Leader of Battles (V): Medraut by David Pilling

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Real Arthurs

While researching the Leader of Battles series, one thing swiftly became clear: there is very little evidence for a historical 'Arthur'. Unlike Robin Hood, the other big hitter of medieval English/British legend, there is a surprising lack of historical candidates for the real man behind the story. This post will take a look at the tiny handful of credible contenders.

1) Riothamus. Proposed as a viable Arthur by the historian Geoffrey Ashe, Riothamus is still a tantalising mystery. He is described as a 'King of the Brittones', though it is unclear whether this means the Britons of Britain or Britons who had emigrated to Amorica (now Western Brittany). In the year 470 he came to Gaul via the sea (presumably via the Channel) with an army of twelve thousand men to help the Western Emperor, Anthemius, fight the invading Visigoths. Sadly, thanks to the machinations of Arvandus, Prefect of Gaul, the Romans failed to support Riothamus in battle and his army was slaughtered. He is last mentioned fleeing in the direction of a town named Avallon in the land of the Burgundians: famously, the wounded Arthur was supposed to have been carried to Avalon after his last battle. 


The defeat of Riothamus
His name is a problem, but could possibly have been a title, meaning 'High King' or 'Supreme Ruler'. However, Riothamus/Rigotomos was also a personal name, which doesn't help much. Overall, Riothamus remains perhaps the most intriguing of the known historical Arthurs.

2) Lucius Artorius Castus. On the face of it, this man doesn't look much like Arthur at all, despite his middle name. A second century Roman officer, Lucius was a career soldier who served all over the Roman Empire, including a few months (the exact term is uncertain) on one of the forts on Hadrian's Wall in Britain. Also stationed on the Wall were units of armed cavalry called Sarmatians, originally drawn from conquered Roman territory in Scythia and Rus, now parts of modern-day Russia.

The theory goes that Lucius was a cavalry officer in charge of the Sarmatians for a time, and that he led them in a series of smashing victories over invading Picts and other enemies. This left a lingering folk memory in the north of the country, which eventually became the legend of King Arthur and his knights. It's all highly speculative, but at least one big cheese Hollywood producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, found it persuasive enough for a film. 'King Arthur', released in 2004 and starring Clive Owen, Ray Winstone and Keira Knightley, was based on a somewhat garbled version of Lucius' career. The film was not a success, critically or financially, and Lucius has faded from view since.


The Once and Future King of legend
3) Artúir mac Aedan. Another slightly left-field choice, this man was a prince of Dál Riata, a British or Scotti kingdom in western Scotland, in the late sixth century. His father, Aedan, was King of Dál Riata, and it was prophesied (accurately) that none of his sons would live to succeed him as king. Aedan spent his reign fighting the Picts and Saxons that bordered his territory, and in one of the many battles his son Artúir was killed, probably when he was in his mid-30s: dates for his death range from c. 582 to 596.

David F. Caroll and Michael Wood, among others, argue that Artúir was known as a great warrior during his brief life, and active in the region north of the Wall known as Y Gododdin. The earliest poem to mention Arthur is found in a collection of poetry from this region, so it could be that Artúir was the original inspiration for the warrior, since changed out of all recognition. However, like Riothamus and Lucius Artorius Castus, the connections between Artúir and the legendary king are tenuous at best. The most that can be said is that he did at least bear the right name, and probably fought in an area of the country where 'Arthur' was remembered in poem and song.


4) Ambrosius Aurelianus. Ambrosius, whom I have talked about in recent posts and made the star of the first book of the Leader of Battles series, was a Romano-British hero of the mid-5th century. Gildas, pretty much our only native source for the period, describes him as 'a modest man' and 'the last of the Romans' who by chance happened to be left alive after the Saxons had gutted the country.



Clive Owen as 'King Arthur'
 
In spite of his modesty, Ambrosius managed to rally British resistance and led a campaign of fluctuating fortunes against the Saxon threat. The war ended with the siege of Mount Badon, where the Britons won a victory that led to peace in the land for an entire generation. Annoyingly, Gildas does not name Ambrosius as the leader of the British forces at Badon, though later tradition names the victorious general as Arthur. The fate of Ambrosius is unknown, though there are later stories of him being poisoned by jealous rivals.

And that's about it! There are various other princes and kings named Arthur (or variants) in the records, but details are sparse to non-existent, and the nature of the records themselves provoke endless debate among academics and enthusiasts. Whether the real Arthur will ever step out of the shadows of Dark Age history seems unlikely, but the continued mystery does at least provide writers like myself with an enduring source for fiction.






2 comments:

  1. I wouldn't presume to pick one, but Ashe has done some serious studying so I might lean his way.

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  2. fascinating post on the man behind the myth.

    ReplyDelete