"Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
'The sequel of today unsoldiers all
The goodliest fellowship of famous knights
Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep
They sleep-the men I loved. I think that we
Shall never more, at any futuer time,
Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds,
Walking about the gardens and the halls
Of Camelot, as in the days that were.
I perish by this people which I made,-
Tho' Merlin sware that I should come again
To rule once more; but, let what will be, be,
I am so deeply smitten thro' the helm
That without help I cannot last till morn.
excerpt from "The Passing of Arthur", The Idylls of the King
Was King Arthur a real man, a composite of many men, or a mythological figure made up by storytellers to inspire people to fight invaders? Did Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Mordred, and the Knights of the Round Table exist? Centuries of debate have not settled the argument among scholars and Arthurian enthusiasts.
First, one must remember that early Britain was divided in to kingdoms. The four major kingdons were: Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Norrthumbrias (which was furthia subdivided in toBerncecia and Daria). In addition, there were three smaller kingdons: Kent, Sussex, and Essex. Each of these lands had their own rulers (otherwise known as warlords or Kings) who were always juggling for more lands, and trying to take over their neighbor's holdings, whether by marraige or force. When Uther Pendragon came along, he attempted to bring these rulers together under his leader, as a "High-King". After Pendragon's dath, the title was won, or inherited, by Arther.
Arthur and his companions first appear in the sixth century, where he defeats an invading Saxon force at Badon about 518 A.D. Two early men who wrote of Arthur were Nennius and Saint Gildas. Nennius wrote The Historia of Britannia. Arthur was called a dux bellorum, who led an army against an Anglo-Saxon invasion, killing 960 enemies. Nennius noted that Arthur’s son, Amr the Great was buried at Ercing after Arthur killed him, in a tomb called Licat Amir, next to a fountain. According to Nennius, and later Geoffrey of Monmouth, this tomb was in the Ambrii (or Ambrosii) Mountains; specifically Mount Ambrosius. In our modern world, this region is referred to as Arthur’s Seat, just above Salisbury plains. He writes that Arthur and Mordred fell in battle at Camlann.
Saint Gildas is another ancient writer who chronicled King Arthur’s exploits. In Norma Goodrich’s King Arthur, she wrote,
“Gildas was 44 years old when he wrote the book, and he was born in the same year as the Battle of Mount Badon. Therefore Gildas was born around 500, which is probably the date of the Battle of Mount Badon.”
Why is this important? Geoffrey of Monmouth based his accounts of Arthur on Nennius and Gildas’ materials. It has accepted among historians that Britain had over forty years of peace after the Saxons were routed at Badon. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s treatise on the Kings of England was the definitive source for historians. Merlin was Arthur’s voice in the Historia. Critics of the time claimed Geoffrey’s story of King Arthur was made up, that he no proof. Geoffrey countered that he did obtain his information from a written source. According to Monmouth, he used a private manuscript belonging to Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford- who told Geoffrey he’d found the treasure in Brittany. Future historians, bards, and writers took Monmouth’s Arthur and embellished the tale. William of Malmesbury, another twelfth century writer, claimed Arthur was a Welsh hero.
The next man to take up the tales was a French writer & bard, Chretien de Troyes in1177. It was said Chretien spent time at Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court, after she was ‘exiled’ by King Henry II. Chretien wrote of Lancelot in a light-hearted manner. A more serious telling was Lanzelot, penned in 1194 by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven.
Merely writing of King Arthur and his knights wasn’t enough. Patrons were required to pay for expenses, and to help spread the word of the artist’s craft. As mentioned above, Eleanor of Aquitaine was one famous patroness. Eleanor’s father, Duke William of Aquitaine was a poet, so the famous two-time Queen learned to appreciate music, art, and poetry from an early age. Eleanor passed this love to her daughters, Countess Alys of Blois and Countess Marie of Champagne.
Where was Camelot? Historians and archeologists have debated this for centuries. Leslie Alcock, spent years excavating Cadbury Castle (a hill fort) in Somerset, England. Antiquities dating back to the bronze age have been discovered within the digs from the dirt. Twelve miles away is Glastonbury Tor and the Chalice Well (supposedly) where Saint Joseph of Arimathea buried the Holy Grail). To give a little credence to this theory, King Henry II had reason enough to order a dig at Glastonbury. Henry’s men: Gerald of Wales, Ralph of Coggeshall, and Adam of Domerham, along with the monks, disinterred King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. An iron cross was lifted out from the wooden logs (used as caskets). Carlisle is also given as a possible location for Camelot, but Goodrich theorizes that Camelot was much like Windsor or Balmoral is today: as Queen Elizabeth flies the Union Jack when she is in residence, so King Arthur called Camelot where he laid his head to rest at night and held court during the day.
The romance of the Grail came into play after Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach was introduced to the increasing amount of stories available. Tristan and Isolde enter the picture in the late twelfth century. Galahad takes over as the Grail Knight in the early thirteenth century. Gawain and the Green Knight appear in the fourteenth century. Two of the ‘modern’ writers familiar to readers are Sir Thomas Mallory, whose work Le Morte D’Artur, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King have different views on the myth & legend. Mallory’s work is an extensive collection of tales, often hard-hitting while Tennyson’s poetry is a romantic telling, more along the lines of the Victorian mindset.
Later research suggests King Arthur may have been a Roman officer who was one of the last men to have stayed in Britannia Caesar recalled the Legions back to Rome. Scholars believe the Roman King Arthur did leave Britain at one point, with his men (Kay, Bedivere, Bors,Lancelot, etc.) and travel on the mainland in an attempt to reach Rome. The research also suggests this Arthur was the son of a Roman father and English mother.
Whether Arthur was a real man or not the romance of his legend has survived the centuries and inspired men and women for generations. Countless writers have taken on the legend, done from various points of view. Hollywood has done the same, with numerous versions of the King’s story in celluloid.
Stay safe out there!
There is an endless list of reading material on King Arthur, here is a sample list:
By Norma Lorre Goodrich
1986 Perennial Library version
Was This Camelot? Excavations at Cadbury Castle 1966-1970
By Leslie Alcock
1972 Stein and Day
The Age of Chivalry and Legends of Charlemagne
Guild America Books, Book Club edition
Idylls of the King
Alfred Lord Tennyson
1939 The Heritage Press
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends
By Ronan Coghlan
1995 Barnes & Noble Books