Old, unhappy far-off things, and battles long ago…
How do we know about King Arthur?
Please note that this is not a rehash of the old “Did King Arthur exist?” historical chestnut. Whether or not a King called Arthur reigned in post-Roman Britain is immaterial for our present purposes. The fact is that Arthur, who by rights should be an obscure footnote to the Celtic Twilight, has won for himself a truly global renown and one which extends far beyond the Anglosphere.
Ask yourself this simple question. How many other fifth century British Kings can you name, for there were plenty of them? My guess would be none, although you would be wrong. Everybody has heard of that merry old soul who was in real life Coel Hein (Coel the Great), who was born in 340AD when Britain was still Roman. He was made the last commander of the few remaining Roman forces in the province, but with the end of Roman rule he declared himself ruler of the independent realm of Bernicia in 410 and died in battle against the Picts in 420. Even this is the exception that proves the rule, for King Cole’s inclusion in a nursery rhyme is probably due to a bit of Victorian academic whimsy.
But on the whole, unless you have an interest in the subject, the Celtic perspective on the Dark Ages will be a mystery to you. You will almost certainly have heard of the Mercian King Offa, and know that he built an earthen rampart “to keep the Welsh out”. And, by omission, you may have the notion that Wales at this time was a howling wilderness of barbarians against whom Offa was wise to erect a barrier.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Wales was a civilized and sophisticated society, a constellation of resilient little Christian kingdoms who defended themselves against the pagan invaders and bickered with each other. The same is also true of those other areas of Celtic Britain which were able to hold out against Saxon incursion for shorter or longer periods such as Cornwall, the lands north of the Humber, and the lowlands of Scotland.
The point I am trying to make is that there is a whole galaxy of Dark Age British kings whose names we know, the boundaries of whose kingdoms we can trace down the centuries, and whose fortunes and careers we can document in some detail. Urien of Rheged, Hywel Dda, and Rhodri Mawr of Gwynedd who defeated the Danes in battle in 856AD and again preserved Wales from invasion, are just three of a cast of hundreds of warlords and monarchs who have sound historical credentials. But only Arthur has lodged firmly in the English historical consciousness.
The first thing you have to understand about King Arthur is that if you met him, unless you are Welsh, a Gaelic speaking Scot or Cornish, he would not like you very much. For you are Sws, Sais, Sassenach: the hated Saxon. You are the descendent of those savages who stole his peoples’ land and razed their cities, and who came within a hair’s breadth of eradicating their language and culture.
This is still an established prejudice amongst some sections of the Celtic communities today, and it must have burned like wildfire at the time. Indeed so visceral was the British loathing of the Saxons that even Welsh saints would not preach to the Saxons and perform the Christian obligation of rescuing their souls from eternal damnation by revealing to them the Word of Christ, but instead preferred to concentrate on their Celtic cousins in Ireland. See Saint Patrick, for example.
The Celtic world engaged in no cultural interchange with their Saxon neighbours. There must, presumably, have been some trade and some form of diplomatic relations it is true. But the two societies developed in parallel without either having any great influence on the other, either linguistically or in the sphere of art and literature.
For their part the Saxons quickly forgot Arthur, if they ever knew him. In all the entirety of the considerable body of Anglo-Saxon literature, there is not a single mention of King Arthur, nor indeed is he mentioned in the literature of any country in Europe at the time. Arthur remained known only to the Celts, and to them alone.
This changes dramatically in the twelfth century. From practically a standing start, by the year 1200AD Arthur’s name is on the lips of every courtly poet in Europe and ballads about him are being sung in every tavern. Kings named their sons after him, and knights jousted in tourneys in his honour. Western Europe was, it is fair to say, in the grip of Arthur fever.
The first Medieval writer to invoke the name of the long dead Celtic king was William of Malmesbury in 1123, and hot on his heels came Geoffrey of Monmouth. Both were chroniclers, writing histories of the British Isles and the peoples who lived there, and both claimed to have access to Welsh sources. Whatever we may now make of their research and veracity, they opened up the floodgates.
By 1170 Chretien de Troyes, court poet to King Louis VII of France, was beginning his epic Arthurian cycle which would culminate in the sublime Perceval, le Cont du Graal. Twenty years later, the German Wolfram von Eschenbach composed the splendidly gory Parzival, which covered much the same ground as Chretien’s and which contains what may well be one of the earliest descriptions of combat-related PTSD.
Once broached, the story of Arthur and his knights has proved to be a fount of inspiration which has yet to run dry. We can trace a direct line from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and the The Fairie Queene of Spencer to Tennyson’s Idylls and T.H White’s The Sword In The Stone. English literature has been greatly enriched by Arthur’s presence.
Countless film scripts have been written about King Arthur too, the latest to my knowledge is the plodding and somewhat dour effort (but which is redeemed by a spectacular final battle scene) released in 2004 and starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightly. But I’m sure any film buff could reel off a couple of dozen more titles without breaking sweat.
So, after a lacuna of seven hundred years, Arthur assumed a central role in English art and culture which he has never since relinquished. But who carried the name of this obscure figure from the margins of the continent to the glittering courts of Medieval kings and Queens, and from there into the modern world? What, in essence, was the direct mechanism of transmission of the Arthur Myth? I have, it may come as no surprise to you, a tentative suggestion: William the Conqueror.
When William the Bastard drew up his forces at the foot of Senlac Hill, almost his entire left wing was made up of Bretons, crossbowmen in front and knights in reserve. Brittany was still an independent Duchy and the current Duke, Conan II, supported William’s claim in England. Perhaps as much of a third of William’s men, nobles and peasants, were Breton.
The Romans knew the region as Armorica, but during the fifth century so many British refugees fleeing the Saxons settled there that the language and culture of the peninsula was changed forever, and indeed they gave their name to their new home. They would undoubtedly have brought the legend of Arthur with them, and it is not too difficult to believe they kept his memory alive in story and song over the following centuries. Nor is it difficult to imagine that they sang these songs on the march to Hastings.
And as William’s nobles settled into their new domains, and married and intermarried, the Breton strain spread throughout the new nobility of England and perhaps so too did the story of Arthur. Thus a hundred or so years later when the crown and nobility sought to carve a more English identity for themselves, Arthur was already present as a hero, native to these islands but not of Saxon blood, and fit to stand alongside such French heroes as Roland and Charlemagne. It is not too much of a stretch to think so.
There is one final piece of evidence to which I would like to draw your attention. Otranto cathedral, on the very heel of the boot of Italy, has a mosaic floor. It is worn away in places, and is composed largely of biblical scenes. Adam and Eve are depicted being exiled from the garden of Eden, Cain dispatches Abel with a mighty blow to the head and Abraham offers Isaac on the altar. All as much as you might expect in a Medieval cathedral.
But it seems that the artist was also given a fair amount of latitude in his choice of subject matter. Some of the illustrations partake of the nature of a Medieval bestiary. There is an illustration of an elephant, which the artist might actually have seen in real life, and an ostrich which he quite clearly had not. Alexander the Great is shown being born aloft by two griffins, and there are many other personages from legend and history depicted as well. Whilst it is not an example of the finest mosaic artistry, being laid down in the years 1163 – 65, the whole is bursting with charm and life and is worth going to see should you ever find yourself in the vicinity.
There is also a depiction of King Arthur. For some reason lost to us he is shown riding on a goat and surrounded by a number of domestic cats, but it is quite clearly intended to be him for the artist has labelled it ‘Rex Arturus’.
The reason that this is germane to our theory is that the south of Italy had been conquered from the Saracens by the Normans. Roger Guiscard set the ball rolling in 1071, and by 1100 Sicily and Italy as far north as Naples were ruled by Norman noble families. Otranto cathedral was consecrated in 1088 and the first bishop was William, who had been born and ordained in Bayeux. Southern Italy was a Norman fief.
If the Normans were capable of transporting Arthur to the shores of the glittering Mediterranean sea by 1165, it does not seem impossible that he could have been in their luggage when they crossed the dull, grey English channel in 1066.
© bobo 2022