King Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Camelot…..the memory of the knights of the Round Table lives on. Most of us have heard of, and even celebrated, the Arthurian legends. Children are fascinated by the “myth that refuses to die”. Arthurian tales and legends still greatly interest us today, with numerous books, films, computer games, and documentaries about King Arthur, the Once and Future King. The quest for the historical Arthur has certainly been an interesting and challenging task for scholars and researchers through the centuries, but may not end up being the real point at all. The sheer endurance of the `mythos of Arthur’, for no less than fifteen centuries, is something important to study in and of itself!
Arthur is an important cultural figure in early Celtic sources, and various portrayals of King Arthur exist – as leader, warrior, chieftain, hero and champion against the invading Anglo-Saxons, to name a few. By the 12th century, he becomes a Pan-European figure, a dominant motif in literary and artistic culture. Chivalry, troubadours, and courtly love feature in the Arthurian stories, as do more esoteric mysteries such as the Holy Grail. Prominent historians of the time, like William of Malmesbury, Caradoc of Llancarfon and Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), were also trying to sort out fact from fiction, much as we are today.
The early Arthurian folklore is mainly found in the sources from the Celtic areas of Wales, Cornwall, lowland Scotland, Brittany (and other parts of France) and also in Cumbria in northwest England. In general, Arthur’s entrance into English culture didn’t come until later on, immortalised in the works of Tennyson and Malory. There is understandably much academic debate as to which area has the greatest claim to Arthur, which sources are the earliest, etc. But generally speaking, as Oxford historian Norman Davies says in his latest book The Isles: A History (1999), many historians now do not dispute that some sort of historical Arthur did indeed exist, but cannot say for certain exactly who he was, and where his political base of operations was located. And, contrary to popular belief, in the early manuscripts Arthur was not described as a king, but portrayed as a courageous war leader or chieftain.
No other hero of the Dark Ages is featured so prominently in such a vast amount of literature as King Arthur, but most of it written long after he is believed to have died – about 542 AD. Little was heard of Arthur after that date, and it is significant that, after 542, youths of noble and royal birth began to bear the name Arthur.
Many different Arthurian manuscripts, in languages such as Old Welsh, Latin, Old French, or Cornish, for example, were commissioned beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries, so we have various versions of many of the tales. But it is from the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth that we first hear of Arthur. Geoffrey, a Welshman, wrote Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) dated 1132, in Latin. This work tells us of Arthur and his amazing exploits and courageous deeds, and includes the famous Prophecies of Merlin.
While rooted in earlier Celtic tradition, the Arthurian legends achieved their major popularity when featured in the medieval literature on the Continent, especially in France. Arthur was a known figure in Welsh medieval tradition, for example in the Old Welsh poem “Preiddeu Annwfn” (The Spoils of Annwfn”) , the tale of Culhwch, or the epic tale of Math son of Mathonwy, in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. In a 9th century list of twenty miracles and marvels, two relate to Arthur, lending credence to the idea that an historical Arthur did likely exist. (This manuscript can be seen today at the National Library of Wales.) Another early reference is that of Nennius: in his history of the Britons, Arthur is portrayed as a courageous war leader who defends his country against Saxon invaders.
Cornwall has a very rich Arthurian tradition, most notably the legend that Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle on the north Cornish coast. This tale is familiar to many today, as portrayed at the beginning of the film “Excalibur”. Archaeological excavations continue to provide evidence that Tintagel was not a monastery, as previously assumed, but that it was actually inhabited in the 5th and 6th centuries – the time of Arthur. Further evidence from pottery and other artefacts found there indicate that Tintagel was most likely a luxurious seasonal stronghold at the time; it is also now clear from excavations that the medieval castle wasn’t started until a century after Geoffrey was writing, so he had no reason to name Tintagel, unless there was an existing tradition there. This new evidence is important, as it redefines the role Tintagel may have in the entire history of the area, as well as lending credence to its Arthurian associations.
Many place names in Cornwall have Arthurian connotations: Merlin’s Cave on the shore below the castle, King Arthur’s Footprint, King Arthur’s bed, Dozmary Pool (Bodmin Moor), King Arthur’s Stone near Camelford, etc. The famous Battle of Camlann , where Arthur received his mortal wound, is believed to have possibly occurred near Camelford, in north Cornwall. (The site can be seen today, and more information about the area found at the visitor centre there.) Other research and archaeological excavations are planned for Cornwall in the future, and some of these may well shed further light on the role of Cornwall in the Arthurian corpus. It is hoped that a major International Arthurian Centre will be based in Cornwall in the near future, featuring digitalised Arthurian manuscripts from the British Library at a major new visitors’ centre. This effort is spearheaded by the Arthurian Heritage Trust.
Glastonbury Abbey also has Arthurian associations, starting with the monks’ claim, in 1191, that the actual remains of Arthur and Guinevere were discovered and exhumed. Giraldus Cambrensis wrote that Henry II had suggested the dig; some writers have pointed out that perhaps Henry II would have had good reason for promoting Glastonbury as an alternative site to Canterbury, especially after the Beckett fiasco. In addition, there had been a devastating fire at Glastonbury in 1184, and it has been suggested that perhaps the publicity and business from pilgrims following Arthur’s discovery might have been seen by the monks as financially advantageous at the time. Originally, it was said that three bodies had been found, including that of Mordred, but this was later excised, as was that of Guinevere, once Richard the Lionheart became associated with this event. Along with the bodies, a lead cross was also found with an inscription in Latin on them, said to have been “Here lies the famous King Arthur, buried in the Isle of Avalon”. At the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries begun by King Henry VIII, antiquarian John Leland claimed to have actually handled the lead cross himself. But this cross is not extant today, as it was said to have been lost in the 18th century. So, unfortunately, without the cross, the story is even harder to verify.
So, an obvious question might be: did the monks merely “fake” this incident? Many historians have understandably thought so, but the suggestion of a complete falsification of this event has also been questioned when, in 1963, respected archaeologist Ralegh Radford re-excavated the site and proved not only that the monks had dug where they said they did, but that they had dug down to a stratum of very early burials. So there is now no doubt about an actual grave having existed – the question is simply whose. Glastonbury was a very important spiritual and/or ritual centre from very early times, as the Tor, the hill rising above the area of the Abbey, has a system of paths or terraces which are believed to be the remnants of a prehistoric maze. It is also said to have been the place where Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain with the young Christ, while visiting his Cornish tin mines nearby, adding more mystique to the area as an early Christian centre. Glastonbury is certainly worth a visit today.
Scotland, too, has many place names relating to Arthur. In Edinburgh, the towering Arthur’s Seat helps to define the skyline; in Stirling, it is a very old folk belief that the site of Stirling Castle was one of the historic seats of Arthur; in the Borders, near Melrose, it is said that Arthur and his knights lie sleeping under the Eildon Hills, waiting to reawaken. Recently, author Alister Moffat in his book “Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms” puts forward an interesting case about the great number of very early place names about Arthur, and local traditions and customs in the lowland Borders area. His theory is that the real Arthur behind the romances can be found as a cavalry leader of the Votadini tribe, who called themselves the Gododdin – the tribe who dominated the area around Edinburgh and the Lothians at the time of Arthur, and whose P-speaking Celtic language was very similar to Old Welsh. Due to the known later migration south of some of these tribes, he postulates that they naturally carried their folklore and traditions with them, which explains, for example, why much of the early manuscript material about Arthur is in Old Welsh. He informs the reader that, in the National Museum of Scotland, there is a 5th century stone of a Dark Age princeling or leader which has an inscription which lists the name “Ertire” or “Artirie”. (Other similar stones from early times, one even dated back to the 2nd century, have been found near Peebles and can be seen in the museum there today.) Moffat believes that the seat of Arthur, Camelot, was at the ancient site of Roxburgh in the Scottish borders, and that further excavation should be done of this site and others in the area to further illuminate Dark Age Scottish history.
Theories about Arthur – the Once and Future King – are many various, and we have mentioned but a few. It is a complex topic, with many other interesting aspects that would be better addressed in a longer seminar or lecture. More research needs to be done in all of these areas and, at the moment, no one theory, or place, can really make an undisputed claim to the ‘real’ Arthur. The important thing is that the “mythos of Arthur” has lasted for fifteen hundred years, and shows no signs of abating. Merlin, too, is the subject of many books, computer games, and films, and witness the enduring popularity of books like “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley, or the magical characters in the Harry Potter books, in the fantasy genre. Much high and folk art and music has been inspired by the Arthurian tales through the centuries. Arthur and the memory of the Knights of the Round Table live on, to inspire us as we move forward into a new era.
Dr Karen Ralls
- Ralls, K., Gothic Cathedrals: History, Art, Places and Symbolism, Ibis/RedWheelWeiser, FL, 2015 (has Grail-related, pilgrimage, art, symbolism material, w/extensive bibliography, photos & appendices of pilgrimage and European sacred sites)
- Ralls, K., Medieval Mysteries: History, Places and Symbolism, Ibis/RedWheelWeiser, FL, 2014 (has much Arthurian, Grail, Troubadours, Guilds, Templars, Black Madonnas, Mary Magdalene, Cathars, Pilgrimage, medieval heresy, Rosslyn Chapel, Glastonbury, and related material, extensive bibliographic references and Appendices of pilgrimage shrines & sites)
- Ralls, K., The Knights Templar Encyclopedia, Career Press, NJ, 2007 (has Arthurian, Grail, Chivalry, and much related material, with extensive bibliography, photos, Recommended Reading lists, appendices)
- Ralls, K., The Templars & the Grail: Knights of the Quest, Quest Books, Chicago, USA, May 2003
- Ralls, K., & Robertson, I., The Quest for the Celtic Key, Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2002;
To get started…
general books about King Arthur and other Arthurian subjects:
- Ashe, G., The Discovery of King Arthur, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1985
- Matthews, J., An Arthurian Reader, Aquarian Press: Wellingborough, 1988
- Rees, A., & Rees, B., Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, Thames and Hudson: London, 1961
Illustrated lectures and more detailed seminars
by Dr Karen Ralls can be arranged.
Please contact Ancient Quest for details.
Ancient Quest, and Dr. Karen Ralls, do not necessarily agree with, or endorse, material in the publications noted above, but provide this list as a general introduction to learning more about this topic.