Brian Edward Rise
- King of Britain and focus of the legend started by Geoffrey
of Monmouth. Following medieval practice, he portrays Arthur
in contemporary terms but he places Arthur's reign shortly
after Britain's separation from the Roman Empire during
its final period in western Europe around 410 CE.
frames Arthur as a British messianic figure so common in
Late Roman antiquity- a "World-Restorer," or Restitutor
Orbis - the king who, binding the wounds of internal strife,
would defeat the barbarians and destroy all enemies reestablishing
peace and ushering in a golden age.
Europe and a collapsing empire never found its savior, a
recently Roman Britain does in Geoffrey's delightful fiction.
What's important is that his conception of an age of peace
based on a salvation from disintegration endures on down
through Malory and the romancers though they never touch
on the real problems of the period.
around 1136-38, the Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey
portrays a Britain in the throes of misfortune - barbarian
attacks, brutal power struggles and rank corruption in high
offices. King Vortigern, a usurper, extends an invitation
to the heathen Saxons to come and settle in Britain as mercenaries
like Roman emperors opened the doors to citizenship for
barbarians in exchange for military service.
Saxons, however, turn to marauding instead. Uther
Pendragon rises from the ensuing anarchy to kingship.
He seduces Ygerna, the duchess
of Cornwall, with magical aid from Merlin
and begets Arthur, legitimizing his succession by later
making the lady his Queen.
though still young, succeeds him and is a good leader. After
routing and confining the Saxons, he then turns to and defeats
the Picts, Scots and Irish. He then takes Guinevere
as queen and initiates his order of knighthood while peace
from all nations answer the call and Britain rises to an
unparalleled level of culture and wealth. Arthur holds his
magnificent court at Caerleon and subsequently conquers
demands from Rome drive him into Gaul again entrusting his
kingdom to his nephew, Mordred,
and the Queen. During Arthur's absence in battle, Mordred
revolts, forcing Arthur to return from the continent to
victorious, Arthur is mortally wounded and "carried off
to the Isle of Avalon for his
wounds to be attended to." Leaving his end in doubt, Geoffrey
continues the story no further. The date he provides, 542
CE, conflicts with his chronology and possibly reflects
a wrongful later amendment. Geoffrey is not known for his
historical responsibility, but he basically regards Arthur's
tale as a part of the fifth century due to the familial
relationships drawn and several corroborations with known
history such as references to Emperor Leo, a contemporary
of Arthur who reigned from 457-74.
stories, however, were in existence before Geoffrey in Celtic
lands. These people were descended from his fifth-century
Britons, a Celtic people themselves, who retained part of
Rome's legacy. Their inheritors, particularly in Wales,
created and embellished a saga of an Arthur who, as a hero
and warrior-prince who delayed the Saxon
influx before eventual defeat and assimilation.
Welsh poetry preserve the story in the tale Culwch ac Olwen
(c. 1100) and the triads, showing Arthur's preeminence in
Welsh literature (with numerous Welsh heroes attached to
his company) before Geoffrey's time.
while he doubtless drew inspiration from such tales, approximately
one-fifth of his work relies more specifically with two
Latin books from Wales attributing Arthur with a quasi-historicity.
ninth century Historia Brittonum, by the cleric Nennius,
provides a list of twelve battles won by Arthur over Octha,
a Saxon and son of Hengist, who, together with Horsa, was
one of the Saxon chieftains invited to Britain by Vortigern.
tenth century Annales Cambriae lists one battle, Badon (decidedly
real though there is no early evidence to connect Arthur
with it), and add that he fell at Camlann.
existence of these texts show that Geoffrey is not entirely
inventing but using earlier tradition by making Arthur the
leader of the Britons against the unruly Saxon settlers.
The Saxons did settle and eventually rebel akin to the way
Geoffrey romanticizes actual reality.
Britons alone became independent from Rome before the barbarian
invasions and resisted them when they occurred with success
though temporary. Welsh descendants handed down legends
bred during the period of resistance of heroes that fought
the eventual conquest by the Saxons.
such leader, Ambrosius, was definitely real. Arthur may
have been another and also real. Despite his wild exaggerations,
Geoffrey is increasing the image of a hero that conforms
to the accepted historical situation.
is, however, harder to proceed. There are no Welsh allusions
to Arthur that even closely approximate his timeframe and
while a few battles are possible on their own, they extend
his career over a very long time.
in the Welsh tradition is more legend than history for while
Arthur has never been explained away in a convincing manner
(i.e. as a Celtic deity), Celtic sources have only yielded
two pieces of positive, significant evidence for his existence.
first is his name - Arthur. The Welsh form of the Roman
Artorius, it is a convincing name for a fifth century Briton,
though still possibly the product of poetic invention.
seemingly of mythological origin, the second item is echoed
in European literature. The fact is that for a long time
Arthur was thought to be still alive either on the Isle
of Avalon or sleeping in a cave. The Bretons maintained,
echoed by the Cornish and Welsh, he would someday return.
tale of the sleeper in the cave is told of many other kings
and heroes and, at least in Europe, in every occurrence
the figure seems to have been an historical figure. Arthur
therefore exists by comparison.
the majority of Geoffrey's Arthurian account has no Welsh
basis. There are signs that he is working from some annal
of a "king of the Britons" who did head an invading army
in Gaul during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo I
on the Continent as Riothamus, a latinization of the British
"high king," this king is also apparently named Arthur in
a Breton text. He may in fact represent a part of Arthur's
historical origin and the King of legend may be a composite
figure much as is Merlin.
Historia was widely copied (there are over 50 extant copies)
and it was hugely successful. Geoffrey's contemporary, Alfred
of Beverley, wrote that to admit ignorance of the book was
to regard it as a buffoon. But, while Geoffrey supplied
the foundation for the medieval romancers ("dames and damsels
looking on from the top of walls, for whose sake the courtly
knights make believe to be fighting"), he was far from their
stories flowed in from Breton minstrels and the like. The
Norman poet Wace's verse adaptation of the Historia, Roman
de Brut (dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine), adds features
that become a part of the legend, namely the Round Table
and bridges the work of the chroniclers with the later French
work of Chrétien de Troyes marks the beginning of the trend
away from tales of the King to the knights and ladies in
his court. The King becomes mainly a magnificent figurehead
and his court the launching point for the tales of Lancelot,
Gawain and others.
King's military actions are toned down as he becomes more
symbolic - an all-father, concerned with justice and noble
conduct and the embodiment of Christian and chivalric ideals
with an essential, undeniable dignity.
of the Countess Mariede Champagne (daughter of Eleanor and
first husband, Louis VII of France), de Troyes unified existing
Arthurian material into a new narrative verse form and grafted
more legends onto the saga, introducing with huge success
the tale of Sir Launcelot and his ill-fated love for his
Queen. Royal enthusiasm for the story was great.
II's grandson was named with the hope of crowning him Arthur
II someday (cut short by John in 1203). Queen Eleanor's
court in Poitiers (established in defiance of Henry in 1170)
was inspired by de Troyes most influential invention, the
concept of "courtly love," and Eleanor's patronage of troubadours
spread the idea to courts of Europe, where it met with similar
result of the idea of "romantic love" was a liberation of
upper class women from the status of objects of sex and
property and their exaltation as women. Far reaching was
the ensuing civilizing effect.
Welsh however, angered that the Normans had usurped their
legends as well as their lands, still whispered of the return
of their Arthur who would regain their former glory and
independence. To counter this subversion, Henry announced
that he had been given the secret to Arthur's grave by a
Welsh bard and he revealed that it lay between two stone
pillars at Glastonbury Abbey, hoping to disprove the King's
associated with the mystical Isle of Avalon (due to its
surrounding swamp), Glastonbury was the site of the monastery
founded by Joseph of Arimathea, where monks began excavating
the old abbey cemetery in 1190 under the order of the then-dead
Henry. Seven feet down, between the two "pyramids," was
uncovered a stone slab with a lead cross inscribed:
HIC JACET SEPULTUS INCLYTUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA
- HERE LIES INTERRED IN THE ISLE OF AVALON THE RENOWNED
was a wooden coffin hewn from an oak trunk in which lay
the skeleton of a tall man with blond hair and a damaged
skull. The remains were reinterred within a double room
within the abbey.
cross has been lost but an engraving of it in Camden's Britannia
(1607) reveals a lettering thought to predate the Norman
conquest, possibly placed on the grave in the 10th century
when the level of the cemetery was raised by St. Dunstan.
excavations of 1190 were confirmed in 1962 by archaeologists
digging at the original gravesite.
1278 Longshanks Edward I, along with his queen Eleanor,
had the second tomb opened. Eyewitness Adam of Domerham
wrote,"...in two caskets, painted with their pictures and
arms, were found separately the bones of the said king,
which were of great size, and those of Queen Guinevere,
which were of marvelous beauty."
relics were lost during the Reformation but, in 1931, the
empty tomb was discovered before the spot on which the high
altar had stood in the west choir.
legend as we know it today came about at the end of the
Wars of the Roses with the publication of Sir Thomas Malory's
Le Morte D'Arthur by William Caxton in 1485. Malory's masterful
story telling welds the various Arthurian tales together
in a chronological order, outlining the career of the king
from conception at Tintagel to his death at Camlann as if
a matter of history.
he tells the tales of the other knights, he returns the
focus to the king, each story contributing and building
up to the inevitable and tragic climax.
modern times, archaeology has attempted to provide tangible
evidence for Arthur without much luck though it has revealed
much about Iron Age Britain. While the present ruins of
Tintagel date from only 1145, evidence shows that it was
inhabited in Arthur's time.
of the prehistoric hill-fort at Cadbury (begun in 1966 under
Leslie Alcock) have yielded nothing definitively Arthurian
but it's association with Camelot was first recorded by
John Leland in 1542 who wrote, "At South Cadbyri standith
Camallate, sumtyme a famose toun or castelle. The people
can tell nothing thar but that they have hard say that Arture
much resortid to Camalat."
is, in fact, no shortage of sites associated with Arthur
in England and no other personage has been commemorated
in so many British place names. But while the adventures
of Arthur and his Knights are flung far and wide, Arthur
has only one birthplace, one home and one grave; Tintagel,
has proved habitation of these possible locations; Tintagel,
Cadbury, and Glastonbury. All are located in the west country
and it is here that the legend's origin took root.
truth will never be known but it is the legend that has
become important- down to modern fiction and film.
expert Geoffrey Ashe writes; Persisting through many presentations
of him, from the far-off Welsh to some modern ones, is the
perennial dream of a golden age. In this case it has the
added quality that Arthur still lives and will return, so
that the golden age will be reinstated. The appeal to the
imagination has the power to outlast literal belief. (The
Arthurian Handbook, 1988)
(see Sources), please visit
their site for much more!