The legendary King Arthur has melded with the historic “King Arthur” Lucius Artorius Castus of the second century and conflated with “Historic King Arthur” Ambrosius Aurelianus of the fifth century.

This melding of the legendary King Arthur with a historic King Arthur has caused a great deal of confusion in chronology,  in sites such as Glastonbury, Tintagel, Camelot, Badon, Camlann,  and Wroxeter, and in distorted epithets including Arthus, Arthurex, Arcturus, Merlinus, Ursus (Bear), Pendragon, UterPendragon, Utherpendragon, and Riothamus.

  King Arthur is undoubtedly the most enigmatic hero in literature. His roots are lost in the mists of time, and whenever his name is mentioned, it is commonly associated with what is now referred to as a “pseudo-history” of the twelfth century when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain first appeared.

     Prior to the publication of Monmouth’s work, the king who became known as Arthur was mentioned only incidentally in the ancient manuscripts. By the end of the first millennium, Arthur’s name appears only four times in the Historia Brittonum, attributed to a copyist named Nennius. In Section 56 of that manuscript the name Arthur is mentioned three times in what has evolved into a highly controversial battle list. In a later section titled the “Mirabilia”, Arthur’s name appears the fourth time in relation to his dog’s grave.

    Approximately a century after the penning of the Historia Brittonum, Arthur’s name appears twice in the Welsh annals, known as the Annales Cambriae. The entry for the year 516 records Arthur’s battle at Badon, and the entry for the year 537 records Arthur’s fatal battle at Camlann.  Neither of those two manuscripts uses the title “king” for Arthur, but the Historia Brittonum refers to him as “Dux Bellorum.” Both suggest, however, a “real King Arthur,” or a “factual King Arthur.”

     Following the three manuscripts mentioned above, Chretien de Troyes penned his works shortly after the appearance of Monmouth’s “Arthur of Britain”. After the appearance of Chretien’s romances, the floodgates opened, spawning translations and speculations from Wace, Layamon, Robert de Boron, Henry of Huntingdon, William of Newburgh, Giraldus Cambrensis, Ralph of Coggeshall, Ranulf Higdon, and John of Glastonbury,culminating in the definitive Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory.

     Most avid enthusiasts of this great King Arthur are anything but neutral about his origins, and just about every one of those enthusiasts—if they believe in a historical King Arthur with an authentic ancestry—has developed a theory about his roots, just as everyone who debunks his historicity builds a case of skepticism. The quest to verify Arthur’s reality is not based upon rigid scientific investigation. Anything postulated about King Arthur’s historicity is for the most part established by circumstantial evidence. Those who expect systematic evidence based upon hard and unshakeable truths may express disdain toward the great amount of circumstantial substantiation which can be amassed, but our system of jurisprudence is living proof that circumstantial evidence can be used to build convincing cases.

     Whatever an individual’s stance, it is obvious that King Arthur remains at the forefront of popularity, evidenced by Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest movie, three “documentaries” created within the last two years, and the prolific literary material still pouring from the publishing companies.  Any attempt to anchor King Arthur’s historicity in the fifth century is blocked by ponderous minutiae–the complex jumble of languages, the surviving recensions of a perplexing millennium, the confusion of epithets versus proper names, and the unfortunate interpolations tainting so many documents. It is not an arena for the faint of heart.

From an Arthurian point of view, Geoffrey of Monmouth structured not only the historical feasibility of a British King Arthur of the fifth century, but opened the floodgate for a deluge of legends and romances about this great king which followed closely upon the heels of his History of the Kings of Britain. Although Monmouth’s book spans a millennium and a half beginning with the Trojan War and terminating with the Saxon domination of Britain, nearly sixty percent of the text deals with Arthurian matter. As a twelfth-century writer, he had at his disposal books of a historical nature by Gildas Badonicus, Bede, Nennius and perhaps the Tysilio.

     Henry of Huntingdon, who was made archdeacon in the first decade of the 1100s, traveled to Rome in 1139, approximately three years after the release of Monmouth’s book. While there, he met a Norman historian named Robert de Torigny who gave him a copy of the history, which Henry came to view as based totally on fact. On the other hand, William of Newburgh (and later Ranulf Higden) sharply criticized Monmouth’s so-called history of King Arthur; in

Newburgh’s Preface of Historia Rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), he castigates Monmouth’s sections about King Arthur and Merlin.  Those who supported William’s viewpoint “vehemently denounced Geoffrey’s motives,” “severely criticized his fabrications,” and labeled the pseudo-historian (Monmouth) as being “an impudent and shameless liar.”

     Prior to Chrétien de Troyes’ prodigious outpouring of Arthurian romances—Erec and Enide, Cligés, Lancelot, Yvain, and Perceval—Wace, a Norman, wrote Roman de Brut, which he himself claimed he completed in 1155. Although his manuscript closely follows Monmouth’s History, he wasn’t really a translator but more of a paraphraser who wrote in the style of a poetic romance. Thomas d’Angleterre, also contemporary of Chretien, wrote the legend of Tristan in Old French verse which is variously dated from ca.1150 to 1200, probably around 1175. Béroul, Robert de Boron (Graal, Merlin, and Perceval) Layamon, Gottfried von Strassburg (Tristan), Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach (Parzival), and Heinrich von Freiberg followed in quick succession with their romances.

     Even now, nine centuries later, Monmouth’s book is still tagged as “pseudo-history, ” posing a millennial question: “Did the historic King Arthur give rise to all the legends which succeeded him, or were legends and folklore molded to give credence to such a Cultural Hero?”  There are so many caveats, pro and con, that they would fill several thick volumes, yet never satisfactorily resolve the issue.

     Nevertheless, there are indisputable parameters: the figure of King Arthur is Briton, specifically Welsh; his historicity is entrenched in the fifth century; and many of his legendary characteristics and relics are borrowed from very ancient tales.

     This website examines the link between Arthurian history and legend.

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Site text and starred(*) photos copyright Frank D. Reno
“Walls of Britain” updated 2006
Ambrosius Aurelianus article inserted May, 2007
Website reconfigured March 2016

No part of this website, including extracts, photos, designated maps and
drawings may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the
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Frank D. Reno


<KingArthurA-Z .com> gives an excellent overview from the alleged historic “King Arthur” in the second century, to the conflated “King Arthur” bearing the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus in the fifth century, and onward to the legendary King Arthur memorialized by Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in the sixteenth century.