King Arthur’s Historical Sources

The historical man behind the literature’s king was probably a warlord existing in the period between AD 450 and AD 650. His name, Artorius, derives perhaps from a Roman family, because it is extremely rare in Welsh sources: we owe a Welsh brief, Annals of Wales, for the first mention with two absolute dates about the traditional hero called Arthur: the year 72 (probably AD 518) Arthur won at Badon hill (mons Badonicus) against the Saxons and to honour this victory he bore the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights; then in the year 93 (perhaps AD 539) he perished at the Gueith (=Battle) of Camlann, fighting against the traitor Medraut, who died in battle too.

Early Sources

The British preacher Gildas is however absolutely the first writer who mentions the battle of Badon Hill, giving us also a few names of kings, in his sixth-century book written during the obscure period of the Saxon’s invasion of Britain.

After the Annals of Wales, we have another source written by an unknown character called Nennius, The story of the Britons. The latter is almost a chronology without any absolute date, who gives us a series of successful accomplishments by Arthur, coming to us in two manuscripts: the first version is called Harleian MS (MS in philology means manuscripts), it’s written in an elegant Latin style, and tell us mostly Arthur’s military victories; the second is called Vatican MS, probably made by an English revisor in AD 944, written in a much less inelegant Latin form, derives from a Welsh version composed between ca 975 and ca 975, including natural marvels related to Arthur, and his grave also. Obviously neither site is yet been identified today.

The early Welsh literature also compares the enigmatic figure of Arthur, for example in a trilogy about “Three Generous Men of the Island of Britain” sung by minstrels and adapted to multiple versions. In another Welsh source, the Life of Saint Carannog, about a VI-century’s abbot and confessor, Arthur appears like as a Defensor of Britain from a terrible snake that has wasted twelve parts of the fields of Carrum.

The Bestseller

The Arthur TapestryThen, there is the most famous source, a best seller for medieval standards: The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth. We don’t know much about the author but we can say that his family was either Welsh or possibly Breton and he signed himself Geoffrey Arthur, probably signifying he was son of a man called Arthur: that is an interesting element about the diffusion of the name Arthur since his death, in VI century. He died in 1154 ca. His book is a long narration about Britain’s origins (he writes that the British came originally from Troy, according a “very ancient book in the British tongue”), then he talks about many royal characters, before and after Roman conquest, like King Arthur and King Lear (the latter became the basis for the Shakespearean play). Geoffrey make a fusion with history and legend: he compare King Arthur to Alexander the Great, and also his birth is similar to the latter’s conception (according the tradition Alexander’s mother, Olimpiade, was seduced by a god): Geoffrey is the first who talks about the violent Uther’s love to the beautiful Gorlois’s wife, Ygerna, duchess of Cornwall, he is the first who tells about the magic performed by the magician Merlin, who transforms Uther in Gorlois to deceive Ygerna and lie with her; then he talks about the young Arthur, who is only fifteen years old when he is invested with the royal insignia for his wisdom and goodness. Geoffrey goes on talking about a lot of battles won by Arthur, his marriage with Guinevere, “the most beautiful woman in the entire island”, a young noble girl descendant from a Roman family and brought up in the household of Cador, another Duke of Cornwall, but we’ll narrate specifically the plot in another chapter.

Geoffrey’s work reflects the recent historical events: the Norman’s coming by the invasion of William the Conqueror, crowned in York in 1069 as King of Britain. So, the large part played by Bretons in The History of the Kings of Britain reflects the Norman interest in bringing Brittany into their sphere (even if Wales would have been conquered by the Normans only in 1282, Britain was now under the reign of the Normans).

After Geoffrey’s version, about fifty chroniclers used his work as a base for new versions, in them, the most skeptical was William of Newburgh, who wrote at the end of twelfth century, but his attack against Geoffrey’s book was unheeded. Geoffrey’s success was really greater: two writers followed Geoffrey closely: the first was Gaimar, unfortunately his version is lost; the second was the Norman clerk Wace, his version Le Roman de Brut contains the first mention of the Round Table. Written for Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, this version was completed in 1155. Translated in English by a Worcestershire priest, Layamon, Wace’s version talks about the mythological characters, who, according an oral tradition, was the founder of Britain, Brutus.

In the XIV-century we have a splendid anonymous poem, entitled Morte Arthure, considered the most vigorous of all the version of Arthur’s career.

The Continuously Evolving Myth

For the daughter of Marie of Aquitaine, Marie of Champagne, the French poet wrote the most famous version of King Arthur’s career: in the mid – twelfth century Chrétien de Troyes wrote the first version of the queste of the Holy Grail, and the first mention of Lancelot’s love for King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. Contemporary and parallel novels, as the legend of the unhappy love of Tristan and Isolde, were incorporated by the cycle.

We have to wait till the XV-century to have the last, completed version of King Arthur’s historical legend: in 1485 William Caxton printed the manuscript of the not well-known imprisoned writer Thomas Malory, who probably wrote La Morte Darthur during the War of the Roses. The latter version became the Authorized Version of Arthurian legend.

Then, silence fell on the Arthurian epic. During the reign of Henry VIII Tudor, according to the king’s order, Glastonbury Abbey, the traditional Arthur’s and Guinevere’s grave (we’ll talk about it specifically in another chapter) is destroyed, and all the Arthurian heritage falls into oblivion.

During the Victoria’s reign, Lord Alfred Tennyson writes the beautiful poem Idylls of the King: his contemporary painters (Rossetti, Millais, Hunt, Waterhouse) founded The Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood a company devoted to the Britain’s ancient tradition, including, obviously, King Arthur’s tales. This is the song of the swan, who will give the most important printing to the following centuries.

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