King Arthur.The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Beverley Adams

There are many myths attached to the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable but did he even exist at all?

Sadly, there is little evidence to prove his kingly existence but it is a commonly held belief that a warrior given the name of Arturus did exist and the stories grew up around him and his heroic bravery. But how did Arturus become King Arthur Pendragon of Britain and how did his legend endure to the modern day? The first we hear of Arthur is in a 9th century manuscript titled Historia Brittonum which was written by Nennius, and a Welsh document titled Annales Cambriae. Historia Brittonum makes reference to Arthur being a warrior who led his troops into battle against the invading Saxons, he was considered brave and fearless, intent on defending his country and its people. It was from Historia Brittonum the cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his own history of Britain, Historia Regum Britanniae, which was published in the mid-1130s. In it, he describes how Arthur defeated the Saxons and the Romans and then went on to conquer much of northern Europe enabling him to build a vast empire. It is the first time we hear of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, Merlin and Excalibur. It is also the first mention of Arthur’s wife Guinevere although it is not until the 12th century when the French writer Chrétien de Troyes wrote his version of Arthur’s life that the famous Arthurian knight and lover of Guinevere, Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail appear. Arthur’s fateful return to England is also documented describing how he was wounded at the Battle of Camlann, from the battlefield he is taken to the mythical island of Avalon to recover but is never seen again. Where Avalon was remains a mystery to this day although there have been many debates over it exact location. At this stage in history Arthur is a popular figure, a man to be revered and respected, Historia Regum Britanniae takes the story of Arthur to Europe and makes him more popular than he had ever been. In 1485, English writer Thomas Malory published Le Morte d’Arthur which has become one of the most popular retellings of the Arthurian Legend. Its popularity lies in the fact it brings together all the legends in to one single retelling, He too talks of the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Lancelot and Excalibur.
King Arthur.The Man, The Myth, The Legend
A portrait of the Arthurian Legend

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King Arthur.The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Statue at Tintagel Castle

Even King Henry VII knew the importance of Arthur and what his legendary kingship stood for.

Henry wanted to name his first-born son after him so he arranged for his queen, Elizabeth of York, to give birth at Winchester, the home of the roundtable. He thought using the legend of King Arthur in some way validated his reign, it also drew on his English and Welsh roots. Clearly the name of Arthur had gravitas and significance but as we enter the post medieval period people start to question the validity of the stories and the historical accuracy. It would not be until the Victorian era that Arthur and his reputation would re-establish itself. The early 19th century saw a resurgence of the gothic, medievalism and romanticism movements and poets like Tennyson and artists of the pre-Raphaelite movement were influenced by Arthur; his resurgence was complete when Le Morte d’Arthur was republished in 1816. The Victorians fell in love with the romantic stories of the Arthurian legends. There is clearly still a need for Arthurian material in the modern era and probably the most popular reincarnation of King Arthur was the Monty Python and the Holy Grail comedy film of 1975. The current poet laureate, Simon Armitage, has written his own interpretation of Arthur’s life in his epic poem The Death of King Arthur. One of the myths that has sprung from Arthur’s story is the wizard Merlin and in 2008 the BBC created a whole series based on the legend of Arthur and his relationship with Merlin, it was widely watched and won multiple awards. So, how do we see King Arthur today in the 21st Century, does he still have a role to play? Many see him as weak and naïve, but Arthur has become a symbol of English and Welsh pride, inextricably linked to the folklore of each nation as a warrior figure who fought to defend his nation from invaders. But, the myth has developed so much over time that he has become a legendary figure that has become so mythical that no one can actually say for certain he existed at all.
Ancestry UK
King Arthur.The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Beverley Adams

I hold a degree and Masters degree in English Literature and am a published author with Pen & Sword History my first two books are The Rebel Suffragette and Ada Lovelace: The World’s First Computer Programmer.
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