King Arthur

Fact and Legend

Very little is known about the historical figure of Arthur who inspired the legends of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. It has been conjectured that the real Arthur of the Dark Ages could have been a "warrior of connections who led the Celts to resist the invading hordes of Anglo-Saxons during the fifth to sixth centuries. Arthur may have been the leader of the descendants of the Sarmatians who were settled in Britain in 175 AD, by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Sarmatians were an Eastern European tribe of nomads famed for their skill with swords and long spears and their heavy armour. The Romans admired their martial spirit and recruited large numbers of them as mercenaries. The descendants of the Sarmatians appear to have settled near what was later to become Lancashire, at the end of the 3rd century, a military unit of 500 Sarmatian cavalrymen, descendants of the mercenaries, were reported to be re-settled at the Roman fort of Bremetennacum at Ribchester.

Glastonbury Tor, SomersetGlastonbury Tor, Somerset

Some believe that Arthur may have been a Romano-British landholder named Ambrosius Aurelianus, who led the Celtic resistance against the Saxons. It has also been argued that Artúr mac Áedáin, the eldest son of Áedán mac Gabráin, king of Dál Riata from circa 574 until circa 609, was the historical Arthur. Artúr led the Scots of Dál Riata in a war against the Picts and was killed in battle in 582. Riothamus, a Romano-British military leader, has also been identified as a candidate for the historical King Arthur by some recent writers. Others argue that Arthur was originally a fictional hero of folklore, or a Celtic deity, who became credited with real deeds in the distant past.

The Historia Brittonum, a ninth-century compilation, written in Latin and attributed in some late manuscripts to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, contains the first datable mention of King Arthur, it lists twelve battles that Arthur fought. These culminate in the The Battle of Mount Badon or Mons Badonicus. Another early text that mentions Arthur, the Annales Cambriae, dates to the tenth century but based on a chronicle begun in the late eighth century in Wales, also links Arthur with the Battle of Mount Badon. The Annales record the battle that occurred between 516 and 518, and also mention the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) were both killed.

The Celtic monk Gildas recorded the Saxon invasion in his 'De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae' (The Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written down within living memory of Mount Badon, cites the battle of Badon Hill, there is no doubt that Badon was a decisive British victory, but no warrior named Arthur is mentioned in Gildas' manuscripts. In common with Gildas, whom he used as a source, the Anglo-Saxon chronicler the Venerable Bede, one of most careful and respected of the early historians, also does not mention of Arthur.

However, the sixth century bard Aneirin, who was the author of the Welsh collection of poems known as Y Gododdin does refer to a great warrior known as Arthur:- 'He thrust beyond three hundred, most bold, he cut down the centre and far wing. He proved worthy, leading noble men; he gave from his herd steeds for winter. He brought black crows to a fort's wall, though he was not Arthur. He made his strength a refuge, the front line's bulwark, Gwawrddur.'

Tintagel CastleTintagel Castle

Aneirin's poems were originally passed down the generations orally before being written down, and it therefore impossible to discern whether Arthur featured in his the original story. The bard Teliesin, also mentions Arthur, but his work too was transmitted orally before being first written down in Welsh.

Arthur was said to be the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, the wife of Gorlois of Cornwall, whom Uther later married. He is reputed to have been born at spectacular Tintagel Castle in North Cornwall. The castle, which stands on the North Cornish coast has long been associated with Arthur and his father Uther Pendragon.

The present castle is in fact medieval, built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry II, but occupies the site of an earlier Dark Age fortress. Tintagel stands on a dramatic and atmospheric site, perched high on a rocky headland rising high above the Atlantic which is linked to the mainland by a ithmus of rock. The Dark Age remains stand on the exposed headland known as the island and are reached via a bridge. They appear as low drystone walls. Geoffrey of Monmouth describes the castle of Arthur's legendary conception as 'built high above the sea which surrounds it on all sides'

The Artognou StoneThe Artognou Stone

Excavations in the 1930's confirmed Dark Age occupation of the site and uncovered the remains of a sixth century monastery. Pottery found at the Tintagel site was dated to the 5th and 6th centuries - the time of Arthur. In the 1990's excavations lead to the discovery of an inscription on a piece of slate which reads 'ARTOgNOV' a Latin form of the Celtic name Arthnou, derived from the Celtic word Arth, meaning bear. The slate was discovered on the eastern terraces of Tintagel on the edge of a cliff overlooking the place traditionally known as Merlin's Cave. It was found under broken pottery and glass from the late sixth or seventh centuries.

The fanciful and imaginative medieval writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his 'History of the Kings of Britain' informs us that the legendary King Arthur's last battle, known as the Battle of Camlann, which legend states was fought against against his nephew and mortal foe, Mordred, took place at a site beside a river in Cornwall.The reference is understood by many to refer to the River Camel. Local legends abound that the Dark Age battle was fought in a water meadow beside the Slaughterbridge. On the stream bed lies a sixth century inscribed stone, said to mark the spot were Arthur fell after meeting Morded in battle. Discrepancy exists as to the actual date of the battle. The Annals of Wales claim it was fought in 539 A.D. , whilst the Annals of Ulster record it by another name, the Battle of Manann, and date its occurence as 582 A.D. Adomnal, a monk who wrote of the remote island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland in the seventh century, describes Arturius' death in the battle.

At a cross roads around two miles from Castle Dore, the fortress of Mark of Cornwall, near Fowey, stands a seven feet long stone pillar on which is carved the Latin inscription 'Drustans Hic lacit/Cunomori Filius' (Here lies Drustan son of Commorus) Comnmorus has been identified as Mark of Cornwall and Drustan as the Tristram of Arthurian legend. The stone did not always stand in its present position, but is known to have been moved from nearby the exact position has not been recorded.

Many places, including Tintagel Castle have been suggested as the site of Arthur's legendary castle of Camelot. Cadbury Castle, a Bronze and Iron Age hill fort in South Cadbury in Somerset, was referred to a candidate as a location for Camelot by the Tudor antiquarian John Leland in 1542. While Thomas Malory cites Winchester as being Camelot. Other candidates include Camelford in Cornwall, Llanmelin hillfort near Caerwent and Camelon, near Falkirk, which was spelled Camelo prior to the ninetenth century. It has been suggested that Arthur's last and fatal battle of Camlann was possibly fought in South Somerset or at Camboglanna near the western section of Hadrian's Wall.

A large number of sites have been suggested to be the Isle of Avalon, or Ynys Afallon, the 'Isle of Apples', including the town of Avallon in Burgundy, as part of a recent theory connecting King Arthur to the Romano-British leader Riothamus who campaigned in that area. The most famous candidate, however is Glastonbury Tor, an enigmatic hill which rises above Glastonbury in Somerset, a millennium ago the water level was much higher than today, and the tor would indeed have been an island. The Isle of Avalon was also called "the isle of glass" which suggests similarities to the name Glastonbury. In 1191, prompted by hints that Glastonbury Abbey may have been the Isle of Avalon mentioned in the stories of Arthur, the monks of Glastonbury carried out excavations in the cemetery, they claimed to have dug down sixteen feet, and found an oaken coffin. At a depth of seven feet they found a stone beneath which was a leaden cross with the convenient inscription 'His iacet inclitus Arturius in insula Avalonia' (Here lies King Arthur buried in Avalon) The coffin they stated, contained the bodies of a large man and a woman, whose golden hair was still intact, until touched, when it crumbled away. The monks promptly announced that they had found the grave of Arthur and Guinivere. In 1278, during a visit by King Edward I to Glastonbury, the bones were placed in caskets and transferred to a black marble tomb before the High Altar in the Abbey Church.

The Legend

Over the proceeding centuries, an extraordinary corpus of art and literature has grown up around the figure of King Arthur of Camelot and his knights of the Round Table, relating the famous tales of when as a boy, after many men had tried and failed, Arthur pulled the magic sword Excalibur from a stone, and was thus proclaimed King of Britain and how he was wounded by his evil nephew Mordred at the battle of Camlan and carried across the water to the mystical Isle of Avalon.

The last Sleep of ArthurThe last Sleep of Arthur

The Arthurian legends were made popular by the Medieval monk and writer Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 'History of the Kings of Britain' written in 1135. Geoffrey dealt at length with Arthur's reign, embroidered the tale and introduced Merlin to the story, a character possibly based on the prophet Myrddin, mentioned in several old Welsh poems. Geoffrey claimed to have acquired his information from an ancient British manuscript given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, but there is evidence that Monmouth's original work dealing with Arthur was lifted wholesale from Welsh or Cornish legends. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Uther is said to have become infatuated with Igraine or Ygerna, the beautiful wife of Gorlois of Tintagel Castle, ruler of Cornwall. Ygerna was the daughter of Amlawdd Wledig, of a younger branch of the Royal House of Dumnonia. Following a quarrel with Uther, Gorlois, who suspected his designs on his wife, returned to Cornwall with Ygerna. Uther, not to be thwarted, consequently launched an invasion of the province. Determined to possess Ygerna, Uther persuaded Merlin to use his magical powers to acquire him a place in Ygerna's bed. While Gorlois was killed at St. Dimilioc, Merlin transformed Uther in his image. He is then said to have calmly entered Tintagel Castle and seduced her.

The tale of Arthur's conception has a parallel in the story of Mongan, a seventh century Irish king of the Dal nAraide in County Antrim, where,so the legend relates, the sea god Mannanan mac Lir transforms himself into Fiachna, the husband of Mongan's mother Caintigern. Sir Thomas Malory in his "Le Morte D'Arthur", makes later additions to the legend, claiming that the future King Arthur was conceived that night and that Merlin demanded the child as price for his part in the deception of Ygerna. Geoffrey introduces all the famous names which were to appear vividly in the later Arthurian legends, Arthur's sword, Caliburn, his wife Ganhumara, Kay, Bedevere and Gawain. He also takes Medraut, a name that occurs in the old Welsh annals, and turns him into Mordred, Arthur's nephew and implacable foe. The name Excalibur derives from the Welsh Caledfwlch which combines the words caled ("battle, hard"), and bwlch ("breach, gap, notch"). In Culhwch and Olwen, it is one of Arthur's most valuable possessions. Geoffrey of Monmouth Latinised this to Caliburnus,later to become Excalibur.

Within fifty years of its completion Geoffrey's work had kindled the imagination of writers across Europe. The Arthurian legends were further fuelled by the troubadours and minstrels of the Medieval era. The Frenchman Chretien de Troyes, wrote five works on Arthur between the years 1160 and 1180. He developed the theme of chivalry and dwelt on the subtleties of courtly romance. The first appearance of Sir Lancelot as a character is in Chrétien de Troyes' Le Chevalier de la Charette, or "Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart". The story of Lancelot's romance with Guinevere is first recorded by Chrétien de Troyes. Geoffrey of Monmouth records Arthur's Queen as Guanhumara, the Welsh form of the name, Gwenhwyfar, which seems to be cognate with the Irish name Findabair, and translates as The White Enchantress. The Welsh Triads mention three Gwenhwyfars who were married to King Arthur, the first was the daughter of Cywryd of Gwent, the second of Gwythyr ap Greidawl, and the third of (G)ogrfan Gawr. Another Frenchman, Robert de Boron from Burgundy, expanded the story of Lancelot further with the tale of the Quest for the Holy Grail. Prior to his appearance in the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot is virtually unknown. It has been suggested that Lancelot is drawn from the Welsh hero Llwch Llenlleawg ("Llwch of the Striking Hand") from Culhwch and Olwen. Sir Thomas Malory's brilliant 'Le Morte d'Arthur' became one of Caxton's first publications after the invention of the printing press in the late Middle Ages and enjoyed huge popularity. Succesive ages added and embroidered the legend.

King Arthur's Round TableKing Arthur's Round Table

Legend states that King Arthur acquired the Round Table as a wedding gift from Guinevere's father, King Leodagan of Carmelide, when he married the beautiful Guinevere. The Round Table was first described in 1155 in Wace's Roman de Brut, a Norman adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. There was no hierarchy among Arthur's knights as they were all seated equally around the table, enforcing the concept of equality. Merlin is said to have left one chair, known as the "perilous" chair vacant, to be filled by a great knight. who would turn out to be Galahad, the son of Lancelot.

The Winchester Round Table, a large tabletop which hangs in Winchester Castle bearing the names of various knights of Arthur's court was first recorded at Winchester in 1463. The table is a medieval fake, dendrochronology, radiocarbon dating and a study of carpentry practices have been used to calculate its date of construction to 1250-1280, during the reign of King Edward I, himself an eager Arthurian enthusiast, the timber came from a store felled over a period of years. The table has been linked, via an examination of King Edward's financial accounts, with a tournament he held near Winchester on April 20, 1290, to mark the betrothal of one of his daughters. During the medieval period, festivals known as Round Tables were celebrated throughout Europe in imitation of Arthur's court.

The current paintwork is of later date and was carried out by order of King Henry VIII for the state visit of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, nephew of Catherine of Aragon, in 1522. It depicts Henry VIII seated in Arthur's place above a Tudor rose. The Round Table remains as testimony to the power of the legends of Arthur in British history