KING ARTHUR (PART IIΙ): Some literary, archaeological and historical evidence


A replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet which was discovered in an Anglo-Saxon burial. At first, the Anglo-Saxons met large difficulties after their landing on the British shores and some of them had to return to their ancestral home in modern Germany. But after the alleged death of Arthur or the possibly historical military commander of the Britons that he represents (or the fall of the dynasty that he represents), they finally gained military superiority over the latter, conquering the lands that later became England.

Late Roman helmet2
A Late Roman helmet rather of Persian distant origin, used also by the Briton inheritors of the Roman military tradition.

By Periklis Deligiannis
If Arthur was an historical personality, he probably had his headquarters in contemporary Southwestern England, the land of the Dumnonii and their sub-tribes, where Tintagel and Cadbury are located. It is likely that he was a Dumnonian. However, many researchers believe that he came from other British regions, with the stronger versions being the ones of Wales and modern Northern England or Lowland Scotland (theory of a ‘Northern Arthur’). Concerning the opinions on the origin and the seat of Arthur (which are not as strongly supported by the existing data as that of Dumnonia), I will mention only the following: the legends on Arthur often connect him with Brittany (West Armorica) and the rest of Northern Gaul, while it should also be observed that the main directions of the Anglo-Saxon advance followed the British south coast and the Thames Valley. If Arthur resided in Wales or Northern Britain, it would be difficult for him to have frequent contacts with Gaul or restrain the “spearhead” of the Saxon invasion.
According to Geoffrey, when Arthur campaigned in Gaul, he left Mordred, his nephew, as protector of his throne. Mordred usurped his power together with his queen, Guinevere. Arthur faced the usurper and his forces on the banks of the River Camel. In the bloody battle, all the knights were killed except three. Arthur and Mordred were among the survivors, then clashing themselves in a duel. Arthur surprised Mordred and wounded him mortally. Before he drop dead, he managed to strike Arthur with a crushing blow on his face. After the battle, nine hooded women carried Arthur on a boat to the island of Avalon (Insula Avallonis), where he died. According to the Welsh legend, the king survived and still lives sleeping in a cave near Avalon, waiting for the right moment to return to his people and to evict the barbarians from Britain. Geoffrey seems to adopt the Welsh legend, because he does not mention that Arthur died. However it is recognized that if Arthur was buried somewhere, his grave was in the mythical island of Avalon, of unknown location.



KING ARTHUR (PART IΙ): Some literary, archaeological and historical evidence


Spangenhelm Hofbourg Museum
The spangenhelm, of Sarmatian origin, became popular in both Romans and barbarians because of its cheap cost of construction and the effective protection that offered. Its construction was simple, made of metal fragments which were bound tightly together. Especially towards the end of the Western Empire and after that, the spangenhelm variety of helmets became rather the most popular group. This group was also used by some Romano-Britons and their Anglo-Saxon enemies.


A Romano-Briton of the 5th cent. AD with his hound, possibly watching the Anglo-Saxon enemy. He is holding the standard of the Dragon, of Sarmatian origin, and wears a Late Roman helmet of Persian design. The strong Iranian influences on the Late Roman army survived for a long time among the Briton fighting men (reenactment by Britannia)
By Periklis Deligiannis
According to legend, when King Arthur needed a new sword, the Lady of the Lake emerged from the water and handed him the sword Excalibur. The sword’s name probably derives from the Roman ‘Caliburnus’ meaning ‘steel’ and indicates the material of the blade. Excalibur’s episode is likely rooted in the known Celtic ritual of dropping the swords of mighty warriors who died, in lakes or rivers to symbolize their passage to the netherworld. Archaeologists have found countless ancient swords at the bottom of lakes and rivers of Britain and other Celtic lands. However, the Sarmatians had also similar traditions. The Sarmatians and the Iranian nomads generally attributed (as the Celts did) “magical properties” in their swords surrounding them with respect, a custom which survived in the tradition of Medieval European Chivalry. Here, the Celtic tradition correlates with the Sarmatian tradition.
Chretien de Troyes quotes that Arthur lived in the strong fortress of Camelot, from where he controlled his territory living a rather luxurious life. Some scholars believe that Camelot was the Roman Camulodunum (modern Colchester) because this toponym is analyzed as ‘Camelot-dun’. The Celtic word dun means the fortress, e.g. Lund-dun i.e. modern London, Lug-dun modern Lyon (Roman Lugdunum) etc. However, perhaps there were some other Briton towns also named Camelot/Camulon (Camulum). The hypothetical Camelot of the 5th-6th centuries would have been a wooden fort on a hilltop, according to the British Celtic stereotype. In 1542, John Lelant, a researcher and collector of archaeological finds, observed in modern Somerset, the existence of the River Cam and two villages known as West Camel and Queen Camel. The three toponyms are originated from the same verbal root ‘Cam’ as “Camelot.” In a distance of 7 km from the Camel villages, Lelant observed the Cadbury hill. In the 16th century, the hill was found surrounded by four rows of defensive ramparts and moats. These were the fortifications of a fortress of impressive size. Lelant thought that he spotted the legendary Camelot at Cadbury hill, but he had no archaeological evidence to prove it. In the 1950s, British archaeologists began excavations at Cadbury hill and confirmed the existence of a large fortress of the Dark Ages. At its southwestern part, they discovered the foundations of the main gate and confirmed the existence of a wooden wall with a very long perimeter. The inner rampart was made of wood and stones, a style unique to Britain, found only in Cadbury. The fortress was dated to the 4th-5th centuries, from the utensils and other items found inside. This is probably the biggest British fort of this age, with a probable area of 7-8,000 square meters. Although only a part of its area is excavated, it is obvious that it was the seat of a powerful commander of the 4th-5th centuries.


KING ARTHUR (Part I): Some literary, archaeological and historical evidence


By Periklis Deligiannis

A Late Roman helmet rather of Persian distant origin (design), decorated with semi-gemstones. The Romano-Britons inherited this type together with the rest of the Roman weaponry and military organization.

In the 5th-6th centuries AD, the Anglo-Saxons brought to Britain many elements of the eastern Scandinavian Proto-Vendel and Vendel cultures, several of which are obvious on their arms and armor, i.e. on their helmets (Sutton Hoo burial, etc.), daggers, swords etc (reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon warlord wearing a Sutton Hoo-type helmet, by the Historical Association Wulfheodenas ).
In 407 AD the Romans withdrew their last regular troops from the British provinces. The independent Romano-Britons had to fight hard against the Pict, Irish and Anglo-Saxon barbarians who were besieging their territory. Former Roman Britain was gradually divided into autonomous ‘principalities’ led by warlords. However they tried to keep united their “British kingdom” as they considered their common territory, and mainly to repel the invading Anglo-Saxons who had conquered the Southeast, advancing headlong. It seems that the Britons in order to maintain their unity, elected a military commander (Dux) as a senior politico-military leader, who led the operations against the invaders and took care on preventing infighting. A sequence of inspired Dukes (Voteporix, Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus) led the British resistance. Those who accept Arthur’s historicity usually consider him as one of these Dukes (a theory consider him Aurelianus’ son).
The Briton literary tradition and the archaeological evidence, mainly the Saxon burials, denote that the Anglo-Saxon invasion was halted on the verge of the 5th-6th centuries AD. Many scholars believe that the military action of the legendary king Arthur was the main ‘factor’ for the repulse of the newcomers. However, his historicity is strongly and justifiably disputed. In this series of articles I will deal with some additional literary, archaeological and historical evidence concerning his historicity.

The literary sources on Arthur

The first literary reference to Arthur appears in the Northern Briton epic “Y Goddodin” (“the Votadini” around AD 600) which recounts an attempt of the Votadini people (Celtic Goddodin) of the modern Scottish Lowlands and their allies, to check the advance of the Angles. Some scholars believe that the mention of Arthur in this epic was added later. The first ‘secure’ reference to the legendary commander comes from Nennius in his “History of the Britons” (“Historia Britonnum”, end of 8th century). Nennius’ work was based mostly on the local Briton tradition. Nennius describes the legendary figure as a warlord who repelled the barbarians around the 5th-6th centuries. This was followed shortly after by another reference of Arthur in the “Annales Cambriae” (9th c.). But the author, who developed most of all Arthur’s renowned image as a just and powerful warrior-king, was the Archdeacon of Oxford Geoffrey of Monmouth in his largely mythical “History of the Kings of Britain” (“Historia Regum Britanniae”, AD 1133). Geoffrey relied heavily on the two aforementioned works, and possibly on the local oral tradition. In France, the late medieval chronicler Chretien de Troyes holds an analogous contribution to the Arthurian legend. The later writers of the Arthurian epic circle are based on the works of the last two authors (mostly on Geoffrey’s work and less on Chretien’s) going on to the enrichment of the epic with elements belonging mainly to the Late Middle Ages, such as the Round Table, the quest for the Holy Grail, etc.




Sarmatian sword ring pommelssssss

Σαρματικό  ξίφος  με  τη  χαρακτηριστική  δακτυλιοειδή  απόληξη  λαβής.  Από  τη δακτυλιοειδή  απόληξη  μάλλον  διερχόταν  ένας  δερμάτινος  ιμάντας  ο  οποίος  δενόταν  στο  χέρι του  πολεμιστή  και  απέτρεπε  την  πτώση  του  ξίφους  κατά  τη  σύρραξη. 

Δεξιά: ένα spangenhelm, τύπος  κράνους  αγαπητός  στους  Σαρμάτες  αλλά  και  στους Υστερους  Ρωμαίους, καθώς  και  σε  άλλους  λαούς  της  εποχής (Γότθους, Ούννους κτλ)


Σύμφωνα  με  μερικούς  μελετητές,  η  γένεση  του  Αρθούριου  θρύλου  οφείλεται  στους  Σαρμάτες  μισθοφόρους.  Οι  πολεμιστές  του  Αρθούρου  περιγράφονται  ως  «ιππότες».  Τέτοιοι  ήταν  οι  σιδηρόφρακτοι  Σαρμάτες  ιππείς,  οι  «θεμελιωτές»  της  ευρωπαϊκής  Ιπποσύνης,  σύμφωνα  με  την  επικρατέστερη  άποψη.  Το  βαρύ  σαρματικό  ιππικό  περιελάμβανε  κατάφρακτους  ιππείς,  προστατευμένους,  όπως  και  τα  άλογα  τους,  με  σχεδόν  ολόσωμη  μεταλλική  θωράκιση  (συνήθως  φολιδωτή).  Επίσης  πολεμούσαν  με  βασικό  επιθετικό  όπλο  τη  μακριά  λόγχη,  όπως  οι  μεταγενέστεροι  ιππότες.  Η  γνωστή  μορφή  του  Ευρωπαίου  ιππότη  του  Ύστερου  Μεσαίωνα  δημιουργήθηκε  όταν  οι  Ανατολικοί  Γερμανοί  (Γότθοι,  Βουργουνδοί  και  Βάνδαλοι),  οι  Σουήβοι  Γερμανοί  (Μαρκομάννοι,  Λογγοβάρδοι  και  Κουάδοι)  και  οι  Ρωμαίοι,  υιοθέτησαν  συνολικά  τον  σαρματικό  ιππικό  εξοπλισμό.  Η  εξολόθρευση  του  ρωμαϊκού  στρατού  από  το  γοτθο-σαρματικό  ιππικό  στην  Αδριανούπολη  το  378  μ.Χ.,  εδραίωσε  την  κυριαρχία  του  θωρακισμένου  ιππέα  κατά  τον  Μεσαίωνα.  Οι  Νορμανδοί  της  βόρειας  Γαλλίας, μέρος  της  αριστοκρατίας  των  οποίων  είχε  επίσης  αλανική (σαρματική) καταγωγή,  ήταν  αυτοί  που  διαμόρφωσαν  την  τελική  μορφή  της  Ιπποσύνης.  Στη  Βρετανία,  οι  «ιππότες»  του  Αρθούρου  αποτελούνταν  πιθανώς  από  εκ-κελτισμένους  απόγονους  των  Σαρματών  μισθοφόρων  και  από  Κέλτες  ιππείς  οι  οποίοι  πολεμούσαν  με  τον  σαρματικό  τρόπο.  Οι  Ιάζυγες  του  Βρεμετέννακου  αναφέρονται  και  στις  αρχές  του  5ου  αι.  ως  «το  στράτευμα  των  Σαρματών  βετεράνων».  Πιθανώς  επιβίωσαν  έως  τότε  ως  εθνική  οντότητα,  έχοντας  εγκαταλείψει  την  ιρανική  γλώσσα  τους  υπέρ  της  λατινικής  όπως  και  όλοι  οι  Σαρμάτες  της  Βρετανίας  και  της  Ρωμαϊκής  Ευρώπης.  Επίσης,  θεωρείται  βέβαιο  ότι  στη  Βρετανία  εγκαταστάθηκαν  ως  μισθοφόροι  πολλοί  Αλανοί,  οι  οποίοι  αποτελούσαν  την  ισχυρότερη  σαρματική  φυλή.  Οι  ειδικοί  στην  ονοματολογία  έχουν  υποθέσει  ότι  το  σύγχρονο  βρετανικό  ανθρωπωνύμιο  Άλαν  (Alan)  καθώς  και  το  γαλλικό  ή  γενικά  νεολατινικό  Αλαίν  (Alain,  Alen)  προέρχεται  από  τους  Αλανούς.  Όταν  τα  μέλη  αυτού  του  λαού  εγκαταστάθηκαν  μαζικά  στη  δυτική  Ευρώπη  και  αφομοιώθηκαν  από  τους  εντόπιους,  μετέτρεψαν  το  εθνωνύμιο  τους  σε  ανθρωπωνύμιο:  Alanus  στη  λατινική  γλώσσα.  Συμπαγείς  ομάδες  Αλανών  εγκαταστάθηκαν  ως  τοπικές  αριστοκρατίες  στη  βορειοανατολική  Ισπανία,  στη  βόρεια  Αφρική,  στη  βόρεια  Γαλλία  (περιοχή  Αλεν-σόν,  Alencon),  κ.ά.

Οι  Νορμανδοί  υιοθέτησαν  πλήρως,  κατά  τον  10ο  αιώνα,  την  πολεμική  τέχνη  του  σιδηρόφρακτου  ιππότη  από  τους  τοπικούς  ιππείς  της  βόρειας  Γαλλίας.  Οι  τελευταίοι  την  είχαν  παραλάβει  από  τους  Αλανούς  νομάδες  που  είχαν  εγκατασταθεί  αιώνες  πριν  στην  περιοχή  και  ήταν  εν  μέρει  πρόγονοι  τους.    Η  μάχη  του  Χέιστινγκς  (1066),  η  οποία  εξασφάλισε  τη  νορμανδική  κατάκτηση  της  Αγγλίας,  κρίθηκε  από  την  πανάρχαια  νομαδική  τακτική  της  προσποιητής  υποχώρησης,  εκτελεσμένη  από  την  αριστερή  πτέρυγα  του  νορμανδικού  ιππικού.  Η  τελευταία  στελεχωνόταν  από  Βρετόνους  Κέλτες,  οι  οποίοι  είχαν  μερικώς  αλανική  καταγωγή.  Διοικητής  του  αριστερού  κέρατος  ήταν  ο  κόμης  της  Βρετάνης,  ο  Ερυθρός  Αλανός  (Alan  the  Red,  «κοκκινομάλλης»),  όνομα  χαρακτηριστικό  της  προέλευσης  του.  Σχετικά  με  τον  αναφερόμενο  κόμη,  πρέπει  να  παρατηρηθεί  ότι  οι  κινεζικές  και  οι  ευρωπαϊκές  πηγές  περιγράφουν  τους  Αλανούς  της  κεντροασιατικής  κοιτίδας  τους,  ως  έχοντες  σε  μεγάλο  ποσοστό  ξανθά  ή  κόκκινα  μαλλιά.  Ωστόσο  και  οι  Κέλτες  έχουν  συχνά  κόκκινα  μαλλιά  και  για  την  ακρίβεια  έχουν  το  μεγαλύτερο  ποσοστό  κοκκινομάλληδων  στην  Ευρώπη.



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Αναπαράσταση  ύστερων  Σαξόνων  μαχίμων.


            Οι  Ρωμαίοι  κατέκτησαν  τις  σύγχρονες  Αγγλία  και  Ουαλλία  κατά  τον  1ο  αι.  μ.Χ.  Οι  φυλές  της  Καληδονίας  (Καληδόνιοι,  Κορνάβιοι,  Ουενίκονες  κ.ά.),  η  οποία  αντιστοιχεί  στη  σύγχρονη  Ορεινή  Σκωτία  (Scottish  Highlands),  παρέμειναν  ανεξάρτητες.  Έως  τον  4ο  αι.  οι  λαοί  της  είχαν  ενσωματωθεί  στη  φυλετική  ένωση  των  Πίκτων  (Picti).  Η  ονομασία  τους  σήμαινε  τους  «βαμμένους»  στη  λατινική,  λόγω  της  κελτικής  συνήθειας  της  δερματοστιξίας  την  οποία  διατηρούσαν.  Οι  ίδιοι  αυτοαποκαλούνταν  «Κρούθνι»  (Cruthni).  Η  ρωμαϊκή  εξουσία  στη  Βρετανία  διατηρήθηκε  περισσότερο  από  τρεις  αιώνες,  ωστόσο  ο  εκλατινισμός  και  ο  εκχριστιανισμός  περιορίσθηκε  κυρίως  στις  πόλεις  και  σε  μερικές  νοτιοανατολικές  αγροτικές  περιοχές.  Η  πλειοψηφία  του  πληθυσμού  παρέμεινε  κελτική  στη  γλώσσα  και  τις  λατρείες.  Ειδικά  οι  αγροτικοί  πληθυσμοί  είχαν  επηρεασθεί  σημαντικά  από  τη  χριστιανική  αίρεση  του  Πελαγιανισμού.  Κατά  τα  τέλη  του  4ου  αι.,  η  αρχική  ρωμαϊκή  επαρχία  της  Βρετανίας  είχε  διασπασθεί  σε  τέσσερις  επαρχίες:  τη  «Μεγάλη  Καισαρησία»,  τη  «Φλαβία  Καισαρησία»,  τη  «Βρετανία  Α΄»  και  τη  «Βρετανία  Β΄».

Οι  φυλές  της  Καληδονίας  και  της  Ιρλανδίας  διενεργούσαν  επιδρομές  στα  ρωμαιο-βρετανικά  εδάφη  από  αιώνες.  Οι  Ιρλανδοί  κατέφθαναν  διασχίζοντας  την  Ιρλανδική  Θάλασσα  με  τα  ελαφρά  σκάφη  τους,  τα  κελτικά  «κουρράγκς».  Οι  Καληδόνιοι-Πίκτοι  επιτίθονταν  στους  Ρωμαιο-βρετανούς  από  τη  ξηρά  και  από  τη  θάλασσα  (με  τον  ίδιο  τύπο  πλοίων).  Ανάμεσα  στους  πρώτους  και  στους  δεύτερους  παρεμβαλλόταν  μια  «ουδέτερη  ζώνη»,  μεταξύ  των  τειχών  του  Αντωνίνου  και  του  Αδριανού,  η  οποία  αντιστοιχεί  σχεδόν  στη  σύγχρονη  Πεδινή  Σκωτία  (Scottish  Lowlands).  Το  σύνορο  της  με  τη  χώρα  των  Πίκτων  (Pictland)  ακολουθούσε  περίπου  τα  σύγχρονα  «ανεπίσημα»  όρια  μεταξύ  Ορεινής  και  Πεδινής  Σκωτίας.  Οι  φυλές  αυτής  της  ζώνης  (Δαμνόνιοι,  Σελγόβες  κ.ά.)  είχαν  περάσει  για  δύο  δεκαετίες  του  2ου  αι.  υπό  άμεσο  ρωμαϊκό  έλεγχο,  ο  οποίος  είχε  φθάσει  στο  τείχος  του  Αντωνίνου.  Όταν  επαναστάτησαν,  οι  Ρωμαίοι  εκκένωσαν  την  περιοχή  και  επανέφεραν  τη  γραμμή  άμυνας  τους  στο  τείχος  του  Αδριανού.  Τελικά  κατέστησαν  τις  φυλές  της  Πεδινής  Σκωτίας  «φοιδερατικές»  (υποτελείς  συμμαχικές),  χρησιμοποιώντας  τες  ως  πρόφραγμα  έναντι  των  Καληδονίων-Πίκτων.  Ωστόσο,  η  νομιμοφροσύνη  τους  ήταν  πάντοτε  αμφίβολη  ενώ  η  βαθμιαία  αποδυνάμωση  της  Αυτοκρατορίας,  τις  οδήγησε  στη  διενέργεια  επιδρομών  στο  ρωμαιο-βρετανικό  έδαφος.

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The title really should be ‘Arthur: King, Commander, both, or neither’, but it’s not quite as catchy.

Those not au fait with the Arthurian subject and the search for an historical 5th or 6th century figure will just assume Arthur was a king. The first you might have been aware of an alternative view would be the last King Arthur film, if you saw it.

The flip side of the coin is those who do study the subject and believe he wasn’t a king because the 9th century document, the Historia Brittonum (in all its various versions), doesn’t make it sound as if he was a monarch but only a “leader of battles”.  Some will also say that the early Welsh stories of Arthur never call him a king, but as we will see, they do far more than that.

For the sake of this discussion we will assume there was a late 5th century figure called Arthur who fought at the Siege of Badon.

The main problem, as I discussed in the Arthurian poetry blog, is knowing where the battle list in Historia Brittonum originated from. If it was from a poem, whether oral or written, it may not have been made explicit within it that Arthur was a king, whether he was or not. There are examples in later mediaeval Welsh poetry where the bard extolled the virtues of his king in verse but does not say he was a king, because he knows his audience is already aware of this fact. If we didn’t have the relevant genealogies we wouldn’t know they were kings either, and could come to the conclusion that they may just have been military leaders of some kind. The same could have happened to Arthur.


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