Historical King Arthur: References

Y Gododdin

The oldest known mention of Arthur in historical records comes from the Welsh poem Y Gododdin, which honors the fallen British warriors of the battle at Catraeth, likely modern-day Catterick in Yorkshire. This poem dates back to the 5th to 6th centuries, a time when native Britons clashed with invading Germanic Saxons. In Y Gododdin, Arthur is referenced as a point of comparison to one of the deceased warriors being praised. Look closely towards the end of the second line from the bottom in the accompanying image, where the phrase “ceni bei ef arthur” appears.

He pierced over three hundred of the finest
He slew both the centre and the flanks
He was worthy in the front of a most generous army
He gave out gifts of a herd of steeds in the winter
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was no Arthur 
He gave support in battle
In the forefront, an alder-shield was Gwawrddur.

Y Gododdin CII

Gildas & the Historical King Arthur

In the 6th-century work “De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae” by Gildas, there is no mention of Arthur. However, Gildas does reference a significant British victory over the Saxons at the “Badonic mount” (mons Badonicus), an event that took place in the year of Gildas’ birth. This victory, known today as the Battle of Badon, marked the beginning of a period of peace between the British and the Saxons. Gildas describes this battle as occurring “in our times” and as one of the most substantial, if not the most substantial, defeats of the Saxons. He notes that a new generation had grown up in Britain since the battle.

While Gildas’ Latin is somewhat difficult to interpret, he does not identify Arthur or any other specific leader of the battle. He does, however, mention Ambrosius Aurelianus as a prominent figure who fought against the Saxons before the Battle of Badon, implying some interval between Ambrosius’ triumphs and this battle. The exact details of the Battle of Badon, including its date and location, remain uncertain. Most scholars agree on a date around 500, and various locations across Britain have been suggested as the site of the battle. This account is further supported by later Cambro-Latin sources, such as the “Annales Cambriae,” which provide the Old Welsh form of the battle’s location as Badon, a name that has been widely accepted by modern scholars.

Nennius & the Historical King Arthur

The 9th-century text “Historia Brittonum,” authored by the monk Nennius, stands as one of the earliest extant written records about Arthur. In this historical account, Arthur is portrayed as a war leader who combated the Saxons and additional adversaries of the Britons. Nennius recounts 12 battles in which Arthur was involved, notably the Battle of Badon, reputed to be a significant triumph against the Saxons.

While “Historia Brittonum” offers some of the earliest documentary evidence of Arthur’s existence, the information it contains is somewhat limited and occasionally conflicting. Furthermore, this document makes no reference to several iconic aspects of the Arthurian legend, such as the magical sword Excalibur, the wizard Merlin, or legendary characters like Guinevere and Lancelot.

At that time the Saxons increased in numbers and grew in Britain. After the death of Hengist, Octa, his son, came down from the north part of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and from there are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought at that time against them in those days along with the kings of the Britons, but he was their leader in battles.

At that time, the Saxons greatly increased in Britain, both in strength and numbers. And Octa, after the death of his father Hengist, came from the sinistral part of the island to the kingdom of Kent, and from him have proceeded all the kings of that province, to the present period. Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

Following the passage transcribed above, the Historia Brittonum further includes a list of Arthur’s battles, possibly derived from a Welsh battle poem.

The first battle was at the mouth of the river called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth and the fifth were on another river, called the Douglas, which is in the country of Linnuis. The sixth battle was on the river called Bassas. The seventh battle was in Celyddon Forest, that is, the Battle of Celyddon Coed. The eighth battle was at Guinnion fort, and in it Arthur carried the image of the holy Mary, the everlasting virgin, on his shoulder, and the heathen were put to flight that day, and there was great slaughter upon them, through the power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Virgin Mary, his mother. The ninth battle was fought in the city of the Legion. The tenth battle was fought on the bank of the river called Tryfrwyd. The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Badon hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone, and he was victorious in all his campaigns.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

Annales Cambriae & the Historical King Arthur

The “Annales Cambriae” (Welsh Annals), first compiled in the mid-10th century, is a significant historical source that mentions Arthur. This document dates the Battle of Badon to the year 516 and records Arthur’s death in 537 at the Battle of Camlann. Notably, like the “Annales Cambriae,” all other sources that mention Arthur were written at least four centuries after the events they describe. This time gap highlights the historical distance between the actual events and their chronicling, underscoring the challenge in verifying the historical accuracy of these accounts.

William of Malmesbury’s References to the Historical King Arthur

In William of Malmesbury’s “Gesta Regum Anglorum” (“Deeds of the Kings of the English”), written in 1124, Arthur is briefly mentioned. This work, despite its title, aims to reconstruct the broader history of Britain, integrating various narratives from sources like Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and other chroniclers. Malmesbury treats Arthur as a historical figure, suggesting Ambrosius Aurelianus as his likely superior or employer. Additionally, Malmesbury references the discovery of a tomb believed to belong to “Walwin” (identified as a possible nephew of Arthur) during the reign of William the Conqueror. This inclusion in Malmesbury’s work further contributes to the historical consideration of Arthur, blending legendary and historical elements.


Arthur is referenced in various 12th to 13th-century hagiographies of Welsh and Breton saints, such as those of Cadoc, Carantoc, Gildas, Goeznovius, Illtud, and Paternus. One notable example is the “Legenda Sancti Goeznovii,” a hagiography of the Breton saint Goeznovius. Initially thought to date around 1019, it is now believed to be from the late 12th to early 13th century. This text includes a segment about Arthur and a leader named Vortigern.

Stanzas of the Grave

The Englynion y Beddau or The Stanzas or Verses of the Graves is a Middle Welsh verse catalogue listing the resting places of legendary heroes. Some of the heroes are mythological — there’s at least one giant — while others, such as Vortigern and Rhydderch of Dumbarton, were real people in the fifth and sixth centuries. The verses appear in several Welsh manuscripts, the earliest and most important being the Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (Black Book of Carmarthen c. 1250). It contains seventy-three stanzas, copied during the thirteenth century. Five of these verses appear in the Llfyr Gwyn Rhydderch (White Book of Rhyderrch) and the Llyfr Coch Hergest (Red Book of Hergest), from the fourteenth century. However, the original poem itself may date from the ninth to the eleventh century.

Welsh Poems

The Spoils of Annwn (C900AD)

Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn)dating back to around 900 CE, narrates a daring expedition led by Arthur and his companions into the ethereal stronghold of Caer Syddi, while also weaving enigmatic allusions to a mystical cauldron. The narrator is Taliesin, a legendary bard (distinct from the historical bard linked to Urien Rheged, also named Taliesin).

Though Arthur was but playing,
blood was flowing
in the hall of Afarnach
fighting with a hag.

Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn)

Pa gwr, or Arthur and the Porter

The poem Pa gwr, or Arthur and the Porter, takes the form of a dialogue in which, in answer to a doorkeeper’s challenge, Arthur lists the accomplishments of himself and his companions, Bedwyr and Cei. 

Who is the man that asks it?
Arthur and the fair Cai.

Pa gur Arthur and the Porter

The Welsh poem “Geraint, son of Erbin” also mentions Arthur. It’s a praise-poem and elegy for King Geraint, presumed to be a historical king of Dumnonia. This poem is significant as it associates Arthur with Geraint at an early date and is the earliest known reference to Arthur as “emperor.” “Geraint, son of Erbin” is contained in the Black Book of Carmarthen, compiled around 1250, though the poem itself might date back to the 10th or 11th century. “Y Gododdin” was copied around the same time. The language of “Y Gododdin” is older in form compared to “Geraint, son of Erbin,” but this might reflect differences in the last revision of the language in these poems, necessary for them to remain comprehensible.