was King Arthur? When was he born? Where did he live? When did he die? These
and so many more questions are what we struggle with in our quest for
knowledge of King Arthur.
name of the legendary King of Britain may be a form of
which is a Roman
Another possibility is that it is
derived from Celtic origin, meaning something like 'bearman' (in Welsh
arth gwyr and in Latin artos viros).
There is a third
possibility that the name comes from the Irish word art meaning a
generally thought that King Arthur lived sometime in the 5th or 6th
Geoffrey of Monmouth
dates King Arthur's death as 542 AD.
puts him in
the 5th Century.
are many genealogies that have been given to King Arthur.
But the most common
links him with the kingdom of
(which was a British tribal area in the original Roman administrative
region that encompassed Cornwall,
Somerset and parts of Dorset).
King Arthur's Life . . . or was it?
the written records of the 5th and 6th Centuries available to us today,
there are no examples of contemporary
historical accounts of King Arthur.
writing in the 6th Century, does not mention King Arthur at all, even though
he speaks of the Battle of Badon (Mons Badonicus) in which
King Arthur is said to have defeated the Saxons.
lived in the 5th or 6th Centuries it is from a time when little history
(in our modern understanding) exists. When we step back in time, we
enter of world of legends, myths, fables and legends.
takes us up to the work of Thomas Malory in the 15th Century; while it
is to the
19th Century that we get the rise of what we can call
In the 6th Century, the writer
a valiant hero named
King Arthur in his poem
some think that this reference may not have been in the original text.
Welsh poems of
10th Centuries describe King Arthur as being a hero of the distant
The Black Book of Carmarthen
speaks about the knights of
the great king, and utters the mysterious phrase
'anoeth bit bed i
Arthur' or 'the world's wonder is the grave of Arthur.'
writing later in the 9th Century, says King Arthur was a warrior who came to
the aid of other British tribal chiefs, and who fought in many
victorious battles. In his work
The History of Britain, Nennius actually calls King Arthur
'commander of battles' or 'warleader.'
Malmsbury, writing in the 12th Century, tells his readers of this
great man of Welsh legends, and commends King Arthur's bravery and stoutness
From Wales many of the
Arthurian Legends move to
from Cornwall to Brittany. The Celtic peoples of the south west kept
alive an important Arthurian oral tradition, and it was from here that
the legends of the king were to spread to France, and then to the rest
of Europe. Other writers have questioned whether King Arthur may have
inhabited Wales, such as
Geoffrey of Monmouth
(said to be of Welsh, Cornish or Breton stock)
writing in the 12th Century, is where we need to look to see the start
of our modern ideas of whom King Arthur was and is.
monumental work of 1138 entitled
Historia Regum Brittaniae
(The History of the Kings of Britain) provides us with the template for
the historical and literary epic of our hero's life.
Within some seventy
years the book was translated into French by
Robert Wace, a monk
from Jersey. In his work
Roman de Brut, he describes the
Round Table as a symbol of chivalry. Soon afterwards, a narrative verse,
Erec et Eride by
Chrétien de Troyes, is often
thought of as the first Arthurian romance.
Geoffrey of Monmouth said that he
gained his information about King Arthur from 'an
ancient book in the British language.' No one knows to which
book he refers.
King Arthur life is given magnif
icent prominence by Geoffrey
in his amazing work of history,
legend. Some scoff, then
as now, believing that Geoffrey was a fantasist of the most extreme
Perhaps he did indeed have a tendency to invent a few details,
here and there, or at least magnify the importance of
King Arthur in the
history of this country. How much came from the imagination of
How much came from traditional British sources? We would truly like to
Geoffrey of Monmouth says that King Arthur was the son of
Uther Pendragon. He was a heroic Christian warrior who defeated the Saxon
barbarians a dozen times in battle.
Creating an empire across Europe,
Geoffrey says King Arthur even went to war with the Romans! Finally King Arthur
returned to his homeland victorious.
But, while he was gone, his nephew,
Mordred, had raised a rebellion against King Arthur, and had taken
Guinevere, King Arthur's Queen, for his own. King Arthur, learning of his nephew's
treachery, lands with his army to take back what is rightfully his.
writing in the 15th Century, took all the legends and literature about
King Arthur, and turned them into the splendid national epic of King Arthur which
we are all familiar with today.
In Thomas Malory's epic poem Le Morte
d'Arthur, many heroic themes come together: adventure and
holiness, worship and fellowship, wonder and secrecy. And yet, in all
this glory and splendour, the mood remind the reader that all things
will pass away, for all is vanity.
Magic starts with the conception of King
Arthur. So that a wonderful child can be born, Merlin creates a spell
which makes Uther Pendragon look like
Igraine's husband, Gorlais, Duke
of Cornwall. Uther readily takes
Igraine to his bed. King Arthur is thus conceived a child born of magic.
Merlin is both a sorcerer and a wise man for he takes the baby boy and
gives him to Sir Hector for safe-keeping. The child is raised in secret.
Only Merlin knows the truth. But the time will come all will know.
Many years later, when Arthur is a youth,
the land falls into a state of disrepair. There is no king on the
throne. England is desolate and vulnerable.
Uther Pendragon has died. No one can
be found to take his place. Many seek to challenge to take the throne
for themselves. Merlin enters the scene, and makes his move.
Many years' past, in anticipation of this
time of chaos, Merlin had placed a
in a stone, saying that whoever could draw the sword from the stone
would be the true king of England. Now, with
Uther Pendragon dead, many men of
noble birth step up to try to raise the sword. All fail. Sir Hector lets
his sons try, but the sword will not budge.
It is the
Sword in the Stone.
Then the young Arthur takes
the sword in his hand. To the amazement of all, the young draws it
cleanly from the stone. Merlin has Arthur crowned king of England.
Eleven other tribal chiefs thought Arthur not worthy to be
King and not
proven in battle, so they rise up in rebellion. But Arthur, the young
warrior, puts them down. Now he is king of all England.
Malory takes us deeper into a world of
high and noble medieval romance in which King Arthur marries the beautiful
and good Guinevere. For a dowry, Guinevere's father gives
King Arthur the
Round Table. In
King Arthur's court, the
knights sit around the Table as
brothers in arms. No one sits at the head, or to the right hand of the
king. It is a symbol of equal standing. And yet one knight, who sat with
the king, was later to betray him.
the most illustrious knight of all, falls into a loving obsession with
the Queen, and they meet secretly. King Arthur learns of their painful
Sir Lancelot is banished to distant lands over the seas.
is disgraced. King Arthur is left alone and bereft of those he trusted most.
In the name of justice, the Queen is sentenced to death.
returns from his distant lands to rescue her. King Arthur gives chase to the
lovers across the sea. His kingdom is without a king.
Mordred is left in
son and also his nephew! It is another twist to the tale that arises out
of incest. Mordred was conceived by Morgause, whom King Arthur does not
realise is his sister because he does not understand that he himself was
borne out of incest.
Incest is responsible for upsetting the natural
order, it brings instability, uncertainty, and its presence creates an
air that something in the lives of the characters is defiantly not
right. It is the background of his conception that goes some way to
explaining what happens in his own castle while King Arthur is away chasing
Seizing his opportunity,
Mordred rises up in arms against his father. King Arthur is forced to
return to fight his son, and win back his lands, Father meets son in
battle on Salisbury Plain. (In the 9th or 10th Century Welsh chronicles
Annales Cambriae or The Annals of Wales, the battle is
Battle of Camlann). Mordred
is slain. King Arthur receives a mortal wound.
On 'The Day of Destiny'
the dying King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, is thrown into the lake by
Sir Bedivere. And there came
an arm and a hand out of the water, which took the sword, shook it
thrice, and then vanished with the sword into the water. When King Arthur is
told of what has happened, he knows his time is nigh.
The dying king is
borne across the misty waters on a barge
to the Isle of Avalon
with attendant fair ladies in black hoods. And there he is healed. And
there he sleeps.
Geoffrey of Monmouth in Vita
Merlini or The Life of Merlin, written in about
1145 AD, King Arthur is tended in Avalon by
Morgan Le Fay and her
sisters. Robert Wace, the Norman poet adds in Roman de Brut
(AD 1155) that:
'Arthur is still in Avalon and
awaited by the Britons;
for, as they say and believe,
he will return
from that place
to which he passed
and will again be alive.'
Some believed that King Arthur was not dead,
but one day the once and future king would return.
Later, the English
priest and poet Layamon tells us that King Arthur is not dead, but
sleeping, and will one day come again to restore his
Thomas Malory sums up the legend
which we still know today.
'Yet som men say in many partys of Inglonde that kynge Arthur ys nat
dede, but had by the wyll of oure Lorde Jesu into another place; and men
say that he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse. Yet I
woll not say that hit shall be so, but rather I wolde sey: here in thys
worlde he chaunged hys lyff. And many men say that there ys wrytten
uppon the tombe thys: Hic Jacet Athurus, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus.'
Here lies Arthur
The King who was and
the King who will be!