The Real Life Background to the Legendary Tales of King Arthur
In an earlier entry, we discussed some of the legends about King Arthur, but what about the real figure behind those legendary accounts? Was there ever a real King Arthur? Evidence indicates that there was a real person behind the legendary one. His origin story began in the early fifth century, when the Roman Empire found itself under massive pressure from barbarian invaders on multiple fronts. So the Romans withdrew their forces from the far off province of Britain, to use them in an attempt to hang on to territories they viewed as more vital.
It is unclear if the Romans at the time viewed the withdrawal from Britain as permanent, or just a temporary pullback, with plans to return once things settled down. As things turned out, the legions never returned, and Roman Britain was left on its own. The Romano-Britons were beset by their own invaders, most significantly the Picts in Scotland, and Saxons from across the North Sea. In response, the locals implemented what turned out to be a bad idea of epic proportions. Perhaps reasoning that it takes a thief to catch a thief, they decided to hire Saxon mercenaries and settle them in Britain, to defend them from other Saxons and similar barbarians. As seen below, that did not end well for the locals.
Once the Saxons settled in Britain and got comfortable, they decided they wanted more. So they accused their hosts and employers of failure to meet their side of the deal, and charged them with shortchanging the Saxons on the supplies that they had been promised. The Romano-Britons sent their leaders to try and negotiate with the Saxons and reduce the tensions. Unfortunately for the locals, the Saxons’ idea of negotiation was to suddenly pull out their daggers during the sit down, and massacre the native big shots. They spared just one of the locals, a leader named Vortigern, and kept him alive as a puppet ruler in exchange for his promise to grant the Saxons more land.
The resultant conflict, as the Saxons gobbled up more and more territory from the locals, gave rise to the tales of a legendary British leader, King Arthur, who valiantly fought against the invaders. The Saxons absorbed the lands extorted from the Romano-Britons through their puppet British ruler, Vortigern, then sought more. The invaders eventually launched a massive onslaught that was described by Saint Gildas, a British cleric, who penned De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), circa 510 – 530. From gradual expansion, the Saxon effort – eventually joined in by fellow Germanic tribes the Jutes and Angles – became a war of conquest that sought to seize all of Britain.
The Real Life Resistance That Birthed the Legendary Arthurian Accounts
As the invaders fought to displace the local inhabitants and replace them with Germanic settlers, the hard pressed Britons had the good fortune to find an effective warlord. Subsequent mythology morphed him into the legendary King Arthur. While Arthur does not appear in any of the contemporary sources, there is evidence that some British war leader, perhaps named Arthur or something close, lived during this period. For example, a sixth century engraving was found in Cornwall, bearing the name of some bigwig named “Artognu”.
In 2010, Archaeologists found what might have been the legendary Arthur’s real Round Table at the site of his reputed Camelot. The fabled edifice was not a purpose-built castle, but was housed instead in a preexisting structure: a recently discovered Roman amphitheater in Chester. The Round Table was not a literal piece of furniture, but a vast wood and stone structure that could have allowed up to 1,000 of Arthur’s men to gather. Historians believe noblemen would have sat in the front rows of a circular meeting place, while lower ranked attendees sat on stone benches further back.
The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem, is set in and around Troy, and recounts the final year of the Trojan War, which was fought sometime in the thirteenth century BC. As told by Homer, the city of Troy was subjected to a ten year siege by a Greek coalition led by Mycenae’s High King Agamemnon. Their goal was to recover Helen, the wife of Sparta’s king and Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, after she had been seduced by Paris, the son of Troy’s King Priam.
The epic poem features plenty of rollicking adventures, a surfeit of graphic and gory combat, and numerous plot twists and turns from humans and gods. In the end, the city falls when the wily Odysseus tricks the Trojans and gets them to let in a huge wooden horse, hollow on the inside and packed with Greek warriors. As a story, the Iliad was awesome. As history, however, Troy and the Trojan War were dismissed for centuries as pure myth and legendary tales. Then archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann overturned those assumptions.
German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890) was convinced that there was actual truth in the legendary accounts contained in the Iliad, and set out to prove it. From 1870 to 1890, he excavated a site in the northwest of the Anatolian Peninsula – the Asian part of modern Turkey. He made some initial finds of gold and silver, that convinced him that he had found Homer’s Troy. As it turned out, Schliemann had excavated the right city, but the wrong period: his initial finds dated from about 1000 years before the Trojan War.
The site of Schliemann’s archaeological digs actually held the remains of nine different Troys, that were built one atop another. Excavations continued after Schliemann’s death in 1890, and today his finds are labeled Troy I through IX. Troy VII is the likeliest candidate for Homer’s Troy. The discovery of Troy was a magnificent archaeological accomplishment, but it was not the only one by Heinrich Schliemann who, as seen further down this list, might have been the most fortunate archaeologist to have ever lived.
During his sixteenth century expedition to circumnavigate the world, explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s ships dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at South America’s southern end. There, Magellan and his men saw a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore. The explorer ordered a sailor to approach the big native, and sing and dance in turn to demonstrate friendliness. The strategy worked, and the giant was induced to meet Magellan. As described by a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book about the voyage: “When he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist“.
The explorers made contact with the rest of his tribe. In subsequent weeks, they hunted with them, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. When Magellan was ready to depart, he wanted to take some Patagonians to display back in Spain. So he invited some aboard his ship with the lure of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and placed them in chains. When the Patagonians sobered up, the ships were already underway, sailing away from their homeland. Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the sailors who completed the trip and returned to Spain brought back with them tales of a legendary land inhabited by giants. With the passage of time, the tall people encountered by Magellan’s ships grew taller in the telling.
Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood ten feet tall. As if in a race of one upsmanship, others reported that they had contacted twelve-foot-high Patagonians. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, at fifteen feet in height. Reports of the legendary South American giants gripped European imaginations for over 250 years. The first challenge to the tall tales came from the famed British seaman and pirate, Sir Francis Drake, who encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew: “Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices“.
He continued: “but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.” Yet, as late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British ship had encountered a tribe of nine-foot-tall natives. However, when the ship’s account was finally published, the natives were recorded as being six and a half feet tall – tall, but not incredibly so, and certainly not giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. But they stood in the six foot range.
The Real Life Queen Behind the Legendary Semiramis
Semiramis in Greek mythology was the daughter of a goddess and a mortal, who was fed by doves after her divine mother abandoned her as an infant in order to drown herself. Semiramis grew into a formidable woman who married a general, advised him into great victories, then switched husbands and married the king. As queen and queen regnant, she personally led troops into battle and conquered much of Asia, as well as Ethiopia and Libya. Domestically, Semiramis restored the decrepit ancient Babylon to its former glory, built the city’s famous Hanging Gardens, and protected it with impregnable defensive walls. All of that is fictional, but the legendary Semiramis’ was based on the life of an actual ninth century BC Assyrian queen named Sammu-ramat.
The wife of King Shamshi Adad V (reigned 824 – 811 BC), Sammu-ramat took the reins of power after her husband died. She then governed for five years as queen regent for her underage son Adad Nirari III, until he was old enough to rule. Steles from that period record that Sammu-ramat negotiated alliances on behalf of her son, and that she was a generous patroness of religious temples. She seems to have ruled well enough to become a revered figure in Assyria. Between that, and the fact that rule by a woman was such an extraordinary event in Assyrian history, the story of Sammu-ramat grew over the years, until she emerged centuries later as a full-blown mythological figure, the legendary fictional Queen Semiramis.
Prometheus was a Titan – the race of divine beings who dominated the world before the arrival of the Olympian gods. Prometheus’ name, which means “foresight”, emphasizes his intellect, for he was known as a clever trickster. In Ancient Greek mythology, created humans from clay, and then advocated for and championed mankind in the halls of heavens. That fondness for humans helped mankind, but it got the Titan in serious trouble with the gods, who visited horrific vengeance upon him as a result.
The Titans were the legendary twelve children of the primordial parents Uranus (“Sky”) and his mother Gaia (“Earth”), and had preceded the Olympians as gods. When the Olympians led by Zeus rose up to challenge for mastery of the world, Prometheus was one of the Titans’ leaders. However, when his fellow Titans refused to heed his advice and resort to trickery, Prometheus switched sides and joined the Olympians. That ensured the gods’ victory, and doomed the Titans to defeat. The Olympians’ gratitude was short lived: they turned on Prometheus when he got on their wrong side.
Prometheus helped the Olympian gods secure victory against the Titans, but he eroded his store of goodwill with them when he took the side of humanity against that of the new deities. He ticked off Zeus and got on his wrong side when he tricked him to accept the bones and fat of sacrificial animals instead of their meat. That set a precedent that allowed humans to sacrifice animals to the gods by burning their bones and fat, but keep the meat for themselves.
A peeved Zeus took fire away from mankind and wiped its secret from human minds, so they would have to eat meat raw and shiver from the cold in the dark of night. To make his pettiness stick, the chief god prohibited anybody from letting humanity in on the secret of fire. Prometheus however defied Zeus. He stole fire from Mount Olympus, and smuggled it down to earth to share with mankind and help them survive life’s struggles. That was the final straw for the chief Olympian.
Zeus was incensed when he looked down from the heavens and saw the dark of night dispelled by the flicker of fires. To vent his anger at mankind, he sent Pandora down to earth with a box full of calamities. When the lid of Pandora’s box was eventually removed, all the evils that plague humanity were unleashed upon the world. From then on, mankind was afflicted with diseases, plagues, war, death, and the need for backbreaking labor to eke sustenance out of the earth. Only hope was left inside the box, to keep life bearable despite all its miseries.
As to Prometheus, Zeus devised a horrific punishment for him. He had the Titan taken to the Caucasus Mountains, where he was chained to a rock. There, Zeus’ vengeance took the form of a giant eagle that flew in every day to rip open Prometheus’ guts and feast upon his liver. The liver re-grew each night, and the eagle returned each day to repeat the process. That way, the legendary Prometheus was subjected to an eternity of torment by day, and nights full of dread of what the morrow would bring.
As seen in an earlier entry, Heinrich Schliemann proved the existence of Troy – an archaeological find of epic proportions that cemented his place in history. He then proceeded to capture archaeological lightning in a bottle once more. This time it was in mainland Greece, where he found what came to be known as the Mask of Agamemnon – the High King of Mycenae who led the Greeks against Troy. It happened in 1876, when Schliemann conducted excavations in the royal cemetery near the Lion Gate, the entrance to the citadel of Mycenae in southern Greece. In one of the graves, he found a funeral mask covered in gold, which he attributed to the legendary king from the Iliad.
As Schliemann put it in a telegram that announced the discovery: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon“. However, as with his finds in Troy, Schliemann got the broad outlines right, but jumped the gun when it came to the details. Later research proved that the mask did, indeed, belong to a Mycenaean king. However, it was a king who had died circa 1580 to 1550 BC – two and a half to three centuries before the events of the legendary Trojan War. The name stuck, however, and the artifact is still commonly referred to as the Mask of Agamemnon.
One of England’s greatest legendary heroes is the medieval outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. A bandit who fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and the evil King John, and helped the rightful monarch Richard the Lionheart regain his throne. Surprisingly, for a figure who stole from the rich, Robin Hood first gained widespread popularity as a result of plays originally staged for Elizabethan England’s upper classes. First, however, the playwrights had to gentrify Robin Hood from a commoner bandit, and transform him into a nobleman to whom the well-heeled could better relate. Such gentrification can be traced to the playwright Anthony Mundy, who reinvented the outlaw as an aristocrat, Earl Robert of Huntington, who was wrongfully disinherited by his uncle.
So he fled to Sherwood Forrest where he became an outlaw, met and fell in love with Lady Marion, and kicked off the legend. In real life, of course, nobody performed all the noble deeds of derring-do ascribed to Robin Hood. However, there were plenty of outlaws, nearly all commoners, who thumbed their noses at upper class oppressors, and thus became popular with the lower classes. In the medieval era, “Robinhood” or “Rabunhod” or “Robehod” were common nicknames for criminals, that appear in numerous twelfth century court records. However, those Robin Hoods were the kinds of criminals who acted out of any highbrow motives. Instead, they stole for the mundane reasons that led most people into crime back then, and that still put people on the paths of criminality today.
To identify the original Robin Hood is no easy task. In England, Robin was and remains a diminutive of the name Robert, and Robert was a very common first name in back then. Likewise, Hood was a common surname in medieval England. As a result, to identify just which criminals named Robin Hood or some variation thereof might have inspired the legend of Robin Hood, is a particularly difficult task for historians. As a result, numerous candidates have been proposed over the years.
The earliest mention is a Robert Hod of York, who became an outlaw after his goods, worth 32 shillings, were confiscated to settle a debt owed to a local church. Other candidates include the brothers Robert and John Deyville, who fought on the losing side in the Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267). With their cause defeated, the Deyvilles holed up in the woods as outlaws, until the records show that John, at least, was pardoned. However, the likeliest candidate for the legendary Robin Hood seems to be Roger Godberd, another figure who ended up on the losing side of the Second Barons’ War and became an outlaw. What is known of Godberd’s activities led some historians to label him as “the prototype Robin Hood”.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading