruled by Owain Ddolantgwyn.  Owain's son was known as 'The Bear'.  When looking at the modern Welsh language, which is derived from ancient British, an interesting coincidence is revealed.  The Welsh word for 'bear' is 'arth', and the Latin word is 'ursis', which leads us to 'Arthursis'.  King Arthur was sometimes known as The Bear, and some claim that Owain's son may have provided inspiration in the legend.

Two other men possibly associated to the evolution of the King Arthur of legend are King Athrwys of Ergyng and King Arthuis of the Pennines.  King Arthur is believed to have held court at Caerleon, which was once deep in the heart of King Athrwys kingdom.  King Arthuis is said to have battled against the Picts on numerous occasions.  Some believe that, with such similar names, these men may have played their parts in the later legend of King Arthur.

While we will probably never know if King Arthur was real or totally mythical, many believe that his roots lie in historical events and men like those written here - a mixture of myth and reality and a combination of many different men who committed deeds much like those found in the legend of King Arthur.

That's all for today.  Until next time.

Useful Resources

King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend by Rodney Castleden
Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot by Christopher Gidlow
The Historic King Arthur: Authenticating the Celtic Hero of Post-Roman Britain By Frank D. Reno
King Arthur: Hero and Legend By Richard Barber
Magnus Maximus

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