King Arthur in History

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Siân Echard, University of British Columbia

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This page includes some of the material covered in English 344, in the introductory lectures about the historical King Arthur and the literary development of the legend. For a chronological listing of the references we have discussed in class during the introductory lectures, go to the Arthurian Chronology page.


Cardiff Central Library MS 2.81. By permission of Cardiff Libraries and Information Services.


The image above is from the Book of Aneirin, the manuscript that contains the Gododdin. You can view the whole manuscript on the People’s Collection Wales site.

The earliest documentary reference to Arthur by name occurs in the Welsh poem Y Gododdin, a poem which commemorates British warriors who died in a battle at Catraeth, probably Catterick in modern Yorkshire. The period to which the poem refers is the 5th to 6th centuries, when the native Britons fought against Germanic Saxon invaders.

Arthur appears simply as a positive comparison to one of the dead warriors being eulogized. You can see the name near the end of the second line from the bottom in the picture at the left: the phrase is

ceni bei ef arthur

Ef guant tratrigant echassaf
ef ladhei auet ac eithaf
oid guiu e mlaen llu llarahaf
godolei o heit meirch e gayaf
gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur
ig kynnor guernor guaurdur.

He pierced over three hundred of the finest
He slew both the centre and the flanks
He was worthy in the front of a most generous army
He gave out gifts of a herd of steeds in the winter
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was no Arthur
He gave support in battle
In the forefront, an alder-shield was Gwawrddur.

The manuscript belongs to the 13th century, though the poem is much older. To read more about the language of Aneirin, poet of the Gododdin, visit the BBC’s Story of Welsh homepage. You can also visit the Gododdin page I created for another class.












The map to the right shows Britain at the historical period referred to in the Gododdin.

The Historia Brittonum, compiled around 800 in Wales, includes a description of Arthur as the leader of the Britons in the war against the Saxons. To read a complete version of the text, visit The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, a wonderful online collection of documents relating to law, history, and diplomacy. Click here to go directly to the translation of Nennius.

BL MS Harley 3859. By permission of the British Library.

The Latin below is transcribed from the first section of the manuscript marked off in red, on the left. Where you see underlining in the transcription, this means that I have expanded the abbreviations in the manuscript, commonly used by medieval scribes to save space and time. Notice that there are very few obviously upper-case letters in the original, and very little punctuation. It is common to split words across line breaks.

While the text of the Historia Brittonum is usually dated to around 800, this manuscript is an 11th-century copy, now British Library MS Harley 3859. This small image of folio 187r appears by permission of the British Library. Click the image to go to a much larger image of this folio in the British Library’s Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

In illo tempore Saxones inualescebant in
multitudine et crescebant in brittannia.
Mortuo autem Hengisto octha filius eius transi-
uit de sinistrali parte brittanie ad reg
-num cantorum. et de ipso orti sunt reges cantorum.
Tunc arthur pugnabat contra illos.
in illis diebus cum regibus brittonum. sed ipse dux erat
[At that time the Saxons increased in numbers and grew in Britain. After the death of Hengist, Octa, his son, came down from the north part of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and from there are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought at that time against them in those days along with the kings of the Britons, but he was their leader in battles.]
The Historia Brittonum also includes a list of Arthur’s battles, perhaps taken from a Welsh battle poem. The second section marked off in red in the manuscript above is the list of battles; below you’ll find a translation of the list and a map with some possible locations for Arthur’s battles. Remember you can click the small image above to see a much bigger version on the British Library site.

The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Linnuis. The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed. The eighth battle was at Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting virgin, on his shoulder, and the heathen were put to flight that day, and there was great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the city of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone, and he was victorious in all his campaigns.

Click here to go to an online reconstruction of the whole of the Latin text.

Finally, the Annales Cambrie, put together around 960-980 in Wales, provide some dates for some of the battles; they also include references to other characters who are, or will come to be, associated with the Arthurian legend, though without much detail at this point. In the image on the right, references to the battles of Mount Badon and Camlann are indicated. This is folio 190r of BL MS Harley 3859; click the small image to go to a much larger version in the British Library’s Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.



Note that the word for “battle” is Latin in the first instance [Bellum Badonis] and Welsh in the second [Gueith Camlann]

The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.





The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland

There are other fragmentary literary references to Arthur in early Welsh literature: a few follow here, but for more detail, visit our Arthur of the Welsh page. Some of the references to Arthur in Welsh are firmly part of the world of battle and their exaggerations seem more epic than fantastic, while others begin to associate Arthur with more clearly legendary material. Of the first sort, in addition to the reference in the Gododdin, mentioned above, Arthur appears in the Stanzas of the Grave, a 10th-century Welsh poem which makes reference to the graves of several Arthurian (or soon to be Arthurian) figures:
From the Stanzas of the Grave

8. Bet Gwalchmei ym Peryton
ir diliv y dyneton
in Llan Padarn bet Kinon.

12. Bet mab Ossvran yg Camlan
gvydi llauer kywlavan
bet Bedwir in alld Tryvan.

13. Bet Owein ab Urien im pedryael bid
dan gverid Llan Morvael
in Abererch Riderch Hael.

14. Guydi gurum a choch a chein
a goruytaur maur minrein
in Llan Helet bet Owein.

44. Bet y March, bet y Guythur,
bet y Gugaun Cledyfrut
anoeth bid bet y Arthur

The grave of Gwalchmei is in Peryddon
as a reproach to men;
at Llanbadarn is the grave of Cynon.

The grave of Osfran’s son is at Camlan,
after many a slaughter;
the grave of Bedwyr is on Tryfan hill.

The grave of Owein son of Urien is in a square grave
under the earth of Llanforfael;
at Abererch is Rhydderch the Generous.

After things blue and red and fair
and great steeds with taut necks
at Llanheledd is the grave of Owein .

There is a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword;
the world’s wonder/ difficutly (anoeth) a grave for Arthur.

The image above shows the Arthurian reference as it appears in the Black Book of Carmarthen, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 1 (image appears by permission of the NLW). Click the thumbnail above to view the whole manuscript; the excerpt above is found on fol. 34r. A small window will open: to find the folio and see it in full view, you will need to click the full screen arrow, and call up the Contents sidebar to see thumbnails of all the folios.

Notice that a later annotator has labelled this part of the text in the margin.

Two early Welsh poems suggest an early association of Arthur with clearly legendary material. Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn), c. 900?, tells of a raid by Arthur and his men on the otherworld fortress of Caer Syddi, and makes cryptic references to a mystical cauldron. The speaker is “Taliesin,” a legendary bard (there was also an historical bard, associated with Urien Rheged, called Taliesin). The poem Pa gwr, or Arthur and the Porter, takes the form of a dialogue in which, in answer to a doorkeeper's challenge, Arthur lists the accomplishments of himself and his companions, Bedwyr and Cei. Excerpts from both poems follow in translation (for complete versions of these, see John K. Bollard, “Arthur in Early Welsh Tradition,” in The Romance of Arthur, ed. James J. Wilhelm and Laila Zamuelis Gross [New York: Garland, 1984]):

From Pa gwr


Though Arthur was but playing,
blood was flowing
in the hall of Afarnach
fighting with a hag.
He pierced the cudgel-head
in the halls of Dissethach.
On the mount of Eidyn
they fought with Dog-heads;
by the hundred they fell.
They fell by the hundred
before Bedwyr the Fine-sinewed
on the strand of Tryfrwyd
Fighting with Garwlwyd....
I saw Cei in haste;
prince of plunder,
the tall man was hostile
His revenge was heavy;
his anger was sharp.
When he drank from the buffalo horn
he would drink for four;
when he came into battle
he would strike like a hundred.
Unless it were God who did it,
Cei’s death could not be achieved...

 From Preiddeu Annwn


I will praise the Lord, the Sovereign, the King of the land,
who has extended his rule over the strand of the world.
Well equipped was the prison of Gwair in Caer Siddi
according to the story of Pwyll and Pryderi.
None before him went to it,
to the heavy blue chain; it was a faithful servant whom it restrained,
and before the spoils of Annwn sadly he sang.
And until Judgement Day our bardic song will last.
Three shiploads of Prydwen we went to it;
except for seven, none returned from Caer Siddi.

I am honoured in praise, song is heard.
In Caer Pedryfan, four-sided,
my eulogy, from the cauldron it was spoken.
By the breath of nine maidens it was kindled.
The cauldron of the Head of Annwyn, what is its custom,
dark about its edge with pearl?
It does not boil a coward’s food; it has not been so destined.
The sword of Lluch Lleawg was raised to it,
and in the hand of Lleminawg it was left.
And before the door of the gate of hell, lanterns burned.
And when we went with Arthur, renowned conflict,
except for seven, none returned from Caer Feddwid...

Click these thumbnails to leaf through the manuscripts.

Pa gwr is in NLW MS Peniarth 1, the Black Book of Carmarthen, starting on folio 47v. When you click the thumbnail, a small window will open: to find the folio and see it in full view, you will need to click the full screen arrow, and if it is not already displayed, call up the Contents sidebar to see thumbnails of all the folios.

Images appear by permission of the National Library of Wales.

Preiddeu Annwn is in NLW MS Peniarth 2, the Book of Taliesin, starting on folio 25v. When you click the thumbnail, a small window will open: to find the folio and see it in full view, you will need to click the full screen arrow, and if it is not already displayed, call up the Contents sidebar to see thumbnails of all the folios.

Medieval historians wrote often about Arthur. Some were sceptical, as these excerpts from William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum (c. 1125) and William of Newburgh’s Historia regum anglicarum (1196-98), show:

his is that Arthur about whom the foolish tales of the Britons rave even today; one who is clearly worthy to be told about in truthful histories rather than to be dreamed about in deceitful fables, since for a long time he sustained his ailing nation, and sharpened the unbroken minds of his people to war. (William of Malmesbury)

ut in our own days, instead of this practice, a writer has emerged who, in order to expiate the faults of these Britons, weaves the most ridiculous figments of imagination around them, extolling them with the most impudent vanity above the virtues of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey, and his other name is Arthur, because he has taken up the fables about Arthur from the old, British figments, has added to them himself, and has cloaked them with the honorable name of history by presenting them with the ornaments of the Latin tongue. (William of Newburgh)

Gerald of Wales (d. 1223) writes that he was present at the exhumation of King Arthur from a grave discovered at Glastonbury Abbey around 1190 or 1191; this is part of his account:

This is an engraving of the lead cross Gerald describes. The cross disappeared some time in the 18th century. This illustration is found in Britannia, by William Camden (1551-1623). Special Collections has several printings of this important book. To see more pictures from these printings, visit the British Antiquities page.

In our time Arthur’s body, which fables had treated mysteriously, claiming it had, at the end been spirited away to some distant place and had somehow resisted death, was found at Glastonbury hidden deep in the earth in a hollow oak, between two stone pyramids, set up long ago in the cemetery.... And there was a lead cross fixed under... a stone slab. I have seen this cross, and have traced the letters sculpted into it... and they said: “Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guenevere his second wife in the island of Avalon.” Several notable things arise from this inscription: that Arthur had two wives, of whom the second was buried with him, and indeed her bones were found with the bones of her husband... There a tress of female hair, blond, pristine with its original colour, was found, but a monk snatched it with a greedy hand and it immediately dissolved into dust.... [It] was in large part Henry the Second, king of England, who had told the monks, just as he had heard from an old British bard, that they would find the body deep in the earth, that is to say at least sixteen feet deep, and not in a stone tomb but rather in a hollow oak....

The place which is now called Glastonbury was in the old time called Avalon. And it is like an island, completely surrounded by marshes, whence it is called in the British tongue Inis Avallon, that is, the island of apples. Apples, indeed, are called aval in the British tongue, and they abound in that place. It was here, to this island which is now called Glastonbury, that Morgan, a noble matron and the ruler and patron of those parts, and also close in blood to King Arthur, took Arthur after the battle of Camlann for the healing of his wounds.... And you should also know that the bones of Arthur which were found were so large, that the poet's words seemed to be fulfilled in them: “And they will wonder at the size of the buried bones they have unearthed.” For indeed one of the tibia, which the abbot showed me, when it was placed on the ground next to the foot of the tallest man there, reached a good three fingers above that man’s knee. And the skull was like a prodigy, so wide and so large it was, so that the space between the eyebrows and the eyes was as wide as a man’s palm....

So far, we’ve seen bits and pieces of history and legend attached to a figure called Arthur; the first person to provide a life narrative for this figure is another 12th-century Anglo-Latin historian, Geoffrey of Monmouth. His Historia regum Britannie includes an extended Arthurian section, a few short excerpts of which you will find below [for more bits and pieces from Geoffrey, visit the Arthurian Swords page, the Roman Wars page, and the Courtly Love page]. The excerpt from William of Newburgh translated above makes it clear that not everyone “bought” Geoffrey’s history, but William was in a minority; the Historia was a medieval bestseller, surviving in well over 200 manuscripts. For more detail about Geoffrey, visit these pages:

Geoffrey and British History

Roman Britain

Geoffrey’s Reputation

BL MS Royal 13 D v, folio 1r Geoffrey claims to be translating an ancient British book: 

... Walter, archdeacon of Oxford,... [gave me] a certain very ancient book in the British language, which continually and in order, in most beautiful language, displays the deeds of all these men, from Brutus, the first king of the Britons, up to Cadwallader, the son of Cadwallo. Thus at Walter's request, I have taken the trouble to translate the book into Latin...

Merlin tells Uther the meaning of a comet:

For that star signifies you, as does the fiery dragon beneath the star. The ray which stretches towards the shores of Gaul portends your future son, who will be most powerful, and whose power will extend over all the kingdoms which he will protect. And the other ray signifies your daughter, whose sons and grandsons will hold the kingship of Britain in turn.

Uther tricks Ygerna and Arthur is conceived:

And thus the king spent the night with Ygerna and relieved himself through the sexual relations he desired. He deceived her through the false appearance which he had assumed. He also deceived her with the false words which he carefully composed, for he said that he had come secretly from the besieged camp so that he could see to the thing which was so dear to him, and also to his town. She, believing him, refused him nothing that he asked. Also that night was conceived that most famous of men, Arthur, who afterwards through his wonderful bravery won great renown.

Arthur comes to the throne:

Now Arthur was a youth of fifteen years, of outstanding virtue and generosity. His innate goodness gave him such great grace that he was loved by almost all the people.... Arthur, because his strength was linked with generosity, decided to harass the Saxons so that he could enrich the household which served him with their wealth. Righteousness also moved him, for he ought by hereditary right to have the rule of the whole kingdom.

Arthur is victorious in his war with the Romans:

This outcome was established by divine power, for as in former times the ancestors of those Romans had harrassed the ancestors of the Britons with invidious iniquities, so now those Britons strove to defend the liberty which the others sought to take away from them, refusing to pay the tribute which had been unjustly demanded of them.

Arthur’s death:

But that most famous king Arthur was mortally wounded; Arthur having been taken from there to the island of Avalon for the healing of his wounds, he handed over the crown of Britain to his cousin Constantine, son of Cador Duke of Cornwall, in the year 542 after the incarnation of our Lord. May his soul rest in peace.

BL MS Lansdowne 732, folio 9r
BL MS Egerton 3142, folio 9r

BL MS Arundel 10, folio 2r



Thumbnails by permission of the British Library. Click the images to go to larger versions on the BL site.

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