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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Who was King Arthur? Table comparison of contenders.

Who was King Arthur? In this post I compare the various contenders. Looks pretty much like Mac Erca wins hands down as the most influential candidate. See my book for more details.

What Mac Erca does prove is that there _could_ have been an Arthur. My work swings the pendulum back from where Dumville, Green and others left it, with all smoke and no fire, for now, with Mac Erca we have a real historical person who DID acquire legends and tales exactly like Arthurs. This increases the possibility now that there was an Arthur by a large percentage, and if that is all I could bring to the study of Arthur then I would be happy. In essence, we have found an example of Dumville's fire and a damn good one it is...

Mac Erca
Artorius Castus
Mac Aedan
Urse Cuneglase
Has the name Arthur


Lived between
   465 -537

Fought Saxons


Fought Irish


Fought Danes

Fought Franks

Fought Picts

Fights Dog heads and other mythicals

Ruled Orkneys


Had special weapon

Christian references


Considered a giant


Death or removal of wife

Consorts with druid

Fights abroad


Magical Dog

Fights Giants

Wife’s name translatable to Guinevere type

Fights twelve battles

Joint sovereignty

Dubious ancestry

Mythical death

Saxon Ascendancy after death

Fought at Badon and Camlan

Associated with Badon or Camlann

*  see below

Associated with Constantine

Associated with period of seven years.

Associated with St Caranog

* Mac Erca has a son called Baitan/Baedan and his last battle was at Ebhlann. This name Baitan became very popular in the sixth century Ireland and northern Britain surely acting as a witness to the battle of Mount Badon. In fact the name Baitan became the name of a place in Argyll called Kinnel Badon/Vadon.

Muircertach Mac Erca

And then the power and strength of Britain was destroyed after him

Muircertach Mac Erca, as Irish legend tells us, was a High king of Ireland, son of Muiredach, son of Eoghan, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages. Reputedly, he was the first Christian King of Ireland[1] who reigned from around 510[2] or 513[3] until about 534 or 537[4]. He fought numerous battles, was in his early years a murderous tyrant, exacted tribute, was in possession of the Lia Fáil, conquered Ireland and Gaul and assumed the sovereignty of Britain, Scotland, the Saxons, Denmark and the Orkneys; is fostered by a Druid and is finally given the ultimate accolade of a famous hero – the triple death. If this set of circumstances sounds familiar you would be right; this is the same as King Arthur was supposed to have accomplished as related by Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth and exactly during the same time period!
    Muircertach’s story is told in various existing ancient Irish manuscripts. The fourteenth century Yellow Book of Lecan, the sixth to twelfth century Irish Annals, the eleventh to twelfth century Dinshenchas and Banshenchus, tenth to twelfth century Book of Leinster and Laud Synchronisms, the twelfth century Banquet of Dun Na nGedh and the fourteenth century Book of Ballymote which includes the Lebor Bretnach or ‘Book of the Britons’. Most of these books were compiled using earlier sources and hence the provenance of the stories has a more ancient origin. Muircertach was also mentioned in a now lost work called Echtra Muircheartach Mac Erca – The Navigation or Journeys of Muircheartach Mac Erca[5], mentioned in the Book of Leinster which may have told the story of his Gallic campaign. Cendfaeladh, a seventh century poet and possible descendent of Mac Erca is attributed with various verses recording his exploits[6]. His mythical death is mentioned in the tale called Aided Muircertach Mac Erca – The Violent Death of Muircertach Mac Erc.

We should remember though that Muirchertach Mac Erca is a merged character, being composed of Muircertach Mac Muiredach of O'Neill genealogy and the historical Mac Erca mentioned by Adamnan in the seventh century. This merging took place sometime in the late eighth to early ninth century.

[1] His Christian leaning is suggested by the lack of a Feiss Temro (a pagan kingship and marriage ceremony), during his reign. See Carney, James. ‘Studies in Irish Literature and History’ Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1955 p. 338. See also Smith, P. J. Imarcaigh sund ar gach saí : An Early Modern Irish Poem on the Contemporaneous Emperors of Byzantium and the Kings and Ecclesiastics of Ireland, , University of Ulster, Poem twelfth to fifteenth century in which Muircertach is mentioned : “The death of Muircheartach son of Earc about that time – he was no heathen”.
[2] Annals of Tigernach
[3] Annals of Ulster
[4] The Alternative dates occur in myth and the Irish Annals. He reigned for 24 years and in Aided MM Erca 25 years. From the AU 513 this would give 537. Note Arthur is supposed to have died in 537, according to the Welsh Annals of the tenth century or later.
[5] Another variation existed called Immram Luinge Murchertaig –‘Voyage of the Ship of Muircertach son of Erc. Moylan, Tom, Irish Voyages and Visions: Pre-Figuring, Re-configuring Utopia, Utopian Studies 18.3, 2007.
[6] Irish and Scottish Annals.


  1. fascinating, must have a look for your book. I must admit I wasn't aware of Mac Erca, but I have been looking at 'older roots' for the Arthur legend and it is amazing how many Irish references come up, from Excalibur-Caladbolg, Gawain and the Green Knight (Curoi the druid), and Findabhair/Guinevere. Some suggest that Lleminawg the Irishman, one of Arthur's warriors in the Mabinogion, is in fact Lancelot, and not the medieval French invention. Possibly he was also Lugh.
    My book (a novel) places Arthur in the bronze age, around Stonehenge, and retells the traditional legends but from a more older, more primitive perspective.

  2. Hi Janet,
    Yes, its fascinating how many Irish links there are within Arthuriana. Have a look at a paper from Ann Dooley, referenced in my book which looks at some of these links and even mentions Mac Erca, some of her paper is on Google books, search for ` Arthur of the Irish - A viable Concept? ' and it should appear. Good luck with your book. It's an interesting perspective on the legend.

  3. Muircertach Mac Erca sounds more like Mordred son of Arthur/Ursicinus?

  4. Hi Aeldred,

    Why, explain?


  5. Oh well I guess just because his name is closer to Mordred's than Arthur's, and Mordred is some times son of Arthur, plus the similarities and few differences, the date/s, and that in annals cambriae "arthur and mordred ... britain and ireland" (537) possibly suggests mordred is irish and arthur british, and in table & Arthurian Arthur fought Irish. But if the constantine in tree is the one after Arthur not before Vortigern ?? then couldn't be Mordred because his sons were enemies of him, or if one before then too early. So he is probably not Mordred or Arthur.
    In favour Arthur though, Mac Erca is perhaps a little like Arthur as Mab Uter, tho probably just seems because mab and mac "son of" are common; and Baitan abit like Badon.
    But I liked your table anyway, though are lots more candidates that could be added (i listed all the ones i found in my arthurian lists, the 2 latest additions were Brettisccyning (ASC) and Dragon of the island (Gildas)).

  6. Hi Aeldred,

    I think Mordred is most likely a mythical character completely so has no bearing on Mac Erca.
    You are right though about the Mab Uter Mac Erca link. This is pointed out in the book as Erc(h)/Ercan in Welsh can mean horrible/terrible, the same as Uter. So Mabuter could be a transliteration of Mac Erca :-)
    As for Gildas, I would say only Ursus would be a contender. Not Maglocunus who appears as Maelgyn Gwynedd in Welsh mythology.

  7. I don't think the Historical Arthur has to fit all these characteristics. Just the ones that can be proven to go back to the Annals Camprie and to a lesser extent Nennius. Which means one of the few your theories doesn't fit, the Battles of Camlann and Badon, is the single most important detail in my opinion.

    I believe Arthur was Arthuis of Elmet, he lived at the right time. He wasn't a King but neither was Arthur in the oldest references.