The Real King Arthur
The most important thing to remember about the Legend of King Arthur is that the most commonly read stories were translated from French by Sir Thomas Malory in the late 1400's and have therefore been written from a late medieval perspective. Mallory would have had little concept that Arthur's society in the 5th and 6th centuries would be any different to his own.
Malory was only translating legends that had been around for centuries, also putting together a few of the more common English legends many originally compiled by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the late 12th century. There were hundreds of stories about Arthur in many languages and they varied dramatically. The Welsh legends are quite violent and gory while the French ones portray Lancelot as the real hero with Arthur a bumbling sidekick.
Also in early medieval history legends were not written down but passed on from generation to generation verbally. Also the storytellers, bards, minstrels, troubadours would happily combine the exploits of several mildly interesting people into one superhero (Robin Hood is a classic example of this).
The primary English version of the Arthurian legend (Le Morte d' Arthur) was actually compiled shortly after from Mallory's writings by William Caxton (the first person in England operating a printing press). Caxton's contribution to the legend, aside from printing and distributing it, was that he edited and arranged Mallory's largely disconnected tales into a cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end. Thus the legend of Arthur as we know it was born (however, much later in the Victorian era Alfred Lord Tennyson, produced a somewhat 'cleaner' version of Le Morte d' Arthur that glossed over much of the violence and other more distasteful aspects found within the original version).
Around 500 AD the gradual conquest of Romo-Celtic Britain by the Saxons was halted for about 30 to 40 years and then resumed. Cadury 'Castle' (an old Celtic hill fort) is the most popular site for Camelot and was refortified at this time. These new defences were for the time period extremely impressive.
The name Arthur prior to this period was rare but became common soon after.
Romo-Celtic peoples did retain some limited Roman knowledge of cavalry tactics while their Saxon enemies had none.
It is popularly conjectured that a charismatic man of Roman ancestry came to a position of power amongst the disunited Romo-Celtic tribes during the Anglo-Saxon conquest, around 500AD. Using what remained of Roman military knowledge, particularly cavalry tactics, he brought some unity to the tribes. Using a small core or 'round table' of heavy cavalry he was able to outmanoeuvre the much slower Saxons. He would have lacked the resources to defeat them but he could have stopped them.
A known person by the name of Aurillianus Ambrosious is often thought to be Arthur as are a couple of others. Ambrosious does seem to be a separate person, possibly Arthur's father. However always remember that storytellers had a habit of rolling several people into one and moving things around. To illustrate Sir Tristian pops up in Arthurian legends despite the fact that Tristan was a very real person who lived around three centuries after Arthur would have.
The Russian Theory
This is a recent more precise variation of the general theory. The foot slogging Romans always had trouble finding good cavalry and frequently hired foreign mercenaries to do the job. The Sarmatian tribes of Russia were a popular choice being excellent horsemen and aggressive fighters while lacking the organisation to seriously threaten Rome.
It is known that a unit of 500 Sarmatian Cavalry was stationed in Britain (near Lancaster to be precise) around 275 AD. A tombstone identifies one of its officers as Lucius Atrorius Castus. A further illegible tombstone indicates that this unit was still in Britain in 400 AD.
Note in the late Roman army units became hereditary with a soldiers place being taken by his sons. Thus a unit could continue to operate in the same area for several generations without a central authority, though a gradual decay in ability and numbers was almost inevitable. Also when the Romans withdrew from Britain in 407 AD. they left many such hereditary units behind.
Sarmatians were trained as lance armed heavy shock cavalry. The local Celts never advanced beyond light javelin armed mounted skirmishers (and they weren't particularly good at that). Saxons generally had trouble telling one end of a horse from the other.
It is entirely plausible that a small group of descendants of this Sarmatian unit survived until 500 AD. Even a small number (the round table never seems to much exceeded 100 in any of the legends and was often much smaller) of heavy cavalry given intelligent leadership could have severely disrupted Saxon strategy.
Two other interesting points should be mentioned. Sarmatians used a Dragon standard consisting of a long windsock connected to an open mouthed dragon head which is in turn fixed to a long staff. King Arthur is always said to use a dragon standard though its specific design is never mentioned. Secondly the Sarmatians main religious ritual which commemorated life and death involved plunging a sword into the ground and pouring animal blood over it.
A Footnote on Sir Thomas Malory:
While his role in creating the modern legend of King Arthur might on the face of it suggest that Malory was a knight of a cultivated, scholarly disposition. However, this could hardly be further from the truth. In fact it appears that Malory only translated the Arthurian tales from French to English as a diversion while he was imprisoned for (among other things) stealing horses and cattle, looting a monastery (repeatedly), attempting to murder the Duke of Buckingham, rape, and extortion. When imprisoned he was bailed out on two occasions and escaped on two others. The reason why he was imprisoned in the relatively comfortable and privileged conditions that he was because he was a nobleman and some-time member of the parliament (having a seat there on three occasions). Malory was freely able to commit the crimes he did due to a measure of political protection and the highly ineffective criminal justice system of the time. Despite the fact he was essentially a career criminal who certainly belonged in prison it was only a change in the political environment that finally found him there permanently. So perversely it is this medieval English gangster that we have to thank for what we today understand as the legend of King Arthur.
Nicolle, D. (1984). Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars. Osprey, UK.
Mielczarek, Embleton, (2002) The Sarmatians 600BC - AD450. Osprey, UK.
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