British and Anglo-Saxons around 500 AD (map copyright: Ian Mladjov).
[This article is in fact a part of my book ‘The Celts‘, Periscope publ., Athens 2008, unfortunately available only in Greek]
King Arthur’s deeds belong to the major national legends of Britain. The exploits of the Knights of the Round Table, the shining Camelot, the noble and benevolent king and his blessed reign, his queen Guinevere, his knights Lancelot, Parsifal, Bors and others, are now a major part of the world cultural tradition. Aside from the romantic late medieval atmosphere that Geoffrey of Monmouth infused to the Arthurian Legend (who first narrated it in the 12th c. AD in his book “History of the Kings of Britain“), the historical reality was very different.
In 407 AD the Western Roman Empire withdrew its last regular soldiers from its British provinces. The Roman emperor advised the British Celts and the Romano-British to arrange themselves for their defense against the Anglo-Saxon, Pict (of Caledonia/modern Scotland) and Irish raiders who ravaged their territory. The Romano-British and British warlords followed his advice and elected a Duke – a military leader – possibly with the title of the “Supreme Ruler” or “Supreme Commander”, whose duties was to resolve their disputes and lead the war effort against the invaders. Vortigern, the warlord of the Ordovices/Pagnenses (a Celtic people in Powys, modern Central Wales), was a well known Supreme ruler/commander of Britain during the 5th century. He relied mostly on Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to repel the invaders (and their Anglo-Saxon compatriots too) and to impose its authority.
The term “Anglo-Saxons” is the modern conventional name of a major tribal union of Germanic (and a few Slav) invaders in Britain, originating mostly from modern Northern Germany, Netherlands, Jutland (Denmark) and Norway (the latter not to be confused with the Viking Norwegian colonists of the 8th-10th cents AD in the British islands). This tribal union consisted of Saxons, Engles (in Germanic: Engeln, in Byzantine Greek: Inglini), Frisians, Jutes, Proto-Norwegians (Northwestern Scandinavians), Angrivarii, Brukteri (Boruktuari), Westphali (Westphalians), Ostphali, Franks, Thuringians, Wangrii and others. The more numerous among them were the Saxons, thereby the Anglo-Saxon group is often called only by their own ethnic name (Saxons, named by their fierce Germanic war knife, the ‘Sax’).
A representation of Arthur and his Late Roman/Romano-British heavy cavalry (“Knights”) by the British Historical Association Comitatus.. Note the ‘Draconarius’ standart-bearer, bearing the Sarmatian standart of the Dragon.
However, the nation formed by this Anglo-Saxon base, the modern English, took this name (English) because the most powerful Anglo-Saxon rulers belonged to the tribe of the Engles, according to a theory of some English historians. I believe that this is not right. In my opinion, the English were named thus during the 12th-14th cents, because of the Norman presence (after the Norman conquest of England in 1066). As the two peoples of England (Norman overlords and Saxon subjects) were merging during these centuries, the new nation created by that merger needed a new national name. Thus gradually they adopted the name of the second more numerous tribe of the Anglo-Saxon group, the Engles, calling themselves “Engles/English”. The name “Saxons” was almost forgotten after a few centuries, as it happened with the name of the Normans. Moreover the Normans, Bretons and French (Andegavians and others) who settled in England in 1066-1120 AD, were only about 20,000-30,000 according to a modern estimate. The Saxons and Anglo-Danes numbered then about 1,500,000.
Returning to the post-Roman age and according to the British sources, Vortigern hired as mercenaries the Saxon warlord brothers Horsa (the “Horse” in Old-Germanic) and Hengist (the “Stallion”) and their warriors. This Saxon group arrived in three boats and settled in the land of the Celtic Cantii, modern Kent (ca. 442-449 AD). According to the most likely scenario, Vortigern was unable to pay the salaries of the Saxons, probably due to a plague epidemic which decimated the British population. The dissatisfied Saxons rebelled against their employer. Using Kent as their base, they unleashed raids against the Celts and Romano-British, while at they same time they sent for their compatriots in their Germanic homeland, who came en mass landing in the southeastern British coast. In 455, the Anglo-Saxons achieved an overwhelming victory over the Celts in Crecanford, which ensured their presence in the island. The British retreated to Lundun (Roman Londinium, modern London) which finally fell to the invaders. Within a few decades, the barbarians conquered the southeastern part of Britain.
Around 477, the Saxon warlord Aelle with his hardened warriors landed in Britain, establishing a powerful hegemony in modern Sussex (Su-Sax, meaning the ‘South Saxons’). Aelle was proved to be a major commander and ruler. In 500 AD he was proclaimed “Bretwalda” (“ruler of Britain”) by the Anglo-Saxons living in the island. In fact, the Bretwalda was the Supreme Commander of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, a term respective to the Romano-British Supreme Ruler/Commander. Aelle was the strongest opponent of his contemporary Supreme Ruler of the British, the legendary Arthur.
King Arthur as depicted in a French Late Medieval manuscript.
The British had gone on the offensive against the invaders led by a succession of Supreme rulers as Voteporix, Ambrosius Aurelianus and the enigmatic Arthur, who repelled effectively the invaders. Arthur was probably a historical person, possibly a descendant of Artorius Castus, a Roman commander in Britain (the name “Arthur” seems to be a Celtic version of the Roman “Artorius”), and prince of the Dumnonii of southwestern Britain. It is believed that his royal residence was there, probably in the royal fortress excavated at Cadbury. From there he was taking military and political action in all the British territories as far as the Antonine Wall in the North. The philological and archaeological data indicate that he managed to repel the Anglo-Saxon advance. According to the chroniclers, he defeated the Saxons in twelve major battles, killing many of them. Arthur repelled also the Pict and Irish raiders. He achieved his greatest victory in the Badonicus hill fort (Mount Badon, around 516 AD) on the Anglo-Saxons. After this victory, Arthur’s ruling influence was extended to some of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, as well as to the Bretons of Armorica (in modern Northwestern France). The latter were descended from British refugees who had fled to that Gallic peninsula, where they joined their kindred Armorican Celts and some Sarmatian Alans (but the modern Bretonic language has Brythonic/British origins, not Gallic). Archaeology confirms the British victories against the Anglo-Saxons around 500 AD. In the first half of the 6th century, the Saxon advance stopped, the burials of the barbarian warriors rose sharply, while large groups of Anglo-Saxons returned to Germany, apparently frustrated by the Celtic victories. The superiority of the British army against the invaders relied to its armored cavalry. On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons were almost entirely infantrymen.
The modern researchers and historians who question the historicity of Arthur, rely mainly in the fact that he is not mentioned in the main source of the 6th century, the chronicle of the British cleric Gildas “The Ruin and Conquest of Britain” which describes the Anglo-Saxon invasion. In their point of view, Arthur is not mentioned in any other contemporary source. Gildas’ “silence” about Arthur has been attributed by other scholars, understandably, to the cleric’s dislike for the British warlord because as we are informed by another source, Arthur was using the revenues of the British Church to finance his wars. But these revenues were not distracted by consent of the Church. Moreover, Arthur most probably was not a Christian.
Emblems of shields of some units of the Later Roman army, from the famous manuscript Notitia Dignitatum.
However, it is not certain that the chronicles of the 6th cent. do not mention Arthur. Geoffrey Ashe, one of the most specialized scholars on the “enigma” of Arthur, found very important evidence in the chronicle of the sixth century “The History of the Goths”. In 467, Anthemius was proclaimed emperor of the Western Roman Empire and sought to recover the lands conquered by the barbarians, starting from Gaul. He requested the military aid of a British king, called Riothamus. Riothamus accepted, perhaps anticipating an opportunity to expand his influence in Gaul and use its forces to expel the Saxons from Britain. Furthermore, Armorica (Brittany) was already inhabited by British refugees. In 469 Riothamus landed in northern Gaul, leading 12,000 men. In fact, his warriors would be much less, probably 1,200. The British king fought several battles against the Visigoths and having been betrayed by the local Roman governor, he entered the safe territory of his Burgundian allies (about 470 AD). The chronicle mentions nothing else about Riothamus.
Riothamus’ campaign has much in common with the reference of Geoffrey of Monmouth on an expedition of Arthur in Gaul. Geoffrey in his narrative, quotes Leo as emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, who is probably Leo I (457-474), and he also mentions a Pope named Sulpicius, who has been identified with the Pope Simplicius (468-483) because Geoffrey used to change slightly the names of historical figures. He does not mention the emperor of the Western Empire, but he quotes that Arthur confronted the Roman ruler Lucius. Some researchers have identified the last with Lucerius, a usurper emperor who occupied the throne of Ravenna (the Western Roman capital) for some time in 469-470. Dating from the three aforementioned historical figures, indicates that Arthur’s campaign in Gaul according to Geoffrey, took place at exactly the same time with the campaign of the British king Riothamus in the same country.
Although there is no evidence that Riothamus lived in the royal fort of Cadbury (Arthur’s hypothetical residence), the date of his campaign coincides with the time of refortification of the fortress according to the dating of the archaeologists. Riothamus was taking action at that time, and he was the only one who could undertake the refortification of Cadbury. One reason why many scholars refuse the identification of Riothamus and Arthur, is the difference of their names. The French scholar Fleuriot proposed a theory that gives an explanation for the different names of possibly the same historical figure. According to Fleuriot, “Riothamus” is not a name but an official title, because it is analyzed as “Rigo-tamos” in Latin and possibly in Brythonic Celtic. The prefix “Rigo-” is the Latin word for the king (“Rex”) while the suffix “-tamos” is a superlative. Therefore, “Rigotamos-Riothamus” actually means the “Supreme King” or more correctly the “Supreme Ruler”, which is exactly the aforementioned title of the military and political leader of the Britons, the title given by Nennius and other medieval sources to Arthur and other British dukes.
Although these evidences seem to agree, there is also the problem of the chronology of Arthur’s battles. The chronicle of “The Annals of Wales” (Annales Cambriae) quote some of the battles that he fought, providing data for dating them. Some scholars believe that they have identified two of Arthur’s battles near Deva of the Cornovii (in Central Britain/Eastern Wales, one of the four branches of the great Cornovii tribe) and in the Scottish Lowlands, with known conflicts that took place in the middle of the 5th century. But the same source dates Arthur’s victory at Badonicus in the year 519, and the battle of Camlann where Arthur was killed in 537 or more probably in 539. There is a “time gap” of almost 90 years between the aforementioned battles of the mid-5th century and 519-539, and a time gap of 70 years between the campaign of Riothamus-Arthur in Gaul and the battle of Camlann, a chronological situation most incompatible. Some scholars in order to overcome that problem, proposed a new theory: the existence of two or more British Supreme rulers or other rulers bearing the name “Arthur”, who were possibly close relatives (father and son or nephew etc.). Over the centuries, the British Celtic tradition probably attributed their deeds in only one semi-legendary figure named “Arthur” after all of them. There is also a theory, supported by strong evedence, that Riothamus is identified with Ambrosius Aurelianus, Supreme ruler (Duke) of Britain before Arthur and perhaps his father according to another theory.
A Late Roman helmet of the Late Gallo-Roman type, from excavations, used also by the Romano-British and British.
The permanent Celtic weaknesses of dissent and indiscipline strengthened the Anglo-Saxons. The Germanic invaders used to be also indisciplinable and with a tendency to dissent, but not as much as the British and Romano-British rulers. The sources indicate that many British warlords envying Arthur’s power, were unruly to his commands and they often rebelled and fought against him or against each other. Arthur, most likely betrayed by many British rulers, confronted the Saxon invaders or/and some rebellious relative of him in a battle, in which he was killed (probably the battle of Camlann, 537 or 539 AD). Soon the Celts faced a new calamity. A new plague that had occurred in the Mediterranean (about 542), reached Britain through maritime trade. The British had many more victims than the Anglo-Saxons, because they maintained commercial relations with the Mediterranean countries. On the other hand, they had very few or no contacts with the Germanic invaders who thus were not exposed seriously to infection. Arthur’s death and the plague probably caused the collapse of the British Celtic resistance. In 660 AD, a century later, the advancing Anglo-Saxons had conquered almost the entire territory of modern England.
(1) Nennius: “HISTORIA BRITONNUM”.
(2) Gildas: “THE RUIN OF BRITAIN” AND OTHER WORKS, Translated by M. Winterbottom, London, 1978
(3) “THE ANNALS OF WALES” (B), translated by John Spear.
(4) Ashe Geoffrey: THE DISCOVERY OF KING ARTHUR, Guild Publishing, London, 1995.