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King Arthur - The True Story

 

Chapter I

 

The Legend

 

Despite all the effort that has for centuries been expended in the search for King Arthur, he has continued to evade the pages of authentic history. Not only has there been a distinct lack of evidence to reveal who he really was; as yet no one has been able to prove beyond doubt that he even existed at all. Solving the mystery of King Arthur is like trying to assemble a huge jigsaw puzzle. The clues exist, but in many different forms: in folklore, archaeology and recorded history. Many have tried to complete the picture, but very often the pieces were wrongly arranged, and until recently some were missing entirely.

We are about to embark upon an historical adventure - a search for the real King Arthur: his identity, his Camelot and his final resting place. By carefully disentangling the historical from the mythological, and piecing together the fascinating evidence that remains, we reveal for the first time a true story that is in every way as spellbinding as the romantic legend.

 

 

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In a far off time, when Britain was divided and without a king, barbarian hordes laid waste the once fertile countryside. The throne lay vacant for a just and righteous man, who could free the people from their servile yoke and drive the invaders from the land. But only he who drew from the stone a magnificent sword could prove himself the rightful heir. Years passed and many tried, but the mysterious sword stood firm and unyielding in the ancient, weathered rock. Then, one day, a young man emerged from the forest and, to the amazement of all, succeeded where even the strongest had failed. The people rejoiced; the king had come and his name was Arthur.

 

On accession to the highest office in the land, Arthur set about restoring the shattered country. After building the impregnable fortress of Camelot, and founding an order of valiant warriors, the Knights of the Round Table, the king rode forth to sweep aside the evil which had beset the land. The liberated peasants quickly took him to their hearts, and Arthur reigned justly over his newly prosperous kingdom, taking for his queen the beautiful Lady Guinevere.

 

Even a terrible plague that ravaged the country was overcome by the newfound resolve of Arthur's subjects, for they mounted a quest to discover the Holy Grail, a fabulous chalice that held the secret cure for all ills. But as happens so often during an age of plenty, there are those whom power corrupts. Soon a rebellion tore the kingdom apart, an armed uprising led by Modred, Arthur's traitorous nephew. Yet there was one, possessed by dark forces, who lay at the heart of the strife: the mysterious and satanic enchantress, Morganna. In a final battle, Modred was at last defeated and Morganna was destroyed by Merlin the court magician. But all did not go well, for Arthur himself was mortally wounded.

 

As he lay dying on the field of battle, the last request by the mighty king was that Excalibur, the source of all his power, be cast into a sacred lake and lost forever to mortal man. When the magical sword fell to the water a sylphid arm rose from the surface, caught it by the hilt and took it down into the crystal depths.

 

When the great king was close to death, he was spirited away on a barge to the mystical isle of Avalon, accompanied by three mysterious maidens, each dressed completely in white. Many say that he died and was buried upon the isle, yet there are those who believe that Arthur's soul is not to be found amongst the dead. It is said that he only sleeps and will one day return.

 

This, in essence, is the fabulous tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as most people now know it. In one form or another it has been told the world over, translations being found in almost every language.

 

During the Gothic Revival of the nineteenth century, the haunting lines of Tennyson and the romantic paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites celebrated the Arthurian saga. Today we have the enchanting novels of Rosemary Sutcliffe, the plays of John Arden and the poems of John Heath-Stubbs. On stage we have seen the lavish musical Camelot, later filmed; on screen there has also been John Boorman's colourful epic Excalibur, the marvellous animation of Walt Disney and even the zany humour of the Monty Python team. The world over, King Arthur is a bestseller.

 

But Arthur is more than simply an inspiration for book, stage and cinema. Travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles, we discover a wealth of Arthurian legend; in every part of the land the great king lives on in folklore. Tales tell how he was born here or died there; that he fought a dragon in this valley, or killed a giant on that mountain. There are Arthur's Hills, Arthur's Stones and Arthur's Caves. King Arthur features in more legends attached to ancient sites in England and Wales than any other character.

 

King Arthur has even come to personify the resolve of the nation; like Britannia or John Bull, he is the warrior spirit of Britain, ready to be awakened in time of need. The story contains every archetypal image: the innocent succeeding where the strong have failed, knights in shining armour and damsels in distress. But most compelling is the sense that something magical still awaits discovery; perhaps the Grail, the celestial answer to all our dreams.

 

King Arthur has always been many things to many people, but in recent years Arthurian myth-making has gone mad. Some of the more extreme notions are mind-boggling, from Arthur being an extraterrestrial to his being the king of Atlantis. One recent theory, which actually gained a degree of acceptance, claimed that he was the first European to discover America. Obsessives have spent fortunes trying to track him down; indeed whole societies have been formed for this express purpose. Some even claim to have discovered his remains, while others have resorted to staging elaborate hoaxes as 'proof'. Since the 1960s, hippies have embarked on what the media dubbed 'The Grail Trail', descending in droves on the Somerset town of Glastonbury, much to the annoyance of the locals. And in the 1980s, King Arthur was again sensationalised in the wake of the 'Dungeons and Dragons' craze.

 

There are guide books, lecture tours, coach trips, magazines and video tapes available for the enthusiast, even travel companies offering Arthurian Holidays. King Arthur is arguably the most popular character in British history and it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of the British population, and its many thousands of foreign tourists, are familiar with the stories about him. They may not believe all the fables, they may not accept all the legends, but many assume the tales to be based on truth. But is this a valid assumption? Are the stories founded on real historical events?

 

The story of King Arthur we know today was the work of Sir Thomas Malory, printed in 1485 under the title Le Morte Darthur ('The Death of Arthur'). Malory did not invent the story, he simply collected together a wide variety of existing tales which were popular at the time and retold them. As one of the first books to be printed, Malory's established itself as the standard version. Yet from the Middle Ages, the era of jousting, chivalry and knights in armour in which the tales seem to be set, there are no records of such a king actually ruling, either in England or elsewhere in Christendom. Even if we go back to the Norman Conquest of 1066 we find no King Arthur. If we go back still further to the ninth century, when Athelstan became the first Saxon king of all England, again no such monarch exists. So who was Arthur? How did such an elusive and obscure character become so famous?

 

In addressing this question we must trace the development of the narrative itself, examining how the story evolved in the romantic literature of the Middle Ages. The earliest detailed account of Arthur's life was written around 1135 by the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, who later became Bishop of St Asaph. Geoffrey's work, the Historia Regum Britanniae ('History of the Kings of Britain') became the foundation upon which all the later stories of King Arthur were constructed. As its title suggests, his book was not intended to be read as fiction. On the contrary, it was presented as an accurate historical record of the British monarchy. But at a time when accurate historical records were almost non-existent, and history was not seen, as it is today, as a discipline dependent solely on the interpretation of proven facts, writers often felt free to embellish history as they saw fit. It is thus difficult to distinguish between fact and invention in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

 

Written in Latin, Geoffrey's Historia traces the development of the isle of Britain, culminating with the golden age of King Arthur. According to Geoffrey, Arthur is born at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, the son of the British king Uther Pendragon. Having become king while still in his teens, Arthur quickly asserts authority by defeating his barbarian enemies at the battle of Bath. Wielding a magical sword, Caliburn, said to have been forged on the mystical isle of Avalon, Arthur subsequently defeats the Scots in the North and unifies the nation. Having gone on to conquer Ireland and Iceland, Arthur reigns peacefully for twelve years, his queen Ganhumara at his side. He establishes an order of knights, accepting notorious warriors of all nations, before conceiving the ambitious notion of conquering Europe. When Norway, Denmark and Gaul (an area which once covered Northern Italy, France and Belgium, together with parts of Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland) have fallen easily to his armies, Arthur returns home to a period of peace, holding court at the city of Caerleon in South-East Wales.

 

Eventually, Arthur is again drawn into war, setting off to fight in Burgundy. But all does not go well. He is soon forced to return to Britain to quell a revolt led by his nephew Modred, unwisely left to rule as regent in his absence. Although he succeeds in crushing the rebellion at the battle of Camlann, somewhere in Cornwall, Arthur is mortally wounded and taken to the isle of Avalon for his wounds to be tended. Geoffrey fails to tell us what then became of King Arthur.

 

Second only to Arthur in importance in Geoffrey's Historia is the magician Merlin, about whom he also wrote two poetic works. In the Prophetiae Merlini ('Prophecies of Merlin') and the Vita Merlini ('Life of Merlin') Geoffrey portrays Merlin as the guiding influence behind the throne.

 

Geoffrey's work quickly captured the popular imagination, and before long the adventures of King Arthur inspired writers from all over Europe. The first was the Jersey poet Wace, who in 1155 composed Roman de Brut (the 'Romance of Brutus'). Written in French, this poetic rendering of Geoffrey's account was the first of the Arthurian Romances and contains an important addition to th Arthurian story, namely the Round Table. Said to seat fifty of Arthur's knights, its purpose according Wace was to promote a sense of equality amongst Arthur's noblemen.

 

Although Geoffrey of Monmouth popularised the Arthurian saga, and Wace then elaborated it in his peotry, it was the French writer Chretien de Troyes who was chiefly responsible for establishing it as a fashionable subject of romantic literature. In his five Arthurian stories, written between 1160 and 1180, Chretien imaginatively develops the events by introducing medieval notions of chivalry and courtly romance. Not only did Chretien create many of the knights (including Sir Lancelot), he also used the more lyrical sounding Guinevere as the name for Arthur's queen, and introduced the Camelot as the name for King Arthur's court.

 

In the coming decades King Arthur was all the rage, and in the late 1190s Robert de Boron, a Burgundian poet, composed a trilogy of Arthurian verses. Robert was responsible for interpolating perhaps the most popular theme into the story, the Holy Grail. The chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, the Grail was said to possess miraculous healing properties, and is sought by Arthur's knights, who gain both worldly experience and spiritual insight during their epic quest.

 

With the addition of the Grail quest, the stories of King Arthur gained a Christian acceptability, and many clergymen began to write Arthurian stories of their own. The English priest Layamon, writing around 1200, was the first to relate the saga in native English. His work Brut was an adaptation of Wace's Roman de Brut. Paradoxically for a priest, Layamon elevates King Arthur into a messianic figure. In his version, Arthur survives as an immortal on the secret isle of Avalon, with the promise that he will one day return.

 

By the beginning of the thirteenth century, the remaining themes had been added to what ultimately became the accepted Arthurian story. Between 1215 and 1235, a large number of rambling Arthurian stories, known collectively as the Vulgate Cycle, were brought together. Anonymously composed, the Vulgate Cycle is responsible for many of the story's embellishments, in particular the notion that Modred was the child of Arthur's incest with his sister Morgause.

 

Following the Vulgate Cycle, which marked the change in telling the story from verse to prose, successive writers adding further themes, till the late fifteenth century produced the best known version of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte Darthur, by Thomas Malory from Newbold Revel in Warwickshire. Completed in 1470, it was printed by William Caxton in 1485, and as such was one of the first published books with a wide circulation. It is in fact eight separate tales, which Malory originally entitled 'The Whole Book of King Arthur and his Noble Knights of the Round Table'. Although Le Morte Darthur was originally only the name of the last story, this shorter title for the entire work has survived to this day.

 

Le Morte Darthur opens with Arthur conceived as the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon. After being brought up in secret, Arthur proves himself king by drawing the sword from the stone. He marries Guinevere, founds the Knights of the Round Table at Camelot (which Malory identifies as Winchester) and begets Modred in unknowing incest. Following a period of prosperity, Arthur's knights commence a quest to discover the Grail, during which time Lancelot has consummated an adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere. Ultimately, the couple are discovered and Arthur pursues Lancelot into France, leaving Modred behind as regent. At the end of the story, Arthur discovers an attempt by Modred to seize the throne and returns to quash the rebellion. In a final battle, Modred dies and Arthur receives a mortal wound, after which he is transported on a barge to the Vale of Avalon. Following the battle, Arthur's sword Excalibur is reluctantly cast to the Lady of the Lake by Sir Bedivere, while both Lancelot and Guinevere enter holy orders and live out their lives in peace.

 

This, then, is the evolution of the Arthurian story in literature. But is it merely a fictional tale, or does it have an historical basis? Although they may have used artistic licence in their Arthurian epics, the medieval Romancers (writers of medieval romantic fiction) appear to accept the historical reality of King Arthur. Conversely, they seem uncertain when it comes to dating the events they describe. This is unfortunate, for if we are to unravel the truth, it is critical to discover when Arthur is supposed to have lived. At face value the tales appear to be set during the Middle Ages. The knights wear elaborate armour, fight with broadswords and observe the rules of chivalry. However, when medieval writers wrote their own versions of ancient stories, such as the legends of Greece or Rome, they invariably portrayed the characters in terms familiar to their readers, locating them in their own contemporary context.

 

If we are to identify the real Arthurian period we must start by returning to Geoffrey of Monmouth's account from the twelfth century. Unlike the later Romances, Geoffrey's version of events was not intended to be read as fiction. His work, during the early twelfth century, was presented as an accurate historical document, stating in its preface that it is translated from 'a certain very ancient book written in the British language', given to him by Archdeacon Walter of Oxford. Is Geoffrey reliable? Since no trace of this 'very ancient book' exists today, we are left with the content of Geoffrey's work to make its own case.

 

Although Geoffrey tells us that Arthur fought at the battle of Camlann in 542 AD, he also presents a number of historical inconsistencies. We are told that Arthur fought a Gallic campaign during the reign of Leo I, who we know from other sources was emperor at Constantinople from 457 to 474. (In 364 the Roman Empire had split into two: the Western Empire, governed from Rome, and the Eastern Empire, ruled from Constantinople.) This suggests that Arthur was around a hundred years old at the time of the battle of Camlann. Such an inconsistency may have arisen as a result of confusion between two alternative systems of dating used at the time. The Vitorious calendar, prepared fro Pope Milarius by Vitorius of Aquitaine around 465, began the first year at Christ's crucifixion, whereas the Anno Domini calendar, which Geoffrey used and which was devised by the Italian monk Dionysius Exiguus around 525,began its first year with Christ's birth. The latter system did not become popular until the late sixth century. If Geoffrey confused these two calendars, then Arthur may have died around 510, not 542, which would be only thirty-six years after the Gallic war.

 

Greater inconsistencies arise when we examine Arthur's contemporaries. Although history provides no record of Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, Arthur's two uncles do seem to have been based on historical characters; the problem is that they lived in different countries and at different times. Geoffrey tells us that Uther was the brother of Aurelius Ambrosius. This was most likely to have been Ambrosius Aurelianus, a genuine historical warlord who fought the Anglo-Saxons during the late fifth century, so Geoffrey's placing of Arthur during this period would seem consistent. However, this does not tally with what Geoffrey tells us of Uther's second brother, Constans. Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Constans was a monk and was the son of Constantine. Constans was persuaded to leave his monastery and become king when Constantine died. Constans can be identified as the son of Emperor Constantine III, who was also a monk, and who was also persuaded to leave his monastery to become joint emperor with his father. Unfortunately, this historical Constans lived over half a century before Ambrosius.

 

Even during Geoffrey's lifetime there was considerable speculation as to when King Arthur supposedly lived. Wace, for example, locates Arthur's death in the mid-seventh century, a hundred years later than Geoffrey. To find clues about the real Arthur, we are therefore left to search an historical epoch spanning a quarter of a millennium, possibly starting as early as 400 AD, and perhaps ending as late as 650 AD. By Malory's time Arthur was portrayed as a feudal king, if he had lived in the fifth or sixth centuries he would have been a British warrior, more closely resembling a Viking chieftain than a sovereign monarch in a golden crown.

 

In battle, the British warrior would have been very different from the knights in shining armour that we now associate with the Knights of the Round Table. He would not have worn a steel helmet with a plume and visor, but a skull-cap made from iron plates, bronze strapping and panels to protect the nose and sides of the face. Body armour would have been little more than a short-sleeved mail shirt, while shields were made of thick wood covered with leather and reinforced with a metal rim. Swords would not have been long, heavy broad-swords, but the Roman spatha type, about two and a half feet long with a stunted cross guard. Living conditions would have been far removed from the splendour of the huge Gothic castles of the High Middle Ages. Even a chieftain would have lived in little more than a single roomed hall with wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof. And defences would not have been stone walls, battlements and draw-bridged moats, but timber stockades, earthen banks and water-filled ditches.

 

If Arthur really did live in the fifth or sixth century, the logical thing to do is to consult any reliable records from that period. But immediately, we hit a problem. The principal contemporary historical sources covering England and Wales at this time are the work of the sixth-century monk Gildas, the writings of a few visiting foreigners and early monastic records. These are not primarily concerned with military affairs, but even so, with all the fame that Arthur was later to achieve, it is surprising that none of these sources, which would have been contemporary with his exploits, makes any reference to him. Was the story of Arthur, after all, nothing but a myth originating in the fertile imagination of Geoffrey of Monmouth despite his claim that his source was a 'very ancient book'?

 

 

 

 

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