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The Legend of King Arthur

Death of Arthur and returning his sword

One of the most powerful and enduring legends in British culture is the story of King Arthur.  Indeed, so captivating was this legend that Arthur’s story spread widely throughout medieval Europe.  Not only British but several French and German writers were inspired to recount his tale.

When Edward III died, in 1377, a French chronicler wrote of him:

“His like had not been seen since the days of King Arthur.” 

Jean Froissart’s Chronicle

But who was this mythical King Arthur?  Did he even exist at all?  And, regardless of who he was originally, how did he become such a powerful cultural icon?

Saviour of the Britons

Arthur, according to the legend, emerged as a champion of the Britons at a time of great strife and turmoil.  Out of the chaos of a dark age, he forged a magnificent kingdom, bringing order and peace to Britain.  His famous knights of the round table acted as guardians of the realm, establishing a reputation as the very epitome of medieval chivalry.

When Arthur finally fell in battle, the halcyon age of chivalric glory he had championed also came to an end.  All that remained was a memory of a lost golden age.  However, according to tradition, Arthur is not dead but slumbering in mystical Avalon.  The legend tells us Britain’s greatest champion and protector…

“…is still there, the Britons await him, so they say and hope: he will return and live again.”

Norman poet Wace, Roman de Brut, 1150

The message is clear. One day, when our need is greatest, Arthur will return to save the Britons again.

That’s the promise of the myth anyway.  In some ways it is a promise that echoes the Christian message of a second coming. 

Myth it may be.  But a most potent myth.

But how much of this is based on a real king?  Just who was the man behind this legend and when did he live?

If there was an historic Arthur, then he would have lived during the period we call the ‘Dark Age’.  This refers to a confused and poorly recorded period of British history that followed the fall of Roman Britain and preceded the emergence of the kingdom of England.

There are many historians who would argue that the ‘Dark Age’ was not so dark.  We know quite a lot about later period Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from around the 7th and 8th century onwards, when British history is increasingly well documented.  Furthermore, in other parts of the world, such as Constantinople or the Sassanid Empire, there was no Dark Age at all.

However, in Britain, following the departure of Rome in 410 CE and prior to 600 CE our knowledge of history is more limited.  It is during this chaotic and poorly understood period that the historic King Arthur (if there was one) lived.

Historic sources

When exactly Arthur lived is difficult to pin down but, in essence, we’re looking at the period between around 450 CE and 550 CE.  If Arthur was a real historic figure, this is when we’ll find him.

But what written sources do we have for this period?

The answer is precious few.  The only contemporary British writer we have is a monk by the name of Gildas.  He was working sometime between 480 CE and 550 CE.  My best guess is sometime during the 520s or 530s.

However, Gildas does not mention Arthur at all.  Even though he would have been Arthur’s contemporary.

In fact, the earliest mention of Arthur dates to around the C9th – fully three centuries later.  Even then, these sources give us only minimal information.

Nevertheless, in terms of historic evidence for a real King Arthur, two written sources are critical.  They are:

  • Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), written by a Welsh monk known as Nennius in around 830CE.
  • The Annales Cambriae (Annuls of Wales).  The Annuls we have are a C12th copy of a C10th original document.  

The fire of righteous vengeance

Let’s first consider Gildas, a polemical religious writer who preaches to us about how post-Roman Britain was devastated by a ‘fire of righteous vengeance’.

Gildas may not have mentioned Arthur, but he provides us with a vivid picture of the disintegration of the Romano-British world after 410 CE.

Gildas describes a country beset by Scots and Pict raiders from the north and Irish incursions on the west coast.  After the Romans left, British society fragmented into petty successor communities, of which many were eventually brought to heel by a tyrant – Vortigern.  To hold things together, Vortigern turned to Saxon mercenaries.  At first it works but, in time, as more Saxons arrive, they increasingly grab land for themselves. 

Then, according to Gildas, the pagan Saxons ravaged Britain.  He describes this onslaught in apocalyptic terms:

“For the fire of righteous vengeance, caused by former crimes, blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men; and as it devastated all the neighbouring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue. In this assault, which might be compared to the Assyrian attack upon Judaea of old.”

Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae

Salvation

Gildas makes no mention of Arthur, but he does mention one important Romano-British leader who came to the fore to fight the Saxons.  This leader was a man of old Roman Imperial stock by the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus:

“He was a man of unassuming character, who, alone of the Roman race chanced to survive in the shock of such a storm (as his parents, people undoubtedly clad in the purple, had been killed in it) … To these men, by the Lord’s favour, there came victory.”

Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae

The critical battle took place at Badon Hill.  Here the Britons finally triumphed, and the Saxon tide was stemmed.  Gildas claims the peace that followed had lasted his lifetime (43 years).  The implication being that Badon Hill was probably fought at some time between 480 and 500 CE, a few decades after the Saxons started arriving in Britain (in 449 CE).

Photo of Liddington Castle in Wiltshire
Liddington Castle in Wiltshire.  Originally an iron age hill fort, it was re-occupied after the Romans left Britain in 410 CE.  Some historians believe this is the most likely site for the Battle of Badon Hill

So little do we know of this time that we cannot be certain when exactly this battle was fought or even where.  Depending on which historian you choose to believe, Badon Hill could have been somewhere in Wiltshire, or Somerset or perhaps even Dorset.

Fire and Brimstone

However, we must be a little cautious when it comes to Gildas.  There is no escaping the fact that Gildas was a fire and brimstone preacher.  Part of his purpose in writing his history was to castigate the Britons for their past sins and follies.  The Saxon invasion and its bloody consequences were, in Gildas’ view, God’s righteous punishment for past sins.

The history of this period may not have been quite so bloody and apocalyptic as Gildas would have us believe.  Nevertheless, his colourful descriptions provide us with the historical backdrop against which the legend of King Arthur was born.

But since Gildas does not mention Arthur at all, how can we tie the legend of Arthur to this period of history?

He was victorious in all his campaigns

This is where we need to turn to later writers.  In Nennius’ account it is not clear as to whether Arthur is a king, but he certainly makes it plain that Arthur was a great war leader.

According to Nennius, Arthur emerged to lead the Britons in the period following the initial wave of Anglo-Saxon invasions.  He tells us that after Hengist, one of the earliest Saxon leaders, died he was succeeded by his son, Octha.  And he goes on to tell us that…

“Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle.”

Nennius, Historia Brittonum

He goes on to relate that Arthur fought and defeated the Saxon invaders in no fewer than twelve battles.  The most glorious of these battles, we are told, was the last:

“The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur’s, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns.”

Nennius, Historia Brittonum

This provides us with the link to Gildas account and, specifically, with the battle of Badon Hill.

The problem(s) with Nennius

Unfortunately, there are several issues and controversies surrounding Nennius’ account.

The first is that Nennius wrote this in c.828 CE.  That’s 300 years after the events he relates.  Events which Gildas, writing within living memory of Badon Hill, describes without mentioning Arthur.

The second problem is the sheer number of different battles Nennius associates with Arthur.  Twelve battles are a lot for any one man to have fought in his career.

Third issue is locating these battles.  Many historians believe that several of these battles refer to places in North-western England – places unlikely to have seen any fighting between Britons and Saxons in the late C5th (since the Saxons had not spread so far west by this time).  Other battles (such as Badon Hill) almost certainly relate to the South-west.  That makes it hard to even locate Arthur in a specific area.

The final problem relates to such claims as 960 men being slain by Arthur alone.  There is clearly a large amount of dramatic license involved in such a claim.  Indeed, more generally in Nennius’ work, we find mythical claims interwoven with actual history.  For example, he claims the Britons were descended from Trojan refuges.  How, then, can we distinguish historical reality from myth when we read Nennius?

The Annuls of Wales

Scan of the frontispiece of the Annuls of Wales
The Annales Cambriae

The earliest copy of the Annuls that survive is a C12th Latin copy of a compilation that was originally completed in the C10th.  Some historians believe that some of the earliest entries date back as far as 775CE.  Others would argue it is unlikely any of the material pre-dates its C10th creation.

It is significant for two entries that mention Arthur:

c.516CE The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.

c.537CE The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell and there was death in Britain and in Ireland.

Annales Cambriae

The annuls also place Arthur at Badon but, although the dating is imprecise, it appears to locate the battle a little later than Gildas.  Gildas tells us Badon occurred 43 years before he was writing.  It is also the case that Gildas makes no mention of the Justinian plague in his work.  This plague swept through Britain in the early 540s.  It seems unlikely that a fire and brimstone preacher like Gildas would have failed to mention such a disaster in his writing.  Hence, Gildas must have finished his work before the plague arrived.  That means he was writing before 541, which places Badon in the late 490s, if not earlier.

The death of Arthur

The Annuls, alone of these early sources, mention the death of Arthur.  We are told he fell in the ‘strife of Camlann’ along with another individual called ‘Medraut’.  In fact, Medraut is an early form of the name Mordred.

Note we are not told whether Arthur died fighting Mordred or fighting alongside Mordred.  All it tells us is that Arthur and Mordred met their end at Camlann, some 21 years after Badon.

But where is Camlann?  Like many of the locations mentioned in these early chronicles, we cannot be sure.  If Camlann exists it no longer has the same name.  Furthermore, ‘Camlann’ appears in a C10th document.  It would have had a different name in Arthur’s time.

Some have suggested that Camlann was Camboglanna, a Roman Fort on Hadrian’s wall to the north of Carlisle.  This would place Arthur some considerable distance to the north of his triumph at Badon.  But it would tie him more closely to the north-western place names mentioned by Nennius. 

Camlann, however, is not mentioned either by Nennius or Gildas.  Maybe, Gildas was writing before Camlann had been fought?  Maybe Nennius did not mention it because it was a tragic defeat rather than a glorious victory?  Or, perhaps, it is no more than an apocryphal later addition to the story?

An historic Arthur

These early sources tell us very little of Arthur.  At best we might discern that he was a heroic Romano-British warlord.  He became famous leading the British resistance against Saxon and possibly Pict or Scots incursions during the late C5th/early C6th.  But when exactly he lived, where exactly and what exactly he did is shrouded in uncertainty.  It is lost to us in the dim twilight world of early post-Roman Britain. 

We do not even know from these sources if he was a king.  If he was, he was a king whose kingdom struck no coinage.  The fact that Gildas does not mention him at all is clearly problematic.  Some have suggested some kind of personal feud between Gildas and Arthur led to the monk omitting him from his history.  Perhaps.

In the final analysis, whether Arthur existed or not cannot be established for certain.  However, what is certain is that by the C9th, stories concerning Arthur were in circulation. And these stories would grow into a legend. 

Deeds of Kings

After the 10th century, Arthur continues to appear in fragmentary references in early Welsh and Breton poetry.  These are recorded mostly in later medieval copies.  Their true age is therefore difficult to know with any certainty.  Some might be as early as 7th century but by and large they are more recent, dating from the period after Nennius and the Annuls.

The next significant mention of Arthur is in the Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of the English) written by William of Malmesbury in 1124.  William accepts Arthur as an historic figure, claiming he was a warlord in the service of Ambrosius Aurelianus.  He repeats the story of Badon Hill that we find in Nennius.  William also makes a point of claiming that the deeds of Arthur were historic fact, rather than fiction.  He does however tell us that, in his time, many stories and fables concerning Arthur were in general circulation:

“It is of this Arthur that the Britons fondly tell so many fables.”

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum

Up until this point, references to Arthur in chronicles remain fragmentary and brief.  No one had seen fit to provide a detailed account of his life up until this time.  Nevertheless, based on William of Malmesbury’s testimony, it seems that a rich tradition of oral folktales concerning Arthur was already well established by the C12th.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

In the 1130s the story of Arthur entered the next phase of its evolution.  Geoffrey of Monmouth provides us with the first detailed account of Arthur in his work ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’.  Geoffrey adds flesh to the bare bones of Arthur’s story, presenting Arthur as King of the Britons and introducing us to Guinevere and Merlin.  He also writes about Arthur’s famous sword, which he calls Caliburnus in this early story (later renamed Excalibur by French writers).

Geoffrey compiled his history by drawing on a wide range of earlier sources.  These included chronicles, dynastic tables, oral folk traditions, bardic poems and so on.  His stories of Merlin, for instance, are drawn from earlier Welsh folk tales about a mad Welsh bard originally known as ‘Myrddin the Wild’.

However, although Geoffrey clearly had a strong knowledge of Welsh stories and sources, he did not appear to speak Welsh himself.  He wrote in Latin and was almost certainly a member of the French speaking Anglo-Norman elite of Monmouthshire.

Chrètien de Troyes

The C12th CE was a key period in the development of Arthurian lore.  Between 1170 and 1190 another writer, Chrètien de Troyes, was also inspired to write Arthur’s story. 

Unlike previous writers he was neither Welsh, nor even British, but a French writer with close ties to the French court.

Illustration of the round table
The Grail Legend first appeared in the C12th in the writing of the French poet Chrètien de Troyes

It was Chrètien who first wrote about the Quest for the Holy Grail.  He also gave us the story of the illicit romance between Lancelot and Guinevere.  He introduces us to Arthur’s sinister sister, Morgana Le Fay and is the first to tell us of Camelot.  His stories are clearly inspired by C12th concepts of chivalry.  He draws on earlier stories and traditions.  For example, he is the first writer to weave the character of Perceval into the tales.  Chrètien derives his Perceval not from any British folklore but from the story of Saint Galgano, an Italian saint.

Chivalric tales

Chrètien set the pattern for later writers, spawning an increasing rich milieu of Arthurian lore.

Chrètien may have written about Tristan and Iseult, but his version of the story does not survive.  It was nevertheless taken up by other writers.  Based originally on a Celtic legend from a variety of sources, it is a tragedy concerning the illicit love between a Cornish knight and an Irish princess. 

Chrètien’s tales of Perceval served as inspiration for later writers.  In the C13th the German poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach, wrote a German version – Pazival.  In the C14th it inspired a Welsh romance – Peredur son of Efrawg.

As time went on the legend became more about the myth and less about the history.  The French poet, Robert de Boron, introduced the story of the sword in the stone by the early C14th.  Later that century, Jacques de Longuyon would list King Arthur as one of the 9 worthies (historic personifications of the highest ideals of Medieval chivalry).  This elevated Arthur to membership of an illustrious group alongside Julius Caesar and the Biblical King David.

Then, in the late 14th-century, we get the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, yet another classic chivalric romance, this time written in Middle English. 

Tintagel

The cultural influence of Arthurian mythology in the Middle Ages was considerable.  Geoffrey of Monmouth had identified Arthur with the southwest of England, singling out Tintagel as Arthur’s birthplace.

Certainly, Tintagel had been an important settlement during the C5th and C6th, probably one of the key residences used by the rulers of Cornwall.  By the C13th, Tintagel’s Arthurian associations were strong enough to prompt Richard, Earl of Cornwall (brother of Henry III), to build a castle there.

Photo of Tintagel castle
Tintagel Castle, that you can see today, was built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall in the 1230s.  Its faux ‘old fashioned’ style of construction and its lack of any serious strategic value made it something of a C13th folly.

Richard constructed his castle in the 1230s.  He deliberately built it in a style that made it appear (to C13th eyes) ‘old fashioned’.  The castle held no strategic value; the immensely wealthy Richard built it purely for display!  As the Castle remains a major tourist attraction today, it continues to serve the purpose for which Richard built it.

Le Morte d’Arthur

Arthurian mythology eventually reached its zenith with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, written around 1470.  It would be published as an early printed work by William Caxton in 1485.  It was so popular that it would be reprinted in 1498, again in 1529 and on many occasions thereafter.

Malory made no effort to place Arthur in a distant historic context.  Instead, he unashamedly writes about King Arthur as a high or even late medieval king.  He serves us an idealised vision of high medieval culture, knights, chivalry and jousting.  In many ways it is a complete fantasy.  Far removed from the gritty reality of the Wars of the Roses that were raging around Malory at the time he was living and writing.

Indeed, Malory himself lived a life quite far from the chivalric ideals of which he wrote.  Malory, in his writing, describes himself as a ‘knight prisoner’ and, according to some historians, may well have been a most disreputable criminal.

But, by the time Malory was writing, the legend and what it meant in western European culture was far more important than the actual history.

Malory’s version of the story was, in many ways, the definitive version.  One that shapes our modern view of Arthur.

‘With only three matters should man concern himself’

Arthurian legend developed considerable significance in Britain and beyond.  In western Europe three great story cycles were especially treasured during the Middle Ages.  These were collectively referred to as the ‘Three Matters’. 

The Matter of Rome concerns the classical world; stories relating to subjects such as the Trojan wars, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.  The Matter of France focuses on the history of France, especially stories relating to Charlemagne and his companions, while The Matter of Britain focuses primarily on Arthurian lore. 

The cultural significance of the Three Matters is best explained by the C12th French poet, Jean Bodel:

“With only three matters should man concern himself: Of France, and of Britain, and of Rome the great.”

Jean Bodel, chanson de geste

The tales of men like Malory and de Troyes took fragments of history and built an entire cultural phenomenon around them.  They added old folk tales, some of which had not originally been part of Arthurian lore at all.  They even fashioned their own stories, sometimes inspired by earlier tales or the deeds of saints.

The result we see in the works of Malory bears limited resemblance to any historic truth.  However, the stories such men created tell us far more about the world of the high and late Middle Ages than dark age Britain.

Arthurian lore and the Medieval mind

A key theme running through many of these stories is the chivalric romance.  These stories revolve around the adventures of a chivalrous knight, often tasked with a quest that must be accomplished to win the favour of a fair lady.  Such tales feature strong religious themes and frequently contain other supernatural or magical elements.  The boundaries between the mundane world and the supernatural are often blurred.  Magical beings such at the Green Knight or the Lady of the Lake commonly feature.  Perhaps they are agents of God or perhaps manifestations of some mysterious ancient faerie power.  In a world where people commonly believed in miracles, visions and the potency of relics, these stories surely held a unique poignancy.

Running throughout these tales is a strong medieval Christian sentiment.  The heroes in these stories undertake trials in which their devotion and piety is often tested.  Quests can involve sacred relics such as the Holy Grail.  Piety, honour, and chivalry is rewarded.  However, transgression leads to tragedy and downfall.

They hold up a medieval ethical ideal of the chivalrous knight.  A man skilled and valorous in battle, pure of heart, honourable in word and deed, chivalrous and gracious in his romantic life.  It is an ideal that few could possibly have lived up to, even in the stories themselves.

The enduring power of Arthur’s story

After the Middle Ages, the popularity of Arthurian stories waned. The old medieval world with its knights, jousts, saints, and relics was disappearing.  Such stories could not command the same relevance in an early modern world of gunpowder, renaissance science, and reformation. 

Of course, Arthurian stories have endured across the centuries.  They have even had their share of revivals, such as during the C19th with such works as Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859) and the paintings of several Victorian artists, such as the Pre-Raphaelites.

Arthur's magician Merlin beguiled by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake
Victorian Britain saw a revival in interest in medievalism and Arthurian legend.  This painting of the beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones from the 1870s, being a good example.

Indeed, Arthur remains a popular figure in modern culture.  His stories hold a special place within the British imagination, regardless of how much his romantic medieval image bears limited resemblance to the historic reality.

It may, of course, be no more than a myth.  We cannot say with any certainty as to whether Arthur, the man, ever even existed.  And, if he did exist, one cannot help but wonder what that Romano-British warlord would have made of the romantic medieval tales of Malory and de Troyes. 

However, whilst Arthur, the man, may never have existed, there is no denying the reality of Arthur the legend.

The Dark Age and the Rise of Anglo-Saxon England

How exactly did Anglo-Saxon England emerge from post-Roman Britain?  What happened in the Dark Age that descended on Britain between the Roman departure in 410 CE and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by c.600 CE?

If you would like to learn more about this fascinating period of English history, you may wish to read the following article:

Read more about the rise of Anglo-Saxon England here

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References & further reading:

Arthurian Romances, Chrètien de Troyes, Independent publishers, 2020

In search of the Dark Ages, Michael Wood, BBC, 1981

Le Morte D’Arthur The Winchester Manuscript (Oxford World’s Classics), 2008

Nennius’ Historia Britonum, Arthur’s Battles Against the Saxons

The Annuls of Wales

The Fantasy of the Middle Ages, Larisa Grollemond & Bryan C Keene, J Paul Getty Museum

Review of the battles of Arthur described by Nennius, David Nash Ford

William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England, Gutenberg

Images:

Boys King Arthur – N.C. Wyeth (from Wiki Commons)

Wiltshire LiddingtonCastle – photo by Mik Peach (from Wiki Commons)

Annuls of Wales Scanned from frontispiece of Ab Ithel, Rev John Williams, 1860 (from Wiki Commons)

Holy grail round table, ms fr-112-3-f5r, 1470, Evrard d’Espinques (from Wiki Commons)

Tintagel Castle – geograph.org.uk, 2973795, Chris Gunns, 2012 (from Wiki Commons)

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones (from Wiki Commons)

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