« Previous | Main | Next »

King Arthur, a Welsh hero?

Post categories:

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 09:48 UK time, Friday, 16 September 2011

The King Arthur that we know so well from books and films first became a "national hero" in Britain in the years between 1150 and 1200. It was a time of huge military and economic expansion, Henry II bringing all of Britain and Ireland, as well as much of modern-day France, into his Empire.

Actor as King Arthur

It was also a time when the Plantagenet dynasty, descendants of William the Conqueror - a man who was never accepted by the Church of Rome as the true ruler of Britain - were attempting to justify their claim to the throne of England by linking themselves to the rightful rulers of the country. In other words the descendants of Arthur - whoever he might have been.

Thanks in no small degree to the influence of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and other courtly ladies, the ballad singers and story tellers of the time quickly turned Arthur and his realm of Camelot into one of noble knights and stirring deeds of gallantry and chivalry. But that, of course, bore no resemblance to the real man. So who was King Arthur? And did he ever really exist?

He certainly existed, but the hero we have today is probably an amalgam of two different leaders. Both of them came from the post-Roman period when, with no clear leadership, the Romano-Celtic peoples of Britain found themselves under direct attack from the barbarian tribes of northern Europe. It was a time for heroes to emerge.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, the last of the great Roman Cavalry leaders, was one original. The other was his successor as the Dux Britannia (Duke of Britain) and the man who by his victory at Badon Hill finally threw back the Saxon hordes for some years, a warrior by the name of Artorius. The deeds of these two men have, over the years, become linked and subsumed to the name of Arthur.

These days many parts of Britain claim links with Arthur but, probably, he held sway in the north of Britain where the men of the Gododdin were the main tribe. Strong links between the Gododdin and Wales certainly existed, not least because the language spoken in both kingdoms was the same, a strand of common Celtic called Brythonic. The bard Aneirin wrote his verse saga "The Gododdin" about a tragic military campaign in approximately 600AD, a campaign involving men from both Wales and the north country. It is the oldest surviving major work of literature in what was to become the Welsh language.

Arthur, of course, appears in several of the stories of "The Mabinogi", the great series of folk tales about the Celtic peoples, and in these there is talk of his court at Caerleon. It has been enough for some people to declare Caerleon to be the site of Camelot. However, more distinct references to the man appear in a life of St Cadog, written by by a monk from Llancarfan in the 11th century.

In this book, the story is told of a local king called Gwynllyw, from the western part of Gwent, who abducted and eloped with Gwladus, the daughter of the king of Brycheiniog. Gwynllyw was pursued all the way back to Gwent and was only saved by the intervention of Arthur and his two friends Cei and Bedwyr - plus about 200 warriors - who happened to be resting (and playing dice) at a hill called Boch Rhiw Carn on the edge of Gwynllyw's kingdom. So much for the story.

But what would Arthur and his companions have been doing in what is now the Gelli Gaer area of Wales? In the period 400 to 500 AD the region was famous for its iron workings and it could well have been the case that they had come to equip themselves with good quality swords and other weapons.

The act of drawing his sword from stone is, according to the legend, what made Arthur the king when dozens of other knights failed in the attempt. But that act, the process of drawing a sword from stone, can also be seen as a metaphor for metallugy, literally the drawing out of iron from ore or stone. And if that is the case, where better to do it than in an area renowned for its iron smelting. It remains a matter of conjecture.

Certainly the wise man and religious sage Dubricius - the very man who was said to have later crowned Arthur as king of all the Britons - lived in the area. It is not too hard to see a connection between Dubricius and the legendary Merlin but, of course, the stories have been so altered and adapted over the years that it is now impossible to seperate truth from fantasy.

Wales continues to claim Arthur as her own. As the Saxons slowly but surely began to push back the Celtic peoples until, finally, they were left with just the land we now know as Wales, so the legends and the stories grew and developed. Now, wherever you look - Snowdon, Carmarthen, Gelli Gaer, Caerleon - Arthurian connections flourish and thrive.

Nobody will ever know the real truth. And perhaps that is just as well. All cultures need their legends and in King Arthur, Wales has one in which we can all be proud.


  • Comment number 1.

    Something I should have put into the original posting but, somehow, overlooked. Arhtur's sword, in all of the earliest tales, was not called Excalibur. That was, largely, a French invention and came from the Middle Ages, the time of Arthur the warrior as portrayed in "Camelot" etc. The original name for his sword was Caliburn and, according to some early stories, flames leapt out whenever he drew the weapon.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think, if I remember rightly, The Mabinogion says something like "flames of fire as from the mouths of serpents might be seen" whenever Arthur drew his sword. I don't have a copy of the book in front of me but I think it was something like that. I wonder why they changed the name from Caliburn to Excalibur? There doesn't seem to be any reason for it.

  • Comment number 3.

    Regarding "Caliburn" and "Excalibur": wouldn't some of the original French documents have been in Latin - in which the prefix "Ex-" means "out of"? So may it be that at one time "Excalibur" was a name for the flames themselves, since they came "Out of Calibur"? Flame has always been such a symbol of power, after all.

  • Comment number 4.

    Actually the original word for Excalibur is appropriately enough, for a Welsh hero, in Welsh, and is 'Caledfwlch'.

    According to Wikipedia, Caledfwlch "...combines the elements caled ("battle, hard"), and bwlch ("breach, gap, notch")."

    From Caledfwlch it's a short step to 'Caliburn'.


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.