Who was King Arthur?
The historical evidence for Arthur is sparse and nothing is known for certain, we can’t even be sure he ever existed, but if he did then King Arthur was most likely a 5th century warrior chief who for a period of time defended the people of Britain from the Saxon invaders.
Some of the earliest written references to Arthur appear in a number of early Welsh sources, the oldest of which are the tales of Culhwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion and the poems in the Black Book. The early Welsh sources reveal a very different Arthur to that found in the mediaeval romances. The Celtic Arthur is a near mythic, heroic figure, but he is a hero in the ancient mould of warrior chief; effectively a human being larger than life rather than the chivalric knight of later romances. This original nature of Arthur is that of the leader of a war band of heroes, a character less like a medieval king or prince and more like the mythical Irish warrior CúChulainn, the legendary hero who single handedly defended Ulster against armies and was known for his terrifying battle frenzy or ríastrad translated by Thomas Kinsella as warp spasm and by Ciaran Carson as torque.
The Historia Brittonum, or The History of the Britons, claims to be the history of the indigenous British people, written during Anglo-Saxon rule. It was written around the year 828. In the Historia Brittonum we hear that:
“Arthur fought against them [the Saxon invaders] in those days, together with the kings of the Britons, but he was the leader in battles [dux bellorum].”
The Historia Brittonum also lists a number of battles, of these battles the only one that is mentioned in other sources is the Battle of Badon which is recorded in Gildas’s De Excidio Britanniae written in.540AD, the only other text of a near contemporary date to mention the battle, Arthur however is not mentioned. We are uncertain about the place, date, and participants of this battle but when all the historical evidence is examined it does seem to have been a real event that clearly halted the Anglo-Saxon advance for some years.
The Arthur that is widely known today as a romantic figure is a culmination of later writers who may have taken some inspiration from the figure presented in folk lore and legend and weaved it into there own chivalric Arthur.