Legend has it that Uther, King of what is now known as Great Britain, decided one day to sign peace with one of his fiercest enemies: The Duke of Cornwall. He invited the Duke and his wife to his castle. When Uther met the Duchess Ygraine, he completely fell in love with her. Realizing this situation, the duchess asks her husband to withdraw immediately from the castle and return home.
The Duke of Cornwall withdrew from the castle and resumed the war. Uther’s love for the duchess was so great that he became ill and sought the help of Merlin, the magician of the court. Merlin pitied the poor king and agreed to help him with one condition: the son he had with Ygraine would be given to him (Merlin) to educate him and prepare him to fulfill his destiny, which was none other than to be the greatest Monarch of England.
This conversation encouraged Uther to go with his troops, in search of his love. The duke learned of his intentions and went to meet him. In the fight, Cornwall died and the messengers of Uther convinced Ygraine to become his wife. In the end, she agreed and soon they were married. When the heir was born, Merlin went to see Uther and he gave the child to him as he had promised. The creature was handed over to Sir Hector, a nobleman of the court, who had no knowledge of the child’s royal blood. The infant was baptized with the name of Arturo.
King Arthur is one of the world’s most know legends. Adults and children know it alike: The young man whom was able to take the sword in the stone, making him the King of England and the one responsible of the unification of all the kingdoms of the islands.
He is either known as the British leader who guided the defense of Britain of the Saxon invaders during 5th – to 6th -century, and in some Welsh and Celtic poems, as the warrior defending Britain from human and supernatural enemies or as a magical figure of folklore. King Arthur is also the main aspect of the “Matter of Britain” (which is the corpus of medieval literature of Britain and Great Britain, with the legendary kings and heroes associated with it) that appeared during the 12th century, getting its folklore and legendary nature from then on.
It would be appropriate to discuss “the birth of king Arthur” starting from early sources and theories (schools and historical figures) who discuss that King Arthur was real, to its transition into a medieval and folkloric story.
First we have the pre-Galfridian traditions (pre-Geoffrey of Monmouth).
1. Gildas and Bede
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a British cleric who shaped the popularity of tales of King Arthur. Written around 1136, Geoffrey’s second book, Historiae Regum Britanniae, brought together tales of Merlin and Arthur. But Gildas and Bede were British monks who served as Monmouth’s sources for his books about Arthur. Both monks wrote about the history of Britain before and during the Saxon invasions. Most of Bede’s works seems to be taken from Gildas (who lived some centuries before Bede) and while none of them mentions Arthur, Monmouth used characters mentioned in their stories for his books, like Constantine (Arthur’s grandfather) and Gildas’ Ambrosious Aurelianus, Arthur’s uncle known as Aurelius Ambrosious.
2. Historia Brittonum
The Historia Brittonum is a book written by Nennius, a Welsh ecclesiastic. It is seen as a “frenetic journey through time and place”, as Nennius writing is highly chaotic. There’s no order and trying to piece together all the information found on the book has proven to be difficult. The author is very concerned to place British history within a wider European and world context. In other words, Nennius was not trying to write a narrative book, but simply putting together all the information he found.
One aspect of Arthurian literature found in this book is Vortigen, a British king found in Monmouth’s books and the prophet boy, this time, is named Ambrosious “the Blessed man was unanimously chosen commander against the Saxons.” Unlike Gildas and Bede, Nennius does mention Arthur (thus, implicating that him and Ambrosious are separate entities) without any introduction or preamble, just jumping into how Arthur led the Britons to victory against the Saxons: “Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.” Historia Brittonum lists 12 battles fought by Arthur the “dux bellorum” (war commander or leader), saying that Arthur fought “alongside the kings of the Britons”, rather than Arthur being a King.
3. Annales Cambriae
Also known as The Annals of Wales, is a set of Cambro-Latin chronicles from a text compiled from various sources in St David’s, Dyfed (Wales), on an uncertain date, although prior to the tenth century. Despite its name, the Annales Cambriae records not only events in Wales, but also events in Ireland, Cornwall, England, Scotland and sometimes more distant places. In simple words, it is a table of years and some events which are said to have taken place in them. Arthur is mentioned in two events of this table: 516 A.D. The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors. And 573 A.D. The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland. These are the three main early sources.
The Geoffrey of Monmouth era
Tales of a great war hero named Arthur were spread by mouth and recorded by monks during centuries. Nonetheless, these tales remained local among the Welsh, Bretons and Cornish. Medieval folklore is not known for valuing historical accuracy, but for setting the myths into one’s own time. The story of Arthur was told and retold, being gradually transformed from a war hero to a King, and his men into knights. Geoffrey gave the story a soaring popularity in 1136 with his book “History of the Kings of Bitain”, claiming that it was a genuine history, but in reality it was a mixture of older folklore with his own inventions.
Geoffrey placed Arthur in the same post-roman period of Annales Cambriae and Historia Brittonum, adding Arthur’s father Uther, the magician Merlin and the story of Arthur’s conception. How much of his narrative are his own invention is debated, but it is also undeniable the impact he made. His story became extremely well-known in Europe and, as other authors told and retold his story, some adding their own details and starting a saga of stories that came together and shaped the legend of Arthur as we know it today. Geoffrey was the first in three aspects: to Bring the legend out of Wales, first to associate Merlin and the first giving a story of Arthur’s conception.
Wace and his “Roman de Brut”
The Roman de Brut by Wace is one of the surviving vernacular chronicles of British history written in Norman French. It was named after the legendary founder and first king of England, ‘Brutus’. Wace was born on the island of Jersey, in the Channel Islands, sometime after 1100. It is mainly based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and it contains a lot of material of King’s Arthur legend. Wace is known for adding new features to the story, like the special Round Table created for Arthur’s barons (to avoid arguing over status and predence during meetings). In the 13th century, Layamon, an English poet, combined the Arthurian stories from Geoffrey and Wace and expanded the legend. He added a riot between barons and noblemen, which led to the creation of the Round Table.
The Arthurian legends reveal a lot about those who adapt the legends and the historical times in which they are rewritten and adapted: Guy Ritchie’s adaptation explores oppression, poverty and the exploitation of the poor, revolts and gender equality: the most popular ideological concerns of our modern world in century XXI. Back then, in the medieval times, it was mostly centered in war, military, and noblemen looking for power and status. One can tell how the focus changes as the history of the world advances.
King Arthur on Romance
Stories about the kingdom of King Arthur with its changing cast of characters has survived in 500 manuscripts in different languages. They were popular both in men and women who knew how to read and could buy manuscripts, but also in the poorer parts of society by popular songs and oral storytelling. The legend was initially about violent battles, dynasties and politics, but today it is mostly known for knightly activities, supernatural beings and beautiful women due to the French romance tradition. Romance is a medieval genre that has narratives written in prose and adventures on the aristocracy aspect. It can include romantic love but is not defined by it. Chrétien de Troyes, a French poet, wrote an important number of Arthurian romances during the 12th century. He was the first to introduce Lancelot and his love affair with Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. Lancelot is one of the most skilled knights and in all his versions he is dedicated to the love for Queen Guinevere. Their romance is one of the enduring aspects of Arthurian romance and also a contribution to the fall of the round table and Arthur’s kingdom.
Arthur is not the most mentioned character in the romances. Once his kingdom is stablished, his role becomes different: he is essential to keep the peace in his own kingdom and provide stable rule, hence the responsibility of other knights to take up challenges and go on quests on his behalf. The greatest adventure the knights undertake is the quest for the Holy Grail. The grail is originally a platter in the French version. It is transformed, however, into the cup of Christ used at the Last Supper by Malory. The grail quest can only be completed by a knight pure of heart and this is finally accomplished by Galahad, son of Lancelot.
The Death of King Arthur
These stories are not that concerned with adventures and the supernatural, but with nostalgia: the utopian world where knights live under chivalric rules and ideals is gone. Camelot did not last forever.
Arthur remains a good and noble king until the affair of Guinevere and Lancelot is revealed by Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred who then challenges Arthur’s right to rule, an excuse to lay claim to the throne. This event takes place in Le Morte Darthur written by Malory. The kingdom turns against himself and in the final battle between Mordred and Arthur, Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded. Guinevere retires to a convent and Lancelot to a hermitage. All of the other great knights of the court are killed. Sir Bedevere helps Arthur from the field and returns Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. Once the sword has been returned, Arthur dies and is carried away on a ship to the isle of Avalon. For some, his death is not the end of the legend. Some author record codas where Arthur is taken to Avalon by three beautiful women and hopefully, the king will return to rule one day. And even if he may not have returned from the death, he has enjoyed many afterlives in popular culture.
The legacy of Arthurian stories and legends expands to every aspect of culture: freedom, justice, equality, the importance of fidelity, the purity of love, spiritual quests. A noble leader… all of them are concerns that have lasted and changed. Art and literature have been influenced by these legends. Also, goodness will always triumph over evil in Arthur’s world: the bad are punished, the damsel is always rescued, the good are rewarded and justice is always recognized.
Jason is the editor-in-chief of ArthurLegends.com and the primary author of the Arthurian Shared Universe. He has a deep love of British history and mythology, especially relating to Celtic and Arthurian traditions (obviously). He spends most of his days in made-up worlds.