Historical Background (Arthurian Legend)

Facts and Figures

Here, I have some more history lessons to readers. If you are fascinated by the history lessons I have given to you so far in the other mythology then read on. Otherwise go back to menu.

I have divided the historical background into several parts. The first part deals with Roman Britain, while the second article is set in the Dark Ages, the time that was said to be the Golden Age of Arthur.

The last article has more to do with the time of the feudal period, such as the time of courtly love (amour courtois), of knights and tournaments; of when all the legends were written down.



Roman Britain      
Britain in the Dark Age      
Feudal Period      


Roman Britain

Before we begin to talk of Arthur’s period, let’s go through the history of the Roman Empire and its northern province, Britain, and what brought about this situation.

The Romans first came to Britain in the late Republican period. Gaius Julius Caesar was campaigning in Gaul (modern France and Belgium) in 59-56 BC, before he decided to cross the English Channel. In 55 BC, he landed with two legions near Kent and was immediately attacked by Britons. Though he managed to repel the Britons, Caesar had to return to Gaul due to bad weather.

Caesar returned the following year, with five legions and a larger fleet. His army crossed the Thames and he captured the British king named Cassivellanus. Caesar returned to the continent before winter arrived.

His expeditions to Britain were more of raids than invasions and occupations. Caesar saw that the Britons were like the Celts in Gaul, mostly with the similarities in language and the divisions into tribal kingdoms. He was impressed with the Britons’ skills in the use of chariots in battles. The Gauls had abandoned the chariots before the sacking of Rome in 390 BC.

Britain was not a Roman province until the reign of Emperor Claudius, in the middle of 1st century AD. Claudius established Camulodunum as the new capital of the province of Britannia (Britain).

Much of the population comes from Celtic race. The Celts, known as the Cymic Celts, probably arrived in Britain in the 6th century BC. More Celts arrived from Gaul, during the campaigns of Julius Caesar and early Imperial Rome.

I have talked a lot about the Celtic people in the Celtic Mythology division under the title “Who were the Celts?“. Therefore, I don’t need to repeat myself.

Anyway, these Celts in Britain became known as the Britons under the Roman Empire, and had absorbed and adopted Roman culture and law.

Christianity may have arrived in the second half of the 1st century AD, but it was not a universally accepted religion until the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, in the early 3rd century AD. Even though some of Celts may have converted to the new religion, their Celtic heritage remained strong and the pagan gods still linger in their tales and their arts.


Several Roman legions were permanently posted in Britain, though they were stationed in many of the Roman forts found in England and Wales, such as Lindum (Lincoln), Glevum (Gloucester) and Eboracum (York).

In AD 122, Emperor Hadrain had his army build a wall from the Tyne to the Solway. Hadrain’s Wall marked the extent of the Roman sphere of influence in Britain, as well as to keep the Picts (“Painted-men”) from the North (Caledonia or the modern Scottish Highlands) out of their province.

The next emperor, Antoninus Pius, extended the British frontier in the north. Another wall, known as the Antonine Wall, was built in AD 139 and was located further north in the Scottish isthmus. The Romans established their main headquarters at the fort in Eboracum (York). However, the Antonine Wall was abandoned after only a generation, and Hadrain’s Wall was again the frontier of Roman defence.

After the reign of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180, the Roman Empire had already begun its decline. In the middle of the third century, the empire not only suffered from foreign invaders, but also from constant civil wars and uprisings within the empire. Between AD 238 and 253, imperial pretenders were elevated and assassinated at a rate of one emperor a year (12 EMPERORS!!!). The empire was on the point of total collapse. Somehow, the empire recovered from the long crisis.

At the end of the 3rd century, the Roman general� Constantius (father of Constantine the Great), had organised an effective defence along the south and east shore of England, known as the “Saxon Shore”. A series of large forts were built on the Saxon Shore. These defences were placed under the command of Dux (later known as “duke”) of Britain and Comes litoris Saxonici (“Counts of the Saxon Shore”). The Comes were subordinated to the Dux, who had his headquarters in Eboracum (York).

Several Roman emperors campaigned in Britain against the Picts, such as Septimus Severus and Constantine. By the time of Constantine, the Roman Empire was divided into East and West. In the East, the Romans established a new capital (New Rome) in the ancient city of Byzantium in Thrace, which the emperor renamed to Constantiople (AD 330). The Eastern Empire faced mostly the threat of the powerful Persian Empire, which had replaced the Parthian Empire.

The Roman Empire in the West was subjected to new invasions and migrations of the Germanic people. While the continent faced new threats, the Britons were also faced with new dangers. (See Who were the Norse and Germanic people? for information about the invasion of the Barbarians.)

The Britons not only had to contend with Caledonian invaders from Scotland, but from the Germanic tribes across the North Sea, in Frisia and Juteland. These invading tribes were the Jutes, Angles and the Saxons.

The Saxons set foot in Britain for the first time in AD 367, doing a lot of damage, before they were defeated and driven out by the Roman (Goth) general Flavius Theodosius, the father of Theodosius the Great (also called Flavius Theodosius). Theodosius the Great would eventually become emperor of the East in AD 379, and then later, the emperor of the recombined East and West (AD 392-395). As a Christian, Theodosius was known for his bigotry and religious intolerance, and began the persecution and suppression of paganism and the Arianism, whom he accused of being heretics. It was Theodosius who designated the Christians to which he belonged as “Catholic”.

Emperor Theodosius’ general, named Flavius Stiliclo, a Vandal by birth, reorganised the defence of Britain in AD 395.

With the death of Theodosius the Great, the Roman Empire was once again divided into East and West. It was divided by Theodosius’ two sons: Honorius, who ruled the West, while his brother, Arcadius, had the empire in the East.

Now serving under Honorius, Stiliclo was Rome’s best general and the strongest protector in the Western Empire. Honorius had married Stiliclo’s daughter and Stiliclo was made consul in 400. Stiliclo had successfully if not decisively defeated Alaric, the king of the Visigoths. In AD 406, he had decisively defeated the invading Ostrogoths, led by Radagaisus.

However, in AD 408, Honorius, fearing that Stiliclo was having imperial ambitions, imprisoned the general and later had Stiliclo beheaded. With the news of Stiliclo’s death, in AD 410, Alaric had once again invaded Italy, and sacked Rome. Rome had not fallen to a foreign army since the Gauls had captured the city in 390 BC.

Seeing the peril, Honorius advised Britain to see to its own defence, stripping all troops from the British Isles. This left Britain virtually defenceless against invasions. In AD 446, Britain appealed to Flavius Aetius, the commander-in-chief of the Roman armies, for aid, one last time. But Aetius was facing a more serious threat from Attila’s unstoppable army.

In AD 476, during the reign of Romulus Augustus, Rome fell to the Goths. The German leader, Odoacer, ended the Roman Empire in the West. Odoacer became the first king of Italy. The fall of Rome marked the beginning of the Dark Ages in Western Europe and the end of Antiquity.

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Who Were the Celts?
Who were the Norse and Germanic people?



Britain in the Dark Age

The Dark Ages was the earliest division of the Middle Ages in Europe, between the fall of Rome in AD 476 and in AD 800, which was the coronation of Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor.

(As for those living in Britain, the Dark Age began when the Roman legions withdrew from the island in AD 410. Some also say that the Dark Age didn’t end until the Battle of Hastings, 1066. But all this is from the point of view of the British.)

The period marked the time of decay in political, economical and social organisation. The general instability and constant warfare of this period had eroded all the advanced learning that the Romans had built, particularly in art, science and literature. Literature and history were in the hands of Christian monks. (With history, I have a lot of misgivings about the truth and accuracy of their writings.)

Many Germanic kingdoms sprouted all over Western Europe, yet constant warfare left the population exhausted. The Franks had settled in France and part of Germany, the Lombardians in northern Italy, and the Visgoths in Spain and Africa, while the Saxons and Angles can be found in Germany as well as in Britain.

There was no Dark Age in the Roman Empire in the East, which is sometimes called the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire lasted over a thousand years, reaching its great height in the reign of Justinian (AD 527-565), who had established control in Italy, with Ravenna as his base. The Byzantine Empire ended when the Turkish cannons took the city of Constantinople in the siege of 1453.

So what happened to Britain after the whole Roman army left the island in AD 410?

The isles were repeatedly invaded by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. The Britons who had stayed on the island had trouble keeping the invaders out of Britain.

The Jutes, from the Scandinavian Jutland, had mostly settled around the region of Kent, while the Angles and Saxons had established several kingdoms in various part of England. The Britons were driven east to Wales, southeast in Cornwall, and to the north in Scotland. The Angles had kingdoms in Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Middle Anglia, while the Saxons occupied Essex, Sussex and Wessex, which means the East Saxons, South Saxons and the West Saxons.

In the 5th and 6th century, a large group of Celtic Britons had already fled to Armorica (Brittany), in France, seeking refuge from the invading Saxons. It was at this period that the region was renamed from Armorica to Brittany. The name Brittany means “Little Britain”.

There has been speculation that the Arthurian legend comes not from Welsh sources, but from Breton sources. This speculation was due to the fact that the name Arthur was much more common in Brittany than in Wales.


Several Celtic kingdoms in the north had tried to resist the Angles in Scotland. These kingdoms were known to the Welsh in Wales as the Old North, and they spoke Old Welsh, not Scottish Gaelic. These kingdoms included the Rheged and Gododdin. Two famous Welsh bards of the late 6th century AD, Taliesin and Aneirin, sung their praises to the warriors of these two kingdoms.

In the Welsh kingdom of Rheged, in Scotland, King Urien successfully repelled the Angles, but his son Owain (Yvain) was killed in fighting in the late sixth century. The Welsh poet, Taliesin, recorded the battle in his elegy. Urien and Owain were historical figures who later appeared in the Arthurian legend.

Taliesin was a contemporary of another poet named Aneirin. There were many warriors found in Aneirin’s poem, titled Y Gododdin, but one name appeared once in a short line that interests us – Arthur. We know nothing about this Arthur except that no warrior was more brave or stronger than Arthur.

It was at this period around AD 500 when a warlord led the Britons to a decisive victory over the Saxons at battle of Mons Badonicus (Mont Badon), in AD 516. Gildas, the Celtic monk, who wrote De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (c. AD 560), recorded the event but not who won the victory, unless it was Ambrosius Aurelianus. There was no mention of Arthur.

It wasn’t until in the ninth century that a Welsh historian named Nennius associated the victory at Mont Badon to Arthur, in Historia Brittonum. Nennius also recorded that Arthur had a son named Anri or Amir whom he killed, and a dog called Cabal. Nennius also recorded the account of Vortigern and Merlin, who was called Ambrosius; Geoffrey of Monmouth retold this later in his History.

In the tenth century, the Annale Cambriae recorded that Arthur fought two battles. The first battle was against the Saxons at Mont Badon in 516. While in AD 537, that

“The year of the battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell…”

This statement is rather ambiguous, since we don’t know what their relationship to one another was, nor do we know if they fought together against the enemies or if they fought against each other. Clearly, “Medraut” was Geoffrey’s Mordred.

However, in the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen, c. 1100, one of the works in the Mabinogion, we find that Camlann was mentioned as the battle in which Arthur had fought. There was no mention of Medraut (Mordred). Another work of the Mabinogion , called the Dream of Rhonabwy, mentions Medrawd (Mordred or Medraut) as the nephew of Arthur and as one who fought against his uncle in Camlann. No date can be placed on the Rhonabwy. Clearly the authors of both works knew about the passages in the Annale Cambriae.

Geoffrey of Monmouth and all other authors interpreted that Arthur and Mordred (Medraut) were uncle and nephew, and that they were at war against one another.

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Arthur, Mordred, King Urien, Owain (Yvain), Taliesin.

Mabinogion, Culhwch and Olwen.
Who Were the Celts?
Would the real Arthur, please take step forward.



Feudal Period

As I said before, the Dark Ages ended when the pope crowned Charlemagne, the Frankish king, as the Holy Roman Emperor. A new phase in the Middle Age began.

Charlemagne was the king of the Franks, who ruled an empire that comprised France, Germany, Austria and the northern part of Italy. It was Charlemagne who brought about the feudal period.

Feudalism was a system whereby the vassal lords or barons offered military services to their liege lord, who may be a king or prince, in exchange for land and wealth. The vassals were required to swear oaths of fealty to their lord (liege). Feudalism was a political, economical and military structure that was popular throughout the medieval period. At the top of the hierarchy, liege lord was normally the king, then prince, duke, and other nobility, whereas a vassal can be of any lord below a king.

One of the earliest examples of feudalism that I found was that of the Scandinavian chieftain named Rollo (Rolf). Rollo was a Danish Viking pirate who raided the coast of Britain and France. In 911, Charles III (the Simple), king of the Franks (France) and descendant of Charlemagne, negotiated peace between himself and the Viking. Rollo was made into first duke of Normandy. In return for the land, Rollo promised to keep other Vikings out of France. Rollo accepted Christianity and swore the oath fealty to Charles III.

The duchy of Normandy produced many powerful leaders, and was second to the king of France, in powers and prestige. In fact, the Duchy of Normandy seemed more like an independent kingdom. Other well known dukes include Rollo’s son William I Longsword, Robert Guiscard, and William II of Normandy (who was later known as William the Conqueror).

It was this powerful family in Normandy that created the knights, which evolved into the medieval knights as we know them today. The knights were heavily armed horsemen, who were the backbone of the medieval army. The knights became elite forces in the army. The popularity of knights was such that even kings and other lords became knights. A knight became the symbol of the highest prowess that a man could achieve; it was the symbol of strength and courage.

In Roman Republican society, the knights were a social class of the middle order, and they were called equites. The equites were sort of middle class, and they used to serve in the army as cavalrymen, since they could afford to maintain horses and armours. The equites were wealthy merchants or other businessmen. The equites (knights) were distinguished from the noblity of the senators, who were landowners and formed the backbone of the governing body. They were distinguished from the lower class, known as the plebs.

The armour and weaponry of the knights were derived from the ancient Roman cavalry of the 3rd and 5th century AD, known as the clibanarii and the cataphracts. The Romans had used fully armoured cavalry as early as 1st century AD, when the Emperor Vespanian hired Sarmatian mercenaries.

Before any man could become a knight, he had to undergo years of rigorous training, particularly in military matters. He would serve as a page, as a young boy, before he became a squire, which was an apprenticeship, before becoming a knight. A knight had to learn to fight on foot and on his war-horse.

The knights usually worn hauberk (coat of mail), mail leggings and helmet. Plated armour would later replace the hauberk, as the whole armoury went into evolutionary changes. They carried a shield, and either sword or axe. At the time of the Norman Conquest, the knights were armed with javelins instead of the long lances that modern people associate with the knights.

His war-horse was highly trained. The knights also needed to be trained to handle such horses. Since the war-horses were expensive to train, it was necessary to protect them, and for those who could afford it, special armours were made for the horses.

Chivalry and courtly codes did not exist until the troubours and medieval authors of the late 12th century began celebrating the knights. Chivalry is a code of conduct or a way of life that the knight had to follow.


The strange thing about the legends of King Arthur is that it was supposed to be based on a Romano-British king from the time of the Dark Ages (AD 476-800). Yet Arthur and his fellowship of the Round Table wear armour and assume the behaviour of French knights in the age of chivalry. But the same can be said about heroes of Greek mythology, where Homer writes of heroes before his own time, the Bronze Age (Mycenaean period, before 1100 BC), yet the heroes wore the hoplite armour of his own time.

However, the Arthurian literature mainly derived legends from the pagan Celtic times; for example, the scene of the beheading game in Gawain and the Green Knight bears a striking resemblance to that of Bricriu’s Feast in the Irish myth. Many of the legends come from Welsh sources. The tale of Tristan had being derived from Breton romance, before it became part of the Arthurian legend in the 13th century.

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Roman Britain  | Britain in the Dark Age  | Feudal Period