The greatest thing about Arthuriana is the mystery it is cloaked in. The line between history and legend is fuzzy and at times incomprehensible. Set right in the heart of the Dark Ages, after Roman occupation and before the Medieval influx of record keepers and historians, very little is known about the Britain Arthur would have ruled in, and even less is known about the man himself. Did such a man actually exist? Or was he a symbol of many great rulers of the time? I have found a wide variety of opinions and arguments of this subject from different historians, so here is what I have comprehensively gathered.
Although the culture and setting of the legendary Arthur is usually associated with the Middle Ages (thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory), it is generally agreed upon that the historical Arthur most likely existed in the late 5th century or early 6th. However, he does not actually appear in historical manuscripts until 400 years later. The two accepted records written closer to his time, in the 6th and 8th centuries, do not mention a leader by the name of Arthur, but do mention a strong war-leader who united British leaders against Saxon invasions which allowed fifty years of peace. Of course, that cannot entirely rule him out of existence since so many documents from that time have been lost and so few are still remaining.
The earliest mention of an “Arthur” is in Nennius’ 8th century Historia Brittonum, in which he defeats the Saxons in twelve different battles. Each battle is given a site, all of which have historic parallels, and the last one being on Badon Hill. This is also the legendary battle in which Arthur defeats the Saxons once and for all and brings Britain into a time of peace. Thus, we see how the history affects the legends, whether or not that history is accurate.
The first comprehensive development of Arthur as a powerful king of early Britain is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain. Monmouth’s chronicle provides the bridge between the vague historical figure and the legendary King Arthur.
Many believe, and I agree with this idea, that King Arthur is based on more than one historical figure. Lucius Artorius Castus was a 2nd century Roman officer who was stationed at Hadrian’s Wall (now in modern-day Scotland). This name could have been carried over to other 5th century British leaders. Ambrosius Aurelianus, or Aurelius Ambrosius, was a powerful 5th century king in West Britain. His parents are referred to as noble, mostly likely Roman royalty. He was feared by the ruler Vortigern and fought Saxons, and is commonly known to have been a king over all other Briton kings. In legend, Ambrosius overthrows Vortigern, is the son of Constantine, and the brother of Uther Pendragon, which would make him Arthur’s uncle. However, it is very possible that he is the basis for Arthur himself. There is also a British king mentioned in 5th century texts from the mainland (modern-day France), referred to as “Riothamus.” This name means “supreme king,” or “king above all,” and is possibly referring to Ambrosius. He was thought to be an impartial, honorable, compassionate ruler. Mainland manuscripts report him as sailing across the channel to help the emperor Anthemius fight the Gauls.
The root of Arthur’s name also gives clues as to his origin. “Arth” is the Brythonic name for “bear,” while “ursus” is the Latin translation. During the 5th century, names were often composed of both Brythonic and Latin roots, so his name could have easily been “Arthursus”, shortened to “Arthur.” Many believe this could refer to any powerful king of the time who was nicknamed “the Bear King.” This opens many new possibilities to interpretations of a historical Arthur.
So who was Arthur, really? He could have been the Roman Artorius, misplaced in the 5th century. He could have been Ambrosius, but named after the earlier Artorius. He could have been any powerful king in the 5th or 6th centuries that was nicknamed “the bear.” He could have merely been fabricated by a few creative historians. I doubt the world shall ever know.
And yet that is the beauty of it all. The mystery, the speculation, the possibility. That is what has allowed Arthurian legends to become timeless, intriguing, and so incredibly influential. As long as humanity doesn’t know for certain that Arthur never existed, he could have existed, and therefore, he did.