Post-Roman Britain and Arthurian Origins

Documentary Sources

Although investigating Arthur has never been my purpose, Arthurian legendary origins are integral to understanding post-Roman British culture and history.

Gildas

The only known, nearly contemporary narrative of British life and circumstances, written soon after the Romans departed, originates in a manuscript written several generations later. The author was Gildas, a cleric of the Church. Gildas made clear his disgust and anger over the behavior and motivations of the earlier Britons. These people, he felt, had greedily rejected the good and lawful Roman rule they had been privileged to live under. Showing their ingratitude, they leapt at the chance to grab power for themselves. Gildas was in no mood to glorify any British heroes. If he mentioned native British leaders by name, it was only to vilify them for their politically criminal deeds. Some believe that Gildas knew of someone like Arthur but hated him as much as the others for what Gildas considered to be unlawful deeds, perhaps even more so. For that reason, he deliberately left out all mention of this Arthurian figure’s name. This may be modern wishful thinking.

Ambrosius Aurelianus

Another theory holds that it was not like this at all. Arthur was not shunned by Gildas and other like-minded clerics. (Remember that only the Church was in a position to write down and preserve manuscripts containing histories.) Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man of good breeding and standing, arose to rally the Britons, according to Gildas. Ambrosius’ story has rarely been questioned by historians, and some believe he may have been the original source for Arthurian stories. His family had come from proper Roman roots. Gildas believed that only Roman roots, not British roots, gave a man the moral authority to rule in Britain. Gildas was decidedly Romano-centric in his views. Ambrosius’ leadership enabled the Britons to defeat the Saxons at last. Mount Badon was one of those victories, but Ambrosius was not quite given the credit for that one. Arthurian interpretations of these passages abound. Arthur is sometimes identified as Ambrosius, but because Ambrosius was too “Roman” to be a hero of the British people, so it is surmised, the more native Celtic personification of “Arthur” was invented.

Mount Badon

Curiously, the crucial battle of Mount Badon has been described in such a way as to avoid naming the victor at that battle. This oddity has been used as evidence to support that Gildas disapproved of Arthur to the extent that he would not even memorialize his name when deserved. Gildas’ chronological references to the battle of Mount Badon have suggested a date of around 496. The traditional date of the authorship of De Excidio is 540 (although there has been growing academic dissension over the dating of the manuscript). Although Gildas was fuzzy on events of the second century when Hadrian’s Wall was built, his grasp of more recent events was undoubtedly better informed.

So the Arthur, who intrigues so many people, may have lived at the beginning of the shadowy and turbulent time of the fifth and sixth centuries. This Arthur would be a full eight hundred years older than the more glamorous, knight in shining armor vision projected in the popular legends.

Why this confusion? How can the popular medieval Arthur be eight centuries younger than the British Arthur? What are the Arthurian origins of the medieval legend?

Need for Heroes

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin's prophecies, 13th cen. mss.

A thirteenth century view of Arthurian times: Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern. British Library MS Cotton Claudius B VII f.224

Part of the answer lays in the British need for real living heroes. Contrary to Gildas’ belief, “bad” British behavior bore only part of the blame for the departure of the Romans, though how large a part can be debated. Rome was beset on all sides by enemies, including rebellious armies from Britain, and felt compelled to recall Roman troops and administrators from Britain for protection of Rome. Britons were seemingly confident at first of their ability to self-govern, but their efforts to maintain Romano-British culture failed within a generation or two. The Anglo-Saxons arrived and ultimately dominated most of the former Roman territory.

The Britons dispersed. They fled to other lands, moved to remote western and northern reaches of Britain, or merged with the Anglo-Saxon people through marriage and by adopting German culture. The Britons who settled in the western and southern territories of Wales and Cornwall remembered their losses and, using fragments of collective memory, nurtured a vision of a British hero who had almost defeated the invaders. Early stories told different versions of commanders and kings who defeated the enemy in their lifetime. Different names were used. The same stories were applied to different personalities. The core vision of a once great king of England remained the hopeful story of a time when the Britons were victorious over their enemies and might be again someday.

RECOMMENDED SOURCES:

Edens, W. Julian. “‘Saint Gildas and the Pestilent Dragon,’ a meander through the sixth-century landscape with a most notable guru.” The Heroic Age 6 (2003). Accessed February 16, 2013. http://www.heroicage.org/issues/6/gildas.html.

Gildas. De Excidio Britanniae, Six old English chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals, edited by John Allen Giles. London, G. Bell & Sons, 1891. Published online by Paul Halsall, editor, The Internet Medieval Source Book. Accessed November 25, 2012. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/gildas-full.asp.

Higham, N. J. King Arthur: Myth-Making and History. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

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