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Discovering the Real King Arthur

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

By Simon Keegan:

The year 2016 should have been a notable year—the 1500th anniversary of King Arthur’s legendary battle that brought a famous generation of peace to Britain and led to 1,500 years of legends.

That’s why I chose 2016 as the year to release my book on King Arthur, Pennine Dragon.

This book was the first in 1,500 years to entirely identify Arthur with the real historical ruler Arthwys ap Mar, a king who ruled in the York area at that time.

But my book did more than that.

After its publication, a wave of publicity followed, particularly around my identification of Arthur’s Camelot with the “Camulod” Roman amphitheatre in Slack, not far from York. Historic England ended up giving the site full protection. Camelot was, at least for archaeologists, saved.

Over the next three years, my adventures continued. I discovered Arthur’s "Grail" that depicted his battles and even ended up in touch with adventurers in the Middle East who were battling Jordanian authorities over a book they claimed had proof of Jesus. Meanwhile, a racehorse was named after my "Camelot," Guy Ritchie premiered his King Arthur film there, and my book made it onto the reading list at English Palaces. Then the top Arthurian scholar of Bangor University backed my findings.

I was thrilled when Elizabeth at Flapper Press asked me to write about some of my findings. So let’s start at the beginning. Who was Arthur, or should I say, who was Arthwys?

Who was Arthwys?

Arthwys was the son of Masguid (Mar, Mor, Maeswig) and Gwenllian—the king and queen of Greater Ebrauc, centred on what is now York. He had four brothers named Llaenauc, Ceredic, Morydd, and Einion. The five brothers were born in around 470–485 C.E.

What are the sources for Arthwys?

He appears in numerous king lists that are considered fairly historically accurate. In one his genealogy is given as:

Gvrgi a Pheredur meibon Eliffer Gosgorduavr m Arthwys m Mar m Keneu m Coel

(Gwrgi and Peredur sons of Eliffer son of Arthur son of Mar son of Ceneu son of Coel)

Another lists his descendants as well as his ancestors:

Gwendoleu a Nud a Chof meibyon Keidyav m Arthwys m Mar m Keneu m Coel

(Gwendoleu, Nud and Chof, sons of Keidyaw son of Arthwys son of Mar son of Ceneu son of Coel)

Others reveal his uncle as Pabo Post Prydain:

[C]atguallaun liu map Guitcun map Samuil pennissel map Pappo post priten map Ceneu map Gyl hen.

In another genealogy, we see an "Arthur Penuchel." This would seem to indicate Arthwys is identical with Arthur Penuchel, since both genealogies include Gwrgi and Peredur: Gwrgi a pheredur ac arthur penuchel a tonlut a hortnan a dyrnell trydyth gwyn dorliud

Who was Arthwys’ father, Mar?

He was the son of Ceneu, the king of Northern Britain. His mother is not known. He had two brothers, Pabo and Gurgust. Mar ruled Ebrauc, Pabo (later a saint) ruled the Pennines, and Gurgust ruled Rheged. Mar’s father, Ceneu, was later regarded as a saint. He was born around 450. Ceneu’s father was said to be Coel, the king of Northern Britain who defended the region around Hadrian’s Wall and across Ebrauc, the Pennines, and Rheged.

Who was Arthwys’ mother, Gwenllian?

The name Gwenllian is comprised of Gwen (white or pure) and Llian (meaning flaxen like unspun straw). She was the daughter of St. Brychan Gododdin and Prawst verch Tudwal. She was born around 450 and was later a saint.

What was Arthwys’ religion?

His paternal uncle, mother, and grandfathers were Christian saints, so there is every likelihood he was a Christian.

What does Arthwys mean?

It may be translated as Bear (Arth) Summons (Wys).

What is the origin of the name Arthwys?

Names similar, with the root Art (Artuir), are found in Ireland. Athrwys (Atroys) is later found in south Wales, and there are of course the Roman form Artorius, the British form of Arthur, and the Celtic deity Arcturus.

Were there any notable people with the above names before Arthwys?

The most notable is perhaps Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman Dux possibly of Croatia who came to command the 6th Legion (York/Hadrian’s Wall) in around 200 C.E.

What do we know of documented history before Arthwys?

Flavius Claudius Constantinus, known as Constantine III (died 18 September 411), was a Roman general who declared himself Western Roman Emperor in Britannia in 407 and established himself in Gaul. Recognised by the Emperor Honorius in 409, Constantine suffered a collapse of support and military setbacks that led to his abdication in 411. He was captured and executed shortly afterward. Constans II was the eldest son of the Western Roman Emperor Constantine III and was appointed co-emperor by him from 409 to 411. He was killed during the revolts and fighting that ended his father’s reign. Archaeology has uncovered coins of both Constantine III and Constans II. After Rome’s apparent withdrawal from Britain, numerous names are associated with the period between 410–470, including Coel, Cunedda, Vortigern, and Ambrosius Aurelianus. From information provided by the likes of Gildas and Bede, it seems likely that Ambrosius (whose name suggests a Roman influence) was a civilised man loyal to a Romanised unified Britain, while Vortigern (if he is identical with Gildas’ "proud tyrant") was a petty chieftain who made use of Germanic mercenaries, destabilizing the British establishment. It seems no coins were minted in Britain in this period. It has been suggested that the absence of a Roman emperor allowed Coel to fill that role in the North and Vortigern to fill that role in the South.

What do we know of Ambrosius Aurelianus?

According to Gildas, Ambrosius was the last of the Romans defending against a Saxon occupation of Britain. He says of him:

"… a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way."

What do we know of the time of Arthwys’ life?

According to Gildas, the generation that followed Ambrosius (which would include Arthwys) was a period of British fighting Saxons. He says:

“From that time, the citizens were sometimes victorious, sometimes the enemy, in order that the Lord, according to His wont, might try in this nation the Israel of to-day, whether it loves Him or not. This continued up to the year of the siege of Badon Hill (obsessionis Badonici montis), and of almost the last great slaughter inflicted upon the rascally crew. And this commences, a fact I know, as the forty-fourth year, with one month now elapsed; it is also the year of my birth.”

The battle of Badon is next mentioned in an 8th-century text of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It describes the “siege of Mount Badon, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders,” as occurring 44 years after the first Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain.

What do we know of the period after Arthwys’ life?

Britain was a time not only of fighting between British and Saxons but of squabbling British tribes. Gildas cites five kings as petty tyrants: Cuneglas, Maelgwyn. Constantine, Aurelius Caninus and Vortipor.

Therefore we have an approximate timeline (all dates rounded off):