King Arthur - The Once and Future King
~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~
The most familiar story of Arthur originated with Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain", c.1136. The story, as I distill it, goes like this:
Troy falls. (1200 BC) Aeneas migrates with men to Italy. His great grandson, Brutus, leads a party of Trojans to Albion (Britain), uninhabited except for a few giants. (Descendants of Brutus are called Britons. They will also establish Brittany.) There are about 75 kings that follow, and much nonsense. (One king can fly. King Lear appears, the source of the play.)
What We Know
Romans arrive in 54 BC (Caesar). Invasions begin, mainly Picts (from Scotland) and Saxons (from Germany.) By the early 6th Century. the King is Vortigern, who is forced to flee west to Wales from the invading Saxons. Merlin appears, helps Vortigern. Princes of an earlier King ("Constantine") arrive from Brittany: Ambrosius, and Uther. Ambrosius conquers, rules briefly, is succeeded by his brother Uther (Pendragon). Uther lusts after Ygerna, wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Merlin, now allied with Uther, casts a spell to make Uther resemble Gorlois and mate with Ygerna at Tintagle castle, the resulting child being Arthur. Gorlois dies in battle with Uther's men and Uther marries Ygerna. Uther reigns 15 years after Arthur's birth.
Arthur carries a sword, Caliburn, forged on the Isle of Avalon, an enchanted place, and has much success against the Saxons. He takes as bride a girl of Roman descent, Guinevere. Arthur builds a cavalry to oppose further invaders, nearly always infantry arriving by ship. Merlin produces the stones at Stonehenge. Arthur conquers Ireland and then Iceland (not too hard; it was uninhabited in 6th Century.) At court in Caerlean, there are tournaments, pageantry, chivalrous things. Arthur gathers kings from other countries, and they sit around a Table and conduct diplomacy, etc. Arthur then conquers Norway, Denmark, and France!
A messenger from Rome informs Arthur that he must pay tribute. Arthur, instead, invades Roman-ruled Gaul, leaving his nephew Modred in charge. Arthur defeats the Romans in Burgundy. Meanwhile, Modred turns traitor, seizes Guinevere. Arthur returns, kills Modred, but, badly wounded, is carried off to Avalon, to be treated by an enchantress, Morgen, this occurring about 470 AD. The Arthur story ends here, but Geoffrey's account continues.
Other mentioned characters are: Gawain, Kay, Bedevere, and a Saxon chief, Cheldric. The Table is described as "round" in a later French translation (1155) of this "history". Geoffrey's story continues with Britain being invaded by Africans (?!), and the remaining Britons retreating to Wales; Angles occupy most of England (Angle-land). The history contains tales of dragons and giants.
For millennia, Britain stood at the edge of the inhabited world, an inhospitable land, the weather inclement. Nevertheless it was settled by stone age peoples during interglacial warm periods, arriving over the land bridge from France and Denmark before melting water at the end of the last glaciation covered it to form the English Channel at about 5,000 BC. These people would advance through the Stone Age, Bronze, and Iron (though the steps are delayed significantly by the infrequent interplay of distant travelers, in comparison to other parts of Europe) and as the late Bronze Age runs out (about 1500 BC), Britain's earlier people are gradually blended into migrant western Europeans belonging to the Celts (subgroups: Gauls, Britons, Irish, Picts, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and others) bands of whom have been arriving for centuries.
The Celts ("kelts") speak Celtic, share cultural features, but are not a distinct people. Stone monuments (ie Stonehenge c.2150 BC) were a part of the Celtic culture. Their religion of human sacrifice and woman (goddess) worship will survive longest in the form of the Druids in Britain, be eliminated by, first the Roman Empire, and, then the emerging Christian movement everywhere. Thus, prior to Roman invasion, the "Britons" (sometimes: "Bretons") are mainly European Celts who arrived and dispersed over the British Isles during an approximate 5,000 year period.
In 54 BC, Julius Caesar arrives to establish Roman hegemony over southern Britain, centered at Londinium. The Romans, of course, dominate the known world in culture, literature, commerce, clothing, and coinage, and are advanced in metal work, sculpture and architecture. Though the Romans have been an Iron Age people for centuries, the Britons are only at the edge of it, and technologically inferior. The Romans will bring masonry buildings and underground plumbing, among other advanced features, to a very primitive land, things that will be forgotten by the people of Britain when the Romans leave.
The Romans are largely bothered by the Irish (whom they call "Scotti" - a word meaning "raider") and the Picts (a word which means "painted people") from the northern part of the country, and Emperor Hadrian will build a wall (120 AD) to discourage the Picts from raiding south. The Romans will also encourage Germanic peoples (Angles, Jutes, Saxons) to migrate to Britain to aid Rome against Scotti, Picts, and other sea-born invaders. (Of note is that the Scotti will invade the western part of Pictland, eventually displace them, and give this part of the country the name Scotland. In essence, the Irish and the Scots derive from the same stock. No surprise - they both favor plaids!)
By 400 AD the Roman Empire is in decline in the west, the east ascendant in Constantinople, and the last Roman emperor will be deposed in 476; the Popes will appear then. But England, at the far range of the Roman empire, will be first to be independent. Prior to 400, however, Roman government and culture predominates in Britain: agriculture is based on the villa model, and there is grain for export. Metals are mined. Latin is the language of court. Coinage is Roman.
In the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, Europe is swept by waves of barbarians, some of which find their way (by boat) to Britain. About 410, Rome abandons Britain forever. The Britons adopt the Irish system of (tribal) Kings and a High King. The Britons must now deal directly with the Picts and Scotti and, like the Romans before them, will bring in Germanic people to assist militarily. The Angles and Saxons (eventually, collectively called the "English") will bring families and settle permanently, upon which they will become the "problem." At least one early High King of the Britons survives in legitimate history: Vortigern.
Meanwhile, in Gaul, (about 465) the Visigoths are on rampage, and the weak Roman authorities invite a powerful British king, called Riothamus ("ree-ATH-ah-mas"), to oppose them. It is thought by some that Riothamus is not a name, but an honorific, meaning "King, High", (in the manner of Octavian always being called Augustus) and may be the source of the Arthur legend, the king thus known as Arthur in Britain and as Riothamus by others, and elsewhere. In any event, this king is badly wounded in a major battle and is carried off to Avalon (a real place in France) whence he disappears! (Ah, the stuff of legend.) This person seems well established in history.
In Gaul, the locals, called Franks, rally under a King Clovis, and drive the Visigoths into Spain. (Gaul subsequently will be known as "France".) By 480, in Britain, any towns or anything Roman is abandoned as the natives revert to timber and earthworks. Coinage disappears. Regions establish dialects - Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic, etc. The Britons will stop the practice of giving Roman names to children.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, the Britons must now face off against the English (Angles and Saxons), and many battles will be fought. The English will eventually triumph (losing out to the Normans in 1066), the Briton residual taking refuge in Wales. The King Arthur question, essentially, is whether a great military leader of the Britons wins a major battle against the English (at Mount Badon or anywhere else) sufficient to convince the Britons, at the time, that they have finally extinguished the English. (That this was only a major reversal for the English, rather than a permanent defeat, was probably recognized within a generation.) On that question the evidence is mixed, as the time period in consideration falls between the reasonably accurate Roman historical accounts (ending in 400 AD) and the suspicious historical accounts afterward.
Written history prior to 1000 AD is scarce. The unknown author of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle", a sixth century account of wars in Southeast Britain heavily biased in favor of English accomplishments, does not mention Arthur. Another source, Gildas, a monk, wrote "The Ruin and Conquest of Britain" c.540, which is more sermonizing than history, but neither Arthur nor Riothamus are mentioned. The Venerable Bede, writing "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" in the 8th Century, likewise mentions neither.
But a monk in Wales, Nennius, wrote (c.800) a "Historia Brittonum", and does mention Arthur and a great battle at Mount Badon. Since the Briton survivors occupy Wales, this could be either a biased account, or the only accurate one, based on the better information about the Britons available where Britons lived.
We need note that old stories told and sung in Medieval times, during which these accounts were written, were regularly brought up to date (contemporized) as to clothing, living styles, and culture, the writers supposing, erroneously, that these things were always the same. (Later, in the Renaissance, painters would do the same thing in regard to earlier historical events, putting 16th Century European clothing on Biblical characters.) This explains a lot of anachronisms such as armor, stone castles, jousts, etc., which did not actually appear in Britain until centuries after Arthur's time, though they existed in the Mediterranean region for more than a thousand years. (See Note 1)
As to places mentioned in Arthurian legends: 1) Tintagle, a real place, was a stronghold defended by a causeway, in the 5th Century. Stonework would have been of Roman construction. 2) Cadbury castle, an 18 acre plateau surrounded by earthworks, dates from Roman times, and archeology work suggests it was an important administrative/military site c.450-470; it has the best claim to being "Camelot." 3) Glastonbury was a very watery place in the 400's. In 1191 the monks there discovered a grave, covered with a stone, underneath of which was a lead cross, containing the phrase "here lies Arturius in Avalon..". (The opposite side was said to mention Guinevere.) Beneath the stone was a coffin made from a hollowed tree trunk, containing the bones of a tall man. Dismissed for centuries as a fake, (the bones and the cross disappeared), the site was re-explored in 1963 and found to contain 5th Century graves. (See note 2)
Much of what is today regarded as the legend of King Arthur was added by later authors, bards, and poets, and most recently, Hollywood. In addition to the Table becoming round, the sword (now called Excalibur) comes from either an enchanted stone, a cold fire, or the hand of a Lady of the Lake, depending on who is telling the story. The Holy Grail, as esoteric Christianity with pagan imagery, becomes a part of the story. The Siege Perilous appears as a chair which no one could occupy except a knight determined to find the Grail.
Although the warriors of 500 AD Britain walked to battle with wooden shields and spears, lived behind wooden palisades for protection, and generally avoided the masonry constructs of the earlier Romans, they are regularly regarded today as having lived a 13th century life: stone castles, drawbridges, metal armor, war horses, jousts, colorful clothing, and a life of chivalry. In a Hollywood film, "Excalibur", all of this is reduced to final absurdity. Not only do Arthur and his knights wear armor that is stainless steel, they wear it in lovemaking, at mealtime, and to bed.
In addition, the armor contains pointed projections (borrowed from illustrations of characters in contemporary "Dungeons and Dragons" fantasy games and tales) that, if actually added to armor, would alter a glancing blow to one of full impact, a decided disadvantage. Although these knights are portrayed as living in a castle at Camelot with stone walls 30 feet high and 20 feet thick, they still feel obliged to assemble leisurely at the Round Table in full battle array!
If there was a real person who became the Arthur legend, which now seems reasonable to believe, the embellishment began almost immediately, and continues apace, today.
* * * *
Note 1. Though it is true that Roman things were generally abandoned, it cannot be concluded that everyone abandoned them. The Romans employed cavalry - perhaps heavily armored - and it is not a fantasy to suppose that a strong ruler, particularly if descended from Romans, might take advantage of weapons, shields, horses, and techniques left behind by the soldiers of Rome. This could be especially important against Anglo-Saxons, who were not horsemen.
Note 2. Though the lead cross has disappeared, its inscription was recorded by 12th century monks on parchment. Modern investigators say that the writing is 10th century Latin, not 5th, 6th, which it should have been if original. Nor was it 12th century, when it was supposedly found. But - in the 10th century the grave site was elevated and restored, and deteriorating markers may well have been re-made for the restored site. This could explain the curious dating recorded in the inscription. Modern scholars earn PhD's by uncovering this kind of stuff.
Note 3. Revisiting the name "Riothamus", we know that "Ri", "Rea" and other permutations of the sound meant "King." Thus, we have "Ree-Ath-ah-mahs" or "Ree-Ath-ah". King Arthur.
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