King Arthur

by Brian Edward Rise

Arthur receiving Excalibur

Arthur — 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. Geoffrey 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. While 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.

Published 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. The 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.

Arthur, 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 flourishes. Men 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 Gaul. Tribute 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 engage him. While 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.

Arthur's 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. Surviving Welsh poetry preserve the story in the tale Culhwch 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. However, 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. The 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. The 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.

The 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. The 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. One 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.

It is, however, harder to proceed. There are no Welsh allusions to Arthur that even closely approximate his time frame and while a few battles are possible on their own, they extend his career over a very long time. Suggested 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.

The 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. Though 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. This 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.

However, 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 (457-74). Known on the Continent as Riothamus, a Latinisation 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.

The 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 sole inspiration. New 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 romances. The 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.

The 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. A protégé 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. Henry 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 enthusiasm. The 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.

Many 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 immortality. Long 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:


Here lies interred in the Isle Of Avalon the renowned king Arthur.

Below 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. The 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 tenth century when the level of the cemetery was raised by St. Dunstan. The excavations of 1190 were confirmed in 1962 by archaeologists digging at the original gravesite. In 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. These 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.

Arthurian 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. While 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.

In 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. Excavations of the prehistoric hill-fort at Cadbury (begun in 1966 under Leslie Alcock) have yielded nothing definitively Arthurian but its association with Camelot was first recorded by John Leland in 1542 who wrote, At the very South Ende of the Chirch of South-Cadbyri ſtandith Camallate, ſumtyme a famoſe Toun or Castelle, apon a very Torre or Hille, wunderfully enſtrengthenid of nature... The people can telle nothing ther but that they have hard ſay that Arture much reſortid to Camalat. There 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, Camelot, Avalon. Archaeology 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.

The truth will never be known but it is the legend that has become important — down to modern fiction and film.



  • Leland, John. (1770). The itinerary of John Leland the Antiquary., 3rd ed., Vol. 1. Oxford: Thomas Hearne. pp. 75, 76.