The legends of King Arthur have sustained the imaginations of England and the West since the Dark Ages. It can be said that the legend directly inspired the culture surrounding the Age of Chivalry in the Middle Ages, and inspired, in some part, England's greatness in world affairs. About the actual historical existence of Arthur there is little doubt; however, most of the romantic figures of legend - Lancelot Du Lac, Queen Guenevere, Tristram and Iseult, Sir Gawain, and the list goes on and on - are merely the comfortable fictions conceived by Middle Age princes and nobles who preferred them to the actual heroes and adversaries of antiquity. The elements of sorcery, magical beasts, and The Lady of the Lake were probably derived from Arabian myths introduced from the Crusades, blended with the simpler fictions of the West to form a highly embellished tapestry: however, a tapestry with more than a tread of truth.
The first documented record of Arthur comes to us from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. For many years, Arthurian scholars have looked upon this document with disdain; Monmouth's work is filled with puzzling allusions to sources which no longer exist, and references to other works which are patently second-rate in their veracity. Yet, as we shall see, this source may still hold clues to the actual existence of Arthur.
To place in historical context the actual circumstances of Arthur's reign, it may be fruitful for us to explore the recorded history of that time. According to many researchers, Arthur has his beginning during the onset of the Dark Ages, when the extinction of the Western Roman Empire occurred near or on the year 479. For some years, the Roman Empire had been split into Eastern and Western halves, each of which was ruled by a separate emperor.
The Romans had conquered Britain during the first century, during the reign of Domitian. In the words of Edward Gibbon:
"The various tribes of Britons possessed valor without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union. They took up arms with savage fierceness; they laid them down, or turned them against each other with wild inconstancy; and while they fought singly, they were successively subdued.
Neither the fortitude of Caractacus, nor the despair of Boadicea, nor the fanaticism of the Druids, could avert the slavery of their country, or resist the steady progress of the Imperial generals, who maintained the national glory, when the throne was disgraced by the weakest, or the most vicious of mankind.
The native Caledonians preserved in the northern extremity of the isle their wild independence.... their incursions were frequently repelled and chastised, but their country was never subdued. The masters of the fairest and most wealthy climates of the globe turned with contempt from gloomy hills assailed by winter tempests, from lakes concealed in a blue mist, and from cold and lonely heaths, over which the deer of the forest were chased by a troop of naked barbarians."
For nearly four centuries, the Roman laws, technology, and civilization were imposed on the anarchic British isle. Most of the fictional accounts of Arthur's reign describe Arthur's desire to impose unity and peace upon his harried isle; and show him as casting a longing glance back to times of comfort and stability that the Romans gave in exchange for their power. There is more to that, of course; every account emphasizes Arthur's independence from the Roman world, while learning from and adopting the best aspects of the Roman past.
When the Roman power relinquished its grip on the African and European holdings of its Empire, they succumbed rapidly to the barbarian invasions. Britain alone maintained a long and vigorous resistance, in her case against the Scot, Pict, and Saxon hordes and pirates. (The Saxons, of course, issued from Saxony, a province of northern Germany. They terrorized their neighbors, repeatedly invaded Gaul, conquered Britain after a long struggle, and were finally subdued by Charlemagne in 808.) Many Saxons had settled in Kent, and were sometimes employed by the British kings (such as Vortigern) in fighting the Pictish invasions. The first of the great Saxon leaders to vex the British isle, Hengist, met such stout resistance that the only territory he could occupy in thirty-five years of warfare was Kent. Hengist yielded up the ghost on or about the year 488, when Arthur was a child.
During this time, a descendant of Roman nobles, Ambrosius Aurelian, was the leader of the castoff British realm. Ambrosius was a successful general, and the symbol of Britain's initial resistance. Some legends have it that Ambrosius fathered both Merlin and Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father and predecessor. Others, more historically accurate, show him being the immediate predecessor to Arthur. His final disastrous defeat, which allowed the Saxons to consolidate their foothold on the island, set the stage for Arthur's appearance.
Hengist's successor, Cerdic, was Arthur's great Saxon opponent during the flower of Arthur's reign. Over his lifetime he conquered the Isle of Wight and Hampshire, and was defeated decisively by Arthur at the battle of Mount Badon, dying soon after in 534. Arthur himself, by many accounts, appears to have begun his historical reign about the year 500, carrying on through 38 years and the famous dozen battles: a long series of defeats of the Angles in the north and the Saxons in the east, culminating in the victory of Mount Badon, which gave Arthur possession of London.
The actual historical figure of Arthur appears to have been a British cavalry general by the name of Artorius. According to these sources, both historical and anthropological, Arthur was not a king, but a commander in chief (Comes Britanniarum). The Pendragon title, meaning 'Chief Dragon',makes reference to the familiar symbol of a red silk dragon with a wide-open mouth, which served as a standard, and as a wind-sock to allow archers to correct their aim.
Arthur's military strategy was primarily defensive, based on dikes, refurbished hill forts dating back to the Romans (thus Camelot), and mounted commandos. All elements of this strategy were used at Mount Badon. His death came, as all the fictional accounts relate, at Camlann, near Glastonbury; not, however, at the fictional hands of Mordred, in the year 538.
A recent historical work has caused considerable debate and reassessment of the facts and lore surrounding Arthur. Geoffrey Ashe's The Discovery of King Arthur, published in 1985, studies the entire scope of Arthurian scholarship and comes to some surprising conclusions: that the Arthur-figure actually fought wars in Gaul (which most scholars claim never happened); that Arthur was king and not just a military commander; and that the reign of Arthur can be placed in the mid-fifty century (450-470), rather than within the dates cited here earlier.
Ashe's book is very readable, thoroughly researched, and persuasive in its conclusions. Most scholars had discredited Geoffrey of Monmouth as a source (with good reason), yet Ashe appears to succeed brilliantly in separating the facts from the opaque allusions and obfuscations in Monmouth's work. This work is highly recommended as an introduction to the historical theories and facts surrounding Arthur.
In any case, Arthur's battles were the high-water mark of British resistance. In contradiction of most fictional accounts of Arthur's reign, the Saxons were never dislodged from their initial holdings. Also, in many accounts, Arthur succeeded in uniting Gaul and most of the former Western empire into his realm. Obviously, this never happened. By most accounts, historical and fictional, the waning years of Arthur's reign were marked by popular discontent and domestic strife. By the time of his death, the Saxons were on the move again.
In spite of a century of warfare and spirited resistance, culminating with the Arthur era, the Celtic natives were gradually expelled from the fertile regions of the center of the island. They were forced to take refuge in the mountainous regions of Wales, beyond the Severn river, and established isolated pockets of resistance in Cornwall. The Saxons then began to change forever the character and culture of the isle.
The Saxons held nothing but contempt for Christianity, and violated all its precepts in the course of conquest. Sneering at treaties, resistance awakened their redoubled fury, which was demonstrated by wholesale massacres without regard to age or sex. One scene of this is found near modern-day Camden, at a marshy field in Kent called Anderida. At this time the Saxons Heptarchy was formed. Existing for some 300 years, the Heptarchy wiped out all traces of the carefully planted Roman civilization, as well as Christianity. Atrocities continued for many years. It was not until the battle of Hastings in 1066 that the Saxon hold on Britain was dislodged. Ironically, they had succeeded in holding their conquest for two and a half centuries after the subjugation of their own Kingdom.
Refugees from the Saxon conquest made their way to the Gaulish coast of Armorica (modern-day Brittany, or Little Britain). For several centuries, obscure bards such as Taliesin limned the short-lived achievements of the Arthur era. Over time, and the wishful adornments of many nobles and scribes (among whom, of course, is Malory), Arthur evolved into a Christ-figure, and with his 'disciples,' Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, and the rest, held a powerful spell on the minds of many people beset by the gloom of the Dark and Middle Ages.
A classic example of the Christ parallel can be found in the scene of Arthur's death, where Bedivere (Arthur's "Peter," perhaps) is told three times to throw the sword Excalibur into the Lake, and thrice fails through his desire to possess it. Perhaps Christ's admonishment to Peter, on the night of His death, that "three times before the night is through you will deny knowing me" was carried through to lend further resonance to the Arthur legend. Many even prophesied the Second Coming of Arthur. It may even be said that the Arthurian legends of knight-errantry gave rise to the true Age of Chivalry, which culminated with the Hundred years' War during the 14th Century, and met its end at Agincourt in 1415 with the destruction of the French nobles of that era. As with the Arthur tales, the bloody and destructive facts surrounding the chivalric culture have often been overlooked or glossed over. That, however, is another tale.
BROTHER BAUDWIN - Court cleric to the knights of the Round Table.
SIR BEDIVERE - One of Arthur's first knights, Sir Bedivere was always the king's staunchest supporter. Fights with Arthur at all of the great battles. Consistently subordinates his own interests to those of his sovereign. One of the few survivors of Arthur's last battle at Camlann, Sir Bedivere witnesses Arthur's death. At Arthur's dying command, he attempts three times to return the sword Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and is reproved by Arthur until he finally succeeds.
SIR BELLENGERUS le Beuse - A loyal, but average, knight of the Round Table. Was once a lord of Northern Wales, but was evicted in a rebellion.
SIR BORS de Ganis - Son of King Bors of Gaul and brother to Sir Lionel. On the quest of the Holy Grail defeats the Devil in various guises. Accomplishes the quest together with Sir Galahad and Sir Percivale, both of whom he buries at the Spiritual Palace before returning to Camelot.
LORD CONSTANTINE - King Arthur's regent. Arthur intended Constantine to be his successor.
SIR DINAS - Former seneschal of Cornwall, Sir Dinas renounced his allegiance to King Mark over his treatment of Tristram and later became a knight of The Round Table.
SIR ECTOR de maris - Lancelot's English born half brother, Ector was a strong knight, loyal to the King, Lancelot, and the Round Table. Not to be confused with the older Sir Ector who was Arthur's foster father.
SIR GAHALANTINE - A knight of the Orkney clan, Sir Gahalatine leads the force charged with the defense of the fortress at Leicester.
SIR HEBES le Renoumes - Former squire to Sir Tristram, Sir Hebes became a good knight, but not the best fighter.
SIR LANCELOT DU LAC - Son of King Ban of Benwick. King Arthur's favorite. Champion and lover of Queen Guenevere. Begets Sir Galahad on King Pelles' daughter Elaine while under enchantment. Driven to madness for two years by Guenevere's jealousy. Punished for his adultery by being denied participation in the mystery of the Holy Grail. Kills forty knights, including Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth, in defense of Guenevere. Is exiled by Arthur and besieged by him at Benwick. Challenged to mortal combat by Gawain, whom he wounds fatally. When he returns to Britain and finds Arthur dead and Guenevere a nun, Lancelot cloisters himself in a monastery in mourning.
SIR LAVAIN - knight of the Round Table.
SIR LIONEL - First son of King Bors of Gauls, older brother of Sir Bors de Ganis and cousin of Lancelot.
SIR MELIAS de lile - Son of the King of Denmark, Sir Melias became a knight of the Round Table due to his interest in the Grail Quest.
MERLIN - Celtic prophet and Druidic magician, Merlin was called "son of the Devil." Arthur's mentor from his birth to his marriage to Guenevere. Placed Arthur as a baby under the care of Sir Ector and his wife, whom brought him up with their son Kay.
MORGAN LE FAY - A sorceress and half sister to Arthur. Marries King Uryens of Gore and Bears him a son, Sir Ywaine. Plots with her lover, Sir Accolon, to destroy Arthur and her husband and to seize the throne; the plot is thwarted by Nineve and Sir Ywaine. Subsequently captures and tries to seduce Sir Lancelot, Sir Tristram, and other knights of the Round Table.
THE LADY NINEVE - The court enchantress to the Round Table.
SIR PALOMIDES The Saracen - Close friend of Bedivere. Unsuccessful rival to Tristram in the jousting field and for the hand of Iseult. After King Pellinore's death, accepts the chase of the Questing Beast and devotes his life to it.
SIR VILLARS - An older knight of the Orkney clans.
ARTHUR - King of all Britain. Conqueror of Rome, founder of the knights of the Round Table. Begins his career as War Duke of Britain under the general Ambrosius Aurelianus. Witnesses Ambrosius' final defeat and takes command of the remnants of the British Army. Fights the great Dozen battles against the Picts and Saxons, culminating in the victory of Mount Badon in 534. Commits incest and adultery with his half sister, Queen Morqause, and begets the bastard Sir Mordred, whom he tries to drown as a baby. Marries Guenevere, and, after the quest for the Holy Grail, sentences her to burning for adultery. Exiles her lover, Sir Lancelot, and besieges him at Benwick in France. His throne is then usurped by Sir Mordred, who wounds him fatally in single combat after his return to Britain. Though his body is conveyed to the Isle of Avalon by the Lady of the Lake, his grave is at the abbey in Glastonbury.
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