'Declare who thou art,' said Arthur. 'I will: Culhwch son of Cilydd son of Cyleddon Wledig, by Goleuddydd daughter of Anlawdd Wledig, my mother.' 'It is true,' replied Arthur, 'thou art then my first cousin.'

- Culhwch and Olwen

Historical Arthur

The perplexing aspect surrounding the figure of Arthur is the paucity of historical documentation about him, the battles he fought and his fate. Such an absence of evidence is what gives the Dark Ages their title, and for this period historians are more than aware that this in no way represents an evidence of absence. Uncovering or at least gleaning a tangible understanding of the people and the events of fifth and sixth century Britain has proven an exciting and tantalising endeavour, and unravelling the mystery has produced a literature of its own, with a contemporary audience as captivated as the readers of the Romances were in medieval Europe.

Current investigations make strong use of the power of deduction to shed light on the unrecorded, revealing information otherwise unobtainable nor understandable, if taken within context. Medieval proofs of Arthur were rather less rigorous - the Round Table fake in Winchester Cathedral, or the fake grave of Arthur at Glastonbury (Phillips and Keatman 1992, pp. 14-17) are prime examples. The ability to differentiate between the literary add-ons and original material in the Arthurian legends has allowed modern investigators to focus on searching for what can be found, and from what material is available draw testable conclusions.

A good place to start is with King Arthur's name. The name 'Arthur' has been the subject of linguistic analysis, which when taken in the context of its use, is revealed to be in fact an epithet or nickname rather than a given name. Griffen (1994) provides an excellent analysis of the epithet Arthur, showing that it derives from both Celtic and Latin words for Bear. As such, 'Arthur' was a name able to be used with ease by the two main cultural factions in Britain, the 'Celtic' nationalistic and the Roman reunification factions, who stood united by their leader against invading Germanic forces. The Latin form Arturus is a pointed reference to the bright star Arcturus, leader of the Great Bear constellation; The Celtic form Art + ur means Bear-man, or leader of the Bear. As the dux bellorum, Arthur was the leader of the British forces: For both factions united against the Saxons, to say 'Arthur' was to pronounce the same sound and mean the same nick-name. As a symbol for all the British people, the Bear was singularly appropriate, for it is a very northern constellation, and the tenacity of the bear in defending its territory or its young renowned.

One of the earliest references to Arthur is written in British and found in the battle poem Goddodin. This poem was composed around 610, committed to writing around 850 and survives in the 'Book of Anierin' compiled in 1265 (Phillips and Keatman 1992, pp. 200-203) - As an aside, the poem is an excellent example to illustrate the lengthy periods in which Dark Age material was transmitted before the surviving manuscripts were produced. The reference to Arthur in this poem is given in a comparative context - it appears in a line praising one of the warriors of the kingdom of Goddodin who fought valiantly against the Anglo-Saxons at the battle of Catraeth (c.600; Griffen 1994, p.1), noting that despite his prowess, 'he was no Arthur': ceni bei ef Arthur.

Nennius wrote the Historia Brittonum around 830 (Phillips and Keatman, 1992, p. 201), and in this earliest Latin text mentioning Arthur, given in the battle list, his name is given as Arturus; this form was also used by Geoffrey of Monmouth (Griffen, 1994, p. 2).

The British and Latin forms of 'Arthur' in the early references demonstrate the use of the epithet as described by Griffen (1994). The term 'Bear' is found as a direct reference to a British king at a date even earlier than the Goddodin, in the text prepared in 540-5 by Gildas, De Excido Conquestu Brittanniae (Phillips and Keatman 1992, p. 200). The reference is found in Gildas 32, and has become a focus for deductive reasoning about Arthur, for it derives from the time only twenty years after the battle of Camlann. It occurs in an address to Cunoglasus of Rhos, in the north of Wales immediately to the east of Gwynedd: Gildas asks, 'Ut quid in nequitiae tuae volveris vetusta faece et tu ab adolescentiae annis, urse, multorum sessor aurigaque currus receptaculi ursi, dei contemptor sortisque eius depressor, Cuneglase, Romana lingua lanio fulve?: Why have you been rolling in the filth of your past wickedness, bear, rider of many and driver of the chariot of the Bear's Stronghold, despiser of God and oppressor of his lot, Cuneglasus, in Latin 'red butcher'?' This is a wicked and calculated insult to Cunoglasus, for his name in fact transliterates to Blue Dog, and figuratively to Shining Warrior (Stewart n.d.); but the importance of the passage relates to the fact that Cuneglasus was the inheritor of the Bear's kingdom.

Cunoglasus was cousin to Maglocunus, Maelgwyn of Gwynedd, in the period immediately after Camlann. Gildas identifies Cunoglasus as the inheritor of the Bear's Stronghold: The father of Cunoglasus, the previous king, who would by deduction be the Bear, was Owain Ddantgwyn (Phillips and Keatman 1992, p. 160; Baker 2003). Owain was killed by his nephew Maglocunus who then took control of Gwynedd. In Geoffrey's Historia, Arthur was killed by his nephew Merdraut (Mordred) at Camlan - just as Maglocunus killed his uncle, Owain. The father of Owain Ddantgwyn was the son of Cunedda, who famously led the campaign to expel the Irish in Northern Wales after 460. The name of Owain's father was Enniaun Girt, or Enniaun Yrth, king of Gwynedd. The kings of Gwynedd were known as the Dragons, and consequently Enniaun would have been also been known as Yrthyr-pen-Dragon, recognizably the Uther Pendragon of Geoffrey's Historia (Baker 2003).

Here it is pertinent to finally refer to the literature of Wales, for in the words of the very people for whom Arthur was defender are found allegorical and historical depictions of the king that take us to the brink of knowing the man. In 850 the poems Canu Llywarch Hen and Canu Heledd were composed; in 955 the Annales Cambria, the Annals of Wales, were compiled; in 990 the epic Culhwch and Olwen was composed; in 1160 the Dream of Rhonabwy was composed; and in 1250 the Black Book of Carmarthen compiled - followed by the compilations the Book of Aneirin (1265), the White Book of Rhydderch (1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (1400). These texts were composed and finally compiled over the same period as the Latin texts - within both sets exist independent and inter-dependent claims, lineages and tales of Arthur. Blake and Lloyd (2002) have comprehensively followed the Welsh texts and provide genealogies according to the references and inferences there, again locating Arthur to the north of Wales. Camlan is discovered in the south of Gwynedd, where the name is still used today, as pointed out in 1872 in the Archaeologica Cambrensis: all in close proximity are the river, Afon Gamlan, the mountain pass Camlan, a stretch of the river Dyfi called Camlan and a farm called Meas-y-Camlan, the Field of Camlan (Blake and Lloyd 2002, p. 190). Phillips and Keatman (1992, p. 151-153 and 163-164) show that consistent with the legend of the death of Arthur at the battle of Camlan as we know it in Geoffrey's Historia is a fusing of a great campaign against an alliance of Cunomorus (Mark of Cornwall) and Cerdic of Wessex and the battle for kingship of Gwynedd where Maglocunus killed Owain: Mordred of the legends appears to be a fusion of Cunomorus and Maglocunus; Likewise, the legendary battle of Camlan appears to be a fusion of the battle for control of Gwynedd and the battle against Wessex - resulting in both a battle for Britain as well as a battle between two men. Phillips and Keatman (2002, pp. 184-189) draw attention to Arthur as he is portrayed in the Dream of Rhonabwy - an extensive section sees Arthur playing a game of gwyddbwyll (a chess-like game with the object of defeating the king) with Owain ap Urien. Arthur is able to read Owain's thoughts, and the passage focuses on how Arthur and Owain's forces reconcile and together defeat the Saxons. Owain ap Urien dates to a century after Arthur, and it may well be that Owain was originally Owain Ddantgwyn and thus Arthur himself - Arthur (epithet) versus Owain (the king) - in which case the 'Bear' of Gildas, Owain Ddantgwyn, is allegorically identified as Arthur.

Copyright © John Bonsing & S Rhys Jones 2006. All Rights Reserved


Baker, M 2003, 'Celtic Britain' Owain Ddantgwyn and the identity of King Arthur Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://www.kessler-web.co.uk/History/FeaturesBritain/CymruOwain&Arthur.htm

Blake, S & Lloyd, S 2002, The lost legend of Arthur, Rider, London.

Griffen, T 1994, Arthur's name Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://www.geocities.com/~dubricius/csana94.pdf

Phillips, G & Keatman, M 1992, King Arthur - the true story, Random House, London.

Stewart, C Cynglas: the tawny butcher? Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://www.stormpages.com/cynglas/

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