The very name conjures a kaleidoscope of images, a cascade of colour and mystery, the elaborate fantastical legends that form the Matter of Britain. The name 'King Arthur' evokes the sententious mental snapshots of knights galloping in iridescent armour, of wizards and witches casting wily spells, of glittering castles and mighty betrayals.
Arthur is never far from our national conscience. Even today, his influence permeates our media-driven culture: a BBC series based on the youthful Merlin; a revisionist movie with Clive Owen; the company that runs the National Lottery. Each age recreates Arthur in its own image, twists, stretches and retells his legends according to the contemporary needs of the national psyche. In reflection, we get the Arthur we deserve.
As with that other perenniel British hero, Robin Hood, the most irresistible facet of Arthur's appeal lies in his ultimate mystery... did he actually exist? For decades, authors have been producing pseudo-historical essays and books claiming that their research has led them to identify the true 'Arthur'. Step forward and take a bow, Riothamus, Ambrosius, Owain Dantgwydd, et al... but the fact that these authors have managed to reach so many different conclusions stands as a testament to the elusive nature of the Once And Future King. Was he a single great leader, or an amalgam of several warlords whose names and deeds have come down to us in tantalisingly fragmented scraps and rumours? Few would dispute the documented existence of Macsen Wledig, the man who would be Emperor, of Ambrosius Aurelianus the mighty scourge of Saxons, or Riothamus, the great warrior who campaigned across the Channel... yet apart from their names and a few scant details of their exploits, these people have left little mark on history. In stark contrast Arthur, the one whose existence is doubted by many, continues to inveigle his way into our culture. As he has done for a millenium and more.
So what can we say with any certainty? Although some have claimed to have traced him back to a Roman soldier, serving with a Sarmatian unit on Hadrian's Wall (the basis for the Owen film), most place him in the period between the Roman withdrawal from Britain (c. 410 CE) and the arrival on Kent of Augustine (597 CE). This period, spanning less than two centuries, saw dramatic changes in the cultural and demographic fabric of the country. In 410 the Britons still followed the structure of civitates, the organisation of regions based upon the older tribal divisions (although the distinctive urban-centric pattern of Roman culture had been fading for some time). By the time of the Augustinian mission, most of the country was under the rule of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, and what is now known as England had completely new regions and divisions. The culture, if not all of the people, of the Romano-Britons had been pushed into the fringe areas of the country: Cornwall and Devon, Wales, Cumbria and the Scottish Lowlands.
During those years, a fashion rose among the native chieftains of naming their males heirs with variations of the name 'Arthur', a name possibly based on 'arth', the british word for 'bear'. The surviving genealogies of the time testify to the existence of Arthur mac Aedan mac Gabran, a king of what is now Argyll and was then Dal Riata. An Artuin can be found, and an Arthrwys or two.
These years have been described as post-Roman, sub-Roman. the Brittonic Age... but are best known by the currently unfashionable appellation of the Dark Ages. What textxs survive from the period are fragmentary, disparate and lacking in context. The major survival from these times is 'De Excidio Et Conquestu Brittaniae' by the clerical and censurious Gildas. Its dramatic title translates as 'On The Ruin And Conquest of Britain', and graphically describes a country broiling in turmoil under the relentless and savage advance of the Anglo-Saxons, while the native British chieftains squabble among themselves. Gildas singles out a series of British kings for criticism, although he does also mention the heroic actions of Ambrosius Aurelianus in checking the barbarian tide. He never mentions Arthur. The closest we come is a tantalising reference to another character who 'rides in the chariot of the Bear'.
Despite this glaring omission, the character of Arthur starts to appear in later texts, almost always in a fashion that suggests he is already a well-known figure. The authors presuppose that their readers will already be au fait with the existence of this elusive warrior. The 'Historia Brittonum', possibly dating from the ninth century and formerly attributed to the chronicler Nennius, gives us not only the story of Vortigern and Ambrosius, but also introduces our elusive hero with a distinct lack of fanfare. 'Then Arthur fought against them in those days'. The chronicler lists twelve battles, the last of which is Badon (the victory which Gildas had seemed to attribute to Ambrosius Aurelianus).
Other texts include the 'Annales Cambriae', compiled by monks as a way of recording the dates each year upon which Easter fell. Several dates are followed by annotations, describing notable events which transpired during those years. Therefore, we fing following the year 518: 'Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord on his shoulders for three days and three nights, and the Britons were victors'. Note that by this stage, Arthur has not only become the victor at Badon but has also become a Christian. A second entry, for the year 539, reads 'The strife of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell'. Our earliest reference to the death of this hero consists of a single terse line. It suggests no familial relationship between Arthur and Medraut/Mordred, and fails to inform us if they were enemies or allies. Compare that to the elaborate versions of their complicated relationship that have graced us since.
Soon, Arthur starts making appearances in hagiographies; that is, various Lives of Celtic Saints that were compiled around the twilight of the Anglo-Saxon period. It is curious to note that these Lives seem to subvert the Annales suggestion of Arthur as a Christian; in fact, he comes across as distinctly unheroic, plundering monastic properties to finance his war efforts.
Finally, another important text is the British war-poem 'Y Gododdin', attributed to the bard Aneirin. Stylistic analysis reveals that it originated as early as the sixth century, although it underwent many changes before finally taking written form in the thirteenth century. One stanza, a panegyric upon a warrior named Gwawrddur, claims that he 'glutted black ravens on the fortress walls, although he was not Arthur'. Many scholars assume that this is a later interpolation, but once again it assumes that its readers have foreknowledge of this great hero.
None of these early texts describe Arthur as a King. The 'Historia Brittonum claims him as a dux bellorum, a war-chief fighting alongside - or on behalf of - the petty British monarchs.
For his regal title, Arthur had to wait until 1138, when another cleric - Geoffrey of Monmouth - wrote his 'History Of The Kings Of Britain'. This work, a fascinating blend of historicity and mythology, traced the history of Britain back to its settlement by the Trojan refugee, Brutus. It gives us biographies of rulers both genuine and folkloric, but reserves its greatest details for Arthur, not only a King but an Emperor, invading neighbouring countries and laying waste all before him. Monmouth's work became hugely popular both at home and abroad. It led to the flowering of the Brittany writers like Troyes and Boron, who gave us Camelot, Lancelot and Guinevere, and culminated in Malory's definitive 'Le Morte D'Arthur'. Monmouth claimed that his source was an ancient British text given to him by the Bishop Of Oxford, a text which (if it ever existed), has not survived.
Monmouth's opus not only named names, it named places. It gave Arthur an origin story. It gave him a dramatic, storm-swept, magnificent setting for the beginning of Britain's most enduring legend.
It gave him Tintagel.
Soon: Part Two, Tintagel.