Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Arthur

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Legendary, according to the ODNB.

ARTHUR, the real or fabulous king of Britain, and a favourite hero of romantic literature from the middle ages down to our own days, is not mentioned by any contemporary writer; unless, indeed, we accept as contemporary with him certain anonymous Welsh poems in which his name occurs. It is probable that all these pieces are of a much later date. The earliest writing in which Arthur is spoken of at any length is the ‘Historia Britonum’ assigned to Nennius, and probably written in the eighth century. He is incidentally mentioned in the ‘Annales Cambriæ,’ a compilation of the tenth century. The story as told by Nennius was taken up and enlarged by the addition of a mass of fabulous material from the hands of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Gruffydd ap Arthur), whose ‘Historia Britonum,’ in which this expanded history of Arthur occurs, was written in 1147. Geoffrey professed to have gathered his materials in Brittany. Whether he really did so, or adopted Welsh traditions which were current in his day, or whether he simply invented the fabulous details which he inserted, may be matter of dispute. Few have now any doubt that his account is worthless for any historical purpose. And though it is by no means a settled question whether Arthur is to be regarded as a purely mythical or as fundamentally an historical personage, it is pretty generally agreed that if there be any historical element in his biography this element is confined almost entirely to what we learn from Nennius. In adopting the second of these two theories and treating Arthur as originally an historical personage, we must not be thought to prejudge the matter in dispute, for it is only upon this second supposition that Arthur can be entitled to a place in this Dictionary.

Arthur was probably born towards the end of the fifth century, and, according to the most generally accepted theory, the scene of his actions lay generally in South Britain. At this time the Saxons were, with all the power they could muster, pushing their victorious arms towards the west. In their endeavours the principal resistance they met with seems to have come from that section of their opponents which was composed of men either really of Roman descent or deeply imbued with Roman civilisation. At the head of this body stood Ambrosius Aurelianus, who is spoken of as long waging a doubtful war against the Saxons, obtaining frequent successes over them, but, owing to the ever increasing hordes by which the invaders were recruited, unable to draw much profit from his victories. Ambrosius claimed descent from Constantine the Tyrant, the last Roman who ever wore the purple in Britain. The later histories of Arthur represent him as the nephew of this Ambrosius, and the son of Ambrosius's brother, Uther Pendragon. Uther is certainly a mythical personage, and there is no reason to suppose a nearer connection between Arthur and Ambrosius than that Arthur succeeded to the command of the same body of Britons and in the same part of Britain as had been formerly held by Ambrosius. If we adopt an ingenious identification first proposed by Carte and supported by Dr. Guest (Origines Celticæ, ii. 181 seq.), Ambrosius died in A.D. 508. It may have been that Arthur thereupon obtained the command of the British army. The date generally given for that event is 516. That he owed this elevation not to blood but to merit is clearly stated by Nennius in the first mention of Arthur which occurs in any extant historical document: ‘Then it was that the warlike Arthur with all the kings and military force of Britain fought against the Saxons. Albeit there were many more noble than himself, yet was he twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often victorious’ (Vat. MS.)

Nennius then enumerates Arthur's twelve victories, which are as follows:—1. At the mouth of the river Glein. 2, 3, 4, 5. On a river called by the Britons Dugblas [Duglas] in the region of Linnuis (Geoffrey of Monmouth converts this Linnuis into Lincolnshire, and most writers have followed his lead in determining the locality). 6. On the river Bassas (according to the Harleian MS., according to the Vatican MS. Lusas). 7. In the wood Celidon, ‘which is called in British cat coit Celidon’ (that is to say, Cat Celidon is the British for ‘the wood of Celidon’). 8. At Guinnion Castle, ‘where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, the Mother of God, upon his shoulder, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Mary put the Saxons to flight and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. 9. At the city of Leogis (or ‘legionis,’ of the legion), which is called Kairleon (Caerleon on the Usk, says Geoffrey. Chester would answer to the name quite as well, and in fact many other places would do so, Kairleon simply meaning ‘Camp of the Legion’). 10. At the river Tribruit (Treuroit), 11. At the mountain Agnet, which is also called cat Bregion (or Breguoin. Here, again, ‘cat’ is simply wood. The wood of Breguoin or Bregion). A marginal gloss says that this was in Somersetshire. 12. The twelfth was the hardest fight of all, in which Arthur penetrated to the hill Badon. In this contest 960 (940 other MSS.) fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord giving him aid.

The battle of Mons Badonicus is the only one of these mentioned by Gildas (Hist. c. 26), though he nowhere connects Arthur with the victory. In the ‘Annales Cambriæ’ it is again mentioned, and, whatever may be thought about the other eleven battles, there can be little doubt that this one is historical. Historians are not agreed with what place this Mons Badonicus is to be identified. In a gloss to Gildas it is said to be upon the Severn, and by Geoffrey of Monmouth and all who follow him it has been identified with Bath. This theory is almost irreconcilable with other ascertained facts of the Saxon conquests in the south, which show that they could not possibly have penetrated so far at this date. Carte suggested Baydon Hill, on the road between Silchester and Chichester; Dr. Guest suggests Badbury in Dorsetshire. Roger of Wendover assigned 520 as the date of this battle, which would thus be one year after that in which, according to the Saxon chronicle, Cerdic and Cynric assumed the kingship among the West Saxons. Other writers give 516 as the date. Arthur by his later biographers is always placed as the opponent of Cerdic (Cheldric: Geoffrey).

These are really all the facts of Arthur's life for which we have any distinct historical authority. We shall speak presently of new attempts to identify the sites of Arthur's twelve battles. The first difficulty must be to reconcile the account of Nennius with the complete silence of Gildas upon the deeds of Arthur. And it must be acknowledged at once that there is much to be said for the view which would make Arthur a purely mythical personage, possibly an ancient divinity among the Britons. The large number of places connected with the name of Arthur and scattered over all the most Celtic portions of the country tells in favour of this theory. Such localities are to be found in Wales, Somersetshire, Devonshire, Cornwall, and in Scotland, as well as in Brittany. Even Nennius's account, though on the whole strongly marked with signs of sobriety and trustworthiness, is not quite above suspicion. In especial the number twelve for the number of Arthur's victories, taken in connection with the twelve knights of the round table, the twelve paladins of Charlemagne, is rather suspiciously appropriate. None of these objections can be considered conclusive. The likeliest theory in support of Arthur's historical character is that he was in the eyes of his contemporaries in a far less conspicuous position than that to which he was afterwards raised by the vox populi of myth and ballad. In this respect his case would be only parallel to that of two other famous epic heroes, whom we are by no means bound to look upon as purely mythical creations. Could we have had accounts written by the contemporaries of Achilles, there is every reason to believe that in their eyes he would have appeared only as a petty chieftain in command of an insignificant band of auxiliaries. Something the same is actually the impression given us by the only contemporary mention of Roland, the popular hero of the ‘Chansons de Geste.’ Later generations would invent for Achilles his divine descent and for Roland his kinship with Charlemagne, just as for Arthur they invented the half-miraculous descent from Uther and Igerna, and the kinship to Ambrosius Aurelianus.

Gildas is our witness that after the battle of Badon Hill a long peace was established between the Saxons and the Britons, and in the ‘Polychronicon’ we read the additional statement that Arthur ‘made peace with Cerdic and gave him Hampshire and Somersetshire, which was called Wessex’ (Polychr. cap. 6). Dr. Guest, acting upon this hint, has tried with great ingenuity and considerable success to define the limits of the tw kingdoms, and thus to show the actual region over which Arthur's power extended (Or. Celt. ii.).

Nennius has nothing further to tell us of Arthur except the fact of his death at the battle of Camlan; and the ‘Annales Cambriæ’ tell us just as much, but no more. It is in the period following the battle of Badon Hill that the later biographers introduce the most extravagant portions of the Arthurian legend, the conquests of Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Gaul, Spain, and finally of the armies of the (long defunct) Roman Republic itself. What we learn from Gildas is more to the point, namely, that the Britons, after enjoying peaceably for some time the benefits of this ‘unhoped-for succour,’ did presently again break out into civil war, which raged as fiercely as if there were no external foe at their gates.

This last picture is at all events not inconsistent with what all the biographers represent as the final act in the Arthurian drama. By these accounts the king, just when his arms had been crowned by the completest success abroad, found himself beset by treachery at home. His nephew Mordred seduced Arthur's queen Guenevere and raised a rebellion against him. Arthur thereupon turned homewards, and at his approach Guenevere fled from Mordred and hid herself in a convent; while Mordred, after being long chased from place to place, was at length brought to bay at Camlan (Cambula) ‘in Cornwall’ (Geoffrey).

Then took place that last and fatal battle of Camlan, which has left its echo in all the subsequent Arthurian romance. The later writers imagined the field, in the words of Malory, ‘upon a down beside Salisbury not far from the seaside.’ And the story went on to tell how Arthur, finding himself wounded to death, gave his sword Excalibur to Sir Bedevere, and bade him throw it into the water. And when he threw it ‘there came an arm and a hand out of the water and met it and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished. And then the hand vanished away.’ Anon came ‘a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them a queen.’ The barge came to take Arthur to the vale of Avalion, where men said that he still waited and (as they said of Charlemagne and of Frederick Barbarossa) would one day return, would once more place himself at the head of his countrymen, and lead them to victory. Avalion, once the mythical paradise of the Celts, came to be identified with Glastonbury, and in the middle ages men showed the inscription which had stood over the place where Arthur lay, and which expressed the history and the hope which in popular belief attached to his name—

Hic jacet Arthurus,
Rex quondam, rexque futurus.

We have here given the generally accepted and what may be called the orthodox theory of the historic Arthur. It is impossible to give the variants upon this which the speculations of different writers have suggested. One very important theory must not, however, remain unmentioned. According to this view Arthur was not a king in South Britain, or rather South Wales, as later writers, from Geoffrey downwards, have always supposed, but a king of the North Britons of southern Scotland and of Cumbria. The sites of all his battles, say these theorists, can be identified with places which lie in the region which now forms the south of Scotland and the English border. Thus Glein, they say, is Glen in Ayrshire (or it may be in Tweeddale). Dubglas, in Linnuis, far from being, as Geoffrey imagined, in Lincolnshire, is Douglas in Lennox, a stream which falls into Loch Lomond; Coit Celidon is a wood on the banks of the Carron in Upper Tweeddale; Castle Guinnion is found in Wedale; Leogis, instead of being Caerleon, is (they say) at Dumbarton, that is to say, upon the Leven which flows from Loch Lomond into the Clyde. Treuroit may be identified with a place on the banks of the Forth near Stirling, where, we remember, Arthur's round table is still preserved. Agnet, or Mynyd Agnet, is a name for Edinburgh; and, finally, Badon Hill is not Bath on the English Avon, nor yet Badbury in Dorset, but Bowdon Hill, in Linlithgow, on the Scottish Avon. The history of Nennius, it is urged, is almost exclusively concerned with the doings of the invaders in the north of the island; his account ends with the accession of Ida to the Northumbrian throne.

The arguments by which this theory is supported may be studied to best advantage in Mr. W. F. Skene's ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales,’ and in Mr. Stuart Glennie's ‘Arthurian Localities.’

If this theory should ever be established, the life of Arthur would form part of an epoch in history of which the memory has now been almost completely lost. For it must be noticed that the foes against whom the British king fought were Angles and not Saxons; and, in fact, the Angles did not come into Northumbria until after the death of Arthur. The armies over which Arthur gained his victories, then, supposing these victories to have lain in the north, were not those of the ultimate founders of the Northumbrian kingdom, but an earlier body of Saxon or Frisian invaders, whose very existence was at one time unsuspected by historians. Among the few traces which these Frisians have left behind them is Dumfries, the fort of the Frisians, as opposed to Dumbarton, the fort of the Britons. We have seen that, according to Mr. Skene, one of Arthur's victories was gained at Dumbarton.

[The bibliography of the historic Arthur is small, but that of the mythic Arthur is almost infinite. Among Welsh poems of uncertain date he is mentioned by several anonymous ones published in the ‘Myvyrian Archaiology,’ as well as in the ‘Historic Triads.’ Gildas, in his ‘Historia,’ as we have seen, without mentioning the name of Arthur, refers to one or two events which are connected with his history. Nennius's ‘Historia Britonum’ is our one authority who possesses any degree of trustworthiness, save, perhaps, the ‘Annales Cambriæ,’ where Arthur is only twice spoken of. The mythical history of Arthur begins (in literature) with the ‘Historia Britonum’ of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose contemporary, William of Malmesbury, adds one or two minor details not given by Geoffrey. In rhyme the history was repeated about the same time by Wace and Gaimar in Anglo-Norman, and by Layamon in English. In the course of the next century several new narratives were incorporated with the history of Arthur by Walter Mapes, Geoffrey de Borron, &c., until the romantic history acquired the completeness which we find in Sir T. Malory's ‘Mort d'Arthure.’ Of the development of the same myth in French romantic literature it is impossible to speak here. See Guest, Origines Celticæ ; Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, introd.. The Dean of Lismore's Book, introd., and Celtic Scotland; Glennie, Arthurian Localities; Burton, Hist. of Scotland, i.ch. 5; Probert. The Ancient Laws of Cambria (for a translation of the Historical Triads). Lady Guest's ‘Mabinogion’ is a translation of the Red Book of Hergest, also published by Mr. Skene in his ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales.’ De Villemarqué has published numerous Breton ballads upon Arthur, which are of doubtful authenticity.]

C. F. K.