Writer in Residence – Arthur: King or Pawn by Paul Andruss

History is not necessarily written by the winners, but it is written for the winners. As the wheel of fortune turns dynasties rise and fall. Those on the up get to choose what survives and what is consigned to the bonfire. For example, King Arthur is probably the most famous British hero of all time, yet there is no evidence he ever existed. So was Arthur merely a legend, used hundreds of years after he lived to strengthen the political claims of Welsh Kings, Norman Kings and even the Tudors?

Arthur is not mentioned by his near contemporary, the British monk Gildas, who wrote a scathing condemnation of British kings shortly after Arthur’s time called ‘The Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ (around 547AD).

Almost 150 years later, writing for the Anglo Saxons, Bede, a monk from Jarrow, used Gildas as a source when writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (finished in 731). Although Bede was a meticulous scholar and had access to early copies of Gildas, and other lost documents, neither does he mention Arthur.

Arthur is first mentioned is in the Historia Brittonum, a compilation of ancient documents thought to have been compiled around 830. The earliest copy we have is from the 1100s. There are many slightly later copies including one in the Vatican. As with any late copies of early works we are not entirely sure what was in the original. Different copies disagree on wording, contents and even the name of the author.

Written some 300 years after Arthur lived, the Historia Brittonum credits him with 12 famous victories against the Saxons: culminating in Mount Badon which brought a generation of peace. Arthur is not called a king but the Dux Bellorum (Duke of Battles) an otherwise unknown title that might echo the old Roman military leader: Duke of the Saxon Shore.

The next work to substantially feature Arthur is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of British Kings’ written around 1136. It bears little resemblance to the story we know.

The ‘History of British Kings’ was so popular it sparked an avalanche of Arthurian lore. Some stories even found their way back into medieval Welsh manuscripts and up to recently were deemed independent evidence of Arthur’s existence.

Around 1470 Thomas Malory wrote the English work ‘The Book of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table’ based on French Arthurian story cycle. Some 15 years later, the owner of the first printing press in England, William Caxton, edited the now dead Malory’s work, translated it into French (the language of the educated) and published it under the snappier title of ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’. This contains all the elements we know: Lancelot and Guinevere’, Camelot; and the quest for the Holy Grail.

Morte d’Arthur was immensely popular. Printed books were the latest fashion accessory, and more importantly they were cheap… a hell of a lot cheaper than the old hand written ones. Which begs the question, why the old books were written in the first place?
In the Classical world a large part of the population could read. There were public libraries and a whole industry of slaves dedicated to cheaply copying out works onto mass-produced papyrus sheets, made from Nile reeds. So many people could read they even had trashy novels.

In the Dark Ages the population was mainly illiterate. The preparation of ink, goose quills and parchment from sheep skin was a long arduous process for an Abbey’s cottage industry. Monks would not simply decide to waste their time on something as trivial as history, when they could be using valuable resources on laboriously copying the bible or other religious texts.

So what prompted them?

To be blunt, sucking up to royalty and propaganda!

Before the Historia Brittonum was written the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd was beset by civil war. The neighbouring Saxon kingdom took advantage by annexing territory. When the last king of a dynasty that ruled for 400 years died, the new king, Mervyn, needed to establish a pedigree.

Thanks to Bede, and the perfidious Gildas, the Saxons believed God took England away from the British (Welsh) and granted it to them. Mervin needed ancestors and heroes who had thrashed the Saxons at great victories such as Badon. The name Arthur might have been chosen because Gildas’ hero Ambrosius Aurelianus sounded too Roman: too foreign.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was in a similar position. He wrote during an English Civil War almost a century after the Normans took England from the Anglo Saxons. Stephen seized the throne when his uncle, Henry, died only leaving a daughter, Mathilda, who promptly declared war.

Arthur was popular in Brittany and neighbouring Normandy as Britain migrants had fled there in the Dark Ages. Through some sleight of hand, the Normans lost no time in claiming their conquest a rightful reclamation of the ancestral throne; even though they were Norse-men from Norway. Geoffrey’s Arthur gave Stephen legitimacy and provided a British hero to equal Charlemagne, an ancestor of the French king who was also trying to claim the English throne.

Stephen’s successor, Henry II, went one step further. He took Arthur away from the Welsh. It is believed Henry was behind the monks finding of Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury Abbey, firmly relocating the Welsh hero to English territory. His son Richard the Lionheart, equally po-faced, presented a crusader ally with a sword he claimed was Excalibur.

The idea of the Round Table where all knights were equal was popular in Medieval Europe. The first Round Table festival of feasting, jousting and dressing up as Arthur’s knights was held in Cyprus 1233.

Arthur’s court was long held to have been in Caerleon in South Wales. In the 1290s, Edward I: Conqueror of Wales claimed Camelot was the English city of Winchester and promptly discovered Arthur’s Round Table there. Tree ring analysis subsequently dated the table’s construction to Edward I’s reign.

Some two centuries later, Henry VIII slyly had the Round Table painted with a Tudor Rose and a portrait of Arthur at its head, looking suspiciously like himself, to impress his rival the French King. In actual fact Henry VIII was not joking when he claimed Arthur as an ancestor. Tudor is an ancient Welsh name.

His father’s rival in the civil war, known as the War of the Roses, Edward IV also claimed descent from Arthur through the Welsh Kings. When Edward died of fever, or poison, he left two young sons under the protection of his brother Richard. Richard promptly had his brother’s marriage declared invalid, making the boy’s illegitimate, and crowned himself Richard III.

His brother’s sons known to history as the ‘Princes in the Tower’ are believed to have been murdered by their uncle at the ages of 13 and 10. This view was popularised, somewhat unsurprisingly, in the time of Henry VIIIs daughter Elizabeth I in William Shakespeare’s play.

All things considered, when we see how successive dynasties used Arthur to bolster their claims of legitimacy it does appear Britain’s greatest hero is far more a pawn than he ever was king.

In truth the only person who did not use Arthur for their own ends was Gildas. And here lies the irony. In a biography written after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, Arthur’s contemporary, the monk Gildas, is accused of deliberately ignoring Arthur due to a personal beef. It claims Arthur murdered Gildas’ brother and the holy man holding a grudge, deliberately excluded him from ‘The Ruin and Conquest of Britain’.

For once we can be pretty certain this is fiction as the author Caradoc was a contemporary of Geoffrey. And while Geoffrey names Arthur’s wife Guanhumara, Caradoc calls her Gwenhwyfar a Welsh version of the Guinevere only used in later stories.

©PaulAndruss 2017

My thanks to Paul for this wonderful post on one of our most revered legends. Real or otherwise, the very mention of King Arthur has stirred the hearts and minds of millions across the centuries and instilled pride and honour.

About Paul Andruss

Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.

Paul Andruss is the author of 2 contrasting fantasy novels

Thomas the Rhymer

Thomas the Rhymer – a magical fantasy for ages 11 to adult about a boy attempting to save fairy Thomas the Rhymer, while trying to rescue his brother from a selfish fairy queen.

Finn Mac Cool

Finn Mac Cool – rude, crude and funny, explicitly sexual and disturbingly violent, Finn Mac Cool is strictly for adults only.

Connect to Paul on social media.

Blog: http://www.paul-andruss.com/
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/paul.andruss.9
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Paul_JHBooks
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You can find all of Paul’s posts in this directory: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/writer-in-residence-writer-paul-andruss/

Thank you for dropping by today and please feel free to share the post on your own blog and networks. Thanks Sally

56 thoughts on “Writer in Residence – Arthur: King or Pawn by Paul Andruss

  1. Pingback: Arthur: King or Pawn by Paul Andruss – The Militant Negro™

    • I know Debby, despite all the lovely TV shows and films about him Henry VIII was an absolute bloody monster! We think all these eeks on Reality TV shows invented this form of dreadful one up-man-ship and ostentatious bling but the crowned heads of the world have been doing it since day one!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree Paul. But to be honest, I”ve seen many TV specials and movies with Henry the VIII and I’ve never once thought he was a nice person. Look at the way he treated his wives? LOL. No surprise he’s said to die from syphillis 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Debby I am so pleased with your comment because years ago I got told by a History post grad student they are absolutely sure Henry VIII didn’t die of syphilis. The reason was that he did not sign the Act of Succession on until he was on his deathbed. The Act of Succession legitimised his daughters Mary (to Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (to Anne Boleyn) giving the order as first his sickly son Edward, then Bloody Mary (no relation to the drink) then Elizabeth. Had he been dying of syph then in the terminal stages the mind goes and you become blind and paralysed (as with the composer Delius). Henry was compos mentis and able to see and sign his name.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a treat to read a bit of history to put Arthur and the Knights in a historical context. Thank you, Paul, for putting it together – and Sally for sharing it. LOVED the graphic, btw. Pinning to my Blogs and Bloggers Board.

    HOWEVER, I shall still dream of the story of Camelot and all its tendrils – more today than ever.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. So interesting,, Paul. I’d heard that the Arthur legends had tenuous holds on history, but hadn’t been aware of how many kings linked themselves to Arthur to establish their creds! 🙂 Amazing. A story used to legitimize something in the real world, which legitimizes the story! No wonder we’re confused. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes Diana exactly and isn’t this the way all myth works where speculation and error gets mixed up with truth, accepted as truth and then that new truth is extrapolated upon in an ever expanding circle.
      While I was doing research on for this I came across something fantastic. According to his (rather late- like 600 years late) biography Gildas went to be trained by the ancient Welsh St. Illtud (ll is said thl in S wales and cl in North Wales) in Cor Tewdws in llanwit Major not far from where I live. Tewdws is more or less equal to Tudor as in Henry VIII Tudor and his daughter Elizabeth I. Cor Tewdws means the College of Theodosius the British corruption of the Roman name. Theodosius came to Britain before he was Emperor and squashed the resistance movement in 365. Then became Emperor in 380 to 395. So the Tudors were also claiming descent from Roman emperors right back as far as when their name starts to appear in Geneologies of the early Welsh kingdoms (around the 700s).

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Writer in Residence – Arthur: King or Pawn by Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  5. A fascinating post, Paul. And to throw something else into the mix is Arthur’s Scottish background! Adam Ardrey has written two books – Finding Arthur: The True Origins of the Once and Future King and Finding Merlin: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Great Arthurian Mage. It is his belief that the celebrated stories of King Arthur were based around the life of sixth century Scot Arthur Mac Aedan who was born in Stirling and lived in Argyll after his father became King of the Scots in 574.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You know Mary there may be some truth in that. Arthur is all things to all men and as the legend grew there were about 10 candidates who may have contributed to the legend in its diverse forms that were later drawn together.
      These date from a roman general called Lucius Artorius Castus, who lived from about 140-197AD. Then as you say there is Arthur mac Aedan, who lived around 560-596 in the early Scottish Kingdom of Dal Riata – and there is Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh: a dark age fortress. Some of his battles are thought to have been fought in the Caledonian forest…. the same place Merlin fled around a 100 years later. And the war leaders ‘keeping the peace’ in the area between Hadrian’s and the Antonine Walls are very significant ion this period and many British (Welsh) Royal families claim descent from them.
      Another Arthur of Gwent (Wales), who might have given rise to the Arthur in the Mabinogion. There are Arthurs in Brittany too (the legend was also popular there and that independent tradition may have contributed to the final shape of the myth.
      The real problem is that there is so little contemporary evidence that authors are able to present very brilliantly constructed arguments to further their own cases. The first written mention of Arthur is around 900??? some 450 years after he died??? everything else is speculation about what may or may not have existed originally. There were some historians writing in the late roman empire and none of them mention Arthur either as a contemporary or an historical figure in any context. Further archeological evidence is casting a lot of doubt on the story of the British Dark Ages as recorded in the ancient books, which undermines everything we think we know. On top of that legend, where powerful people cause tremendous change quickly is much easier to remember than the long slow drip effect of naked history.
      I am planning more posts on Arthur and Dark Age Britain (my current obsession) – but it is complex, needs disentangling and breaking down into themes posts. I hope this has whetted your appetite (rather than put you off!!!)

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks John and you are absolutely spot on. The myth of the man always becomes more potent than the man himself… and we still do it today with modern heroes (even on Wikipedia). It is true that we need our myths and we need our heroes. Real people with feet of clay never really seem to measure up against our idealised version of them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Isn’t that true. Look what we did to JFK after his death – we practically deified him! Yet that’s been good as his words have inspired millions, Paul.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Smorgasbord Round Weekly Round Up – Sir Tom Jones, King Arthur, Brussel Sprouts and Author Media Training | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  7. Pingback: Who was Arthur? ← Odds n Sods: A cabinet of curiosities

  8. Thanks so much, Paul and Sally. My grandmother had a collection of comics about Prince Valiant and no matter how unrealistic, I loved the Round Table stories. I guess the less factual information there is, the easier it is to bend it to make it fit into any goals.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Who Was Arthur – Part Two by Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  10. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Who Was Arthur – Part Two by Paul Andruss | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  11. Pingback: Camelot ← Odds n Sods: A cabinet of curiosities

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