KING Arthur is one of the most important figures in British history, yet his historical identity is a complete mystery. Many people believe he is simply a myth or legend. The image we have today is a medieval king of Britain with his knights of the round table, ruling from the mythical city of Camelot.

However, writers like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory are largely responsible for creating this idea. In reality, King Arthur was a fifth or sixth century warrior king of the Celtic Britons.

In 410AD, the Romans withdrew from Britannia. This was a chaotic and turbulent time in history where Britannia was raided by Anglo-Saxons from Germania and Scots and Picts from the north. The Roman Britons were Christians, whereas most of these tribes will have been pagans. A king of the Britons known as Vortigern hires the Anglo-Saxons as mercenaries to fight the Scots and the Picts. However, the Anglo-Saxons soon turned on Vortigern and the Britons. According to Nennius, the Welsh monk, the Anglo-Saxons massacred the native British chiefs at a feast and held Vortigern as a hostage. Historians question these events.

Around this time, a Roman British war leader called Ambrosius Aurelianus rises to power and leads the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons. He defeats the Anglo-Saxons and becomes the king of the Britons. Some historians believe Ambrosius was the historical King Arthur. However, this isn’t the end of the saga. The British monk, Gildas, explains that the Britons go on to fight more battles against the Anglo-Saxons, before defeating them at the battle of Mons Badon in 517AD. However, Gildas doesn’t mention King Arthur. In 472AD, a king of the Britons known as Riothamus leaves to Gaul with his army to fight the Visigoths at the request of the Roman emperor. Riothamus simply means “high king” so he may have been Ambrosius Aurelianus. As Ambrosius was a Roman Briton, he may have still had ties with Rome.

At this point, King Arthur emerges as a leader of the Britons. Nennius mentions King Arthur and explains that he fought 12 battles. Nennius describes Arthur as a “Dux Bellorum”, a leader of battles, who fights alongside the kings of the Britons. Arthur fights a number of battles in the district of Linnuis, which is Lincolnshire, just south of York, followed by battles at places like the River Bassas, the Caledonian forest, Caerleon in south Wales and Winchester and finally Mons Badon, which is Bath. Some of the place names are very obscure, whereas others are more obvious. Like many historical conflicts, there’s usually more than one hero figure. The Scottish wars of independence are a good example, with William Wallace and Robert the Bruce emerging as Scottish heroes.

If Ambrosius Aurelianus wasn’t King Arthur, we need to look elsewhere. The name Arthur is derived from the Welsh word, Arth, which means bear. In the 6th and 7th centuries, there are several Welsh kings with names similar to Arthur. In Scotland, there’s a prince of Dalriada called Arthur Mac Aedan, a son of the famous king, Aedan Mac Gabran. However, they would have lived a generation or so after King Arthur. The only individual who would have lived during the time of King Arthur is someone called Arthwys ap Mar, a king of the north. He’s listed in the old Welsh genealogy known as the “Descent of the Men of the North”. Amongst his descendants were individuals like Eliffer Gosgordfawr (Eliffer of the great army), Pabo Prydein (Pabo the pillar of Britain) and Clydno Eidin (Clydno of Eidin, which is modern day Edinburgh).

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Arthwys ap Mar was the great grandson of Coel Godebog or Coel the Protector, a king of the north. The grandsons of Arthwys fight at the battle of Arfderydd in 573AD, which involves other kings of the north like Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde and possibly Aedan Mac Gabran of Dalriada. In the Welsh triads, the battle of Arfderydd is described as one of the three futile battles of Britain. Some historians believe Arthwys ap Mar was a king of York. However, this is simply speculation. Given the names mentioned in the Descent of the Men of the North, it’s much more likely that Arthwys ap Mar was based further north. The “old north” was basically the land between Hadrian’s wall and the Antonine wall. The author believes that this would have been a term to describe the whole of the north.

The Gododdin were a Celtic tribe based in Edinburgh and the Lothians and the Manau Gododdin were based in the area of Stirling. They would have spoken a language similar to Welsh. To the north, you had the Pictish tribes, who would have also spoken a language similar to Welsh. This is seen in place names like Aberdeen and Aberfeldy. The Picts were the descendants of the Caledonians. They were known as the “painted people”.

In the ninth century, the Gaels and the Picts united to form Alba. The Welsh word for Pictland is Prydyn and the Welsh word for Britain is Prydein. The Gododdin would have had close ties with the Picts. Mar is an unusual personal name. It may be a reference to the Pictish province of Mar, in Aberdeenshire. It would have included all the land between the rivers Dee and Don as far as Braemar to the west. King Arthur may have been a king of the Gododdin with Pictish heritage, or he may have been a king of the Picts.

A NUMBER of Scottish clans have links to King Arthur. The MacArthurs and Campbells claim descent from King Arthur. The Galbraiths have a coat of arms with three bears’ heads. Clan Forbes, who were based in the province of Mar, also have a coat of arms with three bears’ heads.

The Picts had a place in the legends of King Arthur. One of Arthur’s knights was called Tristan, which is derived from the Pictish name, Drust. Another knight was called Gareth, the earl of Orkney. King Lot, the father of Mordred, was a king of the Picts. Arthur’s closest companion in Welsh folk tales is called Cai, which may be derived from the Pictish name, Cailtram.

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On the south coast of Cornwall, there’s a standing stone dated to the sixth century dedicated to Drust son of Cunomorus. Finally a 12th century French monk, called Lambert of St Omer, described King Arthur as a “Dux Pictorum”, a leader of the Picts, who fought with the kings of the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons.

The Celtic Britons may have required the help of the Scots and the Picts to defeat the Anglo-Saxons. As allegiances always shifted, it’s quite possible that this happened.

Arthwys ap Mar would have been well placed to raise a northern army and drive the Anglo-Saxons out of Lincolnshire. He would have then marched on towns like Caerleon and Winchester, before defeating the Anglo-Saxons at the battle of Mons Badon.

King Arthur ushered in a period of peace which lasted for decades. According to the legends, Arthur is betrayed by his nephew Mordred, and they are both killed at the battle of Camlann in 537AD. The battle may have taken place at Camelon, close to Falkirk, on the banks of the River Carron.

Although Ambrosius Aurelianus played an important role in the Anglo-Saxon wars, Arthwys ap Mar appears to be the historical figure who inspired the legends.

Niall Robertson is a graduate of International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies. He worked as a policy adviser at HM Treasury for 3 years. He has written two books on Scottish history which are available on