King Arthur

King Arthur is an important figure in the mythology of Great Britain, where he appears as the ideal of kingship in both war and peace. He is the central character in the cycle of legends known as the "Matter of Britain." There is disagreement about whether Arthur, or a model for him, ever actually existed: in the earliest mentions and Welsh texts he is never given the title "King." Early texts refer to him as dux bellorum ("war leader") and High Medieval Welsh texts often call him amerauder ("emperor").

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Victorian image of King Arthur in plate armour with visor raised and with jousting shield

The Arthur of history

Main article: Historical basis for King Arthur

The possible historicity of the King Arthur of legend has long been debated by scholars. One school of thought believes Arthur to have lived sometime in the late 5th century to early 6th century, to have been of Romano-British origin, and to have fought against the pagan Saxons. His power base was probably in either Wales, Cornwall, or the west of what would become England, but controversy over the centre of his power and the extent and kind of power he wielded continues to rage.

Some members of this school, most notably Geoffrey Ashe and Leon Fleuriot, have argued for identifying Arthur with a certain Riothamus, "King of the Brettones," who was active during the reign of the Roman Emperor Anthemius. Unfortunately, Riothamus is a shadowy figure of whom we know little, and scholars are not certain whether the "Brettones" he led were Britons or Bretons.

Other writers suggest that Arthur should be identified as one Lucius Artorius Castus, a historical Roman of the 2nd century, whose military exploits in Britain may have been remembered for centuries afterward. Yet the obscurity surrounding the historical career of Artorius makes this identification unlikely, as there seems to be little reason for him to have become a major legendary figure.

Another school of thought believes that Arthur is a half-forgotten Celtic deity devolved into a personage (citing sometimes a supposed change of the sea-god Lir into King Lear) or a possibly fictive person like Beowulf.

Subscribers to this school of thought argue that another Roman Briton of the period, for example Ambrosius Aurelianus, led the forces battling the Saxons at the battle of Mons Badonicus.

Further, historical persons may have influenced the later legends, like the Scots king Aedan mac Gabran, who had a son called Artuir and whose life was somewhat similar to Arthur's.

Earliest traditions of Arthur

Arthur first appears in Welsh literature. In a surviving early Welsh poem, the Gododdin (c. 594), the poet Aneirin (c. 535600) writes of one of his subjects that "he fed black ravens on the ramparts, although he was no Arthur" — but this poem as it currently exists is full of interpolations, and it is not possible to decide if this passage is an interpolation from a later period. The following poems attributed to Taliesin are possibly from a similarly early date: The Chair of the Sovereign, which refers to "Arthur the Blessed"; Preiddeu Annwn ("The Treasures of Paradise"), mentions "the valour of Arthur" and states "we went with Arthur in his splendid labours"; and the poem "Journey to Deganwy," which contains the passage "as at the battle of Badon with Arthur, chief giver of feasts, with his tall blades red from the battle which all men remember."

Another early reference to Arthur is in the Historia Britonum, attributed to the Welsh monk Nennius, who is said to have written this compilation of early Welsh history around the year AD 830. In this work, Arthur is referred to as a "leader of battles" rather than as a king. Two separate sources within this compilation list twelve battles that he fought, culminating in the battle of Mons Badonicus, where he is said to have single-handedly killed 960 men. According to the Annales Cambriae, Arthur was killed at the Battle of Camlann in 537.

Arthur makes an appearance in a number of well-known Welsh vitae ("Lives") of 6th-century saints: for example, in the Life of Saint Illtud, he is said to be a cousin of that churchman. Many of these appearances portray Arthur as a fierce warrior, and not necessarily as morally impeccable as in later Romances. According to the Life of Saint Gildas (died c. 570), written in the 11th century by Caradoc of Llancarfan, Arthur killed Gildas' brother Hueil, a pirate on the Isle of Man.

Lifris writes in his Life of Saint Cadoc that Arthur was bettered by Cadoc: Cadoc gave protection to a man who killed three of Arthur's soldiers; Arthur was awarded a herd of cattle from Cadoc as wergeld for his men; Cadoc delivered them as demanded; but when Arthur took possession of the animals, they were transformed into bundles of ferns. The likely original purpose of this story would be to promote popular acceptance of the new Christian faith by "demonstrating" that Cadoc, the Christian leader, had magical powers traditionally ascribed to Druids and of sufficient intensity to outsmart the temporal ruler, Arthur. Similar incidents are described in the late medieval biographies of Carannog, Padern, and Goeznovius.

Arthur also appears in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, a narrative that is usually associated with the Mabinogion. In that work, Culhwch visits his court to seek his help in winning the hand of Olwen. Arthur, who is described as his kinsman, agrees to the request, and fulfills the demands of Olwen's giant father Ysbaddaden, which includes his hunt for the great boar Twrch Trwth, described at length by the author.

This may be related to legends where Arthur is depicted as the leader of the Wild Hunt, a folk motif that is also recorded in Brittany, France, and Germany; Roger S. Loomis has listed a number of these instances (Loomis 1972). Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th century and two 15th century writers assign this role to Arthur: Gervase tells that Arthur and his knights regularly hunt an ancient trackway between Cadbury Castle and Glastonbury (which is still known as King Arthur's Causeway [1] (, and that he with his company of riders may be seen by moonlight in the forests of Britain or Brittany or Savoy. Loomis alludes to a Scottish mention in the 16th century, and that many of these beliefs were still current in the 19th century at Cadbury Castle, and in several parts of France.

Later parts of the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, or Welsh Triads, mention Arthur and locate his court in Celliwig, which is located in Cornwall. Celliwig was identified by older Cornish antiquaries with Callington, but Rachel Bromwich, the latest editor of the Welsh Triads, matched it to Kelly Rounds, a hill fort in the Cornish parish of Egloshayle.

The Arthurian romance

In AD 1133, Geoffrey of Monmouth produced a work, Historia Regum Britanniae, that was the mediaeval equivalent of a best seller and helped draw the attention of other writers, such as Robert Wace and Layamon— who then expanded on the tales of Arthur. One theory as to why this happened is that after the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066 there was renewed interest in the Arthurian Legend as described by Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

During a period of five hundred years the tradition of his exploits was preserved, and rudely embellished, by the obscure bards of Wales and Armorica, who were odious to the Saxons, and unknown to the rest of mankind. The pride and curiosity of the Norman conquerors prompted them to inquire into the ancient history of Britain; they listened with fond credulity to the tale of Arthur, and eagerly applauded the merit of a prince who had triumphed over the Saxons, their common enemies. [Chapter 38, Footnote 138]

Thus, according to Gibbon, the once obscure 500-year-old Welsh legend went mainstream (through the works of Anglo-Norman poet Wace and others), creating a unified cultural icon under which the Norman rulers and the native Welsh could rally against their common enemy: the Saxons.

While many scholars believe that Geoffrey of Monmouth is the source for medieval interest in Arthur, at least one scholar, Roger S. Loomis, has argued that many of the tales surrounding Arthur were independently adapted from Breton oral traditions, spread through the royal and noble courts of Europe by professional storytellers known as jongleurs. The French medieval writer, Chr鴩en de Troyes, recounted tales from the mythos during the mid-12th century, as did Marie de France in her narrative poems called lais. In any case, the later stories told by these two writers and by many others appear to be independent of what Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote.

In these Arthurian romances, which gained popularity beginning in the 12th century, Arthur gathered the Knights of the Round Table (Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, and others). At his court, most often held at Camelot in the later prose romances, could sometimes be found the wizard Merlin. Arthur's knights engaged in fabulous quests, the one for the Holy Grail being perhaps the best known. Other stories from the Celtic world came to be associated with Arthur, such as the tale of Tristan and Isolde. In the late prose romances the love affair between Arthur's champion, Lancelot, and the Queen, Guinevere, becomes the central reason for the fall of the Arthurian world.

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King Arthur's tombsite at Glastonbury Abbey

Arthur was killed in his last battle, the Battle of Camlann, which he fought against the forces of Mordred. The Prose Lancelot and the later prose cyclic romances state that Mordred was also a Knight of the Round Table and the child of an incestuous union between Arthur and his sister Morgause. In almost all accounts Arthur was said to be mortally wounded, but after the battle he was taken away to Avalon (sometimes identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, England), where his wounds were healed or his body was buried in a chapel. Some texts refer to a return of Arthur in the future.

The Arthurian mythos spread far across the continent. An image of Arthur and his Knights attacking a castle was carved into an archivolt over the north doorway of Modena Cathedral in Italy sometime between 1099 and 1120. The surprising fact that these Italian images seem to have been carved more than decade before the appearance of Geoffrey's "Historia" indicates how limited is our knowledge of the spread of Arthurian legend in the early Middle Ages. Also in Italy, a mosaic pavement in the cathedral of Otranto, near [[Bari] was made in 1165 with the unexplained depiction of Arturus Rex bearing a sceptre and riding a goat. 15th century merchants set up an Arthurian hall in his honour in Gdańsk, Poland.

Retellings of the Arthurian cycle include the works of Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

In 1191, monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had found the burial site of Arthur and Guinevere. Their grave was shown to many people, and the reputed remains were moved to a new tomb in 1278. The tomb was destroyed during the Reformation, and the bones lost. The antiquary John Leland reports that he saw the cross found with the remains, and transcribed its inscription as

Hic iacet sepvltvs inclytvs rex artvrivs in insvla avalonia — "Here is buried the famous king Arthur in the Island of Avalon".

If Leland accurately reproduced the script of this inscription, then it can be dated to the 10th century. At least one scholar has suggested that the cross was added when Arthur's remains were transferred to the Abbey.

Arthur's swords

Main entry: Excalibur.

In Robert de Boron's Merlin, later followed by Thomas Malory, Arthur obtained the throne by pulling a sword from a stone and anvil. In this account, this act could not be performed except by "the true king," meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of Uther Pendragon. This sword was presumably the famous Excalibur and the identity is made explicit in the later so-called Vulgate Merlin Continuation.

However, in what is sometimes called the Post-Vulgate Merlin, Excalibur was taken from a hand rising from a lake and given to Arthur sometime after he began to reign by a sorcerous damsel (confused by post-medieval writers with The Lady of the Lake). In this Post-Vulgate version, the sword's blade could slice through anything and its sheath made the wearer invincible. Some stories say that Arthur did indeed pull the sword from the stone (Excalibur), giving him the right to be king, but accidentally killed a fellow knight with it and cast it away. Merlin told him to undertake a quest to find another blade, and it was then that Arthur received his sword from the hand in the water, and named it Excalibur, after his original sword. The first appearance of the sword named Caliburn is in Geoffrey of Monmouth who asserted that in battle against Arthur "nought might armour avail, but that Caliburn would carve their sould from out them with their blood." ([2] (

Arthur in modern literature, film, and television

There are many number of books written about King Arthur and the court of Camelot.

See also: List of books about King Arthur and List of movies based on Arthurian legend.

The late 1960s Australian animated cartoon series Arthur! and the Square Knights of the Round Table was a typically wacky take on Arthurian legend.

The 1970s British television series, Arthur of the Britons, starring Oliver Tobias, sought to create a more "realistic" portrait of the period and to explain the origins of some of the myths about the Celtic leader.

In 1937, a newspaper comic strip by Hal Foster, Prince Valiant was first published, with the byline "In the Days of King Arthur". Since the death of Foster in 1982, John Cullen Murphy has continued producing this comic strip.

The role-playing game Pendragon details how to run adventure games set in the time of the Round Table.

The movie Merlin showing a tale of Arthur and his knights.

The cartoon television series Gargoyles featuring numerous tales of Arthur, who was prematurely awakened in a time of need, and the magic and fairies of Avalon.

The cartoon television series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited featuring related characters Morgan Le Fay, Mordred, and Merlin.

The concept album The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975) by Rick Wakeman.

See also


  • Leslie Alcock. Arthur's Britain: History and Archaeology AD 367 - 634. Allen Lane, The Penguin Press. London. 1971. ISBN 0713902450
  • Rachel Bromwich, "Concepts of Arthur", Studia Celtica, 9/10 (1976), pp.163-81.
  • David N. Dumville, "Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend", History 62 (1977), pp. 173-92.
  • Roger S. Loomis, "The Arthurian Legend before 1139", The Romantic Review, 32 (1941), 3-38.
  • Roger S. Loomis, editor. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. Clarendon Press: Oxford University. 1959. ISBN 0198115881
  • Daniel Mersey. Arthur King of the Britons: From Celtic Hero To Cinema Icon. Summersdale. Chichester. 2004. ISBN 1840244038
  • Thomas Jones, "The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur", Nottingham Medieval Studies, 8 (1964), pp. 3-21.

External links


  • Loomis, Roger R. 1972. "Arthur" in Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (edited by Maria Leach) Funk and Wagnalls. New York.

Preceded by:
Uther Pendragon
Mythical British Kings
Succeeded by:
Constantine III

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