Arthur is the name that inspired people to think of the Age of Chivalry, where the tall, impregnable castle overlooked the field of combats, a clash between two opposing armies or tournaments between jousting knights, or where we romanticised armoured knight embarked on a perilous journey to prove his prowess and worth.
Arthur had gone through various stages, where rose from warlord of the forgotten period to his status the warrior-king. Then later, he was reduced to a role of passive ruler, while the knight, swore into the fellowship of the Round Table, overcame monsters and enemies in his name.
No other king represented medieval kingship and chivalry than Arthur. Arthur’s shadowy past would later surpassed the historical emperor of the Franks, Charlemage.
|Would the real Arthur, please step forward|
House of King Arthur
House of Arthur & Culhwch (Welsh tradition)
|Arthur was the great legendary British king. Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine. Igraine was the wife to Duke Gorlois of Cornwall (or Hoel of Tintagel), at the time she had conceived Arthur. Through Merlin’s magic, Uther was transformed to look exactly like her husband. Uther made love to Igraine, when Gorlois was absence. When Gorlois was killed, Uther immediately married Igraine.
In the Welsh legend, his mother was named Eigr (Igraine), daughter of Anlawdd Wledig, and his father was Uthr Bendragon (Uther Pendragon). Arthur had a sister named Gwyar, who was the mother of Gwalchmai or Gwalchmei, which means the Hawk of May, and of Gwalhaved. Gwalchmai was better known in English and French legend as Gawain or Gauvain. But there is frequent confusion of who were Arthur’s sisters and who was mother of Gawain in the mainstream Arthurian legend.
According to Geoffrey, Wace and Layamon, Uther and Igraine were parents of Arthur and a daughter named Anna, who married King Lot of Orkney. Morgan le Fay was also considered to be Arthur’s sister, but I am not certain that if she was Arthur’s sister or half-sister. Geoffrey never mention Morgan in his History, but in his later work, (Vita Merlini, c. 1151) Morgan was one of the sisters and sorceresses who lived in Avalon. In Gerald of Wales’ work called Tour of Wales (1188), the scholar wrote that Morgan was Arthur’s cousin. Some had identified Morgan with the Welsh mother goddess Modron, the mother of Mabon, the Welsh god of youth. Modron had also being identified as being the wife of Uryen Rheged (Urien) and the mother of Owain (Yvain).
Later legends say that Arthur had three half-sisters: Morgawse, Elaine (Blasine) and Morgan le Fay. Morgawse had married King Lot of Orkney, Elaine (Blasine) was married to King Nentres of Garlot, while Morgan was wife of King Urien of Gorre, brother of Lot.
Arthur said to have no children from his wife Guinevere, except for in Perlesvaus, where Lohot was their son, and Guinevere is his mother. However, Lohot (or Loholt) was said to be Arthur’s son, not by his wife Guinevere, but more frequently by a woman named Lisanor [Chretien de Troyes’ Erec [from Arthurian Romances, translated by William W. Kibler, p. 58]. Lohot was one of the Round Table knights. Lohot was also one of the knights captured by the lord of Dolorous Guard, where he fell ill during the imprisonment.
According to Malory, the son was named Borre (Boarte in Suite du Merlin) and the mother was named Lionors [le Morte d’Arthur, book I ch. 17] (or Lyonors in Suite du Merlin). The similarity between the two women’s names – Lisanor and Lionor, suggested that Lohot and Borre is one and the same person.
According to the ninth century historian, Nennius, Arthur had a son named Amr, as well as a dog, called Cabal. Nennius say that Arthur had killed his own son, but doesn’t state why he had done so. Arthur had set up tomb near the spring called Licat Amr, in the region of Ercing. What was marvelous about this tomb is that it change in length in various days. Amr could be the prototype to Mordred. As for his dog, the mound was called Carn Cabal, located in Buelt. Cabal was killed when they went hunting against the wild boar Troynt (possibly Twrach Trwyth in Culhwch and Olwen?).
In Culhwch and Olwen (c. 1100), Arthur was the father of Gwydre, possibly by Gwenhwyvar (Guinevere). Gwydre was killed by a wild boar known as Twrach Trwyth. At the end of the Dream of Rhonabwy, Arthur had a different son named Llacheu. While in the beginning of the Welsh romance “Gereint and Enid“, the story mentioned that Arthur had a son named Amhar. Amhar could be the same as Nennius’ “Amr”, but I am not certain about this. None of these tales gave any indication that they were the sons of Gwenhwyvar (Guinevere).
Also in the Welsh myth, the Welsh Triad listed three queens of Arthur. All three queens were named Gwenhwyvar. They were called Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwent (Cywryd), and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran the Giant. This reminded me of the triple war-goddesses Morrigan or triple mother-goddesses Danu in Irish myths. In some cases, Guinevere or Gwenhwyfar was seen as a goddess, just like Morgan le Fay.
The Welsh Triad also listed Arthur of having three mistresses – Indeg daughter of Garwy the Tall, and Garwen (“Fair Leg”) daughter of Henin the Old, and Gwyl (“Modest”) daughter of Gendawd (“Big Chin”).
In Irish literature, Arthur appeared as Artúir (Artuir), the son of Benne Brit (“of the Britons”). In the Acallam na Senórach, the Irish hero, Cailte reminisced how he and nine other Fian warriors recovered the hounds of Finn Mac Cumaill. Artuir had stolen Finn’s hounds, called Bran, Sceolaing and Adnúall.
In Irish myth, Arthur was not a hero at all. He was nothing but a thief.
However, his most famous son was Mordred. Normally, in the early tradition, (by Geoffrey of Monmouth and others), Mordred was Arthur’s nephew, because Mordred was the son of King Lot and Anna or Morgawse, the sister of Arthur. But as early as the Huath Merlin and the prose Merlin (Vulgate version), it was implied that Mordred was his son by Arthur’s half-sister, Morgawse. In the Suite du Merlin (a continuation of the Vulgate Merlin), Arthur had unwittingly slept with Morgawse, because he did not know that she was his half-sister. Some even say that Morgan le Fay was Mordred’s mother.
In the Mort Artu (Vulgate Cycle), Gawain did not know that Mordred was only his half brother until Mordred had seized power during their absence in the wars against Lancelot and the Romans. The only person who knew of Arthur relationship with Mordred was Morgawse and Merlin.
In the tenth century Annale Cambriae, Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell in battle at Camlann. The ambiguous statement did they fought against, or if they against each other as enemies, or what their relationship to one another. But in the Dream of Rhonabwy (Mabinogion), Medrawd (Modred) was his nephew and only his foster-son.
Rise and Fall of Arthur
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the Historia regum Britanniae, Arthur was a great warrior king, unsurpassed in prowess and diplomacy. Arthur was seen as a world conqueror, whose empire comprised of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Brittany, Normandy and Gaul (France). His reign only ended when his nephew Mordred tried to deposed him as king of Britain and forced his wife Guanhumara (Guinevere).
To Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was brought up in Brittany, until he succeeded his father at age fifteen. In later legend, Arthur was brought up by his foster-father named Antor (Ector), who was the father of Kay (Kai).
Though he possessed the magic sword Caliburn (Excalibur) from Avalon according to the early tradition, it wasn’t until Robert de Boron wrote Merlin (c. 1200) that the author introduced into the legend, on how young Arthur drew the sword Excalibur from a rock. The sword proved that Arthur was the true and rightful king of Britain. Arthur other weapons were also given name. The lance was called Ron, while his helmet was named Goosewhite and his shield was called Pridwen, which depicted the Virgin Mary. His horse was called Passelande.
Normally, Arthur’s symbol is that of the Red Dragon, like that of his father Uther, who had a nickname Pendragon attached to his name. (Though, in the Prophecies of Merlin, the Red Dragon also symbolised the Britons, while the White Dragon represents the invading Saxons.) However, Arthur’s symbol was also that of Boar of Cornwall, mainly because Cornwall, particularly the castle Tintagel was his birth place. The warcry of Arthur and the Round Table was “Clarence!“.
By the time of the 13th century, Arthur became more like a typical king and less of a hero. Medieval romances was about the actions of the hero in the story (a knight in this case). To the writers of that time, a king can’t just leave his court to seek out adventure. A king had duties that tied him to the throne and to his kingly functions.
As early as the French author Chretien de Troyes in the second half of the 12th century, the legend began to focus away from the king himself and more on his knights from the Round Table. These heroes became the central characters of various tales, while Arthur began to take a less active role in the tales. His character became more weak and ignoble, rather than the great warrior king of the early tradition.
The Vulgate Cycle introduced a different ending for Arthur and his kingdom. The cause of the death of Arthur, was the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, the disappearance of the Grail from Britain and the betrayal and treason of Mordred, his son by his half-sister Morgawse. Sir Thomas Malory followed these similar patterns and structures of the French Vulgate Cycle, rather than those of Geoffrey and Wace.
|There has been centuries-old debate on whether there was ever a real Arthur. Archaeological evidence proved fruitless. Historical literary sources have been scant and totally unreliable. Distinguishing history from legend is like trying to find a needle in a hay-sack.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s so-called history of the British kings (titled Historia regum Britanniae) was nothing more than an inventive history.
Geoffrey of Monmouth (Galfridus Monemutensis) claimed thar he got his sources from an old book from Archdeacon, was also pure fabrication.
Geoffrey’s Historia was based on three central figures:
With these sorts of people in his Historia, it really can’t be taken seriously to be history. It was Geoffrey who made the legend of King Arthur, popular in Britain and the Continent. Its influences were tremendous; its inspirations would cause later medieval authors to further enrich the legend.
Those who take the Geoffrey’s Historia or another part of the legend as history, I believed had misunderstood the nature of literary art. As I see it, Geoffrey had used some elements of history in his compositions but in general his works were purely fictional.
You may have wondered where Geoffrey got his sources from. Arthur appeared to be an early Celtic hero, particularly among the Welsh. There are a number of Welsh literature that could have inspired Geoffrey to write his History.
Arthur seemed to have connection with a British victory over the Saxons at the battle or seige of Mons Badonicus or Badon Hills, possibly in Wessex.
The earliest account of this battle come from the Celtic monk-historian named Gildas, who died in AD 570, recorded in his De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, about the battle in Mons Badonicus (Badon Hills, in Wessex). Though Gildas did not mention Arthur, the monk had indirectly associated the victory to the leader Ambrosius Aurelianus in the earlier paragraph.
St Bede the Venerable wrote in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), in AD 731, about the arrival of the English people (Saxons and Angles). Bede recorded that the Saxons and Angles were led by Hengist (Hengest) and Horsa, arrived in Britain (AD 449) at King Vortigern’s invitation. Bede also recorded that Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman warlord, won his first decisive battle against the Angles at Badon Hills, in AD 493. Once again, Ambrosius Aurelianus appeared as the Briton resistance leader against the invaders, not Arthur.
According to the Welsh historian Nennius, who flourished in the early 9th century, this victory (at Badon Hills) was associated with Arthur. Nennius wrote in his Historia Brittonum that eleven other victories were ascribed to Arthur, but he was more of British warlord or general, than a king. Nennius pushed the date of the battle of Mons Badonicus, to a later time, in AD 516. This was the first mention of Arthur in the historical (psuedo-historial) source.
Nennius had later also recorded that Arthur had a carn built at Buel for his dog Cabal, which had used in his hunt for the boar Troynt. On top of this stone pile is the pawprint of Cabal. Could this wildboar Troynt be Twrch Trwyth in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen? And he also mentioned the burial site of Anir, the son of Arthur. It was Arthur who had killed his own son.
Nennius also recorded the episode of Vortigern and Hengist, but added a new person associated with Vortigern, Ambrosius. This Ambrosius is not the same Ambrosius Aurelianus mentioned in the works by Gildas and Bede. No. This Ambrosius was another name for the boy prophet, whom Geoffrey called Merlin. The story of Vortigern and Ambrosius (Merlin), the falling wall and the two sleeping dragons influenced Geoffrey’s own work (see Vortigern in Life of King Arthur).
From the Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales) from 10th century, Arthur won the battle in Mons Badonicus (Mons Badon) and some other victories as well. The Annales also mentioned in a short passage that Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) falling in the battle of Camlann (537).
As it can be seen, Geoffrey had derived his sources, mainly from Nennius, but also from the Gildas, Bede and the Annales Cambriae. However, Geoffrey set the year of Arthur’s fall a little later on 542. Also, Geoffrey had cleverly turned Ambrosius Aurlianus into Aurelius Ambrosius, an uncle of Arthur.
Most of the earliest legends of Arthur, before Geoffrey, come from Welsh sources, between the 8th and 10th century.
So, whether Arthur exist or not, still remain in doubt.
If there was ever a true Arthur in history, he would probably be Romano-British warleader, probably named Artorius, which is a Roman name for Arthur. Though the Roman legions may have left Britain in AD 410, the general population of mixed Romans and Celts, would have had generations of Roman law, education, culture and way of life.
The name, Artorius, is similar enough to the Gallic god of the bear, Artaius or Artaios. The Roman had identified this god with their Mercury. In Latin, Arto means “bear”. So Arthur like other Welsh characters, could be derived from ancient Celtic god in Gaul (France). The female form of Artaius is Artio, the bear-goddess.
Possibly the earliest reference about come from Y Gododdin written by the Welsh poet, Aneirin, c. 6th century. Here, the poem only mentioned his name, once, referring to a warrior in the poem as being brave “but he was no Arthur”.
This extract is not actually talking about Arthur, but another warrior who couldn’t match Arthur in prowess in battle. There is no detail of who this Arthur was. Though, the poem was attributed to have existed in the 6th century, Gododdin was actually preserved as extant work, in the manuscript called Book of Aneirin, in c. 1250.
Other tales found in the Mabinogion were composed of later date from Dream of Rhonabwy and the three Welsh romances: Geriant, Owein and Peredur. The last three mentioned parallel to those tales found in Chretien de Troyes’ three Arthurian romances – Erec, Yvain and Perceval, which were may have been composed earlier than the Welsh versions.
So why did Geoffrey of Monmouth composed the warrior king of Britain? At the time, there was a change of order in Britain. Earlier, the Saxons and Angles had invaded Britain, driving the Britons (Romano-Celts) into Wales, Scotland and Brittany between the 5th and early 7th century. But in his time, the Normans from Normandy became the new masters of England, since the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Geoffrey was writing at the time of turmoil after the death of Henry I and in the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), a period of anarchy and civil war.
It could have been that Geoffrey wanted to give them a British hero, an identity to their pasts, like that of Charlemagne (768-814) in France and Germany.
Charlemagne was the king of the Franks and the first Holy Roman Emperor, who had gained legendary status through a large collection of French epic poems or songs, known as the chanson de geste (“song of deeds”). But unlike Arthur, Charlemagne was a true historical figure.
These epic poems were written between 1100 and 1500, and dealing with barons who fought for or against Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious. Charlemagne had formed a group of heroes, known as the Twelve Peers (Twelve Paladins), which were almost as famous as the Knights of the Round Table. They were formidable knights who excelled in combat. The best knight was Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland. Roland and his sword Durendal were often mentioned in other texts. And even in Geoffrey’s History, he had mentioned Gerin of Chartes as one of heroes of the Twelve Peers, who had fought in Arthur’s army against Rome.
The earliest chanson was that of Le Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland), c. 1100, was also the masterpiece in the chanson de geste, recorded the Battle of Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) in 778. It was the Saracens, not the historical Basques, who ambushed the rearguard force, led by Roland. The force was annihilated from numerically superior forces, but Charlemagne avenged their death by defeating a Saracen army.
Though, Geoffrey was neither the earliest nor the best writer of the Arthurian legend, his contribution had at least sparked creativity among later writers so that the Arthurian legend had surpassed the legend of Charlemagne.
While there are still people seeking the mysterious light of the elusive Grail and with champions like Lancelot and the knights of the Round Table defending the kingdom and the damsels, Arthur appeared very much alive today as he did in the Middle Ages.