- Education and Science
King Arthur Fact or Fiction
King Arthur and the Knights of the round table. Fact or fiction?
Arthur, the legendary king, led the defence of Britain against the Saxon invaders in the early 6th century, according to folklore. Arthur's story is mainly composed of folk tales and romantic invention, and his very existence has been debated by ancient and modern historians alike.
The legend of Arthur was developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's work in 1136, 'The History of the Kings of Britain.' But, some tales and poems of Wales relating the story of Arthur are dated much earlier than this work. Arthur appears in these, either as a great warrior defending Britain from enemies, human or supernatural, or as a magical figure, associated with Welsh folklore. How much of Geoffrey's work was adapted from these earlier sources, or as some believe, invented by Geoffrey himself, is unknown. But, Monmouth is just twenty miles from Caerleon, and the historian must have known of the Roman remains there, which we know existed then. In his work History of the Kings of Britain, he describes how Arthur held court at Caerleon. This, he told us, was attended by many leaders from Britain and areas of Europe under his control. He called this place 'City Of The Legions.' Legend has it that Caerleon was, in fact, Camelot. The historical basis for the King Arthur legend has long been debated. Entries in the 'History of the Britons' and 'The Welsh Annals,' has Arthur as a genuine historical figure. They depict him as a leader who fought against the invading Anglo Saxons sometime in the 5th to early 6th century. The 'HistoriaBritonum,' a ninth century historical work, attributed to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, lists twelve battles that Arthur fought.
Another work that supports the case for Arthur's existence is the 10th-century Annales Cambriae which also links Arthur with the Battle of Mount Badon. The author dates this battle to 516–518, and also mentions the Battle of Camlan, in which Arthur was killed. This has often been used to raise confidence in Historia Britonium's account, and to confirm that Arthur really did fight at Mount Badon.
Many elements and incidents that are now a part of the Arthurian legend appear in Geoffrey of Monmouth's work. For example, Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon is described as a strong king and a defender of the people. According to legend, Uther, with the help of Merlin the wizard, tricks the wife of his enemy Gorlois, the Lady Igraine, and sleeps with her. Arthur, born of this union is an illegitimate child. This act of conception occurs the very night Uther's troops kill Gorlois.
Geoffrey depicted Arthur as a King of Britain who defeated the Saxons and established an empire over Britain, Iceland, Ireland, Norway and Gaul. A French writer in the 12th century Cretien de Troyes added 'Lancelot and the Holy Grail' to the story, and started the Arthurian romance that became a significant part of mediaeval literature. In these French poems, the spotlight changes from Arthur himself to other characters such as 'The Knights of the Round Table,' and 'Lancelot and Guinevere,' According to de Troyes, these chosen knights were men who were awarded the highest order of Chivalry at King Arthur's Court, and the table at which they sat was created to have no head or foot, representing equality in all who sat there.
Is this the start of the romantic part of Arthur's history? Did the Frenchman create these mythical characters from imagination, or was there a glimmer of truth in there somewhere?
Statue of King Arthur
In Arthurian romance a number of explanations are given for Arthur's possession of his sword, Excalibur. In legend, Arthur obtained the throne by pulling a sword from a stone, an act which could not be performed except by the true king, meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of Uther Pendragon. However, in other work Excalibur was given to Arthur by the 'Lady of the Lake' sometime after he began to reign. She calls the sword "Excalibur, that is Cut-steel."
The story of the Sword in the Stone has another version in Norse history, where Sigmund draws the sword Gram out of a trunk of a tree where it was embedded by the Norse god Odin.
In several early French works, again de Troy's 'Percival and the Grail,' and 'Lancelot,' Excalibur is used by Gawain, Arthur's nephew and one of his knights. But this is contradicted later, in versions where Excalibur belongs solely to the king.
Was the Frenchman using artistic licence to its limit?
Arthur's final enemy
Towards the end of the Middle Ages there was a dying off of interest in King Arthur. There were attacks upon the truthfulness of the historical Arthurian romances – established since Geoffrey of Monmouth's time. So, for example, the 16th-century Italian scholar Polydor Vergil famously rejected the claim that Arthur was the ruler of a post-Roman empire, to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians. Social changes also conspired to rob the character of Arthur and his associated legends, of some of their power to enthral audiences
In the early 19th century, interest in mediaevalism and romanticism was re- awakened and stories of King Arthur were revived. A new code of ethics for 19th-century gentlemen was shaped around ideas of chivalry, the very ideals that the "Arthur of romance" embodied. This renewed interest first made itself felt in 1816, when revived Arthurian romance also proved influential in the United States. This interest continued through the 19th century and into the 20th, and influenced authors and film makers alike. Arthur is treated more seriously and historically in these newer versions.
Arthur has also been used as a model for modern-day behaviour. In the 1930s, the Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table was formed in Britain to promote Christian ideals and Arthurian notions of medieval chivalry. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of boys and girls joined Arthurian youth groups, such as the Knights of King Arthur, in which Arthur and his legends were promoted for youth to look up to, and to hold in reverence. Arthurian names are often attached to objects, buildings and places. As Norris J. Lacy has observed, "The popular notion of Arthur appears to be limited, not surprisingly, to a few motifs and names, but there can be no doubt of the extent to which a legend born many centuries ago, is profoundly embedded in modern culture at every level."
Whatever Arthur was, his name will always be held as the epitome of chivalry, of honour and of integrity.