I must admit Arthur makes me a bit cross. Not the historical man, or war-lord, but the King Arthur worship that still grows and thrives. Here we have a perfectly heroic real king, Ælfred the Great – the only English king to be so dubbed – who is scarce regarded today, despite his having probably been the only reason you and I today are not having this conversation in Danish.
Despite his having been a superb warrior and military tactician. Despite his having overcome a real personal obstacle – wretched health. Despite having approached each day of his kingship with sobriety, dedication, and love. Despite being an enthusiastic and considerable scholar, translating the works of Boethius and Gregory into Anglo-Saxon from the Latin so his own people could read them. Despite the fact that 1999 marked the 1100th anniversary of this great man’s, and great king’s, death.
No. It’s all Arthur, Arthur, Arthur. All because Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1130 and French trouveres in the 14th century took a tiny scrap of English history and embroidered it endlessly with treacherous love. A little bit of knowledge is in fact a dangerous thing.
All right; I shall stop ranting and raving. But, dear reader, would you like to know what we really, truly know about Arthur? Here it is:
We have a British poem, known as Gododdin, composed about 600, which refers to a warrior who “glutted black ravens on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur”. So here is a reference to a warrior, who, however great at killing (feeding the carrion-eating ravens), was still no Arthur.
We have the work attributed to Nennius in which twelve battles fought and won against the Saxons are mentioned, with Arthur as the leader of the British army. This citation states that Arthur fought alongside British kings in repelling the invading Saxons, but that he himself was commander in the wars (dux bellorum). The last battle listed is that of mons badonicus (Mount Badon), said to have brought peace to the area for a period of forty years. This battle, the site of which has never been ascertained, may have been fought in 493 or 516.
So. Very likely there was an Arthur, who was probably a Romanised Briton, and a great warrior who repelled the Saxons from one small part of Britain temporarily. All the rest is French invention. Sorry if I sound so cross about it.