By the ninth century people all over were telling the fabulous tales and romances about Arthur and his kingdom. The common people heard them sung by bards, while in the court poets wrote different versions. In each retelling the speaker would select certain details for emphasis and introduce new elements, so that the story could be adapted to the particular time and audience. Although most historians believe that there actually did exist an Arthur, they differ on how major his role was on influencing society during his time.
To understand the most widely accepted view on when and how Arthur gained fame, one must be aware of the historical time period surrounding Arthur. The unity that the Roman government imposed on Britain disappeared around 410 AD. In its place arose small villages whose rulers struggled for political and military supremacy. Around 540, a Welsh monk and historian named Gildas wrote in his book Concerning the Ruin and Conquest of Britain that The disasters that the British people suffered at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons after the Roman withdrawal were clear evidence that god was punishing them for their sins. It was during these disasters that the monk was referring to that Arthur held up resistance for the Britons against the Saxons, at a time when Britain was constantly being threatened by invaders. Through being the commander who routed the battles against the enemy and thereby saving the south of Britain from distruction of the Saxons, Arthur became the image of the hero and savior whose death people refused to believe in and whose return was yearned for.
The opinion that Arthur was a genuine figure in history, though not the glorious King Arthur that most people know him to be, is largely based on the writings of Nennius, a Welsh historian, who gave the first and only historical account of Arthur s military career in Chapter 56. The passage starts with a date.
After the death of Hengist, his son Octha came from northern
Britain and settled in Kent, whence come the kings of Kent.
Then Arthur fought against them in those days, with the
Kings of the Britons, but he himself was the leader of the battles.
Here Nennius implies that Arthur was not a king but a general of some sort, who helped the rulers of small British kingdoms organize themselves, combining forces to fight against the Saxons. In another section entitled The Marvels of Britain, Nennius calls Arthur a soldier: Here he tells of Cabal, the dog of Arthur the Soldier, and of the grave of Anwr, the son of Arthur the Soldier.
The passage then continues describing the twelve battles that Arthur fought and won. The last battle, the greatest in the history of the country, was at Badon Hill. It resulted in a total massacre of the Saxons, establishing fifty years of peace from the Saxon s horrible brutality of slaughtering, burning and senseless vandalism (Jenkins 30-31).
Nennius s historical account is backed up by a set of Easter Tables. They were calculating tables as to when Easter would fall out for the next given number of years and in them were noted events of outstanding importance. In the annals were two dates regarding Arthur. The first date is disputed: It is put as either 499 or 518 A.D. The first entry reads:
Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross
of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three
days and three nights and the Britons were victors (Jenkins 28).
The second entry dated 539 reads:
The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and
Modred perished. And there was plague in
Britain and Ireland (Jenkins 28).
These accounts of Arthur are not only the basis for his fame, but they also show us the broad terrain of Arthur s military activity. While the Battle of Mount Badon was fought in Southern England, the battle of Cat Coit Celidon, mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, was fought in Scotland. The implications of Arthur s widespread battles lead to two conclusions of him. One is his political position as agent of a number of kingdoms, and the other is his easy mobility of his forces (Alcock 18).
The mobility of Arthur s army makes it nearly impossible to pin Arthur down to a set region. However, there was an archeological search for Arthur s castle Camelot in southern Cadbury, Somerset, England attempted by The Camelot Research Committee in 1966 to 1972. They discovered markings denoting the existence of an elaborate hill- fort. Enormous concentric rings of earthen embankments covering over 18 acres outlined a fortification that only a powerful warlord would have maintained (Schlesinger 107). Unearthed artifacts enabled the searchers to determine that the castle was active in the sixth century. The architectural style resembled the style of Roman forts prior to the Arthurian age. All evidence found gave proof that the fort was used during Arthur s time, but none positively proved that Arthur actually lived there (Schlesinger 107).
The earliest search for physical proof of Arthur occurred in the twelfth century under the command of King Henry II. During his reign it was rumored that the town of Glastonbury was Arthur s resting place, the legendary island of Avalon. It was said that the king s tomb laid between the two pillars in the cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey. King Henry ordered the Glastonbury monks to search for the tomb. A tomb was found after King Henry II died. At that time a monk wrote :
Seven feet down the diggers found a slab of stone and
a lead cross inscribed HIC IACET SEPULTUS
INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA-
Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the
Isle of Avaon (Schlesinger 102).
The monk also described the contents of the tomb. They found the skeleton of a tall man and also some slighter bones with a scrap of yellow hair, presumably that of Arthur s queen.
There is much debate on the authenticity of Arthur s Tomb. It is impossible to say that strands of human hair could have endured a period of 600 years. The blond hair couldn t have existed if one wants to believe this is the tomb of Arthur. The lead cross that was supposedly found by the monks, that marked the location of Arthur s burial place, had been lost and is thought to have been made by the Glastonbury monks in order to give more credence to their find and in order to gain more glory for their abbey (Schlesinger 103).
There are several reasons why archeological proof is rarely available for the quest of truth regarding the Arthurian time period. The prime reason for this is the fact that Britons used perishable materials such as earth and wood to build their forts and homes. Their daily tools were made from carved wood. The clothing and armor they wore were made from leather, cloth, and fur, which all disintegrate quickly with time (Schlesinger 101). In addition to this, any archeological evidence that might be found would be useless without a clear time scale into which it can be fitted. Also, their does not exist an accurate historical time scale for events in Britain between the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the seventh century. The archaeology can tell us how Arthur might have lived but still would not resolve the prime question of who Arthur was and when he lived ( Barber 23). A third reason for this is that we can t pin Arthur down to one region or place, because of the hasty mobility of Arthur and his troops. It would be very difficult to do a large scale archaeological dig on such a vast piece of territory. None of Arthur s place names are accurate. Arthur s Seat, the various Arthur Stones, and the Round Tables have no valid connection to him. Some of these items refer to archeological monuments dated two or three thousand years after Arthur (Alcock 18).
Though Nennius s documents are more widely known, the earliest historical reference referring to an Arthur is Life of Columba. It is written by Adomnan around 700 A.D. Adomnan wrote about an Arthur who is the son of Aedan mac Gabrain, King of Dalriada. This Arthur is a warrior who dies (before his father, never giving him the chance to become king) fighting a tribe called Miathi. There are other occurrences with the name Arthur, associated with the north of Britain (Barber 21).
There are several interpretations by historians of that earliest historical reference to an Arthur. Richard Barber in King Arthur, believes that is the original Arthur that was transformed into the legendary hero. He believes that we should reject Nennius historical account and dating. Richard Barber believes that Nennius fabricated from literary sources his account to suit the political needs of the moment. He created a new image of the hero with which to encourage his contemporaries. According to Richard Barber, Nennius had his own purpose for history (Barber 22-23).
According to Richard Barber s interpretation, one can still believe that the Arthur mentioned in the poem the Gododdin is referring to the first Arthur written about in Life of Columba. The Gododdin was a famous Welsh poem in the year 600 that describes the strength of a recently slain warrior. However, the poet admits about this warrior, But he was not Arthur. This incidental mention of Arthur s name, which is the first mention of the legendary King Arthur, provides us with two conclusions. First, Arthur had to be so well known that a simple mention of his name would bring to the audience s mind the ideas of valor and heroism. Second Arthur had to have lived some time before the 600 s but not too much before so the figure of Arthur would still be fresh in the audience s mind (Schlesinger 14).
Others disagree with Barber. They believe that the Arthur mentioned in the Life of Columba is not the same Arthur of the legend. Arthur back then was a popular name because it was associated with heroism. They believe the Arthur who was made into a hero lived towards the end of the fifth century, early sixth.
In order to establish the historical validity of the Gododdin, one must understand that it was not the custom of Welsh poets to invent people and events; this is a modern invention. Therefore, historians believe that all of the characters in the early poems of Welsh literature are real people with actual events (Schlesinger 17).
In other early Welsh literature, Arthur is still a shadowy figure. This is partly due to the fact that we only have fragments of early Welsh poetry in which Arthur s appearances are brief as a poetic hero. So the process by which the first legends were woven around whatever historical nucleus there once was remains a puzzle (Barber 25).
During the eleventh and twelfth century Arthur became so popular as a hero that Welsh literature contains several references to Arthur which include actual incidents from his legendary career. The Welsh poets probably invented the incidents in order to enhance their work. Because of this there is no historical evidence on exactly what Arthur did, but one can see from this his popularity as a hero at this time.
Welsh poetry usually portrays Arthur favorably. An ideal, heroic, active leader of a band of successful warriors and knights. Other times it talks of his knights' exploits, portraying him as the idol king who stays at home in a splendid romantic setting while his knights underwent the hardship and adventure. Unfortunately, not many of their triads have been preserved, though we do have many of their headlines, which reflect on Arthur s increasing popularity. In some of the earlier triads, we are introduced to Arthur s wife Guinevere, and the magician Mordred, both of whom we meet again in later romances.
Chretien de Troys, a French poet in the late twelfth century, adapted five tales about Arthur s court for the French society. He replaces the rugged, masculine world of the early tales of Arthur with the conflicts between the spiritual and the physical worlds.
In Chretien s tales the deeds King Arthur accomplished are less important than the society that assembles at his court, the tales of the knights, and the beautiful ladies that gather there. Chretien s most common subject is the problems arising from earthly love. One of his famous stories is the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. Like other poets of the time Chretien was influenced by a code of courtly love (Schlesinger 73-76).
Chretien de Troys was the first to invent Camelot, a place with no historical authenticity (Alcock 14). It is never mentioned in the earliest traditions, or early evidence of Arthur. He saw Arthur as a monarch who needed the necessary furnishing and therefore invented The finest court that ever has been (Schlesinger 73). He created Arthur s court as a gathering place for nobles and courageous lords during the twelve year period of peace between the Saxons and Romans.
Arthur s period of transition from reality to romance was long and complex. He was remembered as a hero by the Welsh bards who embellished and added to his legend in their own creative way. From Wales these tales traveled to Britain and France, where they became popular during the twelfth century through being spread by jogleurs and minstrels who wondered from castle to castle reciting Arthur s stories at feasts. The French poets eagerly seized on to the new material, and developed it into the earliest versions of the Arthurian legends that we possess today (Barber 34).