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The Lost Tomb of King Arthur
Illustration by Dark Age military expert Dan Shadrake showing how the historical King Arthur may have looked. Fortifications of the period in the background.
The Bear King
Reconstruction of Roman-style fortifications used by the Britons at the time Arthur is said to have lived. At a time when most towns were similar defensive hill forts, the capital city of Viroconium with its classical buildings would have seemed a magical place. (Photography by Deborah Cartwright ©)
So was the person who ruled from Viroconium in the late fifth and early sixth centuries really called Arthur? This ruler's name is contained in a tenth-century manuscript including the family trees of important Dark Age chieftains. Now preserved in the British Library, where it known as the Harleian Genealogies (in a manuscript catalogued as MS. Harley 3859), it reveals the name of the king who ruled Powys around AD 500: he was one Owain Ddantgwyn (pronounced “Owen Thant-gwyn”). Initially it seemed that Graham’s search had been thwarted. The man who ruled the most feasible historical Camelot when Arthur is said to have lived was not called Arthur after all. But then Graham discovered something remarkable.
In his On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, written around AD 545, the monk Gildas praises this king as a valiant and powerful warrior, referring to him by his title, “the Bear”. It was tradition at the time for high-status individuals to be given the honorary name of a real or mythical creature to symbolize their prowess, such as the Lion, the Hound, the Eagle and so forth. Gildas uses the Latin word for “bear”, ursus, but in Brythonic, the daily language spoken by Britons, the word for “bear” was arth. In fact, this is still the word for a bear in modern Welsh that derived from Brythonic. Could this be the origin of the name Arthur? Surely it was beyond coincidence that the man who ruled from the most powerful city in Britain at the very time Arthur is said to have done just that was known as Arth, a name that could easily have evolved into the Latinized Arthur. The man upon whom the legend of King Arthur was based, it would seem, had gone down in history under his battle name or title. Owain Ddantgwyn had, it seems, been the historical King Arthur.
During the Dark Ages, British warriors were often given the honorary title of a real or mythological animal, thought to represent their prowess in battle. The name "Arthur" seems to have been derived from the old word Arth, meaning Bear, and the monk Gildas, writing in AD 545, records that a chieftain called the Bear ruled from Viroconium around the year 500.