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