Here, I will give brief treatment about the life of King Arthur. My sources here, are some of the earliest accounts of Arthur, written by three different authors, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace and Layamon.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a Welsh writer who flourished in the first half of 12th century. Though there were earlier sources of Arthur in Welsh legends, it was not until Geoffrey wrote Historia regum Britanniae (“History of Kings of Britain”, in Latin, 1137), that we have the continuous account of Arthur. This so-called history of Britain began with Brutus, grandson of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who had migrated to the British Isles, to the time of Cadwallader, when the Saxons conquered the Britons. Geoffrey also written Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) in 1151 and the “Prophecies of Merlin” in 1155 (see Merlin). It is clear that Geoffrey had used many Welsh and Breton sources to create Historia.
Wace was an Anglo-Norman author, who wrote the Roman de Brut, in 1155. Wace’s Roman de Brut was a French adaptation of Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae, so it was not full translation of Geoffrey’s work. Wace’s work varied to some degrees, added details and life to Geoffrey’s history. Wace was the first to introduce the knightly fellowship of the Round Table to the account of Arthur. It was Wace’s work on Arthur, who spread the popularity of the legend in French and Anglo-Norman courts, where a new genre of literature was soon developed by Chretien de Troyes, the father of medieval (Arthurian) romances.
Layamon was an English author who wrote Brut, in c. 1200. Brut was adaptation of Wace’s work into English. Layamon also added more details to Wace and Geoffrey’s works. Layamon’s Brut took on a more supernatural dimension, where fairies play some roles in Arthur’s life.
I have relied on these three writers for the early tradition, ignoring all other writers. Alternative accounts can also be found in a number of different pages, which my main sources come from the Vulgate Cycle and the Post-Vulgate Cycle. See Vulgate Cycle for the alternative accounts.
In the Vulgate Cycle, you will find that I have divided the legend of Arthur and trhe Grail into four separate pages. You will find that Arthur’s birth and early rise to power of King Arthur in the page called Legend of Excalibur. Arthur’s role is minor in the Lancelot and Grail page. Arthur played more prominent role in the last page called the Death of King Arthur.
Before Arthur was born, the Britons were living under the constant threats of Saxon invaders. Arthur belonged to the House of Constantine, in which Constantine was Arthur’s grandfather. Constantine was king of Britain or Logres (much of England and Wales). Constantine was the father of Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther.
(Please note that in the Old French literature, the sons of Constantine were named Maine (Constans), Pendragon (Aurelius Ambrosius) and Uther. Maine means monk, because in Constans would have taken the vow, had his father had not died. The name Ambrosius had disappeared in French name, while Uther Pendragon was divided into two names for the two younger brothers.)
When Constantine died, the king’s council were deciding who would rule the Britons, Aurelius and Uther, because Constans, the eldest, was to become priest. One of the councillors, named Vortigern, wanted Constans as king. Vortigern took Constans from the church and made the young man king.
Constans was a weak and naive, relying heavily on Vortigern’s treacherous advice. Vortigern became his most powerful adviser. Constans gave Vortigern so much power that he was king all but in name.
Vortigern duped some Pictish mercenaries to murder his king. Vortigern killed the Picts, and seized the throne. The foster-parents of Constans’ brothers, fearing for the young princes’ lives, they spirited Aurelius and Uther to Brittany (called Armorica at the time), to live with their uncle.
During Vortigern’s reign, group of Saxons came to Britain. Vortigern welcomed the Saxons, led by Hengist (Hengest) and Horsa. The king used them as mercenaries against the Pictish revolts up in Scotland. Vortigern fell in love with Rowenna, Hengest’s beautiful daughter, and married her. Vortigern’s new father-in-law, became his powerful adviser counselling the king to all more of Saxon relatives, in increasing numbers.
Vortigern’s Briton advisers became alarmed at the thousands of Saxons settling in Britain. Even Vortigern’s own sons opposed the Saxon settlers. Vortimer, Vortigern’s eldest son, led Britons to a revolt, and deposed his father as king. Rowena duped her stepson (Vortimer) to drinking poison.
The war between Britons and Saxons, until Hengist advised Vortigern that he would accept a truce. Before treaty could be signed, the Saxons pull out knives and massacring the Briton nobles. Hengist treacherously deposed his son-in-law as king of Logres, where Vortigern fled to Wales.
The Britons were helpless against the Saxons, who loot, rape and kill the Britons. Churches and town were destroyed.
In Wales, Vortigern decided to protect himself by building a castle on Mount Erith, but every night the walls would crumble the next day. Merlin, a son of princess (now a nun) and the incubus (male demon), told him why the foundation keep causing the walls to collapse. (A more detailed account of Merlin’s birth can be found in the Prose Merlin (c. 1240, Vulgate Cycle). See Son of the Devil in the Merlin page, for this version of his birth.)
Merlin became a prophet and Vortigern’s adviser. Merlin foretold Vortigern’s death, and those of the next kings – Aurelius and Uther. Merlin also prophesied that a king (Arthur) would be born out of dragon (Uther), and he would ruled the world, bringing a period of renaissance to the Britons. However, Merlin foresaw that the Saxons would return and conquered the Britons.
|Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther had been raised in Brittany since Vortigern was in power in Logres (Britain). When the brothers had reached manhood, they gathered a large army from Brittany, to avenge their brother’s death (Constans’) and drive out the Saxons.
First they turned their attention to Vortigern, whom had fled to his palace. The brothers set Vortigern’s palace on fire, burning Vortigern to death. Aurelius became king, and fought series of battles against the pagan Saxons. Horsa was killed in battle, while Hengist was captured and then excuted.
Aurelius continued war against the remaining Saxons led by Hengist’s son, Octa. Octa was defeated and allowed to settling in Scotland. Aurelius Ambrosius set about rebuilding his kingdom.
It was said that under Merlin advised, he built the giant stone ring, known as the Giant’s Ring or more commonly as the Stonehenge, by bringing the large rocks from Ireland.
When Aurelius Ambrosius was poisoned, during the war against Paschent (Vortigern’s son), he was buried within the Stonehenge.
Uther found out from Merlin, about his brother’s assassination, when he was on campaign against Paschent (Vortigern’s son) and Gillomanius, king of Ireland. Uther and Merlin saw a strange phenomenon in the night sky. They a comet streaking past two dragons flying in the night sky. Thereafter, the new king was named Uther Pendragon.
Uther won a decisive battle at Menevia. Gorlois, the middle-aged duke of Cornwall, was the man devised a strategy to defeat Paschent, and brought a great victory to Uther. Paschent and Gillomanius were killed in battle.
During the victory celerbration in London, Gorlois brought his young and beautiful wife named Igraine. Uther fell instantly in love with the duke’s wife. Uther was so obvious about his lust, that Gorlois left the celebration in disgust with his wife, without asking for the king’s leave.
Uther threatened war with Gorlois. The old duke ignored the king’s warning, returned to Cornwall to organise his defence. Since Tintagel was his strongest castle, he left his wife there, while he went to fortified the under castle. Uther had pinned Gorlois to this besieged castle.
With the help of Merlin’s magic, Uther took the form of Gorlois in appearance, while Merlin had transform himself into Gorlois’ steward (Britael) and Ulfin was transformed into Gorlois’ chamberlain (Jordan). Uther secretly went to Tintagel with Merlin and Ulfin under these guises, and entered the castle.
Everyone in Tintagel thought Uther was Gorlois, even Igraine. Uther slept with his enemy’s wife, and Arthur was conceived. That very night, news of the real Gorlois was killed in the siege of the other castle. Uther falsely convinced the people of Tintagel that he (Gorlois) was alive. He pretended to return to his other castle, but actually he returned to his own army, in his own form.
Uther learned the news of Gorlois’ death to be true. Uther ordered all of Cornwall, including Tintagel, to surrender. Igraine realising that her husband was dead, surrender the duchy to Uther. Uther was still in love with Igraine; the king immediately married her the next day. Igraine was already pregnant with Arthur. A year after Arthur was born; Igraine gave birth to a daughter named Anna. According to Layamon, Arthur received many magical gifts from the fairies. They gave him the gift of courage, strength, wisdom, kingship, and long life.
Over ten years after Arthur was born, Uther faced another war against Octa (Hengist’s son), who left his exile in Scotland and attacked Logres. Octa was aided by Colgrim (Colgrin), king of the Saxons in Germany. Uther was ill at the time. Uther left the command of his army to Lot, whom his daughter, Anna, had married. Lot and Anna were parents of two sons – Gawain and Mordred. However, Lot was losing more battles than he was winning. So the ill and weary king went into the battle. With Uther in command, Octa and his cousin Eosa were defeated and killed in the battle at St Albans.
Colgrim escaped at fled to York, where he rallied his forces.
Later, spies of Colgrim poisoned the water in the well that Uther normally drink. Many people in Uther’s household died from the poison, including Uther. Uther was buried beside his brother, at the Giant’s Ring (Stonehenge).
|Kingship of Arthur|
|Arthur became king of Britain after his father’s death. For some reason, Arthur was raised in Brittany, living with his Breton relative. Arthur set about driving out Saxons of Logres. Arthur gathered his large army of Britons, campaigning against Colgrim and his brother Baldulf. Cheldric, emperor of the Germans, aided Colgrim. Colgrim also forced Scots and Irish to fight against Arthur. Outnumbered, he sent forth aids from Hoel (Howel), his cousin from Brittany.
Arthur’s sword, Caliburn, was mentioned for the first time. Later writers called the sword, Excalibur. Caliburn was a gift from Avalon. Layamon gave other names to Arthur’s armour and weapons, saying that fairy (elf) smith made Arthur’s byrnie (coat of mail).
With his army, Arthur went to relieve the siege at Bath. In the battle, Arthur single-handed killed Colgrim and Baldulf. Cheldric fled with very few survivors to the hill called Teignwick or the Isle of Thanet. Cador, Arthur’s chief adviser and duke of Cornwall, pursued and killed Emperor Cheldric.
(Note that Geoffrey had identified the battle of Bath with that of the historical(?) battle of Mons Badon).
Arthur then went about a series of campaigns, to punish all those who supported the Saxons. Arthur brought his army to Scotland. The Scots offered no resistances; they told Arthur that the Saxons had forced them to side with them. The Scots declared Arthur as their ruler and pay homage to him.
Three brothers – Urien, Auguselus (Angel) and Lot had previously ruled Moray, Scotland and Lothian before the Saxons took over. Arthur restored these kingdoms to the brothers. Lot was Arthur’s brother-in-law, whom had married Arthur’s sister Anna. Lot had two sons (according to Geoffrey, Wace and Layamon), named Gawain (Gualguanus in Geoffrey’s “History”) and Mordred.
From Scotland, Arthur next campaign took him to Ireland, to punish their king (Gillomanius) for siding with the Saxons during the war. Arthur defeated the Irish army and captured the king. Gillomanius was restored of his throne in return of becoming a vassal to Arthur.
Iceland, Orkney, Wendland (Germany?) fell to Arthur without fighting. Their kings welcomed Arthur, and willingly became his vassals.
|Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that Arthur established a plenary court held on every Whitsuntide, in the City of Legion, on the river Usk (in Wales). Here all his vassals attended, including British and foreign nobles. As well as establishing policy for his growing empire, there were great festivities.
According to Wace and Layamon, fighting erupted between the nobles over the seating arrangement. Every kings and barons wanted to be seated at the head of tables or near the Arthur, so that they see themselves of having precedence over others. Barons were feeling envy or jealousy to those of high ranking, for each one thought they were superior over others.
To resolve these problems, Arthur has a large, rounded table constructed. Arthur also had every seated members of the Round Table, served at the same time. The ingenuity of this design, make all the knights equal, regardless if he was a king or a minor baron. Thus, no one would have precedence over others. The writer Wace first introduced this episode of fellowship of the Round Table, while Layamon expanded the legend surrounding this fellowship. Layamon wrote that the table could be folded up and taken anywhere Arthur decided to hold court.
Later legends, such as Boron’s trilogy and the Vulgate Cycle, say that it was Merlin who thought of the design and created the Round Table, which soon became associated with the quest of the Holy Grail.
|Conquests in Norway and France|
|Arthur’s next campaign was in Norway. Arthur decided to make his brother-in-law, King Lot as king of Norway. The Norwegians, however, had other idea. Their king, named Riculf, gathered a large army and met with Arthur’s army. The Norwegians were defeated and Riculf was killed. Arthur then established Lot as their new king.
Then Arthur turn his attention south, conquering Denmark, before arriving in Gaul (France). The Roman emperor Leo ruled Gaul. Arthur promptly defeated the weak army under the command of Frollo, the Roman governor. Frollo fled to Paris, where Arthur besieged the city. Realising the city couldn’t hold out in a long siege, Frollo challenged Arthur into single combat; the victor will have Gaul. Though Frollo wounded the British king, he was killed. Paris surrendered to Arthur. Other regions of France also fell into his domination.
Arthur gave Kay, the seneschal, the region of Anjou, while Bedivere, his cupbearer, received the province of Neustria (Normandy). He distributed other regions of France to his other followers. Arthur stayed in Gaul for nine years, before returning home.
|War Against Rome|
|At Whitsuntide, in the kingdom of Logres, Arthur held a plenary court at Caerleon (Caerleon-upon-Usk), where he wore the crown of the kingdom. All his vassals, British and foreign lords attended. Festivities lasted for three days.
On the fourth day, twelve elderly men arrived from Rome, with a message from Lucius Hiberius, the Roman procurator and general (emperor according to some writers). Lucius demanded tributes from Arthur and return of Gaul (France) to Rome. Arthur sends the messengers back to Rome. His reply was that he would pay his tribute to Rome by the body of Lucius Hiberius.
The army met the fleet at Southhampton, where they embarked. They landed at Barfleur. Arthur then heard news of his niece Helena had being abducted by a giant from Spain. The giant took her to Mont-Saint-Michael. Helena was the daughter of Duke Hoel of Brittany. Arthur decided to confront the giant, taking only Kay and Bedivere with him. They met an old woman, who was a nurse to Helena. The nurse warned Arthur of how Helena died of fright, so the giant raped the old woman instead.
When the giant appeared, Arthur sprung into action and attacked the monster with his sword and shield. The giant armed with club attempt to bash his smaller, but more agile enemy. Arthur managed to blind the giant, by striking his forehead; the blood ran into his eyes.
Avoiding the wildly swinging club, Arthur then dealt the mortal blow, driving his sword through the giant’s head. The giant toppled over with a crash. With the giant dead, the king ordered Bedivere to take the monster’s head so they could return to the army with a trophy of his victory.
Arthur’s buried his niece at Mont-Saint-Michael, where it was named Helena’s Tomb.
Arthur moved his army to Autun, and sends his nephew, Gawain along with Boso of Oxford and Gerin of Chartres (from Charlemagne’s Twelve Peers), as embassy to Lucius.
They arrived at Lucius’ camp to order the Roman army to withdraw from Gaul or face the might of Arthur and the Britons. Gawain became furious when Gaius Quintillanus, the nephew of Lucius, insulted the Britons to being braggarts rather than real warriors. Gawain answered the insult by swiping off Gaius’ head with his sword. Fighting immediately broke out in the Roman camp. Gawain and his companions managed to escape to their horses with the Romans in pursuit.
Soon the fighting spread as the skirmish turned into a full-blown battle. The battle swung in favour of the Britons then the Romans and then backs again, throughout the bloody day.
In the fierce battle of Saussy, causalities were very high on both sides. Among the dead, was Bedivere, the Cupbearer of Arthur. Bedivere was killed by King Bosus of Medes. Bosus had also mortally wounded Kay. Hyrelgas avenged his uncle Bedieve, by killing Bosus, before chopping the Median king to pieces.
Gawain fought Lucius in single combat, until the Romans rescued the general. When the Romans were defeated, they found that some unknown warrior had killed Lucius Hiberius. (In the Vulgate Merlin, Gawain had killed Lucius, while later legend say that Arthur had fought and killed Lucius.)
Even though Arthur, won a great victory over the numerically superior Romans, their losses were also great. Arthur told the captive Romans to return the body of Lucius Hiberius to the Senate, that this was his payment of his tributes to Rome.
|Battle of Camlann|
|Before Arthur can marched to Rome with his army, Arthur heard news that his nephew, Mordred, had committed treason, by seizing power in Logres (Britain) and proclaiming himself as king. To add salt to the wound, Mordred wedded Arthur’s wife (Guinevere). According to Wace, Guinevere was forced into the marriage with Arthur’s nephew. Geoffrey and Layamon say that Guinevere had treacherously betrayed the king and had willingly married the king’s nephew.
Mordred enlisted help from the Saxons, Britons’ long time enemy. Mordred promised them land, if Chelric help him in the war against Arthur.
Arthur had to divert his army towards Logres, and put down Mordred’s rebellion. Leaving Hoel behind in Gaul, Arthur immediately departed for Britain. Mordred hearing the news brought a large army to face Arthur’s in Richborough. A great deal of Arthur’s men were killed, trying to land at Richborough, before the tide turned to Arthur’s favour. Seeing that this battle was lost, Mordred fled to Winchester. Among those killed in the battle was Auguselus, king of Albany (Scotland), and Gawain, who was cut down by his own brother.
Guinevere fled from either Mordred or Arthur to the City of Legion or Caerleon, where she secretly entered the abbey and became a nun.
When Arthur besieged Mordred at Winchester, his nephew secretly escaped to Cornwall. Arthur pursued his nephew and met him at Camlann (Camblam, Camelford, Camble or Salisbury Plain, depending on the authors).
It seemed that Arthur won the battle at a great cost. Though all of the leaders on Mordred’s side were killed, the rest fled from the field of battle. This would normally be taken as a victory. Wace did not mention any survivors on either side.
Arthur and Mordred faced one another. Arthur killed his nephew, but the great king received a mortal wound from Mordred. All three authors say that Arthur went to have his wounds heal, at Avalon and left the kingdom to Constantine, the son of Cador of Cornwall, to rule in AD 542.
According to a later work by Geoffrey of Monmouth, called Vita Merlini (the “Life of Merlin”, 1150), Arthur was taken to the Isle of Avalon after the battle, by the bard and seer, Taliesin, and Barinthus, pilot of the ship. In Avalon, Arthur would be healed by Morgan and her eight sisters. Here, there was no indication that Morgan was his sister.
Wace hinted at that Arthur would return to Britain one day. Layamon says that Arthur had received fifteen wounds, and that two women came to him from a boat. They took Arthur to Argante, the beautiful elf queen of Avalon, who would heal him. Could this Argante be another name for Morgan le Fay?
There are many variation of Arthur’s death. If you want to compare this version with that of Mort le Roi Artu (c. 1230) from the Vulgate Cycle, then read Infidelity and Betrayal and Twilight of the Kingdom.
(Did you notice that I did not mentioned Arthur ordering his companion to throw his sword (Excalibur) into the water. This episode about the sword belonged to the later alternative tradition. See the Death of King Arthur (Vulgate Cycle). I had also included Sir Thomas Malory’s version in this page.)
|Before I begin the next section about the legend of Arthur, there are a few words I like to say.
The legends of King Arthur were more of progressive cycles of adding new materials by different authors. One thing you must understand about legend (including myths), that no one author will tell all the stories.
Even in the early accounts, it was different. Take the Round Table for instance. Geoffrey of Monmouth had made no reference to the Round Table. It was Wace who introduced the Round Table into the legend. Layamon expanded how the Round Table was created and gave more detail about the fellowship of the Round Table.
Wace did not fully translated Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae from Latin to French. Wace left some stuff out as well as adding new materials to the legends. Similarly, Layamon’s Brut was more of English adaptation than a literal translation of Wace’s work.
Notice that there were no references to Lancelot, Galahad or Perceval in the early accounts; Arthur’s main knights in this legend was Kay and Bedivere. Nor was there the legendary city called Camelot; Arthur’s capital seemed to be Caerleon-on-Usk in the early traditions. Nor was there any reference to Arthur drawing the Excalibur out of the rock or throwing Excalibur in the water. The Grail legend also never existed until Chretien de Troyes wrote the first tale.
So if you wish to read about Arthur drawing the sword from a rock or fetching it from the lake, the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere, the quest of the Grail and the different versions of Arthur’s death, then you should go to the page called Vulgate Cycle.
The Vulgate Cycle will provide you with an alternative version of the life of King Arthur, through the use of alternative sources. These sources come mainly from tales that belonged to Vulgate Cycle and Post-Vulgate Cycle.