From Enemy to Ancestor: The Medieval King Arthur | History Hit

From Enemy to Ancestor: The Medieval King Arthur

Title page of The Boy's King Arthur, 1917 edition
Image Credit: N. C. Wyeth / Public Domain

King Arthur is a staple of medieval literature. Whether he was a real historical figure is a debate that rages on, but in the medieval mind he came to represent the epitome of chivalry. Arthur was an exemplar for the good rule of kings, and he even became a revered ancestor.

Stories of the Holy Grail and the legendary tales of his Knights of the Round Table mingled with the magic of Merlin and the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere to create gripping narratives and moral warnings. This Arthur, the one we recognise today, was centuries in the crafting, though, and he went through several iterations as a dangerous myth was broken and reforged to become a national hero.

Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table see a vision of the Holy Grail, illumination by Évrard d’Espinques, c.1475

Image Credit: Gallica Digital Library / Public Domain

The birth of a legend

Arthur had existed in Welsh legends and poetry since perhaps the seventh century, and maybe even earlier. He was an undefeatable warrior, protecting the British Isles from foes human and supernatural. He fought evil spirits, led a band of warriors made up of Pagan gods, and was frequently connected to Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld.

The first time Arthur becomes more recognisable to us is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which was completed around 1138. Geoffrey made Arthur a king, the son of Uther Pendragon, who is advised by the magician Merlin.

After conquering all of Britain, Arthur brings Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Gaul under his control, bringing him into conflict with the Roman Empire. Returning home to deal with his troublesome nephew Mordred, Arthur is mortally wounded in battle and taken to the Isle of Avalon.

Arthur goes viral

What followed Geoffrey of Monmouth’s (medieval equivalent to a) best-seller was an explosion of interest in Arthur. The story travels back and forth across the Channel, translated, reimagined, and honed by other writers.

The Norman writer Wace translated Arthur’s story into an Anglo-Norman poem. The French troubadour Chrétien de Troyes told tales of Arthur’s knights, including Yvain, Perceval, and Lancelot. Towards the end of the 13th century, the English poet Layamon translated the French stories into English. Arthur was going viral.

Killing Arthur

Geoffrey of Monmouth engaged with the legendary notion of Arthur as the Once and Future King, who would return to save his people. The first Plantagenet king, Henry II, found himself struggling to crush Welsh resistance. Allowing them to cling to a hero promised to avenge them became problematical. Henry didn’t want the Welsh to have hope, because hope stopped them from submitting to him.

Gerald of Wales, a writer at Henry’s court, complained that Geoffrey’s notion of Arthur lingering somewhere waiting to return was nonsense born of Geoffrey’s ‘inordinate love of lying’.

Henry II set to work solving the historical mystery – or at least seeming to. He had clerks pore over his books and listened to story tellers. Eventually, he discovered that Arthur was buried between two stone pyramids, sixteen feet deep in an oak hollow. In 1190 or 1191, a year or two after Henry’s death, the grave was miraculously found at Glastonbury, complete with Arthur’s mortal remains. The Once and Future King was not coming back.

Site of what was supposed to be the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere on the grounds of former Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, UK.

Image Credit: Tom Ordelman / CC

A giant unearthed

The grave was near to the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey, between two stone pyramids, deep in an oak hollow, just as Henry II’s research had suggested. Gerald claimed to have seen the grave and its contents.

A plain stone covering was removed to reveal a lead cross, covering an inscription that read

‘Here lies entombed King Arthur, with Guenevere (sic) his second wife, on the Isle of Avalon’.

A lock of Guinevere’s golden hair remained intact, until an enthusiastic monk held it up to show his brothers only for it to disintegrate and blow away on the wind. Gerald recorded that the man’s skeleton was huge; his shin bone several inches longer than that of the tallest man they could find. The large skull bore evidence of several battle scars. Also in the grave was a perfectly preserved sword. The sword of King Arthur. Excalibur.

The fate of Excalibur

Glastonbury Abbey placed the relics of Arthur and Guinevere into the Lady Chapel and they became an attraction for pilgrims; an odd development when Arthur is not a saint or holy man. This growing cult brought cash pouring into Glastonbury, and it may be cynical to see it as too much of a coincidence that only a few years earlier, the monastery had suffered a devastating fire.

It needed money for repairs, just when Richard I was demanding funds for his crusading plans. The discovery ended the idea of the Once and Future King. Not only was Arthur dead, but he was now firmly English, too. Richard I took Arthur’s sword on crusade with him, though it never reached the Holy Land. He gave it to Tancred, King of Sicily. It’s possible it was meant to be given to Arthur of Brittany, Richard’s nephew and appointed heir, but it never was. Excalibur was simply gifted away.

The legend of King Arthur has been reworked many times, but is there any historical truth behind the tales? Dr Miles Russell believes there is and in this podcast he highlights how elements of King Arthur’s story derive from five key ancient figures. From British warlords that opposed the arrival of Julius Caesar to Roman emperors of Later Antiquity, Miles explores these individuals in ‘Arthur and the Kings of Britain: The Historical Truth Behind the Myths’.
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Edward I’s Round Table

Somewhere between 1285 and 1290, King Edward I commissioned a huge round table to stand in the middle of Winchester’s Great Hall. You can still see it today hanging on the wall at the end of the hall, but examinations have shown that it once had a huge pedestal in the centre and twelve legs to support to weight when it stood on the floor.

In 1278, the king and his queen, Eleanor of Castile had been at Glastonbury Abbey to oversee the translations of Arthur and Guinevere’s remains to a new spot before the High Altar of the rebuilt Abbey. Now safely consigned to the grave, Arthur presented an opportunity for medieval kings.

Bringing Arthur into the family

King Edward III, the grandson of Edward I, took the royal adoption of Arthur to new levels. As England entered the period known as the Hundred Years’ War and laid claim to the throne of France in the mid-fourteenth century, Edward embraced the ideals of Arthurian chivalry to galvanise the kingdom and his nobility behind him.

The Order of the Garter, created by Edward, is believed by some to have been based on a circular motif to reflect the round table. In the second half of the fifteenth century, Edward IV, the first Yorkist king, had a genealogy roll created to trumpet his right to the throne.

The roll, now held in Philadelphia’s Library, shows King Arthur as a revered ancestor. It was during Edward’s reign that Sir Thomas Malory wrote his Le Morte d’Arthur, the pinnacle to Arthur’s medieval story, in prison.

The legend continues

Winchester’s round table was repainted under Henry VIII, replete with Tudor rose, names of the Knights of the Round Table, and portrait of Henry himself as King Arthur, gazing proudly out over the medieval Great Hall. The table represents Henry’s way of dealing with Arthurian mythology. His older brother Prince Arthur had been born in Winchester, claimed by their father Henry VII, the first Tudor, to be the location of Camelot.

England’s new Arthur, who was to bring unity to a nation divided by civil war in fulfilment of the old prophesies, died in 1502 aged 15, before becoming king. This left Henry to fill the empty space and the lost promise. Arthur began as a folk hero and became a threat to kings before being adopted as a venerated forefather who lent legitimacy and ancient roots to medieval monarchs.

Historian Matt Lewis delves deep into the history of the Arthurian legend.
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Matt Lewis