Was Arthur a king or just a battle commander?

Explorations in Arthurian History

The figure of Arthur begins as a war hero, the praises of whom are sung in war poems by the Celts and the Welsh. Y Gododdin celebrates one particularly brave warrior, then says he "was no Arthur." The Triads are full of wonderful, courageous things Arthur did.

The most important early source for Arthur's deeds is Historia Brittonum, written by the monk Nennius in the 9th century. Nennius calls Arthur dux bellorum and tells us of 12 great battles Arthur fought. Although Nennius tells us the location of each battle, those locations are hard to come by these days. Scholars are still arguing over the locations. Even the agreed on locations suggest that Arthur got around literally from Scotland to the lowlands of Wessex to Wales.

He fought everywhere. He won great victories. A strong tradition has him a Roman heldover who uses his knowledge of cavalry to rout the Saxons time and again, counting on their inexperience in fighting mounted men.

And even though the authors likely have exagerrated his deeds (killing 960 men single handedly, for example), Arthur is likely to have been a bona fide war hero, a man who led his countrymen to victory time and again. It is certain that the Battle of Badon Hill, wherever and whenever it was, set the Saxon occupation back for a good many years. Whether Arthur fought at the battle is still not proved, but is generally believed.

Arthur was conceived amidst a war and was mortally wounded in a particularly bloody battle. His life was full of battle; it was the word of the times.

But was he a king in the traditional sense? The legends name him High King of Britain, a title held by his father, Uther Pendragon, and his uncle, Ambrosius Aurelianus. Noted historian Geoffrey Ashe identifies Arthur with Riothamus, who was called the King of the Britons even though he operated mostly in Gaul (Breton territory). A recent book by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman identifies Arthur as the King of Powys and Gwynedd, two powerful kingdoms in Wales. The northern tradition has Arthur king of some or all of Scotland.

But these identifications would seem to point toward a man who held regional sway but not national advantage.

Beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth, we see authors embellishing the tales to fit their own purposes. In Geoffrey, Arthur has a magical sword, Caliburn, and a powerful fortune teller on his side, Merlin. Geoffrey tells us that Arthur conquers half the known world, including defeating a Roman emperor along the way. Much of Geoffrey has been proven to have been made up; is the rest fiction as well?

A conclusion can probably not be made on this subject because the evidence is just too sketchy. Arthur's being a battle commander is somewhat easier to prove, but again we suffer from too little reliable information.

See also

Historical Literature

The Importance of Geography

Explorations in Arthurian Legends

The legends tell us that Arthur was a wise and powerful king, who ruled from a giant and glorious castle and who commanded the loyalty of hundreds of men.

First and foremost of these followers were the Knights of the Round Table. That the greatest knight in skill of arms, Lancelot, pledged his loyalty to Arthur is testament to the fact that the king was worthy of such admiration, both as a king and as a warrior.

For war was a way of life in Arthur's day. Just after he pulled the Sword from the Stone, he hurried to Bedegraine and defeated a rogue band of 11 powerful men who had rebelled against his leadership.

He faced constant pressure from the Saxons and the Picts and the Irish and (according to Malory, who got it from Geoffrey) the Romans; in the end, he faced a mortal threat from his own men.

He was also the backdrop against which many other advenures took place. Beginning with Chretien de Troyes, writers wrote adventures of Arthur's knights, telling us of their wonderful adventures and of courtly love. The court, of course, was Arthur's. In a sense, Arthur was moved above the day to day adventures his knights was having and put on a pedestal as the symbol of what a knight could hope to achieve.

He was also the one whom everyone looked up to and whom everyone trusted to pass judgment if they had a dispute. Important men bowed to his authority and his wisdom He held court and was the arbiter of justice. He made his own laws and enforced them himself, with the respect of his subjects. He fought in battles and sent his knights out to do battle. As such, he was both king and battle commander.

As the legend writers searched for deeper meanings, they found the Holy Grail; with it, they found it sin. Arthur was said to have conceived a son out of wedlock; Guinevere was said to have consummated her affair with Lancelot. Both of these acts were sins. With the Holy Grail the symbol of true knightly goodness, the picture of Arthur as all that is good and right was weakened; so, too, with Arthur's failure to eradicate the adultery in his midst. The idea, which had been building for a while, that his rule was intertwined with the fate of the country was shaken to its core.

As the legend writers tied a knight's goodness to piety, they tied Arthur's fate inextricably to a bad end. The king who was the symbol of the prosperity of the nation and the land was sick in his heart and his soul and had sinned against his God; the nation and the land would surely suffer as well.

And so Arthur died or was mortally wounded (take your pick) in a battle as a battle commander who was king of all the land.

See also

Literature of the Legends

Frequently Asked Questions:

Was Arthur a king or just a battle commander?

Was Guinevere really an adulteress?

Was Lancelot the greatest knight of them all?

Was Gawain a great knight or a royal pain?

Was Merlin an old magician or a young fortune teller?

Who was the Lady of the Lake?

Was Galahad really so boring?

Did Perceval see the Holy Grail or didn't he?

Was Morgan Le Fay really a witch?

Was Morgause to blame for all of Arthur's troubles?

Was the Sword really in the Stone?

Did the Round Table really seat 1,600 men?

Back to

Explorations in Arthurian History and Legends

Main Page
The People
The People
The Places
The Places
The Things
The Things
Historical Literature
Literature of the Legends
The Importance of Geography
Books of the Legends
Historical Links
Music of the Legends
Books of the History
Films of the Legends


Other Links
Mailing Lists and Societies
The Authors
Swords and Jewelry

Contact author


The Web This Site