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]
Map showing distribution of places mentioned in this article
Map showing distribution of places mentioned in this article
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.
Bone combs from Dinas Powys (Vale of Glamorgan)
Bone combs from Dinas Powys (Vale of Glamorgan), a fort occupied between the 5th and 8th-centuries.
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.

The legend of 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.

Early literature

The first mention of Arthur is thought to be a reference in a line from the poem The Gododdin of Aneirin, 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.

The Black Book of Carmarthen

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.

Evidence from the ground

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).

Arthur's court at Caerleon

A large number of sites in Wales have Arthurian associations, though few have proven medieval origin. In the 12th century, Caerleon was thought by Geoffrey of Monmouth to be the location of Arthur's court, while the hillfort of Dinas Emrys in north Wales is associated with Ambrosius, Vortigern and Merlin.

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.

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).


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