The author has elsewhere given a point-by-point rebuttal of Professor Dumville’s and Professor Padel’s papers about Arthur not existing. They can be summed up as follows: The sources for the period are not impossible to make use of, they just require a strong understanding of the materials used in their creation and the biases of all the authors involved – a lot of research into what has been discovered and a strict adherence to those findings.
Of course Arthur is not mentioned much and of course where he is mentioned he is often connected to the supernatural – he lived in an heroic age period where oral literature dominated. As anyone who knows oral literature can tell you, stories in an oral society change a lot like a message in the telephone game. Even two generations can make a huge difference; Urien was remembered in oral literature too, but since he lived just a little later his legend did not grow as much as Arthur’s.
Arthur bears no reasonable comparison to Fion macCumhail. None! Not by his activities, the linguistics, or his introduction into the historical sources.
Despite the contrary claims the earliest sources – Y Gododdin and the Northern Memorandum as found in the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae – all name Arthur in an historical context.
Adjusting for the known biases, all the historical and even literary sources are consistent in where and when they place Arthur. He lived right around 500 in the Carlisle/Old Carlisle region.
To this the question “If he is a northern historical figure why is he not listed in the “Men of the North” genealogy?” Simply put, the genealogy was a political tool; it deepened the alliance of British kings by giving them a common ancestor. By that time, neither Arthur nor his descendants were active so there was no reason to insert him.
Speaking of historical sources, the Historia Brittonum says that Arthur was present at twelve battles while Annales Cambriae confirms his presence at Badon and adds Camlann. Both sources took their Arthurian information from the Northern Memorandum, whose information might extend back to the late sixth century with Rhun son of Urien even if the writing in its present form only goes back to around 750. All this has made those thirteen battles a hot topic for Arthurian enthusiasts hoping to prove Arthur existed. No theory has ever gained much traction though. It may not even be possible to place all the battles in one area. Battle lists are notorious for being composites of participants and regions. The Arthurian battles have two problems on top of that. The Historia Brittonum battles are twelve in number and are located at nine sites; both numbers were symbolically important for the Celts. There are also indications of rhyme in the list that suggests the author found it in a poem that included the battles of several kings.
To make a comparison pretend for a moment that we live in an oral society. Now accept that MacArthur and Rommel were the two best generals of World War II. In a battle list drawn up a hundred years from now we might find that they had fought each other on D-Day, at the Battle of the Bulge, El Alamein, Midway, and the Philippines. This despite the fact that neither man was at several of those battles and that they never met each other. With that in mind, the only battles with any historical value are Camlann and possibly Badon.
When did Arthur live? By mid-century, every known British king is consistently placed in one kingdom and most of them are associated with contemporaries. Arthur is connected with no one site and his associations are with kings and saints from all over Britain. Some scholars have believed this makes him less historical, but as has been seen in the pages above the fifth century was a period of transition between Roman and British cultures. The first British bards we know of were active no earlier than about 470, so naturally the first generation or so of rulers they spoke of would be a little shrouded in legend. For these reasons and several more, Arthur was probably active somewhere between roughly 480 and 520.
Where did he live? Old Carlisle seems the most likely guess. It would explain his predilection with things Roman in Historia Brittonum and would fit roughly in the center of the geographical area from which Arthurian figures seem to come from. Oddly enough, when the present scholar listed all the sites associated with Arthur’s hall in the literature and history and eliminated every entry that was used for a clear literary, political, or personal reason, Carlisle was far and away the most commonly named location. We also know that Old Carlisle was a consistently occupied city during the period in question.
Old Carlisle may also have been the command quarters for Hadrian’s Wall. In an era when the Roman Empire was tearing itself apart that may not mean anything. However, according to the archeological record the years around 500 were when several former Hadrian’s Wall forts were reoccupied. That is all the stranger because Roman forts throughout the rest of the island were vacant.
What it has suggested to Professor Dark, Koch, and the present scholar is that some powerful force (a single king or alliance) might have controlled the entire area and initiated the reoccupation. If that force was Arthur, it would help to explain why he was remembered more vividly than any other king of the period; it would have made him the leading person on the island in a very real way.
Politically, he would have taken tribute from more people than any other person on the island. Holding an entire east-west stretch of land might have allowed him to limit communications between the North and the South. Actually, he might have been able to limit the movement of traders, bards, and craftsman to and from the North. Hadrian’s Wall would have also given him a psychological edge. Old Carlisle had been a Roman fort, and Hadrian’s Wall a Roman system of fortresses. Reoccupy them would have helped him claim a little more of Rome’s lingering mystique.
A reoccupation of Hadrian’s Wall could also have served a military purpose. During the Roman occupation, it had served as a blockade against the Picts, a bulwark against the constant attacks on the British people. In the hands of a Briton, Hadrian’s Wall might have been used to give the British people a sense of unity. In previous centuries it has been argued that could have come together against the Germanic peoples who had already settled a good portion of eastern England, but it could equally have served against the Picts or the Irish.
Which raises another question; who were Arthur’s enemies? According to Gildas, the Battle of Mount Badon was fought between British and Germanic tribes, and the principles may have been exactly that. We cannot believe that the lines were that simple, though. As has been seen above, several Irish dynasties would eventually intermarry with local kingships in Wales. It has long been noted that Cerdic, traditional founder of the Wessex dynasty, has a British name. The court-list in Culhwch ac Olwen contains several Anglo-Saxon figures who were roughly contemporary with Arthur. As we shall see below, the most famous poem of the period, Y Gododdin, is about two mostly British armies fighting each other, both with several Anglo-Saxons. The Mercian king Penda was allies with British Gwynedd for most of his career. Arthur may very well have fought against the Irish, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons during his kingship. Just as likely, Arthur may have had an Irishman, a Pict, and an Anglo-Saxon in his personal war-band.
With that in mind, it is not really important what culture his enemies were a part of. Nor does it matter what language his neighbors spoke; he would have been just as willing to make raids on Anglo-Saxons, Picts, and Irish just as he would have on Britons. He would have been just as likely to ally with another culture group, too. We must always keep in mind that Arthur did not live in an environment where fighting was based on national identity. None of the kings from this period – Urien, Maelgwn, Rhun, Gwrtheyrn, or the mysterious king of Gododdin did. There was no need in Arthur’s time, because the Germanic people were not a threat. Arthur spent his career working to enhance his fame, wealth, and the number of warriors in his war band.
1 Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014); Dumville, “Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend”, History 62 (London, 1977a), 173-192; Padel, “The Nature of Arthur”, CMCS 27 (Cardiff, Summer 1994), 1-31.
2 Bromwich, “Concepts of Arthur”, SC 10/11 (Cardiff, 1976), 175-6; Thurneysen, “Zimmer, Nennius vindicatus”, ZDP 28 (Halle, 1896), 85, 87; Bruce, The Evolution of Arthurian Romance, from the Beginnings Down to the Year 1300, (Gottingen, 1923), 9. Jackson opposed the inclusion of this text in the Northern History on the basis of Beulon’s request that the Anglo-Saxon genaeologies (meaning also the Northern History apparently) be omitted from his copy. The task was done to his satisfaction and the Arthuriana information was not included. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, Arthuriana is not a part of the Northern History because Beulon knew it was not a part of the Northern History. The author believes it more accurate to say that Beulon believed that Arthuriana was a part of the Northern History, but his opinion carries no more weight than a modern historian’s. It is a good bet that he knew even less about the Northern Memorandum or the Northern History than we do.
3 The Gododdin of Aneirin, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), cxxiii.
4 The most notable have been Alcock and Jackson. Most recently, Andrew Breeze has located all the battles in the north and placed Arthur in Glasgow; Alcock, Arthur’s Britain, (New York, 1971); Jackson, “Once Again Arthur’s Battles”, MP 43 (Chicago, 1945), 44-57; Breeze, “The Arthurian Battle of Badon and Braydon Forest, Wiltshire”, Journal of Literary Onomastics 4.1 (Brockport, 2015), 20-30; Breeze, “The Historical Arthur and Sixth-Century Scotland”, Northern History 52.2 (Leeds, 2015), 158-81.
5 Lloyd, The History of Wales, (Cardiff, 1912), 126 fn. 6; Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, (Cambridge, 1932), 155; Crawford, “Arthur and his Battles”, Antiq 9 (Gloucester, 1935), 279; Jackson, “The Arthur of History”, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. Roger S. Loomis, (Chicago, 1959), 78; Bromwich, “Concepts”, SC 10/11 (Cardiff, 1976), 169.
6 The present author had long thought that Badon was an artificially attached battle as well, but Christopher Gidlow has pointed out that few people who have not studied military strategy know about Napoleon’s greatest victory at Borodino even though everyone seems to know about his final defeat at Waterloo. It makes sense that Badon is not heavily referenced in Welsh literature. Badon is also the only other Arthurian battle named in Annales Cambriae.
7 Professor Koch has suggested that chapter 65 of the Historia Brittonum implies Talhaearn was Outigern’s bard, that Outigern was contemporary to Ida, and that the other four bards mentioned – Taliesin, Aneirin, Cian, and Bluchbeirdd – were contemporary with Ida, meaning that their relative chronology was three times removed from their placement there (Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch. (Cardiff, 2013), 27-9). The floruits of these and the other bards of the period are more thoroughly explored in Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 54-61.
8 For a more detailed series of arguments please see Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 87-125.
9 Dark, From Civitas to Kingdom, (Leicester, 1994), 112.
10 Koch, “Marwnad Cunedda a diwedd y Brydain Rufeinig”, Yr Hen Iaith: Studies in Early Welsh, ed. Paul Russell, (Cardiff, 2003), 176-82; Dark, “A Sub-Roman Defense of Hadrian’s Wall?”, Brit 18 (Stroud, 1992), 111-120; Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 126-32.
11 The Picts may have had a couple of larger kingdoms, but a much less dense population.
12 Myres, The English Settlements, (Oxford, 1989), 146-7; Koch, “Cerdic”, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encylopedia, ed. John T. Koch, (Santa Barbara, 2006), 392-3. The name is from British “Caratacus”. It was clearly not a fluke, either. Ceawlin, from an opposing dynasty, also had a British name (Ward-Perkins, “Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British?” HER 115 (Oxford, 2000), 513), as did Cædwalla (York, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1989), 138-9).
13 For a complete list of characters and an explanation of their origins see now Culhwch ac Olwen: An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale, eds. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 1992).
14 Higham, An English Empire, (Manchester, 1995), 218-240; The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xxxv-xlii.