The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Who on Earth was King Arthur?

Category: Famous people

According to many sources Arthur was King of the Silures in the 6th century and an ancient British hero, whose story has been the theme of much romantic fiction. He is said to have been the son of Uther, chief commander of the Britons, and to have been born about 501. In 516 he succeeded his father in the office of general, and performed those heroic deeds against the Saxons, Scots and Picts which have made him so celebrated.

He married the celebrated Guinevere belonging to the family of the dukes of Cornwall, established the famous order of the Round Table, and_ reigned, surrounded by a splendid court, 12 years in peace. After that he is reported to have conquered Denmark, Norway and France, Slain the giants of Spain and journied to Rome. From thence he is said to have hastened home on account of the unfaithfulness of his wife and Modred, his nephew, who stirred up his subjects to rebellion; to have subdued the rebels, but to have died in consequence of his wounds in 542 on the island of Avalon,* where it is claimed that his grave was found in the reign of Henry II.

The following is the story of King Arthur discussed by the novelist and historian Jack Lindsay* who considers that Arthur has had as remarkable a career in literature as in folklore. He appears on paper first in the collection of stories by the Welshman Nennius in the 9th century. Developing into a national hero, he was important in Welsh medieval tale and poem; and then in the 12th century burst into European literature in the vast amount of romances about his court and his knights.

In English, after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s* “History’’, he took on a strong historical aspect and in time provideb the material for Malory’s* “Morte d’Arthur’’, the greatest of all idealisations of chivalry. With the Tudors, he got new life, and his place in the court tradition culminated in Spenser’s* “Faerie Queene’’. Milton is said to have toyed with an epic on him before turning to Adam.* Under William III came the epic by the popular writer, Blackmore;* and in the Victorian age, Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King’’ as well as William Morris’* early poems.

What was thereason for this continued popularity? One way or another, the folk-belief in him as a saviour fed the upper streams of culture and made him the emblem of a new dispensation. Geoffrey provided a mythical background in his picture of the great conqueror Arthur for the new Norman kingdom. Malory sought to idealise the chivalrous system at the time it was totally disappearing. Arthur, the Welshman, was naturally of use in giving support to the upstart Tudcrs. Blackmore’s Arthur lent lustre to the Dutchman, William. Tennyson was idealising his own age and trying to glorify the epoch of Prince Albert* and the hopes of youthful capitalism.

If then we go deep enough we find there were strong political and social reasons for each revival of Arthur. The sepulchre of Arthur is nowhere to be seen, whence ancient ballads fable that he is still to come. Hence the endless sites linked with Arthur, especially with his hollow hill or cave where he sleeps — sites that extended as far as Mount Etna in Sicily.

In Welsh tales he became a culture hero, hunting the Great Pig and harrowing hell, fighting Roman Emperors and monster cats. The table of Christ’s Last Supper* became the Round Table and the Eucharistic cup* the Holy Grail. And the prophecies of Merlin* were re-adapted to suit changing political circumstances and support the Arthurian positions.

What of thereal Arthur, on whom this vast superstructure was built? Who was he and did he even exist at all? We can say little to that question. We have essentially only the reference in Nennius, with an archaeological background which makes probable the emergence of a war-leader (not a king) among the Romano-Britons in the early 6th century, who drove back the Saxons and gained his people a respite of a couple of generations.

Arthur then remained in the folk memory as representing the one period of united action which had produced peace and security. It was “betrayed’’ by the inner conflicts that inevitably grew up in the period of pacification, and the Saxons continued their advance.

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