Filmmakers telling stories about King Arthur have a basic choice to make; do they set their film in the period between 1200 and 1500, which is when the literature about King Arthur was flourishing (knights in shiny armor, tables without corners, Grail-shaped beacons, etc), or do they set their film at the end of Roman Britain, which is the historical context for the legends of King Arthur? Do they emphasize the knights running around looking for the Holy Grail and having adulterous and tragic love affairs, or do they focus on Arthur leading the fight against the hordes of Saxon invaders as Roman Britain collapses defenseless against its enemies? King Arthur (2004, dir. Antoine Fuqua) follows the latter track, claiming that they were offering a look at the real historical Arthur.
For example, this trailer opens by noting that “for centuries, historians believed that the tale of King Arthur and his knights was only a legend. But the myth was based on a real hero who lived 1600 years ago”, thus asserting that, in contrast to other films the viewer may have seen about Arthur, this one will be historically accurate. The film recruited Dr. Linda Malcor, a specialist in Arthurian folklore to be its historical consultant and to support its claims of historicity; during an interview in 2004, she said “The story created by (screenwriter David) Franzoni is fiction, but, as with all good historical fiction, it draws heavily on historical facts.” She went on to say that “some creative license was taken with some of the details, but that happens in all story-telling…” So the publicity campaign for the film strongly emphasized claims that King Arthur was a provably historical figure and this film is his story.
In order to assess the film’s claims, we’re going to have to jump into one of the murkiest of historical mires, the so-called British Dark Age of the late 5th and 6th centuries. Contrary to popular usage, a ‘dark age’ is a period of history for which there are few if any surviving written documents. Since history is the study of the written documents of the past, if there are no documents, doing history becomes almost impossible.
The Sub-Roman Period
Britain enters the light of history roughly when the Roman Empire conquered lowland Britain in the first century AD. Starting perhaps a century before that, we begin to have a trickle of historical documents making reference to the island and its inhabitants, and for the next four centuries, Roman Britain produced enough written and archaeological evidence for historians to write a history of the region, although it’s a very patch history with big gaps. Under Roman control, Britain developed its first cities, participated in the vast trade and cultural network we call the Roman Empire, and enjoyed at least some of the benefits of Roman organization and government.
In 410 AD, however, the Roman Emperor Honorius, facing a military crisis in Italy, ordered the withdrawal of all the Roman troops stationed in Britain. The British wrote to him begging for the return of the armies to help protect Britain from the military threat posed by the neighboring Irish, Picts, and Saxons, but Honorius told them they had to look to their own defenses. In reaction, the British authorities withdrew their allegiance to Honorius and essentially declared independence. For the next century, the Romanized Britons (who were of mixed Celtic and Roman descent) struggled to maintain a semblance of Roman culture while protecting themselves against a slowly rising tide of enemies. By the middle of the century, the Saxons had begun to land in eastern Britain and conquer it, and Roman culture substantially died out. The cities contracted down to virtual non-existence; most historians would say that urban life essentially ended in this period. Christianity appears to have died out in lowland Britain, although there are a few tantalizing hints it might have survived in a few places. The complex Roman educational system clearly collapsed, resulting in a dearth of written sources for scholars to work with.
Eventually, however, the Britons were able to stem the flood, at least for a while. In the mid-6th century a Welsh monk named Gildas wrote an extremely moralizing letter to the native leaders of Britain, blaming their moral failings for the country’s problems. According to this letter, which is one of our only genuine British sources for this period, about the time Gildas was born British leaders won a decisive victory against the Saxons at a place called Mt Badon, and as a result, the British had enjoyed peace and prosperity from that time to the time Gildas was writing the letter. Unfortunately, Gildas doesn’t tell us when the battle was fought. He does tell us that he was born the same year, and that he was writing 44 years later, but the exact date of his letter is uncertain. Most historians place his letter sometime in the 540s, (although some would put it earlier than that), which means that the battle of Mt Badon must have been fought sometime in the 490s. At the earliest, it was fought about 470 AD, but few scholars would put it that early.
The battle of Mt Badon was fought somewhere in southwestern Britain, probably along the edge of the British-controlled zone, and based on linguistic evidence some scholars have identified the site as the old Roman city of Bath. Thus, we are reasonably certain that British forces, fighting perhaps in the region of Bath, won a major victory over the Saxons some time between perhaps 470 and 495, as a result of which the Saxons were kept out of western Britain for several generations. What Gildas doesn’t tell us, perhaps because he assumes that his audience knows, is the name of the man who led the British forces at Badon.
And That’s Where Arthur Comes In
But those who lived in Wales in the 9th century thought they knew. Sometime in that century, a Welsh monastery compiled a document known as the Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales), essentially a chronicle of Welsh history beginning in 447. In the fashion of early medieval chronicles, the Annales is a very simple work of history. It lists each year and typically offers a terse mention of something important that happened that year. It attributes the battle of Mt Badon to 518 AD, and says “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 victors”. And for 539 AD it says “The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell. And there was plague in Britain and Ireland”.
Here we have a genuine historical source that tells us that the man who won the battle of Mt Badon is Arthur, and it adds that this Arthur died at the battle of Camlann, along with someone named Medraut. ‘Camlann’ looks suspiciously similar to ‘Camelot’, Arthur’s supposed capital, and ‘Medraut’ looks an awful lot like ‘Modred’, who according to later stories was Arthur’s nephew or illegitimate son (or both, because Arthur was freaky that way) who slew him. So on the surface, we have confirmation that the core of the Arthurian legends was real.
However, there are a number of problems with this information. Firstly, this document comes from about 400 years after the events it describes, and many scholars have argued that it is too late to be a reliable source for early 6th century Britain, since 400 years offers a lot of time for myths and falsehoods to creep in. (Keep in mind that 400 years separates contemporary America from the Jamestown settlement. That’s A LOT of time.) However, we know that the Annales were compiled from earlier documents, and a few scholars have argued that these entries may be based on now-lost documents early enough to be historically reliable. Unfortunately, there’s no way to be sure.
Also, the date 518 seems rather too late to fit the battle of Badon, since that would mean that Gildas was writing his letter in the 560s, which experts have generally said is too late. The fact that the compiler of the Annales probably got the date wrong for the battle of Mt. Badon doesn’t mean that the facts he reports about the battle are also wrong, but it does tell us that we can’t just accept the entry at face value.
Then there’s the whole question of Arthur carrying the cross for 3 days. Arthur skeptics have argued that it’s the kind of fabulous detail which makes the whole entry suspect. But it’s also been pointed out that the Welsh word scuid (‘shoulder’), is very close to the Welsh word for ‘shield’, which is scuit. So someone copying the entry into the Annales could easily have written the one for other, in which case the document would originally have said that Arthur had a cross on his shield. Perhaps Arthur made religion a rallying point in his battles with the Saxons. Maybe he was seeking to emulate the great Christian Emperor Constantine, who ordered his soldiers to paint crosses on their shields. And Constantine was from Roman Britain, so it would make sense that a later Christian general might try to emulate him.
And it’s also been pointed out that every other character mentioned in the Annales is a reliably historical figure, making the historicity of Arthur and Modred a little more likely. Whoever compiled the Annales clearly thought Arthur was a genuine historical figure.
There is one other 9th century work, produced just after 800 and so a little earlier than the Annales, which mentions Arthur. This is a work called the Historia Brittonum, or History of the Britons, attributed to a monk named Nennius. According to Nennius, Arthur fought 12 battles against the Saxons, at locations around Britain. Nennius seems to be getting his information from an earlier, now lost, poem about Arthur, which shows that he was using earlier sources, but poetry is more liable to fantastic details than prose. According to Nennius, “The eighth battle was in Fort Guinnon, in which Arthur carried the image of St Mary, ever virgin, on his shoulders and the pagans were turned to flight that day and a great slaughter was upon them through the virtue of our Our Lord Jesus Christ and through the virtue of St Mary the Virgin his mother.” “The twelfth battle was on Mt Badon, in which 960 men fell in one day from one charge by Arthur, and no one overthrew them except himself alone.” So here again we have Arthur the victor at Badon, but this time the detail about carrying the cross on his shoulders has become carrying an image of the virgin, and in a different battle. And at Badon, Arthur is said to have single-handedly killed 960 men.
The material in Nennius is problematic for a variety of reasons. Not all the manuscripts attribute the work to this monk Nennius, which has led some scholars to dismiss the entire work as fiction. Nennius also records other fantastic stories, which might in turn discredit the material on Arthur, and Arthur’s body count seems improbably high. Also, the battles are rather improbably sited all over Britain, presenting Arthur as a sort of national hero. Scholars have almost universally declined to consider Nennius’ stories reliable evidence for the 5th century. But the Historia comes earlier than the Annales, and raises the possibility that it might have influenced the Welsh chronicle.
There is also the question of Arthur’s name. Some scholars have argued that Arthur comes from the Welsh phrase ‘Uth vawr’, meaning ‘great bear’, and have argued that Arthur is actually a deity who has become humanized in Welsh legends, something which can be said of a few other characters as well. But there is no evidence for this phrase in early Welsh literature, and there is an easier explanation for the name. It is simply a Welshization of the Roman name ‘Artorius’, and we know that there was at least one man of that name living in Britain in the late 2nd early 3rd century. And it has been pointed out that while the custom of using Roman names died out in Briton in the 6th century, in Wales there is a sudden appearance of several men named Arthur. Were they all named after an important figure earlier in the century?
So was Arthur a real historical figure? The analysis I’ve given you is not my own work; rather it’s based on arguments published in the 1970s by the British archaeologist Leslie Alcock. Of all the scholarship I’ve read on this subject, Alcock offers, in my opinion, the strongest arguments for the historicity of Arthur. And based on all the evidence he marshals, I have to say that I’m not convinced by it. Alcock’s argument rests on a chain of ifs. If the Arthur entries in the Annales were based on an earlier document and if that earlier document was historically reliable, and if that document was written in Welsh rather than Latin and if a copyist somewhere along the line mis-copied a ‘d’ for a ‘t’, then we might have historical proof that someone named Arthur led the British forces at Gildas’ battle of Mt. Badon. That’s a lot of ifs. And even Alcock wasn’t convinced; by the end of his career he had become an ‘Arthur agnostic’.
When my students ask me if I think Arthur was a historical figure or not, my standard answer is that the battle of Mt Badon is almost definitely a real event, and someone must have led the British forces there, and we have one document of dubious accuracy that calls that leader Arthur, so we might as well call that leader Arthur too. But that’s a very long way from saying that ‘King Arthur’ was a historical figure. Among other things, neither the Annales nor Nennius describe Arthur as a king, only as a military leader.
So when Dr. Malcor said in that interview that ”some creative license was taken with some of the details” in King Arthur, she neglected to mention that one of the details she’s talking about is the detail about Arthur not being a provably real person. That’s our first clue that this film isn’t exactly going to adhere to scrupulous standards of historical scholarship. But that’s the least of the film’s sins, as we’ll see next time.
Want to Know More?
Leslie Alcock lays out the argument that I’ve summarized here in Arthur’s Britain (Classic History) As I said, it’s the strongest argument I’ve read, and I would dearly love it to be persuasive, but I can’t bring myself to say he’s right. But the book offers a wealth of information on 5th and 6th century Britain, and it’s a good read, although it’s more than 40 years old and therefore doesn’t discuss more recent archaeological discoveries.
If you want a completely different take on Arthur’s historicity, the respected historian Geoffrey Ashe has argued in The Discovery of King Arthurthat the trail of the real Arthur is to be found in King Arthur’s Continental military campaign mentioned in some of the later medieval romances. I don’t buy it, but it’s worth a look.