Historical King Arthur: A Dark Age King?

Arthur, it appears, is frequently asserted as the ruler of almost every Celtic Kingdom known. The 6th century witnessed the birth of many men named Arthur into the Celtic Royal families of Britain. However, despite endeavors to distinguish the legendary figure among them, it’s evident that most of these individuals were merely bestowed with the name in his honour. Princes with alternative names are occasionally linked with “Arthwyr,” which some believe to be a title akin to Vortigern.

Breton King

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was documented as a High-King of Britain, being the son of his predecessor, Uther Pendragon, and the nephew of King Ambrosius. Arthur’s grandfather, Conan Meriadoc, hailed from Brittany and established the dynasty at the dawn of the 5th century. The Breton King Aldrien had been called upon to aid Britain amidst its turmoil after the departure of Roman administration. He dispatched his brother, Constantine, for assistance. Constantine is speculated to be the historical self-proclaimed British Emperor who withdrew the last Roman troops from Britain in 407, attempting to assert his claims on the Continent. Chronologically, it’s plausible that he was King Arthur’s grandfather. Arthur’s Breton lineage was documented by Gallet.

Riothamus, the King

Geoffrey Ashe contends that King Arthur was a historical figure in Brittany known as Riothamus, a title signifying “Greatest-King.” His army is recorded to have crossed the channel to confront the Visigoths in the Loire Valley in 468. Betrayed by the Prefect of Gaul, he vanished from historical records. Ashe does not delve into Riothamus’ ancestry, but he appears prominently in the pedigree of the Kings of Domnonée. Riothamus was likely exiled to Britain during the civil wars of Brittany, later returning to reclaim his inheritance triumphantly, only to meet his demise while attempting to expel Germanic invaders.

Cuneglasus a Rhos King

Was Arthur, Cuneglasus, a figure mentioned by Gildas in his 6th-century writings as a tyrannical ruler of the time. This speculation is fuelled by the intriguing parallels found in ancient texts and genealogies, suggesting a possible conflation or identification of the two figures across centuries. While Arthur’s existence and his exploits are shrouded in myth, the historical records pertaining to Cuneglasus offer a glimpse into the tumultuous era they may have shared.

A Silurian King

Baram Blackett & Alan Wilson propose a theory suggesting that the legendary King Arthur was a composite of two historical figures: Anwn (also known as Arthun), the British King who supposedly conquered Greece, and Arthwys (or Athrwys), the King of Glywysing and Gwent. Arthun, a son of the British Emperor Magnus Maximus from the late 4th century, ruled over much of South Wales. Athrwys, widely accepted as a 7th-century King, likely of Ergyng in South-East Wales, seems to have predeceased his father. Blackett & Wilson argue that he actually lived in the early 6th century, and his father, King Meurig, was referred to as “Uther Pendragon,” meaning Wonderful Commander. Their hypothesis, though not without merit, provides a unique perspective on Arthurian lore (Blackett & Wilson 1980).

St. Arthmael the King

Chris Barber & David Pykitt, like Blackett & Wilson, identify King Arthur with King Athrwys of Glywyssing & Gwent. However, they diverge in their interpretation of events post-Camlann. They suggest that after Camlann, Arthur/Athrwys abdicated and retired to Brittany, where he became an influential evangelist known as St. Armel (or Arthmael). His shrine can still be visited at St. Armel-des-Boschaux.

Dumnonian King

Welsh tradition also depicts Arthur as the High-King of Britain, following genealogies outlined in the Mostyn MS117 and the Bonedd yr Arwr. These portray Arthur as the grandson of Constantine, specifically Constantine Corneu, the King of Dumnonia. However, there’s no indication that the three Kings of Dumnonia during Arthur’s reign were closely related to him or that he had any claim to the Dumnonian Kingdom. Arthur’s association with this region stems from his purported conception at Tintagel and burial at Glastonbury.

Cumbrian King

The Clan Campbell traces their ancestral lineage to one Arthur ic Uibar: Arthur, son of Uther, according to tradition. Norma Lorre Goodrich utilizes this lineage to argue that Arthur hailed from the “Man of the North.” This notion was initially proposed by the Victorian Antiquary, W.F. Skene, with some evidence suggesting its plausibility, notably the potential northern location of Nennius’ twelve battles. Goodrich places Arthur’s Court at Carlisle, the capital of the Northern British Kingdom of Rheged. However, this seems an improbable origin for Arthur, considering he was not of this dynasty. Professor Goodrich heavily relies on late medieval literary sources and reaches imaginative conclusions.

Yorkist King

A Northern British King named Arthuis, belonging to the lineage of Coel Hen (the Old), lived in the generation preceding the traditional Arthur. He likely ruled over a significant kingdom centered in Ebrauc (York). Many of Nennius’ accounts of Arthurian battles are often associated with Northern Britain. These narratives and other northern stories linked to King Arthur may, in reality, have depicted the accomplishments of this nearly contemporary monarch.

Elmet King

Another Northern British figure named Arthuis was the son of Mascuid Gloff, likely a ruler of the Elmet region in modern West Yorkshire. Little is known about this prince who lived during the exact period of the traditional King Arthur. Although it’s improbable that he governed his own kingdom, his exploits might have contributed to the legend of King Arthur.

Scottish King

The Scots, newly arrived from Ireland, also bestowed the name Arthur upon a Royal Prince. Artur, son of King Aidan of Dalriada, likely born in the 550s, has garnered attention in recent discourse. David F. Carroll posits that this individual could be the authentic Arthur, ruling over Manau Gododdin from Camelon (also known as Camelot) in Stirlingshire. Further details are available on the author’s website (Carroll 1996).

Powysian King

Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman propose that Arthur was Owain Ddantwyn (White-Tooth), a late 5th-century Prince of the House of Cunedda, specifically of Gwynedd, properly surnamed Danwyn. However, their arguments are deemed unconvincing, riddled with unresolved discrepancies. Owain’s son, Cuneglasus (known as Cynlas in Welsh pedigrees), was among the five Celtic Kings condemned in the writings of Gildas. Keatman & Phillips suggest, through a misinterpretation, that Cuneglasus was the son of Arthur, implying that both he and his father, Owain, ruled Powys. Yet, Cynlas resided at Din Arth in Rhos and was not Arthur’s son. In the traditional Welsh manner, the Kingdom of Gwynedd had been divided between his father, Owain, who governed Eastern Gwynedd (i.e., Rhos), and his uncle, Cadwallon Lawhir, who controlled the major Western portion. During this era, Cyngen Glodrydd (the Renowned) ruled Powys, likely the Aurelius Caninus mentioned by Gildas (Phillips & Keatman 1992).

Dyfed King

In the late 6th century, a King named Arthwyr reigned in Dyfed. He was the son of King Pedr ap Cyngar, yet little else is known about him. Although he was likely named after the legendary figure, it’s conceivable that some of his achievements may have become intertwined with the traditional Arthurian legend.

Roman King

Kemp Malone proposed long ago that King Arthur may have been Lucius Artorius Castus, a historical 2nd-century Dalmatian general stationed in Britain. Castus commanded Roman auxiliary troops, known as Sarmations, on an expedition to suppress an uprising in Armorica. This idea was further developed by C. Scott Littleton, Ann Thomas, and Linda A. Malcor, drawing upon Sarmatian mythological stories. However, it remains highly improbable that Castus and Arthur had any connection with each other (Turner 1993).