Historical Sources of Arthurian Legend

Ven. Bede

Have you ever wondered where Arthurian legend comes from? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I didn’t either I until I started working on this series. There are actually both historical and literary sources for the legends we know today. We’ll explore them both over the next few weeks. Since this subject can get dry really quickly if you take it too seriously, forgive me if I get a little irreverent at times.

First up: the historical sources, in chronological order. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, just to cover the highlights. Keep in mind that history to these guys didn’t mean the fact-based linear events we think of today. For them, historical fact was equally valid whether it came from true events, myths, tradition, or out of their own imaginations.

St. Gildas – Born around the year 500, this monk was a possible contemporary to Arthur, depending on when exactly you think Arthur lived. His famous work “On the Destruction of Britain” (or “On the Fall and Conquest of Britain,” depending on who translates the title), was written around the year 540. It’s mostly a diatribe against the tyrannical rulers of the time. Arthur isn’t mentioned by name, but Gildas does mention Vortigern and the Battle of Mount Badon, a victory which was the turning point in the British battles against the Saxons. Gildas’ omission of Arthur is used by some to show he never actually existed, while others say it just means he wasn’t a tyrant (and therefore not on Gildas’ evildoer list.)

Nennius – A Welsh monk, (are you seeing a pattern here?) Nennius lived around the end of the seventh century and is credited with writing the “Historia Brittonum,” (History of the Britons) which covers time from the legendary founding of Britain after the Trojan War through the seventh century. Nennius is known to have liberally mixed together oral history, legends and traditions, and his dates frequently contradict each other, so I like to call him “the dude who made stuff up.” But he is the first to chronicle Arthur’s military career, going so far as to list out Arthur’s 12 famous battles, including Badon (a list which has been hotly debated ever since.) He calls Arthur by the title, “dux bellorum,” which can be translated something like “Duke or Lord of Battles.”

Ven. Bede – Some people call him a saint (even a Doctor of the Church), others just note he was a monk. However you see him, Bede was one important dude. Bede is best known for his work “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” (written around the year 731) in which he traces the spread of Christianity through the kingdoms of the Angles and Saxons. He’s known as Britain’s first historian, but he focuses more on miraculous things that supposedly happened than on pure history – yet he’s considered by many as the most reliable source for his time period. It’s from him we get the story that Vortigern invited the Saxons as allies. We can’t know for sure what his sources were, but it’s likely he had Nennius’, and maybe even Gildas’, works to reference. Fun trivia: Bede is credited with introducing the AD dating system to England.

Annales Cambriae – (or in English, Annals of Wales) These stories were translated around 977. They give us the image of Arthur bearing the cross of Christ at Badon, which ensures his victory. This is also the source of the story of Arthur and Mordred falling together at Camlann, although it doesn’t state if they were on the same or opposing sides.

Many authors note that these sources were written to serve a particular interest – especially that of the Catholic Church and the powerful rulers of Wessex and Gwynedd (modern day northern Wales), so they likely were biased.

What are we to make of all of this “history”? It tells us that there may have been a king or military leader named Arthur who fought battles against the Saxons – who likely were at one time allies of the Britons, thanks to a ruler named Vortigern –  and turned them back after a battle that took place at Mount Badon (wherever that was – that’s a completely separate debate). This Arthur also likely died in battle at a place called Camlann.

Where did the “good stuff,” the rest of the legends come in? For that we have to switch gears and look at the literary sources, which we’ll do over the next two weeks. Stick with me. This stuff actually is interesting if you give it a chance.