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):
410: Death of Constantine III
420: Rise of Coel and Vortigern and subsequent Saxon invasions
440: Flourish of Ceneu and Cunedda
450: Birth of Mar, Pabo, and Ambrosius Aurelianus
480: Birth of Arthwys and his brothers
500: Campaign between British and Saxons, culminating with Badon
540: Death of Arthwys
550: Rise of petty tyrants
Who ruled which kingdoms?
The rulership of the North was like a pyramid. Coel appears to have ruled the entire North, in the manner of a Dux Britanniarum.
Coel’s son Ceneu inherited the kingdom, with Ceneu taking the territory south of Hadrian’s Wall (Ebrauc, Rheged and the Pennines) and Gorbanian became king of Bryneich (the East coast north of Hadrian’s Wall).
Ceneu’s sons Mar, Gurgust, and Pabo inherited the Northern kingdom from Ceneu. Pabo took the Pennines (centered on what is roughly now Lancashire), Gurgust took Rheged (centered on what is roughly now Cumbria), and Mar took Ebrauc (centered on what is roughly now Yorkshire up to Hadrian’s Wall).
Mar’s sons inherited his kingdom as follows:
Arthwys took Ebrauc (centered on York)
Llaenauc took Elmet (centered on Leeds)
Morydd took the area immediately below Hadrian’s Wall (centered on Carlisle)
Einion’s kingdom is unknown
Ceredic’s kingdom is unknown
Pabo was succeeded by:
Morydd took the area immediately below Hadrian’s Wall (centered on Carlisle)
Sawyl (South Pennines)
Gurgust was succeeded by:
Broadly speaking, Arthwys and his brothers ruled what is now Yorkshire and Northumbria, his uncle and cousins ruled what is now Lancashire, and his cousin Meirchionn ruled what is now Cumbria. We learned that around 547, Ida took Bryneich, which became the Angle kingdom of Bernicia.
Who were Arthwys wife and children?
Arthwys’ wife was St. Cywair of Ireland and their children were:
Ellifer Gosgorddfawr of the Great Army
Ellifer (Eleuther) succeeded Arthwys as king of Ebrauc and was in turn succeeded by Peredur.
Keidyaw succeeded Arthwys as king south of Hadrian’s Wall. He was in turn succeeded by Gwenddoleu, whose name may refer to Caer-Wenddoleu (Carwinley), 10 miles north of Carlisle.
We can presume Arthwys’ sons (Cynfelin, Ellifer, and Keidyaw) were born around 520 (when Arthwys was about 35) and their sons Peredur and Gwenddoleu were born around 550, since Peredur and Gwenddoleu fought each other at the battle of Arthuret in 573.
So what do we know of Arthwys so far?
He was born in around 480.
He was the son of Mar and Gwenllian of Ebrauc.
He had brothers called Morydd, Llaenauc, Einion, and Ceredic.
His family were Christians.
He ruled from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pennines.
In his lifetime, the Britons fought the Saxons in the Badon campaign.
His wife was St. Cywair.
His uncle was St. Pabo.
His grandfathers were St. Ceneu and St. Brychan.
His sons were Elliffer, Keidyaw, and Cynfelin.
He died in around 540.
After his death, the Angles took Bernicia.
There are other details we can deduce:
Arthwys increased the size of his kingdom. He may have inherited Ebrauc, but we can tell by the kingdoms of his sons that he also held much of the North.
The Angles, led by Ida, did not take Bernicia until after Arthwy’s death.
In 573, the North was fought over by the grandsons of Arthwys.
He may have also been known as Arthur Penuchel. Pen means "head," uchel means "high." This suggests he was the “high head.”
He may have been named after Artorius Castus.
His son commanded the “great Army” of York. This may be the old 6th Legion.
Artorius was a Dux Britanniarum. Coel may have been a Dux Britanniarum. If Arthwys commanded the 6th Legion, he would have been a Dux Britanniarum and the “high head” of the Great Army.
Enter the Gododdin
We know Arthwys and his family ruled the North. So then, when we come to a poem called the Gododdin composed by a bard called Aneirin who was related to Arthwys, it seems to be worth considering that the Arthur mentioned in the Gododdin was in fact Arthur the High Head—Arthwys ap Mar.
The stanza says:
Ef guant tratrigant echassaf
ef ladhei auet ac eithaf
oid guiu e mlaen llu llarahaf
godolei o heit meirch e gayaf
gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur
ig kynnor guernor guaurdur
He pierced three hundred, most bold,
He cut down the centre and wing.
He was worthy before the noblest host,
He gave from his herd horses in winter.
He fed black ravens on the wall
Of the fortress, although he was not Arthur.
Among those powerful in feats
In the front rank, a pallisade, Gwawrddur.
So it infers that for all his bravery and valour, slaughtering 300 enemies, Gwawddur still did not compare to Arthur. Written in around 600 C.E., the implication here is that Arthur’s memory 60 years on was still strong.
The Historia and the Annales
Also around 600 C.E., a son of Urien composed some of what became the Historia Brittonum. The Chartres manuscript of Historia Brittonum says in its preface that the compiler used as a source "excerpts made by the son of Urien from the Book of St Germanus." The later Annales Cambrae contain an entry stating, “626: Edwin is baptized, and Rhun son of Urien baptized him.”
Urien was the son of Cynfarch Oer, son of Meirchion Gul, son of Gorwst, son of Cenau.
Therefore Arthwys’ father, Mar, was the brother of Gorwst. So Meirchion and Arthwys were cousins. This part of the Historia therefore was penned by a man whose great grandfather was the cousin of Arthwys. Therefore when the Historia mention an Arthur, it is perfectly likely this refers to Arthur High Head (Arthwys ap Mar).
Bearing in mind that we know Arthwys lived circa 480 to 540, and we find the entry on Arthur taking place after Ambrosius (circa 470) and before Ida (547), therefore we know Arthur and Arthwys lived at the same time.
The Historia states:
"Then it was, that the great Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their Dux Bellorum, and was as often conqueror."
"The first battle in which he was engaged was at the mouth of the river Glein. The second, third, fourth, and fifth were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Guinnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Tribruit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty."
There is nothing here that is inconsistent with Arthwys:
He held the rank of Dux, he was the high head of kings.
He fought in Celidon—likely to be Caledonia (Scotland) or Kielder (Northumbria).
He was a Christian.
He fought at Cair Lion (Chester or Yorkshire).
He fought at Breguoin—likely to be Bremenium (near Hadrian’s Wall).
In my books Pennine Dragon and The Lost Book of King Arthur, I would also suggest the locations:
River Glein—River Glen, Northumbria
River Dubglas, Linnuis—River Douglas, Wigan, Ince
Guinnion—Vinovium, Hadrian’s Wall
Badon—Bardon Mill, Hadrian’s Wall
This shows Arthur’s campaigns across Pabo’s kingdom of the Pennines (Wigan, Preston), Rheged (Bassas), and Northumbria (Guinnion, Badon, Kielder). The Annales Cambrae tells us that Arthur won at Badon and fought Modred at Camlan. The most sensible suggestion for Camlan is Camboglanna at Hadrian’s Wall. Modred, therefore, is likely to be Arthwys’ brother Morydd.
This is all consistent with what we know of Arthwys. Arthwys was the Arthur of the Gododdin, the Annales Cambrae, and the Historia. We simply know he was born in around 480, spent his life battling the Saxons across the North, died around 540, and was remembered as a great battle leader.
After Arthur’s grandsons fought at Arthuret, the kingdom of Dalriada (based on Argyll) was inherited by Aedan MacGabran, a Scot of Irish descent. Aedan called his son Artur. The prince died young, before his battle, and so never lived up to his namesake.
* Arichival Photos from Visualhunt.com