King Arthur

Britain during the time of the legendary King Arthur was a state in peril. Rome's ability to provide protection, already in question, had been degraded in 402 CE when Imperial troops were redeployed to the mainland by Flavius Stilicho guardian of Emperor Honorius and de facto commander-in-chief of the Empire's western armies.

The problems the island faced were further compounded in 407 when Flavius Claudius Constantinus, Roman general of what few legionaries remained, was declared Emperor of the West (Constantine III) by his men, following which, garrison in tow, he crossed to Europe where he was recognized as co-emperor by a weakened and desperate Honorius (Stilicho having been murdered following the mutiny of the loyalist Roman army). His rule was to be short lived, however, and in 411 he was beheaded by his enemies.

Roman Britain now virtually defenseless was open to invasion the province fragmenting into pre-Roman kingdoms. Gildas, a contemporary British cleric, states that a council was convened by Vortigern (Vortigen) a fifth century warlord to plan for the island's defense and in keeping with Roman tradition a decision was made to allow barbarians, in this case Saxons, Angles and Jutes, to settle and help defend the civilized south against the barbaric northern Picts. However, as is often the case, even the best laid plans can go awry, and soon the supposed allies, constantly demanding more land, proved to be worse neighbors than those they were helping defend against. The Romano-British, after some initial success at holding back the Germanic interlopers, were pushed westward into Wales and Cornwall others fleeing to Brittany.

It is Gildas in his “De Excidio Britanniae” (Concerning the Ruin of Britain) who spoke of a military leader of Romano-British descent named Ambrosius Aurelianus as the leader of British resistance (his dominance occurring only a few years after Vortigern). Some medieval historians (Nennius, a ninth century Welsh monk, in his “Historia Brittonum” [History of the Britons] was the first to mention Arthur by name in a heroic sense.) believed that if Arthur did exist he might have been either the son of Aurelianus or perhaps even Aurelianus himself.

Indeed, the legend surrounding King Arthur [1] is derived from not just one source but from many each with slight variations on a common theme. Other connected persons, places and objects are likewise embellishment or exaggeration added over the centuries by any number of contributors:

The sword Excalibur [2] is a case in point. In one version, taken from Robert de Boron’s “Merlin,” a young Arthur obtained the sword by pulling it from a crevice, in a stone, where it had been wedged years earlier (his father Uther Pendragon, witnessed by Merlin, having declared before he died that only a true king would be able to withdraw it). A second version, favored by Sir Thomas Malory, sees Arthur receiving the sword from the hand of the Lady of the Lake [3] after his original sword Caliburn was broken in battle.

In his “Le Morte D’Arthur” (The Death of Arthur) Malory has Arthur, severely wounded, instruct Sir Bedivere to return the sword by casting it back into the lake. When the knight reluctantly complies a hand rises from the water grasps the sword and draws it beneath the surface. The wounded king is then floated by barge down the river to Avalon from which it is alleged he will return in time of need.

Camelot, later to become Arthur’s celebrated seat of power, was first mentioned (briefly) in Chrétien de Troyes’ poem “Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette” (Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart), though Chrétien, along with others such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, a medieval cleric, in his pseudo-historical, circa 1136 “Historia Regum Britanniae” (History of the Kings of Britain) places Arthur’s chief court at Caerleon in Wales. [4] It wasn’t until 1485 and “Le Morte D'Arthur” (based on thirteenth century French romances) that Malory firmly entrenched Camelot (which he identified with Winchester) in ascendancy.

Merlin as recognized today is essentially the wizard depicted by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He is based primarily on Myrddin Wyllt, a figure from Welsh legend alleged to have lived in the mid sixth century and described as a mad prophet living a miserable existence in the depths of the forest, his time spent ruminating on his life prior to the passing of King Gwenddoleu at the battle of Arfderydd. Later authors added further ornamentation, his character becoming endowed with supernatural powers, a grey beard, conical hat, long gown and scepter.

The Knights of the Round Table were warriors (basically professional soldiers) at King Arthur’s court ostensibly representing the highest ideals of chivalry; twelve or more in number they met as equals around a table designed with neither head nor foot. In later tales the table said to be a wedding gift from Leodegrance, the king of Cameliard, to Arthur, and created by Merlin, is instrumental in initiating the Grail quest, while earlier stories depict its origins in different more simple ways, the shape a response to squabbles concerning seating arrangements or perhaps merely a reference to early Celtic custom in which warriors attending their king sit in a circle.

Guinevere is queen consort to King Arthur and daughter of King Leodegrance. In the most popular version of the story it is her adulterous affair with Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table, which leads to Camelot’s downfall and the death of Arthur.

Morgan Le Fay [5] (Morgana) is a powereful enchantress in the Arthurian legend. Alternately healer then antagonist to Arthur (in some accounts Arthur is a blood relation) her role is one of constant change, from benevolent, one of the nine magical sisters closely associated with Avalon, to adversarial, enemy to Guinevere and the Round Table, to eventual reconciliation.

Avalon also known as the “Isle of Apples” is first mentioned in the “Historia Regum Britanniae” as the magical island where Excalibur was forged and Arthur was taken to be healed. Its purported location ranges from Glastonbury, to Cornwall, to Sicily and beyond.

[1] Regions the length and breadth of Britain have claimed a connection to the Arthurian legend, perhaps the earliest full stories two Welsh tales from the 11th century "Culhwch and Olwen" and the "Dream of Rhonabwy."

Geoffrey of Monmouth records Arthur to have been High King of Britain.

The Clan Campbell trace their lineage back to "Arthur ic Uibar" (Arthur, son of Uther).

[2] Excalibur has many names, from the Welsh Caledfwlch it was Latinized to Caliburnus or Caliburn and then further altered to Excalibur, a derivation drawn from the Latin phrase Ex calce liberatus, in English "liberated from the stone." In some versions of the legend, Caliburn and Excalibur are seperate swords.

[3] Many lakes such as Llyn Llydaw, The Loe (Loe Pool), Dozmary Pool and Loch Arthur claim an association with the Lady of the Lake.

[4] It was a characteristic of medieval kings to hold court in different towns, cities and castles (with one predominant).

[5] A fay, fae or fairy is a mythological being, human in appearance, endowed with supernatural powers and known euphemistically as the wee, fair or good folk.

To Site Map
© 2006-2019   All rights reserved