7 Real Characters from Arthurian Legends

The Arthurian legends are full of all sorts of fanciful elements. Yet, they do feature at least some real figures from Dark Age British history.

Mar 11, 2024By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education
real people arturian legends


Arthurian legends are best known for their fantastical elements, such as dragons, wizards, and magical swords. For this reason, some people are surprised to learn that many of the figures featured in these legends were actually real. The Arthurian legends are set in the sixth century, the early Post-Roman Era of Britain, also known as the Dark Ages. This is an appropriate term, since there are very few surviving primary sources from that period. Yet, we do have some valuable and reliable information about it, which means that there are at least a few individuals whom we can be sure really existed. Many of these individuals appear in the Arthurian legends.


1. Sir Uriens of Gorre

urien rheged kingdom map arthurian legends
Map of Dark Age Britain showing Rheged, Urien’s kingdom, 2009, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Sir Uriens is one of the most popular characters in the Arthurian legends. In the most traditional version of the story, he leads a group of rebel kings who fight against a young Arthur when he first becomes king. After his defeat, he becomes a valuable ally to Arthur as one of the most powerful Knights of the Round Table. His name is also often spelled “Urien,” without the “s” at the end.


In line with his role in the legends as one of the most powerful of Arthur’s knights, Sir Uriens was a historically powerful king. In reality, he was King Urien of Rheged. He seems to have ruled over a portion of northern England and southern Scotland, although his exact territory is uncertain. He probably ruled more on the western side of Britain than the eastern side. He is accepted as historical because he is mentioned in a number of Welsh poems which most scholars agree go back to about the year 600.


2. Sir Ywain

yvain lion knight arthurian legends
The Lion Sprang Upon the Giant, from the book The Old Tales of Chivalry, 1877, Source: The University of Rochester


Closely associated with Sir Uriens is Sir Ywain, his son. This name is spelled in a number of different ways, such as “Yvain” and “Owain.” Like his father, he was one of Arthur’s allies, a knight of the Round Table. He was a very popular character in the Arthurian legends. He has a prominent role in numerous stories about the adventures of Arthur’s knights and the intrigues of his court.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Like his father, Ywain can clearly be identified as a historical figure. He was simply Owain, the historical son of Urien of Rheged. Along with his father, he fought against the Angles near the border of England and Scotland in the late sixth century. It appears that he fought alongside his father at first, and then succeeded him as king for a few years. However, his independent kingship does not appear to have lasted long. Like Urien, Owain’s historicity is confirmed on the basis of Welsh poetry that seems to go back to about the year 600.


3. Taliesin

finding taliesin arthurian legends
The Finding of Taliesin, by Henry Clarence Whaite, 1876, Source: Artuk.org


The Welsh poems which mention Urien and his son Owain are attributed to a bard named Taliesin. At least some of these poems do appear, based on linguistic evidence, to date from about the era in which Taliesin was alleged to have lived. He is also mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, a document written little more than two centuries after his death. For this reason, the overwhelming majority of scholars in this period accept that Taliesin was a real person. He was a professional bard, singing the praises of the kings whom he served. Urien and Owain were two of those kings, but he also served others.


According to the Arthurian legends, Taliesin served King Arthur at one point in his career. He was also said to have been one of the few people who accompanied Arthur on his journey to Avalon, to be healed of his wounds. Some Welsh traditions also refer to the close connection between Taliesin and Arthur.


4. Constantine of Dumnonia

saint constantine church constantinec village kerrier cornwall
Saint Constantine’s Church, possibly named after King Constantine, Kerrier, Cornwall, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Constantine of Dumnonia is traditionally presented as the successor of Arthur in the Arthurian legends. After King Arthur is mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlann, he designates Constantine as his regent while he is taken away to be healed on the Isle of Avalon. Arthur never returns, and Constantine continues ruling as king until his own death. Not all versions of the tale of Arthur agree with that, but most versions do. In the earliest version of this story, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae, Constantine is called Arthur’s kinsman. Later tradition makes him Arthur’s cousin.


This legendary character can be identified with King Constantine of Dumnonia, a historical ruler in sixth-century Britain. He is known to have been historical because he was mentioned by Gildas, a contemporary writer. Gildas criticized Constantine for killing two royal youths in a church. This same event appears in the later Arthurian legends concerning Constantine the successor of Arthur.


5. Gildas

gildas statue
Statue of Saint Gildas, Morbihan, France, by Romary, 2007, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Speaking of Gildas, he also appears in the Arthurian legends as an associate of Arthur. For example, he appears in Culhwch ac Olwen, a Welsh tale from perhaps the 11th century. In that, he appears as one of Arthur’s many allies who join him before he sets off on a dangerous task. More famously, Gildas appears in a legend about Arthur killing Hueil, Gildas’ rebellious brother. Hueil refused to submit to Arthur and fought against him, so Arthur defeated and killed him. Gildas was in Ireland at the time, but he returned to Britain and mourned the loss of his brother. Yet, he made peace with Arthur afterward.


Gildas was definitely a real person. He wrote a document known as De Excidio, which is the only surviving record from sixth-century Britain. However, we do not know anything for sure about his family, such as whether he really did have a brother named Hueil. In his own writing, Gildas does not provide any information about his background or his family.


6. Iona, King of France

saint judicael statue
Statue of Saint Judicael, great-grandson of King Ionas, Paimpont, France, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Iona of France is a very minor character in the Arthurian legends. He appears just once, in the aforementioned Culhwch ac Olwen. Like Gildas, he is mentioned as one of Arthur’s numerous allies in a particular adventure featured in that story. No information is provided about him beyond his name and his status as “king of France.” Some commentators have dismissed this character as fictional, especially since France did not, as such, exist in the sixth century. However, this is almost certainly an anachronistic description of the part of France that was in British hands — that is, Brittany in the northwest corner. The rest of the tale attests to Arthur’s connection with that region.


In the sixth century, there was a ruler there named Ionas. He can certainly be identified with the “Iona, king of France” from Culhwch ac Olwen. Scholar Peter Bartrum, in A Welsh Classical Dictionary, hinted at this identification, although he did not pursue it. Ionas appears in the Life of St Samson, an early and historically valuable hagiography. This king was killed by Childebert I.


7. Budic of Brittany

gregory tours louvre
Statue of Gregory of Tours, by Jean Marcellin, 19th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the sixth century, Brittany was split up into multiple kingdoms, just like Britain itself was. Therefore, it is no surprise that multiple kings of Brittany appear in the Arthurian legends. As well as “Iona, king of France,” there was also Budic of Brittany. He is mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae. Geoffrey refers to the fact that Budic had married Arthur’s sister, and that his son, Hoel, had become one of Arthur’s allies.


Gregory of Tours, a Gallo-Roman historian of the sixth century, refers to a king of Brittany named Bodic. He appears to be identical to a king of Brittany named Budic mentioned in several later medieval records (none of which are explicitly Arthurian). Incidentally, there is reason to believe that this historical Bodic, or Budic, was the father-in-law of the aforementioned Ionas of Brittany. In any case, it is evident that the Budic of Brittany who appears in the Arthurian legends is identical to the historical King Bodic of Brittany.


The Historical Figures in the Arthurian Legends

illustration king arthur fighting saxons arthurian legends
Illustration of King Arthur fighting the Saxons from the Rochefoucauld Grail Manuscript, 14th century, Source: The Independent


In summary, despite their embellished and exaggerated nature, the Arthurian legends are full of real figures. These legends feature historical kings, monks, and bards. There were the powerful kings of Rheged, Urien, and Owain, portrayed in the legends as mighty knights of the Round Table. There was also Constantine, a historical king who allegedly succeeded Arthur. King Ionas and King Budic of Brittany also appear in the legends. Both Gildas and Taliesin provide some evidence for these figures, and both of them, too, appear in the legends.


Not all of these people were necessarily exact contemporaries. However, they did all live in approximately the same era. They all lived in the sixth century, the same century in which Arthur (supposedly) lived. This provides some useful insight into the true nature of the Arthurian legends. They are not pure fiction, as some might assume them to be. Rather, they preserve a notable amount of genuine, historical traces of Dark Age Britain.

Author Image

By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He is the author of "King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe" and "The Trojan Kings of Britain: Myth or History?". Caleb enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.