King Arthur: Birth of a Legend

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Part 2: So Much Unknown

So much is believed about Arthur, yet very little is actually known about him. For starters, historians have no proof that he ever existed. Scholars can find plenty of circumstantial evidence (including the fact that in the 6th Century, the first name of the eldest son of each of the four most powerful families in the land was Arthur), but no definitive proof of Arthur's existence has been found. A body definitively identified as Arthur has never been found. (One well-known story from the 12th Century gives details of a recovered body that seem to suggest that that body was Arthur's, but that body disappeared in the end and so historians are left to seek other clues.)

What scholars do not have is a source living at the time who writes the name Arthur. Very few sources from that time period (and Arthur is believed to have lived in the 5th or 6th Century) survive at all. One source that does is De Excidio Brittaniae, a pessimistic look at the "downfall" of Britain written by Gildas, a monk.

Gildas does provide many details about Vortigern, the leader whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says invited the Saxons into the country as supposed allies. Gildas also gives a history of Britain, from the time the Romans arrived until what was to him the present day. Gildas also mentions the Battle of Badon Hill, described elsewhere as an epic confrontation between the Britons and the Saxons. The story goes that after a few dozen instances of back-and-forth, with each side claiming its share of victories, the Britons crushed the Saxons at this battle and that Saxon incursions stopped for a generation.

Gildas lived through the Battle of Badon Hill. He lived through the eventual Saxon victory also. Gildas mentions Badon Hill but does not mention Arthur or, indeed, anyone who commanded British forces during that battle. Gildas does mention Ambrosius Aurelianus but not as the leader at Badon Hill.

Frustratingly for historians, Gildas doesn't include a date for this battle. So historians through the years have done various calculations and come to differing dates for this battle. One of the most popular given is a round number, A.D. 500.

Another famous English writer of historical events was the Venerable Bede. Like Gildas, Bede fashioned himself a historian. He wrote a number of things, the most famous of which is An Ecclesiastial History of the English People.

Bede lived in what is now Jarrow, in the northeast of England, in what was then the Kingdom of Northumbria. He is known far and wide as the "Father of English History." Bede was sent at an early age to a monastery to be educated. He ended up spending most of his life in religious surroundings.

His most famous book tells the story of the Britons, from Caesar's invasion to the present, Bede's present, the 8th Century. Bede tells the story of eclipses and battles and kings and conversions. He also tells the story of miracles, many miracles, performed by monks and bishops and saintly men leading by spiritual example.

Bede mentions the Romans and their massive influence on the development of Britain. He does indeed mention the Saxon arrival and how it occurred. He even mentions Badon Hill, although, following Gildas's lead, he doesn't include much else.

Part 3: Monks and More Monks

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