The Life and Times of King Arthur

By: Janice B. Klein

Originally Published in 1987

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Arthur has been depicted in many ways. He is most commonly seen as the high Medieval king of 13th, 14th, and 15th century tapestries, paintings, and book illustrations, complete with a court of noble lords and ladies and, of course, the Knights of the Round Table (Figs. 1, 2). To the Victorians he was a Christian hero, while in modern times King Arthur has been the subject of historical novels, musical comedies, and cartoons.

Recently, historians and archaeologists have suggested that a military leader named Arthur may have actually existed, although not as a Medieval king, but as a Romanized Briton of the 5th or 6th century A.D. Thus, a more realistic view of Arthur would dress him in the leather tunic and breeches of a provincial Roman soldier, wearing a woolen cloak fastened with a penannular fibula or brooch and carrying a Roman long sword (Fig. 3).

Elaborate drawing of the knights at the round table, eating.
Fig. 1. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This depiction of the heroic high Medieval King Arthur is from a 14th century Italian manuscript. (Ms. Fr. 343 Fol4. Courtesy of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris)

Historical Background

Britain was a province of the Roman Empire for three and a half centuries, from A.D. 43 to 410. Within Britannia, Roman customs and traditions were adopted and the island was part of a trade network that reached as far east as India. Roman coinage was the common currency, and distinctive pottery that was mass-produced both in Gaul and at various places in Britain was commonly used. Latin was spoken, Roman dress copied, and Roman law enforced, despite the fact that the number of Romans actually living in the province was not great. Only the higher officials, the governor and his staff, were appointed from Rome, and only the inhabitants of certain towns were granted Roman citizenship.

During the 3rd and 4th centuries raids by several groups living outside the Roman Empire became a major problem, threatening the prosperity of those living under the Pax romana. Three different groups were involved: Picts from northern Scotland, Scotti from Ireland, and various Germanic tribes from the coastal areas of the North Sea. It is generally thought that these groups wished to share in the wealth and prosperity of the Roman Empire. Another possibility is that changing environmental conditions or increasing population made it necessary for them to find new land on which to settle.

In response to these raids, a series of large forts were built by the Romans along both the southeast coast of Britain and the northern and western coasts of the Gallic provinces. This defensive system was garrisoned by a large number of troops, under an officer identified in a later Roman administrative document (the Notitia Dignitatum) as the Comes Litoris Saxonici or Count of the Saxon Shore. Two other officers, the Dux Britanniarum and the Comes Britanniae, Duke and Count of Britain, respectively, are also men­tioned. Although several of the forts listed in the Notitia remain unidentified, others are well known archaeologically, like those at Portchester and Burgh Castle.

Stone head of King Arthur wearing a crown.
Fig. 2. Stone head of Arthur, carved in the 15th century, showing the noble king celebrated in Medieval European romance poems and stories. (Courtesy of the National Museum, Nuremberg)

In A.D. 367 attacks by all three groups, Picts, Scots and Germans, termed the “barbarian conspiracy,” created an overwhelming strain on the defensive ability of the Roman army, and there is widescale evidence of destruction in both town and country at this time. By the end of the 4th century the Roman Empire could no longer afford the manpower to defend its British province and the regular troops were withdrawn. As Roman control of the island weakened and finally ceased, trade networks broke down. Archaeologically this is demonstrated by the presence of fewer and fewer Roman coins on In the centuries since the Arthurian legend first caught the public imagination, King late 4th century sites, and a notable decrease in the type and amount of mass-produced Roman-style pottery. In general, life in towns was greatly reduced and the culture became less cosmopolitan.

In 410 the Emperor Honorius wrote to the local British town councils telling them to “look to their own defence.” To replace the military strength lost by the withdrawal of the Roman army, it is likely that these councils enlisted the aid of Germanic mercenaries who had served as foederati, non-Roman troops who fought under a special treaty with the Roman Empire. Within a short period of time the ranks of these mercenaries were increased by the arrival of new immigrants from the continent.

These Germanic settlers gradually spread across Britain from the southeast. Although they are generally referred to as Anglo-Saxons, the settlers were, in fact, members of several Germanic tribes. Historical sources, primarily Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), give us the names of three: Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. From the similarity of archaeological material, especially some of the metalwork, found in Kent and in the territory of Gaul inhabited by the Franks, it is likely that Franks were involved. Linguistic data, supported by a brief reference in the work of the 6th century Eastern historian Procopius, suggest that a fourth Germanic group, the Frisians, also crossed to Britain.

Drawing of King Arthur holding a shield and sword.
Fig. 3. A more realistic view of Arthur, in the dress of a 5th century British officer. This reconstruction is based on both documentary and archaeological evidence. (Original drawing by D. Lloyd Owen. Couresty of Penguin Books Ltd.)

For about 100 years, life in the western part of the old Roman province continued to be a blend of Roman and the earlier native British traditions. It is into this period of division between the British west and Germanic east that Arthur, as a Romanized British soldier and leader, can be placed.

The information for this period—identified by most historians as “early Medieval”—comes both from archaeology and from a variety of documentary sources. These sources include land grants, treaties, law codes, and epic poetry, as well as contemporary and later histories and chronicles. In addition, the study of place-names provides useful information about life in this period, identifying some archaeological sites, and suggesting areas where different groups settled.

Arthur as a Historical Figure

There are only a few documen­tary references to Arthur that historians generally consider reliable. One of the earliest is the Gododdin, composed by one of the great Welsh poets, Aneirin, in about A.D. 600. The poem describes a battle between the British and Angles at Catterick in northern England. One hero fought so bravely and killed so many of the enemy that even the birds of prey feeding on the dead bodies had too much to eat: “he glutted black ravens on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur”; that is, Arthur was even greater.

Four sherds with stamped designs, and their designs outlined in ink next to the sherds. Designs include a horse, a lizard, and two crosses.
Fig. 4. Sherds (and stamped designs) of Late roman “C” ware, manufactured in the eastern Mediterranean. Pottery like this has been found on a number of 5th and 6th century sites in western Britain. (Photographs courtesy of Dr. Bernard Wailes; drawings by Gil Stein after Dr. Wailes)
Museum Object Number(s): 29-102-584 / 29-102-586 / 29-102-588

About half a century earlier, in about A.D. 540, the monk Gildas wrote a long sermon or homily castigating five contemporary British “kings” for the religious and moral state of western Britain. In De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (“Concerning the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), he describes a decisive battle which took place in about A.D. 500, around 40 years prior to the time he was writing. This battle at Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, temporarily halted the advance of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Arthur’s name is not, however, mentioned in connection with this battle, or, in fact, anywhere in the text.

Gildas does refer to three other British leaders who have importance in later Arthurian mythology: Magnus Maximus, one of several late 4th century Roman soldiers who briefly usurped the title of Emperor and who is later cele­brated in Welsh poetry as Macsen Wledig; Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Romanized general who led the Britons in battle; and a superbus tyrannus (“outstanding ruler”), not mentioned by name, who decided to call in the Saxons to aid the British.

Gildas’s account of this period was adopted and adapted by Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, written in the early 8th century. Again, there is no mention of Arthur, although Bede attempts to put a strict chronological framework on the events discussed by Gildas. In addition, Bede supplies a name for the superbus tyrannus: Vortigern, which may itself be translated as the Celtic version of “high king” or “outstanding ruler.”

Map of the British Isles and Southwest England.
Fig. 5. Map of the British Isles. Inset: Southwest England showing sites mentioned in the text.

By the 9th century the Historia Brittonum, compiled by Nennius, credits Arthur not only with winning the decisive battle at Mount Badon, but with eleven other battles as well. Arthur is identified as dux bellorum, a title reminiscent of the Roman Dux Britanniarium found in the 4th century Notitia Dignitatum. A number of attempts to identify the locations of these battles have been made, but there is no general agreement. Those who see Arthur as a local leader suggest the fighting took place in a restricted area, perhaps northern Britain or the southwestern peninsula. Others identify him as military commander over all of Britain, with the battle sites, consequently, to be found throughout the country.

The 10th century Annales Cambriae also credit Arthur with winning the battle of Badon in 516, where he “carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders [possibly shield] for three days and three nights” and refers to another battle in 537 at Camlann, in which “Arthur and Medraut fell.”

A different kind of evidence, personal names recorded in early Medieval documentary sources, also supplies information about the existence of Arthur. The name Arthur itself is derived from Artorius, a Roman family name, and is found on a number of 2nd and 3rd century incriptions in Britain and other provinces. Four or five Arthurs, including a Scottish prince and a Welsh nobleman, are found in the documents for the 6th and 7th centuries, but there are none in the 4th or 5th century records. This suggests the existence of a recent or contemporary hero named Arthur after whom these people were named. It should be remembered, however, that the records for all these centuries are exceptionally uneven; the name Arthur could be more common in the preceding 4th and 5th centuries than the sources we have indicate.

View of an isthmus and a crumbling castle.
Fig. 6. Tintagel in Cornwall. View across the isthmus, showing remains of the 12th-13th century castle. (Courtesty of Dr. Bernard Wailes)

The Arthurian legend as it is known today has its basis in the Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of England”) by the 12th century monk Geoffrey of Monmouth. Its author claimed that it was based on an ancient British source, but it is more likely a combination of Welsh folklore and a fertile imagination and, it must be emphasized, far from an accurate historical document. It is in this work, however, that the main traditions of the Arthurian epic are first set out—Arthur’s illegitimate birth; his comrades Kay, Bedevere, Lot and Gawain; his wife Ganhumara, our modern Guenevere; the wizard Merlin; and Arthur’s final fight with Modred, after which he is carried off to the Isle of Avalon. Geoffrey of Monmouth became the primary source for all later writers about Arthur, beginning with Chretien de Troyes’s 12th century verse romances, which introduced the Knights of the Round Table.

The Archaeological Context

When we turn to the archaeology of 5th and 6th century Britain, there is no evidence at all of the existence of Arthur. This is not surprising, since it is a paradox of archaeology that, although we reconstruct past events and lifeways from the material that individuals leave behind, these individuals are almost always anonymous. We do know quite a bit about this period of time, more than one of its labels, “the Dark Ages,” would lead us to believe.

First, although many Roman structures were abandoned, there is archaeological evidence that people continued to live in the Roman-style farming estates or villas, and in cities. A number of towns in southern and western Britain, including Winchester and Exeter, had parts of their walls rebuilt; in others public areas, like the fora at Wroxeter and Gloucester, continued to be used. Villas in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, and Somerset were still inhabited, although we do find changes in use of some of the rooms. Additionally, an archaeological field survey of the country of Gloucestershire suggests that several Romano-British farming estates may have continued in existence from the 4th century to become Anglo-Saxon manors in the 7th century.

Two men walking a path through castle ruins on a hillside.
Fig. 7. Tintagel, showing Site F (the later Medieval castle is in the background). These buildings were interpreted by the excavators as the library and scriptorium of a Celtic monastery. (Courtesty of Dr. Bernard Wailes)

There is also evidence of continued trade between western Britain and the much contracted Roman Empire. Mass-produced pottery made in the eastern Mediterranean (Fig. 4), North Africa and southern Gaul is found on a number of sites along the western coast of Britain. Some of this pottery is in the form of glossy red table ware, but there are also large amphorae which probably contained wine or oil.

In several cases, archaeologists believe that pre-Roman Iron Age hillforts, originally constructed in the 1st millennium B.C., were re-fortified in the 4th, 5th and 8th centuries A.D. They were used for a number of functions, including pagan temples, specialized craft centers, and, of course, as settlements. These settlements are sometimes identified as the “home bases of tribal chieftains,” but it is not yet clear what the relationship was between the inhabitants of the hillforts and those living in the surrounding countryside.

Arthurian Sites

A number of archaeological sites belonging to this period have been associated in literature with Arthur. Tintagel, on the north coast of Cornwall, is often identified as the site of Arthur’s conception and birth (see Fig. 5). The castle, now prominent at the site, was first built in the 12th century and so is much later than the time a historical Arthur may have existed (Fig. 6). However, excavations at Tintagel have un­covered building foundations ini­tially dated, through the presence of imported Mediterranean and southern Gaulish pottery, to the 5th to 7th centuries. The site was identified by the excavator as an early Celtic monastery, with chapel, oratory, guesthouse, and scriptorium (Fig. 7), but there is no irrefutable evidence for this; today it is thought to have been a secular site.

At South Cadbury Castle, sometimes called “Cadbury-Camelot,” the excavation of an Iron Age hillfort has revealed refortification and substantial occupation, including the imported pottery indicative of a date in the 5th and 6th centuries, One of the major buildings identified was a centrally located large aisled hall (Fig. 8). The rampart and gateway were substantially rebuilt with a timber framework and dry stone facing (Fig. 9). The size of the fort makes it likely that it was home to a large group of people, although it is not clear whether this was the base for a large military force or, as the excavator has recently suggested, a refuge for the citizens of the nearby Roman town of Ilchester.

Reconstruction of a timber hall, with a cross section showing the layout of wall and roof beams.
Fig. 8. Artist’s reconstruction of the 5th to 6th century timber hall at South Cadbury Castle. (Courtesy of Equinox Ltd.)

Another Iron Age hillfort, also named Cadbury, is located near the town of Congresbury. Nick-named “Cad-Cong” by its excavators, this site also produced pottery imported from the eastern Mediterranean during the 5th and 6th centuries, as well as sherds of older, 4th century glossy red bowls which had been manufactured under Roman rule in Gaul and may have been passed down through the generations as heirlooms. A number of structures dating to the 5th century were identified, as was an earthwork dividing the site in two. Detailed study of the hillfort in relationship to the surrounding countryside sug­gests that this site may have served as an administrative center for smaller surrounding settlements.

Near Castle Dore, a small defended enclosure originally built in the Iron Age, there is an inscribed memorial stone of the type used in the first half of the 6th century. The inscription reads: DR USTANUS HIC IACIT / CUNOMORI FILIUS (“Here lies Drustanus, son of Cunomorus”). The father’s name, Cunomorus, belongs to a known king of Dumnonia, the kingdom which encom­passed the southwestern British peninsula, while the son’s name, Drustanus, is philologically the same as Tristan, of the Arthurian story “Tristan and Iseult”. Although the first written version of this story comes from a 12th century Anglo-Norman poem, there are scattered references in Welsh and Breton sources that suggest an earlier origin.

Excavations at Castle Dore itself have uncovered evidence of refortification and rebuilding at some time between the 5th and 8th centuries. Two large timber halls have been identified, one of which may have had a clerestory in the style of a Roman basilica. It has been suggested that the site may have housed 30 to 100 people.

Reconstruction drawing of a castle gate and rampart.
Fig. 9. Reconstruction of the 5th to 6th century southwest gate and defensive rampart at South Cadbury Castle. (Courtesy of Equinox Ltd.)

Finally, Glastonbury, through its identification in the literature as the Isle of Avalon, is associated with Arthur’s death. A lead cross (Fig. 10) inscribed HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTHURIUS CUM WENNEVEREIA UXORE SUA SEC UNDA IN INSULA A VALLONIA, “here lies the renowned King Arthur, with Guinevere his second wife, in the island of Avalon,” was supposedly found during the excavation of a coffin at Glastonbury Abbey in the 12th century (Fig. 11). The script an the cross is not of 5th or 6th century type, nor is it of 12th century type; it is, most likely, a 12th century hand trying to imitate a 6th century one. There is no archaeological evidence of 5th or 6th century activity of any type, including the characteristic imported pottery, anywhere on the abbey grounds. On Glastonbury Tor above the Abbey, however, excavations have uncovered another fortified settlement of 5th to 6th century date. Traces of timber buildings were found, as well as hearths, pottery sherds from imported Mediterranean wine amphorae, and a huge quantity of animal bones, including joints of beef, mutton, and pork.

Was There an Arthur?

By about A.D. 650 the period of British resistance was at an end. Much of Britain had yielded to the advancing Anglo-Saxons, leaving the native population in control of only southwest Britain, Wales, and Scotland. Although Britons certainly continued to live in Britain, they are no longer identifiable as a distinct group in the archaeological record. Anglo-Saxon settlements, with distinctive house-types and artifacts, are increasingly common. A new language was spoken and the country had a new name, England.

What, then, can we say about Arthur? There is reasonable, although scanty, documentary evidence that there was a British military leader named Arthur in the late 5th or early 6th century. It is impossible, however, from the surviving records to accurately determine what this man’s role might have been. It also appears, from the archaeological record, that, as some of the Arthurian documents suggest, life in western Britain continued in many of the same ways as previously, for a period of about 100 years after the end of Roman rule. Can these two be related? Perhaps it is best to echo one of the British archaeologists who has dealt with the Arthurian question: “either you believe in it or you don’t”!

Drawing of a cross covered in writing.
Fig. 10. The lead cross found at Glastonbury Abbey in 1190. This drawing, taken from William Camden’s Britannia, published in 1607, has no mention of Guinevere and thus differs from the 12th century description by the monk Giraldus Cambrensis. (Courtesy of Equinox Ltd.)

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Ashe, Geoffrey, ed.
The Quest for Arthur’s Britain. London: Pall Mall Press.

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Fowler, P.J., K.S. Gardner, and P.A. Rahtz
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Padel, O.J.
“Tintagel–An Alternative View.” In A Provisional List of Imported Pottery in Post-Roman Western Britain and Ireland, by Charles Thomas, 28-29. Institute of Cornish Studies Special Report 7.

Radford, C.A.R., and Michael J. Swanton
Arthurian Sites in the West. Exeter: University of Exeter.

Ruins of a once elaborate church.
Fig. 11. The main church at Glastonbury. (Courtesty of M. Voigt)

Cite This Article

Klein, Janice B.. "The Life and Times of King Arthur." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 2 (July, 1987): -. Accessed July 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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