The Birth of a Legend:
King Arthur and His Reign Through British History
By Sam Smith
King Arthur, the legendary king of Camelot, has always been an elusive figure. Since the fifth and sixth centuries, from which the earliest records on Arthur date, several historians and authors have developed and built upon the Arthurian legend. The works and contributions of Medieval authors such as Gildas, Bede, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Sir Thomas Malory capture the distant figure of King Arthur by recounting significant details surrounding his potential origins, exploring some of the most important themes supporting his legend, and suggesting how these themes were reflective of each author’s respective time period.
Although the first written texts to mention Arthur did not appear until the ninth century, the works of two medieval authors suggest the existence of a historical Arthur during the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the British Isles. The first was a six-century Welsh monk named Gildas, who is believed to have been born in the same year as the Battle of Mons Badonicus, or Badon Hill. This is evidenced by a passage from Gildas’s most famous text, On the Ruin of Britain, which states: "…until the year of the siege of Bathhill, when took place also the last, almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity." Through this information, along with Gildas’s death having occurred around 570 according to Welsh and Irish Annals, it is likely that Gildas wrote this text between 540 and 547, therefore implying that Gildas’ birthdate and the Battle of Bandon Hill occurred sometime between 490 and 503.
Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain serves as both an account of the Saxon in-vasions following Rome’s withdrawal from the British Isles as well as a negative critique against the apathetic and sinful attitudes of the native Britons. Gildas mentions that an unknown commander successfully led the Britons in the Battle of Badon Hill, which led to the Saxons temporary retreat from Britain. Several historians have proposed that this individual was possibly Arthur, who could have been a genuine British commander pre-sent at Badon Hill, therefore suggesting that the Saxon invasions served as a basis for the Arthurian Legend. While future texts have supported this theory, Gildas, due to his biased Christian beliefs, ultimately neglects to provide a name for the British military leader at Badon Hill. This bias and his preference to Roman traditions and values are particularly evident in Gildas’s disdain towards British hierarchy, which he describes as "[having] kings, but they are tyrants, judges, [and] impious men." His bias is further supported by his decision to have Ambrosius Aurelianus as the only British leader specified by name because Gildas refused to refer to any warrior hero who lacked the religious values he upheld. While this does suggest the possibility of Aurelianus being connected to the historical Arthur, it is highly unlikely since Aurelianus rose to power between 455 and 467, meaning that he would have been in his fifties to eighties during the Battle of Badon Hill. While Gildas’s story serves as one of the earliest texts providing possible evidence of Arthur’s existence, it is unfortunately hindered by the author’s bias towards non-Christian warriors and his negligence to mention Arthur by name.
The other medieval author whose work suggests Arthur’s possible existence is the Venerable Bede, who provided more credible information to Gildas’ original text. Bede was an early eighth-century Northumbrian monk who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which covers the history of both Britain and the English church. Written in 731, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History for the Saxon era is a modification of Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, particularly in the coverage of the Battle of Badon Hill, as both authors describe the battle as having taken place "about forty-four years after [the Saxon’s] arrival in England" and fail to provide a name for the British commander present there. In contrast to Gildas, however, Bede is a much more competent historian. Although he neglects to provide a name for Arthur, Bede does manage to provide names for other important figures. For instance, when Gildas discusses leaders responsible for inviting the Saxons into Britain, he vaguely describes them as “all the members of the council, and the proud tyrant [who] introduced the island to the vile unspeakable Sax-ons,” whereas Bede states that the council "agreed with their King Vortigern to call over… the Saxon nation," and that "the first two commanders [were] Hengist and Horsa." In essence, Bede manages to expand and modify Gildas’ original text, providing more credibility to the idea that a historical Arthur existed during the Anglo-Saxon invasions.
The works of Nennius, however, contribute to the historical Arthur. A ninth-century Welsh monk, Nennius wrote History of the Britons around 829, which was the first text to explicitly mention Arthur by name and also serves as the only published record of Arthur’s military career in history. Chapter fifty states "that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons," and that "he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was an often conqueror." Nennius also expands upon Gildas’s and Bede’s original texts by providing names and locations for the twelve battles Arthur fought such as the Duglas River being the sites of his second through fifth battles. Nennius’ most important contribution to the historical Arthur, how-ever, is his confirmation of Arthur’s status as the British commander at Badon Hill. Nennius described Badon Hill as being Arthur’s "twelfth [and] most severe contest." Nennius supports the implications from Gildas’ and Bede’s texts that Arthur was indeed the leader at Badon Hill, therefore providing further support for the historical Arthur’s existence. Another important contribution to the Arthurian legend provided by Nennius was the establishment of Arthur as both a brave Christian warrior and hero of the Britons. Nennius’s religious veneration of Arthur is clearly present at the Battle of Gurnion Castle, in which he describes Arthur "[bearing] the image of the Holy Virgin, Mother of God, upon his shoulders," thereby allowing Arthur to be empowered by the virtue of Mary and Christ in order to defeat the Pagan forces. Nennius’ nationalistic portrayal of Arthur is heavily conveyed at Badon Hill, where "nine hundred and forty [Saxons fell] by [Arthur’s] hand alone," effectively establishing him as a force capable of driving off the invaders from the British Isles with "no one but the Lord affording him assistance." Nennius’ establishment of Arthur’s Christian and heroic qualities are significant because they contributed to important elements of the Arthurian legend established by future writers.
While Gildas, Bede, and Nennius contributed heavily to Arthur’s potential origins and historical background, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory molded Arthur as a renowned literary figure and established core themes to the legend that para-leled with events occurring within their respective time periods. Geoffrey of Monmouth, is estimated to have lived from 1100 to 1154. Even though little information surrounds Geoffrey’s background, he is believed to have been of either Welsh or Breton lineage and sometime around 1132 to 1135, to have completed his most famous work History of the Kings of Britain, which serves as a foundation for succeeding themes and literature surrounding Arthur. In contrast to previous historical accounts on Arthur, Geoffrey’s work is primarily a fictional coverage of Arthur’s life, thereby distinguishing it from previous Celtic iterations. This distinction is evident through the presence of the magician, Merlin, whom Geoffrey portrays as a prophet predicting the future. For instance, Merlin foresees several events in Arthur’s life that Geoffrey later discusses in the book, including Arthur’s "[opposition to] the cruelty of the foreigners," a reference to his successful campaigns against the Anglo-Saxons. Further literary contributions by Geoffrey include the establishment of Uther as Arthur’s father and Ambrosius as his uncle. In addition, while Geoffrey’s portrayal of Arthur was primarily imaginative rather than authentic, the author did not neglect history entirely. He utilized then conventional historical sources such as Nennius’ History of the Britons, signifying that the fictional qualities Geoffrey applies to Arthur are derived from the aforementioned historical Arthur.
Correlating the development of Arthur’s literary qualities is Geoffrey’s utilization of Arthur and History of the Kings of Britain as an allegory to events then-transpiring in Britain. Around 1130 to 1138 while History of the Kings of Britain was being written, the nephew of King Henry I, Stephen of Blois, had acquired control over the British throne and was engaged in a three-way civil war against Matilda, Henry I’s daughter, and illegitimate son, Robert of Gloucester. Geoffrey provides parallels to the conflict multiple times throughout his text with depictions of internal conflicts between royal blood relatives, such as when Brennius is forced to "bear subjection to [his elder brother] Belinus" following their father’s death, an act which eventually led to Belinus waging war against his younger brother when the latter "went to Norway [and] married the king’s daughter" to spite Belinus. This move conveyed the fluctuation of power the Britons held over England. In contrast, Arthur was utilized by Geoffrey to express the idea of stability being achievable through united control. Geoffrey demonstrates this through Arthur’s conquest of several northern European territories, thereby "[making] Britain the mistress of thirty kingdoms," and allowing "the softening pleasures of an easy life [to have] a greater share of [soldier’s] time than the use of arms." In essence, Geoffrey’s interpretation of Arthur is significant to the development of the legend.
The second author who established core literary themes of the Arthurian legend that were reflective of his time period was Sir Thomas Malory, an individual who granted himself the title of "knight prisoner." Although Malory’s true identity has been unconfirmed by historians, he was notable for his criminal record during the 1450s because he operated a gang that took advantage of a rising crime wave ranging from livestock theft to the attempted murder of the Duke of Buckingham. Malory was imprisoned from 1468 to 1471. While serving this prison sentence, Malory wrote the original English Arthuriad, a series of stories about King Arthur published under the title, Le Morte D’arthur in 1485. Malory’s version provides commentary on the functions of the British government through the establishment of central figures and themes. One precept is the establishment and responsibility of kingship in Britain. Malory’s ideal of leadership is presented through Merlin setting up the sword in the stone test following King Uther’s death: "all the lords of the realm… weened to have been king" and the lord who successfully managed to "pulleth [the] sword [out of the stone] anvil, [was] rightwise the king born of all England." When Arthur successfully pulled the sword from the stone, Malory essentially creates Arthur as a heroic figure whose qualities transcend those of other monarchs, thereby making him a representation of the ideal British king.
Malory further depicts the responsibilities of the kingship through the tale of Queen Guinevere’s affair with Sir Lancelot. Here, when corrupt counsellors Sir Aggravian and Sir Mordred reveal the affair to Arthur, he is influenced to "bring [his] queen to the fire, there to have her judgment and receive death" despite one of the wiser knights, Sir Gawain, "[counseling Arthur] not to be over hasty." The story reflects the unbalanced power between the kingship and counsel in England during the fifteenth century. Similar to King Henry VI’s weak leadership that allowed more power to be transferred to the royal counsellor, Malory depicts the decline of Arthur’s counsel through the king being influenced by corrupt counsellors like Sir Mordred rather than wise advisors like Merlin or Sir Gawain.
Another prominent Arthurian theme that Malory discusses and parallels to the problems of the British government during the fifteenth century is the code of chivalry upheld by the knights of the round table. In Le Morte D’arthur, the knights operated as the peacekeepers of Camelot, maintaining a system of order and balance in the Christian kingdom by bringing criminals to justice. In addition, Arthur’s knights upheld a code of chivalry, meaning that they fought injustices without pay for their exploits and contributed to the collective good of others purely out of morality. Malory’s depiction served as an ideal reflection of the British government’s collaborative efforts with the nobility to combat civil unrest during the fifteenth century primarily by enforcing patronage and discipline within the public sector. For instance, the concept of patronage is conveyed through the chivalric oath sworn by Arthur and his knights during the founding of the Round Table fellowship as “the king stablished all his knights, and them of lands not rich he gave them land.” Essentially, destitute knights were provided patronage from Arthur in the form of land which allowed them to fulfill chivalric responsibilities to both the public and the aristocracy that owned the aforementioned lands. This patronage ties directly with discipline since Arthur had the ability to annul his knights’ land rights if they disobeyed their obligation to "never do outrageousity nor murder, [and] by no means to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy." Basically, Arthur’s knights were forbidden from reinforcing violence when imposing punishment, a decision which Malory further supports by having them execute villains only when necessary, as well as recruiting individuals seeking redemption for past sins to the Round Table fellowship. In essence Malory’s depiction of the knights of the round table serves to create a system of peace keeping that reflects the concepts of patronage and discipline while promoting ideals of chivalry and moral virtue, which have since become fundamental components of the Arthurian legend.
Arthur’s impact on British history and culture is one that cannot be ignored. While historians have been unable to confirm whether Arthur genuinely existed, the works of Gildas, Bede, and Nennius have provided concrete evidence suggesting that an individual named Arthur did indeed exist and rose to prominence during the Anglo-Saxon invasions. In addition, authors like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory further establiished Arthur as a timeless literary figure by creating important stories, characters, and themes for the legend that were reflective of events taking place within their re-spective time periods. The contributions of these five medieval authors have helped create a universal figure who throughout his various incarnations has promoted ideals of unity, military might, Christianity, heroism, monarchial responsibility, corruption, and chivalry. Arthur’s stories and themes serve as both an allegorical and ideal depiction of the British national identity that, like the once and future king himself, continues to persist and evolve throughout the ages.