Was King Arthur a real person? The answer to that question does not actually have a yes/no answer, perhaps surprisingly to most. We know that Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur published in 1485 is one of English literature’s most influential works but it wasn’t original. Some 300 years previously, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the first account of the legends of Arthur. The events depicted in either work did not actually take place as written, we know that much. We also know that the actions of at least one person influenced the story that would capture imaginations right across the anglophone world. Now it seems there are several people whose fascinating lives may have birthed the legend.
Who were the potential King Arthurs?
His life heavily influenced the original work of Geoffrey of Monmouth and what we know is based on the work of early historian Gildas. He was an incredible figure who fought back the invading Saxons into the former Roman territories of Britannia. Much of the debate over whether Arthur was a Pagan or a Christian, centres on him; he was undoubtedly a Christian. Crowned a warlord at an early age, we know he seized the city of York back from the Saxons. We also know that he led the Battle of Badon, one of the last victories of the Romano-British before succumbing to Saxon colonisation. Largely translated into literature as King Arthur’s uncle, his life heavily influenced the later legend.
A more obscure figure and a much earlier one, he lived in Britain at the time of the Roman Conquest, possibly during the reign of Emperor Claudius. That would make him a pagan and many people believe the “real” King Arthur was not Christian, but a pagan native Briton. We do know he fought against Roman incursion and had several notable victories against Claudius’ superior forces before being defeated at Portchester (which was later repurposed as a Roman coastal fort and then a medieval castle). However, instead of fighting to the death, Claudius offered Arivargus a peace treaty and Roman citizenship – he accepted both.
Another obscure figure to most people but not to historians, some events of his life influenced Geoffrey of Monmouth. The evidence for Cassivellaunus is particularly compelling for those who believe a pagan Iron Age origin for the legend of Arthur. The Roman Empire began the conquest of Britannia in AD43, but this was the second attempt for the military powerhouse. Around a century before, Gaius Julius Caesar tried to land troops and was fought back, partly due to weather but partly due to the military might of the united tribes led by Cassivellaunus. Caesar eventually won due to the betrayal of Cassivellaunus by his brother who was eventually installed to replace him.
This is the most surprising name on the list, but the disruption that Constantine The Great brought to Rome influenced Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. His conversion to Christianity and military prowess certainly influenced the legend of King Arthur and the fact that he killed the existing emperor and marched troops into the city of Rome is some influence. Some of these stories did not make it into the Arthurian legend of Mallory.
The fourth century was a difficult time for an empire clearly on the decline. The military and economic might of the enormous superpower was on the wane and people looked to new leaders to give them hope. In Britannia, that was the imperial commander Magnus Maximus. He led his military forces and usurped Emperor Gratian. At the end of the conflict, he negotiated with the new emperor and was made an emperor himself, in charge of Gaul and Britannia. His reign is considered a turning point in Rome’s history, marking the end of the direct imperial rule here.