This is the conclusion of a two-part column. The first part was published in the October 2011 newsletter. The entire article can also be found on our website.
It is the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth that first gave extensive credence to the existence of a kingly figure by the name of Arthur. His History of the Kings of Britain, written in the early twelfth century, devotes much of its length to the deeds and exploits of fifth century military leader he identifies as Arthur. The manuscript, now largely discredited as a historical document, is the source of the Arthurian narrative of liberating Britain from the Saxons, as well as his death at the hands of Mordred and his departure to Avalon. In drawing the genealogy of this Arthur, Geoffrey posits the existence of Uther Pendragon, brother of Ambrosius, and also of Uther's wizard, Merlin. His writing, widely disseminated and accepted at the time as factual, is the wellspring of many of the structural elements of the legendary Arthur.
But of the various characters mentioned in Geoffrey's narrative, Ambrosius Aurelianus stands out as the only individual referred to in other more reliable histories of the time. He indeed led the Britons in numerous battles, and is claimed by some to have been the victor of the Battle of Badon Hill - perhaps the prototype of Arthur's final battle. Indeed, Nennius, in his 9th century Historia Brittonum calls the victor of Badon Hill "Arthur". Is it possible that Geoffrey of Monmouth, in creating his imaginative version of early British history, (and having read the work of his predecessors) seized upon the story of Ambrosius as the armature upon which he would sculpt his influential version of the legend of Arthur?
It certainly seems possible, but what of the fact that earlier writers were already making reference to a dux bellorum named Arthur? And very importantly, why does a leader as influential as Arthur fail to appear in other accounts of fifth century British history? Even though Geoffrey of Monmouth may have laid the mantle of Arthurian identity across the shoulders of Ambrosius, it seems that legend precedes even him.
There is one more antecedent possibility, one who has gained in favor with modern Arthurian scholars. His documented history aligns well with the major events in the later legends. He lived in Roman-occupied Britain in the second century and his name was Lucius Artorius Castus. One more fact: his middle name, or gens nomen, Artorius, translates as Arthur.
A close study of the life of Castus reveals a myriad of details which could plausibly have provided not only the foundation of the Arthurian legend, but also many of its dimensions, structures and ornamentations.
For example, Castus commanded a legion of Samarian cavalry (armoured knights who fought with long lances and carried shields) brought in from Dalmatia. The Samarian herald was a dragon. They dined at circular tables, worshipped a war god whose emblem was a sword thrust into the ground above a grave, told stories of questing for a golden cup, and even revered a hero who was said to have died after his sword was thrown into a lake.
Records indicate that Castus commanded the Roman forces in twelve battles against the Caledonii, which roughly align with the twelve battles ascribed to Arthur. He was born in Campania, Italy and after being mortally wounded in his final battle, may have boarded a boat and expired attempting to return to his hometown of Avellinum.
It seems plausible that many of these details, expanded, amended and molded by oral tradition were passed down the centuries. Embellished by monastic clerics, troubadours and Welsh poets, the stories would have spread and intertwined until they gained the status of legend. They would have become disconnected from the Second century historical antecedent and the tales of Arthur would have taken on a life of their own. This was the stuff that Geoffrey of Monmouth mixed with the story of Ambrosius, and presented to the world as a factual portrayal of fifth century Britain.
And so, it was Geoffrey of Monmouth who most influentially cast these legends into the mold of history, and in an ironic turn, it is Geoffrey's embellished historical Arthur that in turn became the basis for the Arthur of the greatly expanded legends to follow. This pattern, history into legend, back into history and back into legend gives rise to the Arthurian stories we retell today.
Did a King Arthur really live? It appears that the answer is 'yes'. Someone we can call Arthur once did tread the soil of ancient Britain, and the Arthur he later became certainly lives on in the imagination of the modern world. In both a historical and legendary sense, he is The Once and Future King.
-David Parr, Artistic Director