Who was King Arthur?

King Arthur has a strong link to Wales, but how much is known of the man and his times?

King Arthur has evolved into a legend. Tales and romances celebrated the king and his court in the imaginative literature of Europe. Did Arthur really exist? What was he like? To find answers, it is necessary to look at two equally important sources of information: historical texts and archaeology.

When did King Arthur live?

The first mention of Arthur is thought to be a reference in a line from the poem, 'Y Gododdin', the earliest known work of literature in Welsh. The poem is from the 6th century, when much of western Britain (Wales, northern England and southern Scotland) spoke Welsh; the earliest surviving written form of the poem dates to the 13th century. The reference to Arthur in this source may be no earlier than the 9th century, but it demonstrates the fame of Arthur among the Welsh at this time.

The most important of the historical texts is the Historia Brittonum, the 'History of the Britons', which gives the earliest written record of Arthur who 'fought against them [the Saxons] with the kings of the Britons but he himself was leader [Duke] of Battles', winning twelve battles. The earliest version of this history is dated about AD829-830.

The Annales Cambriae, or 'Welsh Annals', probably compiled in the mid 10th century, record the date of one battle, the Battle of Badon in AD518, and Arthur's death at Camlann in AD537-9. This suggests that if Arthur was indeed an historical figure, he probably lived in the 6th century.

Book of Aneirin
Page from a 13th-century copy of the Book of Aneirin. The Book of Aneirin records an attack by the British on the Saxons at Catterick (Yorkshire). Although the poem was written in the 6th-century, the reference to Arthur which it contains may have been added later. [Image © Cardiff Library]

Where is King Arthur buried?

Early Welsh literature has many wondrous tales which form an important part of the Arthurian tradition. There are portrayals of Arthur in anonymous Welsh poetry found in 13th and 14th century manuscripts. In one of the poems of the Black Book of Carmarthen, Englynion y Beddau ('The Stanzas of the Graves'), Arthur's grave is described as a great wonder because no one knows where it is located.

The greatest of the Welsh Arthurian prose tales is Culhwch ac Olwen. An English translation of this and eleven other Welsh tales appeared for the first time in the 19th century, publication The Mabinogion. Four other tales in this collection focus on Arthur - the 'romances' of The Lady of the Fountain (or Owain), Peredur, and Geraint son of Erbin, together with the Dream of Rhonabwy which presents a satirical view of Arthur and his world.

Map showing distribution of places mentioned in this article
Map showing distribution of places mentioned in this article

Archaeology

The second key source of information about Arthur is archaeology. Archaeological evidence for contact between Wales, Cornwall and the Saxon World takes many forms - from metalwork manufactured in an Anglo-Saxon style discovered in south-east Wales, to the distribution of early medieval pottery imported from the Continent and the shores of the Mediterranean.

Excavations at Dinas Powys, a princely hillfort near Cardiff occupied between the 5th and 7th-centuries, has informed us about the nature of a high status site in south Wales at this time. This site is contemporary with others like South Cadbury in Somerset and Tintagel in Cornwall (both with their own Arthurian traditions).

Pieces of glass from Dinas Powys (Vale of Glamorgan)
Pieces of glass from Dinas Powys (Vale of Glamorgan), a fort occupied between the 5th and 8th-centuries. These fragments come from vessels made in continental Europe. They illustrate the extent of trade between Wales and the wider-world at this time.

Caerleon's Roman amphitheatre

The Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon has been known as the site of King Arthur's court since the 12th century, but is there any evidence to prove this was the case?

In AD1405, the French army, which had landed at Milford Haven to support Owain Glyn Dŵr in his uprising against the English Crown, reached Caerleon in South Wales. Here they visited 'King Arthur's Round Table'. According to a French source (Chronique Religieux de St Denys), the French visited 'The Round Table' of Arthurian legend. The Round Table was in fact the Roman amphitheatre of the legionary fortress of Isca.

Geoffrey of Monmouth had identified Caerleon as the court of King Arthur in his fictional epic, the 'History of the Kings of Britain' in 1136. This identification, close to the area of his upbringing, has been described as 'the fruits of a lively historical imagination playing upon the visible remains of an imposing Roman city'. Some of Roman Isca was still standing in the 13th century.

Caerleon soon appeared in popular Welsh and French writings by Dafydd ap Gwilym, Chrétien de Troyes and others as 'Arthur's Court', sealing this identification.

Caerleon Roman amphitheatre.
Caerleon Roman amphitheatre. [Image © Steve Burrow]

Arthur's Stone

Some half dozen Welsh Stone Age megaliths are called 'Arthur's Stone', and his name has also been given to an Iron Age hillfort on the Clwydian Range, Moel Arthur, near Denbigh. According to one tradition, King Arthur and his knights lie sleeping in a cave below Craig y Ddinas, Pontneddfechan, in south Wales.

Maen Ceti, on Gower, south Wales.
Maen Ceti, on Gower, south Wales. The massive capstone of this prehistoric burial chamber is known as Arthur's Stone. The king's ghost is said to emerge occasionally from beneath it.

Background Reading

Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature by Oliver James Padel. Published by University of Wales Press (2001).

Arthur's Britain. History and Archaeology AD367-634 by Leslie Alcock. Published by Harmondsworth (1971).

The Arthur of the Welsh. The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature by Rachel Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman and Brynley F. Roberts. Published by University of Wales Press (1991).

The Gododdin translated by A. O. H. Jarman. Published by Gomer Press (1988).

The Mabinogion, translated by Jeffrey Gantz. Published by Penguin (1976).

Comments(11)

phantammeron
16 January 2022, 14:52
We have evidence of a real historical Arthur right in front of our eyes! If we are to trust the only near contemporary writer of Arthur’s age, Gildas, there is only one historical figure in the late 5th century that perfectly fits the deeds of such a figure - Ambrosius Aurelianus. According to Gildas he was the victor of the siege widely attribute to Arthur at Badon. And his historic victories, according to Gildas, we’re still remembered generations later when Gildas wrote down such things around 540 A.D. he claims such memories were dimmed but still remembered by some. This sets the tone for the legend of a real heroic figure in pre-Anglo Saxon Briton. Therefore, Ambrosius Aurelianus is likely our Arthur, though how the name became attributed to an “Arthur” only the evolution of legends now hides from
view. The fascinating nature of Ambrosius Aurelianus is he was a Celtic Romano-Britain, an orphaned child possibly from eastern Briton whose parents were likely Consuls of the old Roman ruling class. They were slain and this young man orphaned, which ironically fits the later 12th century legends. If this is true and our Arthur was the last of Roman nobility, his vengeance would fit such a motivation in leading Welsh/Celtic/Britons to some decisive last victories against the feudal kings of his age and the Germanic Saxon invaders they shipped over to those shores. That the last of Roman children remained behind with such courage to organize one last counter attack in the last dark years of Romanized Briton seems fitting to both the later legends and mystery surrounding who Arthur was. Yet this possibly assigns the man to a real historical figure clearly mentioned by Gildas as the hero of his age. We know that the name “Ambrocius” went on to fill many Welsh and British legends, including that of the origins of Merlin in very early manuscripts. This might prove that the myth surrounding Ambrosius Aurelianus went through many twists and turns before finally connecting back to the battle-chieftain hero Arthur in name that started to appear by the 8th century among the literature. I think we should not discount Ambrosius Aurelianus as our Arthur. If we trust Gildas 6th century text, where he shared such vivid accounts of this historical and heroic figure with the siege of Badon and decades of peace with invaders that followed (events later attributed to Arthur) then all that’s left for modern historians today is to piece together how Arthur, the legend, evolved over time and came to be a representation of this much older Roman figure. My theory for the evolution of this take involves Western European Celtic legends circulating in parts of France and Brittany that were brought over and layered over Welsh legends. These two combined to build the mashed form of Ambrocius/Arthur we have from Monmouth. But I’m not a scholar and my own theories are purely my own and limited by my own studies on this topic that are still ongoing.
Sheila White
6 October 2021, 14:31
I am fascinated by the Welsh version, especially the burial mounds and the 'field of tents'. Fighting the Saxons and the Romans makes sense. Any Celtic versions would be poo pooed because that wouldn't fit well with our monarchy. The origins of Britain must surely be Celtic and religion of Druid theme
au smith
20 August 2019, 22:52
Kings Arther 1 11 Prince Madoc were PowIells Look up Sr. Hoel Sr Howell SrAp Howell chop H And A you get Powells of Madoc Castle Stuff like this got Alan and Baram KILLEDI
T Williams
19 December 2018, 10:39
Diolch am erthygl diddorol
Paham dydy Baram Blackett a Alan Wilson yn cael cyn llaied o cydnabyddiaeth ? Mae rhaid corddir dyfroedd I ddod at y gwirionedd. Ydyn nhw yn aelodau o'r Orsedd ?
Grace
12 November 2018, 16:44
There is also a ' Maen Arthur' in Ceredigion. ?
Bob Sunman
21 September 2018, 19:40
E Raymond Capt (1985) transliterating the Assyrian cuneiform tablets claims that the Lost Tribes of Israel were referred to variously as Kumri and Khumri. The welsh word for the Welsh is cymru - pronounced 'kumri'. The migration paths of this diaspora was north west from Assyria to Britain and Brittany. Capt lists many welsh words which appear in the tablet. Curiously, Wilson and Blackett proposed years ago that the welsh coelbren alphabet is cognate with Etruscan which therefore permits the translation of Etruscan. Reading through this into the inscriptions in the Wadi Moqateb and the Djel Moqateb (Charles Forster, 1854, Indico Pleustes 550) the epigraphical emergence of coelbren from the heiroglyphs may be observed. As Wilson once observed, one might have, at one time, hear a conversation which ran thus: 'Oh siwmai Pharoah, sut wyt ti?' 'iawn Moses , dda iawn, diolch.' Wilson and Blackett can read the poster language of the heiroglyphs using this knowledge.
Liesbeth
26 July 2018, 15:33
In the main article the death of Arthur (II) is suggested as 537/9 ad whereas in one of the comments by Angela it is suggested as 579. Is there any way of clarifying this? Could he really have been about 90 when he died in battle? Seems unlikely.
Angela Bruist
17 May 2018, 16:44
Dear Rani, If you are interested in the real Arthurian Kings, King Arthur I and King Arthur II, You will need the books of Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett, I suggest 'King Arthur, King of Glamorgan and Gwent,' and 'Arthur and the Charters of the Kings', and also 'Artorius Rex Discovered.'
King Arthur I 350 - 396 ad, fought the Romans in France, and was victorious.
King Arthur Ii, 490-579 ad, fought the Battle of Badden, (Baden), and the Battle of Camlann, and more.
In 'Arthur and the Charters of the Kings', the authors reorganised the Charters of Lancarvan, and the Charters of the Church of Llandaff, into chronological order rather than by region. Saints who were quite often Bishops, were designated Saints in their lifetime by the early apostolic Christian Church, by nature of their noble birth. Since the bishops crowned and buried the kings, and were related closely to the kings and other noble families, once organised correctly chronologically, bishops and kings overlapping, a clear picture emerged. The actual Charters, are records of gifts, often land, given by kings, and other nobles, to the church of Llandaff, in thanks to God, in penitence to God (after being excommunicated for committing some horrible act) and in return for the prayers of the Church for a dear deceased relative, etc.
Gildas, 'The Destruction of Britain' De Excidio Britanniae, 533 ad - 547ad, is a contempory of Arthur II.
Nennius, who drew on Gildas, but produced 17 chapters on King Gourthiigirnus, Vortigern. He also describes the victorious battles of Arhur II
The Welsh Annals- Annals Camriae -earliest record 444 ad continuing to 954 ad (gap of 27 years) and a last entry 977 ad, very much like a series of diary entries. Several versions of this document exist.The Brut of England. The death of King Arthur II, is the only date recorded in this document.
I could list all of Wilson and Blacketts original sources, but it would take a long time I suggest that you purchase these three books, they are available from the store at the Richplanet tv webite (Richard.D. Hall has interviewed Wilson and Blackett - interviews and programmes can be seen on YouTube) I advise getting an Amazontvfirstick, or equivalent, much more relaxing watching these interviews on a tv screen, rather than on a smaller screen - especially when maps are involved.
Good luck with your project, I hope all goes well. Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
If you send me an email, I can scan the 'contents' pages of these books for you, so you'll have an idea of the breadth of research involved in their production, before you commit to buying. I would also say, don't wait too long, these books sell fast; there were none available for several months recently, unless your willing to pay silly prices on Amazon or where ever.
Regards,
Angela

Dai
26 December 2017, 22:50
The arthur that fought at mynydd baedan against a large saxon and vandal force was none other than athrwys ap(son of) meurig, grandson of theoderic. In his time he was known as arthmael (iron bear). There is a wealth of information on this on youtube by unsung british hero alan wilson, who has wrote many books and delved far deeper into our history than all other so called academics, and methodically pieced together his entire bloodline of that era with supporting physical (real) evidence. The fact that we welsh are taught nothing about the south Wales kings should set alarm bells ringing. The romans arrived, and after they 'triumphantly' (not!) marched out at the end of the4th century, apparently bugger all happened for 700years, until the good old normans arrived to impose themselves. Now this idea is nonsense as it is recorded that when robert fitzhamon a marcher lord deposed the last of the ancient british line iestyn ap gwrgan, they 'seized all the castles', so this idea that the welsh were uncivilised celts in blue woad and tartan is a complete lie. The fact is the real arthur has been airbrushed from history as we are told he is mythical legend, but go to mynydd baedan nr bridgend and the local farmers will tell you exactly what happened on that great forgotten battlefield, the mass grave mounds of the dead are still there. Yet apparently no historian can find it, even at dunraven castle there is a sign showing our ancient british line of kings but mysteriously athrwys is missing, even though both his father, grandfather and sons are showing, there is definately a concerted effort to destroy all knowledge of this very real king. The annoying thing is, the powers that be in Wales are marching in tune with what london say, and are afraid to upset the applecart. The german 'british' monarchy certainly couldnt have their royal claim undermined by the subjugated welsh, and so great attempts have been made to quell all knowledge. They must think we're stupid, its our language and our history is written in the landscape in welsh on maps, you dont name farmers fields for example 'fields of the white tents' or'field of drunk slaughter' for nothing. Apologies for the rant, but im sick of the double standards applied to our history, bbc1 time team have never dared to unearth anything in south wales as its obviously too close to the bone, even if they did any building foundation would immediately be ok declared roman, norman or wait for it saxon!
graham
26 September 2016, 11:06
Dear Rani Gill,
Thank you for your comment, there is a list of sources mentioned at the base of this article that will help you delve a little further into the origin of the legend.
I hope this helps,
Many thanks, Graham Davies, Digital Team, Amgueddfa Cymru.
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