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|Title page illustration from The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights (Facing p. 78), 1912., 9th edition. Ed. Sir James Knowles, K. C. V. O. London; New York: Frederick Warne and Co., 1912; Public domain image.|
Did King Arthur Really Exist?
Historians and archeologists debate whether the King Arthur of legend was all myth or based on a person who actually lived. "Concerning the Ruin of Britain" ("De Excidio Britanniae") was a lamentation over the fading of the Roman way of life written just prior to 549 by a British monk named Gildas. Although Gildas didn't actually name Arthur, he did refer to someone called "The Bear," which is what the Celtic word, 'Art' means. Gildas also mentions the siege of Mount Badon,
The Battle of Mount Badon is important in establishing a date for a historical Arthur. Somewhere between 828 through 831 AD, a Welsh monk named Nennius wrote (or as some argue, compiled) the Historia Brittonum, that describes Arthur as a military leader (dux bellorum) rather than a king and names 12 battles he fought.
Arthur's legend was already growing:
The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. (Historia Brittonum, chapter 56)Gildas, who was writing a contemporary account, dated the siege of Mount Badon 44 years prior to his record. This places Arthur, if he existed, near the turn of the 6th Century in northern Britain.
Another source, The Welsh Easter Annals (Annales Cambriae). This record gives a date of 516 AD for the Battle of Badon and mentions Arthur:
The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors. (Annales Cambriae, 516 AD)The reference to a cross on Arthur's shoulder may have been a transcriptual error, with 'shoulder' being substituted for 'shield.'
Another reference to Arthur occurs a little later in the text:
The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell. (Annales Cambriae, 537 AD)Medraut is a Welsh form of Mordred.
The Annales Cambriae was supposed to have been updated yearly between 447 and 957, but earlier entries may have been made in later years. This makes it a more questionable resource than De Excidio Britanniae, and some have argued that Arthur may have been added to the record after the fact. Whether Arthur was an actual person may never be proven without a doubt. In my opinion, since all other persons named in the Annales Cambriae were actual people who lived in history, there seems no reason to assume that Arthur was not.
|By James Archer (artist) (1823 – 1904) (http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
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Further ReadingEarly References to a Real Arthur, A Discussion by David Nash Ford
King Arthur: How the Legend Developed
King Arthur Was Real? Archeology Archive
Video: King Arthur, Biography (Warrior, King, Military Leader)