Historical King Arthur: A Silurian King?

Arthwys of the Silures emerges as a leading contender for the historical figure that later evolved into the legendary King Arthur. He is believed to have been the commander of the British forces that successfully halted the Anglo-Saxon advance around 500 AD, ushering in a period of peace that eventually deteriorated into the disorder lamented by Gildas around 545 AD. The name “Arthwys” appears to be linked to the British/Welsh word for “bear,” possibly signifying the Great Bear or a princely figure associated with bears, likely serving as a nickname. However, it remains uncertain whether this epithet referred to the figure associated with Dinarth in Gwynedd, or perhaps denoted a different individual known by an alternative patronymic, such as Ambrosius himself. Moreover, it raises questions about whether the various individuals named “Arthur” in records from the later sixth century, found in regions like Dyfed and Dalriada, were named after this original heroic figure.

The crux of the ongoing debate surrounding the “real King Arthur” lies in the successive reinterpretations of his character across different historical epochs, each layering upon the previous with myths and legends that may not accurately reflect the realities of a post-Roman warlord. Over time, Arthur has been portrayed through the lens of medieval kingship and chivalry, largely influenced by the anachronistic narrative crafted by twelfth-century author Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey depicted Arthur as a preeminent conqueror and “High King” of the British Isles, catering to the tastes of his Anglo-Norman audience. Subsequent embellishments, including romanticized portrayals by figures like the North French poet Chretien de Troyes, further distorted the historical figure, drawing parallels to contemporary personalities such as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Efforts to reconcile Arthur’s legend with historical realities gained momentum in the twentieth century, spurred by archaeological discoveries like Leslie Alcock’s findings of a fifth-century fortified military site at Cadbury Castle in Somerset, traditionally associated with Arthur. However, contemporary sources, including Gildas’ account of the conflicts between Britons and Saxons, notably omit any mention of Arthur. This absence raises doubts among skeptics regarding Arthur’s existence as a genuine historical figure.

Similarly, references in the mid-tenth-century Annales Cambriae (Dyfed) to Arthur’s victory at Mount Badon in 518 AD and his demise at the Battle of Camlann in 539 AD are viewed skeptically as later interpolations, added when Arthur’s legend was already well-established. These annals, which contain more Irish than Welsh details for the sixth century, are regarded as unreliable sources for secular sixth-century information, particularly regarding the kingdoms of Wales like Gwynedd.

In the original Welsh poems and traditions predating Geoffrey of Monmouth’s influential writings, Arthur is depicted as a figure with an all-Wales presence rather than being tied to a specific dynasty. Bishop Nennius’s list of Arthurian wonders, compiled around 830 AD, includes sites across North, South, and Mid Wales, suggesting a widespread cultural association with Arthur. Some references within these traditions seem to point to Arthwys of Dyfed, such as mentions of Arthur’s son Nowy, potentially representing the ruler of Dyfed in the early seventh century. Additionally, connections between Arthur and locations like Mount Snowdon, Ruthin, Lake Bala, Carn Cafal, Arthur’s Stone, and various sites across Wales further highlight his ubiquitous presence in Welsh folklore.

The tale of Culhwch and Olwen, likely from the eleventh or twelfth century, positions Arthur’s court at Caerleon, thereby making him a king of Gwent. This narrative also introduces a band of heroic companions, reminiscent of the later Knights of the Round Table, some of whom possess mythical abilities. Triads mention Arthur’s courts in obscure locations across North and South Wales, as well as the enigmatic “Cerniw,” possibly Cornwall or a region in northeastern Gwent. The Triads also refer to multiple Queen Guineveres/Gwenhwyfars, Arthur’s nephew Gawain (Gwalchmai), and potential prototypes for Lancelot, a character prominent in twelfth-century French romance.

Hagiographies of Welsh saints from the eleventh century depict Arthur as a contemporary of figures like St. Cadoc of Llancarfan, aiding Cadoc’s parents in fleeing from King Brychan of Brycheiniog. Other accounts suggest Arthur’s involvement in events at “Dindraithov” in north Devon and his connections to figures like St. Iltyd, portraying him as a cousin of the royal house of Morgannwg. However, the authenticity and interpretation of these literary materials have been subject to extensive scholarly debate.

One significant aspect of these traditions is the portrayal of Arthur as an “over-king” rather than a conventional dynastic ruler tied to a specific kingdom. This portrayal, coupled with the lack of a definitive home area for Arthur, has led some skeptics to view him as a mythical hero akin to a traveling “righter of wrongs,” embodying attributes of gods and legendary warriors.

The confusion surrounding Arthur’s parentage and lineage, including his alleged father Uther, as well as the absence of clear royal genealogy linking him to specific kingdoms, has fueled debates among historians. Nennius’s statement regarding Arthur’s leadership, despite the presence of kings deemed more noble than him, further complicates the understanding of Arthur’s status within Welsh tradition, leaving open questions about his royal legitimacy or lack thereof.

Accepting the revision of the Morgannwg king list to place Mouric, the father of the Silurian king ‘Arthur’ or Arthwys, around 500 AD poses challenges in dating Arthwys’ son and successor, Morgan. Morgan is documented as marrying the daughter of Urien/Urbgen of Rheged, who died around 589 AD, and participating in battles against Aethelfrith of Northumbria around 600 AD, following the battle of Catraeth. It is challenging, though not impossible, to reconcile these dates with Arthwys’ death around 540 AD. According to some accounts, Morgan was the son of Arthwys’ third marriage in his old age, succeeding as an infant. This theory suggests that Arthwys’ elder son, Nowy “Llacheu” (the Glittering One), the intended heir, died in battle during his father’s lifetime. Nowy is mentioned in the Llandaff Charters, where Arthwys grants land to Bishop Dyfrig/Dubricius. However, Wendy Davies disputes the accuracy of these charters, and Nowy is elsewhere named as the son of a later sixth-century Arthwys, ruler of Dyfed.

Another son of Arthur, ‘Amr, is said to have been buried in Herefordshire according to a legend recounted in the ninth-century Mirabilia by Nennius, who refers to Arthur as ‘amberawdr,’ meaning emperor. However, Nennius’s work is considered polemical rather than a straightforward historical account, and his Arthur is depicted with miraculous powers, possibly modeled after Joshua in the Old Testament. Therefore, Nennius’s historical accuracy is questionable.

The claim that Arthwys restored lands to Urien and his brothers Llew and Arawn poses additional challenges. These men are mentioned in the genealogies of the northern British dynasties, traced to Cynfarch ‘Oer’, presumed to be the ‘St Cynfarch’ recorded as receiving land from Arthwys in the Llandaff Charters. The genealogies place Cynfarch fourth in descent from Coel ‘Hen,’ suggesting a coherent lineage. Llew, who married Arthwys’ sister Gwyar, is noted as the father of Gwalchmai (the original Gawain) and Medraut (possibly not the “Modred” figure). Medraut married Cwyllog, daughter of Gildas, the historian, indicating a connection between legendary figures and historical personages.

Cynfarch’s marriage to Nevyn, daughter of Brychan, who ruled Brycheiniog around 500-530 AD, aligns with the genealogies. However, discrepancies arise regarding Urien’s age and timeline, as he did not succeed to his kingdom of Rheged until around 560 AD. This discrepancy may stem from errors in preserved genealogies, as Urien’s birth around 530 AD conflicts with Llew’s estimated birth around 480-490 AD.

Archaeological Evidence for a Sixth-Century ‘Arthur’

Despite the complexities surrounding Arthurian genealogies and historical records, there are two noteworthy archaeological findings that potentially place a figure similar to ‘Arthur’ in Morgannwg during the early to mid-sixth century. The Ogmore Stone, currently housed in the National Museum of Wales, records a land grant made by ‘Arthmael’ to a group of individuals identifiable as contemporary relatives of St. Cadoc. Among these individuals are Glywys and Nertat, likely Cadoc’s brother and aunt, and St. Fili of Caerphilly, traditionally known as Gildas’ grandson and the son of St. Cennyd of Llangennith in the Gower. This suggests that an ‘Arthur’ was ruling in the middle of the sixth century, contemporaneous with Cadoc, as indicated in eleventh-century hagiographies. The most suitable candidate bearing the name ‘Arthur’ in this context would be the son of Mouric and father of Morgan, as the Arthwys who ruled in Dyfed was a descendant of King Vortipor, a contemporary of Gildas.

The ‘Arthur’ mentioned in the Ogmore grant might be the same individual as the Arthwys who granted Cadoc land at Cadoxton near Neath, as depicted in the Life of St. Cadoc, though there are uncertainties regarding Cadoc’s patron and his father. If the grantor of the Cadoxton property was not Arthwys son of Mouric, he may have been a local king not included in the royal genealogies. However, the Arthwys granting the Ogmore estate must be the son of Mouric, given its proximity to Silurian royal centers.

Another inscription at Llantwit places ‘Artmael’ as a contemporary of Abbot Samson. While this may refer to the South Wales saint active in Brittany who died around 560, if the ‘Ithael’ in the inscription corresponds to the seventh-century king of Morgannwg, both ‘Artmael’ and ‘Samson’ would postdate the ‘Arthurian’ period. Additionally, Blackett and Wilson suggest that the story in the Life of St. Illtud, wherein he receives the body of a high-ranking personage by sea and buries him at Chapel Hill, Merthyr Mawr, may refer to the burial of Arthur after Camlann. However, this interpretation is disputed, and it’s uncertain if the author of the stanzas on Arthur’s burial would have known the local name of the supposed site. Furthermore, placing the burial during Illtud’s lifetime suggests an earlier date, predating Arthur’s supposed death in 539.

Arthur’s Father-Mouric or Uther?

A significant challenge arises when considering the Morgannwg genealogy in Arthurian legends, as none of these legends mention his father as Mouric, instead stating his mother as Igraine (Ygyr), daughter of Amlawdd ‘Wledig,’ not Mouric’s wife Onobrawst. Welsh sources consistently name Ygyr, whose sisters are believed to have been the mothers of Culhwch (in Cullwch and Olwen) and St. Illtud. Medieval Welsh pedigrees, compiled by Rachel Bromwich and others, identify Ygyr’s parents as Amlawdd ‘Wledig’ and Gwen, daughter of Cunedda, placing Arthur three generations after Cunedda, who lived around 400 or 440. However, these pedigrees also include Ygyr’s first husband, Gwrleis/Gorlois, who appears in Geoffrey’s Arthurian version of the 1130s but lacks early provenance independent of Geoffrey.

It’s noteworthy that none of Mouric’s other sons named in early Silurian dynasty genealogies seem to have survived into Arthurian legend as connections of the great king. However, Mouric’s daughter, Anna or Gwyar, and her marriage into the royal house of Coel ‘Hen’ in Lothian persisted in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text and the Brut Tyssilio, with her northern husband Llew ap Cynfarch transformed into ‘Lot of Lothian’ in later stories. Geoffrey appears to have used Arthwys of the Silures as a basis for his Arthur. Another royal marital connection of Arthur in medieval stories, ‘Urien of Gore,’ hints at the potential Silurian origin of part of the Arthurian legend, possibly combining elements of Urien of Rheged and a ruler of Gower (‘Guyr’) in South Wales around 500.

Blackett and Wilson argue that Arthur’s father, named as Uther Pendragon in all sources, was an honorific rather than a personal name, meaning ‘the awe-inspiring Head Dragon,’ signifying chief ruler. They suggest that ‘Uthyr’ could have been misinterpreted as a personal name, while also citing a funeral ode referring to Arthur as the ‘kinsman of Caesar’ and vanquisher of the family of Caw of the Wall, linking Arthur to Magnus Maximus and medieval Welsh legend. However, ‘Uthyr’ was indeed a personal name, deriving from ‘Victor,’ a Roman name, potentially belonging to Maximus’ eldest son, Arthur’s ancestor according to legend. It’s conceivable that there was an Uther/Victor who succeeded Ambrosius as ‘Pendragon,’ and that Arthur was his (illegitimate?) son, a story that Geoffrey of Monmouth might have expanded from earlier sources. Blackett and Wilson suggest that early Welsh stories about Maximus’ son Victor, ‘brother’ Anhun/Antonius, and general Andragaithus contributed to stories of Arthur’s Gallic campaign.