The Myth of King Arthur

'King Arthur' at Camelot / wrl-inc.org

‘King Arthur’ at Camelot / wrl-inc.org

The Myth of King Arthur. Thirteenth century Europe knew much of the legends of a possibly Welsh King called Arthur, who supposedly drove away Britain’s enemies, laid the laws for honour and chivalry, surrounded himself with romantically named knights at a great Round Table, and married a beautiful but unfaithful wife called Guinevere. The myth was propagated in art and literature, exciting, inspiring and entertaining men and women everywhere from Sicily to Scotland. King Edward I of England was seduced by the stories and supposed relics of the imaginary hero.

The legend of King Arthur belongs to Man’s fertile imagination, and has been a part of European literary tradition since the early ninth century. Tales were spoken and sung about a native Briton who rose to be king and led armies against the Romans and later the Anglo-Saxons. In real life it was Alfred, a living, breathing king who successsfully defended the West Country against invading Norsemen.

In the 1330s Arthur’s adventurous life was taken from song and verse by Geoffrey of Monmouth and put into a best-selling (for those days) book called The History of the Kings of Britain. In it Arthur appears as a pious Christian monarch fighting against sinister pagans, foreigners like Romans and Saxons, pushing the foreigners out of England, uniting the British Kingdom, and incidentally conquering Iceland, parts of Germany and the isles of Orkney, subduing Norway (!), Aquitaine in France and the Balkan kingdom of Dacia. Arthur was the heroic leader of a British kingdom that became the envy of the world. Geoffrey relates how “Britain had arrived at such a pitch of grandeur, that in abundance of riches, luxury of ornaments, and politeness of inhabitants, it far surpassed all other kingdoms. (His) knights were famous for feats of chivalry, wore their arms all of the same colour and fashion. Their women were celebrated for their wit, and esteemed none worthy of their love until they had given a proof of their valour in battle”. It is not hard to see why the stories appealed to the medieval barons, and their ladies.

Edward I as acted by the great Patrick McGoohan in 'Braveheart' / wordpress.com

Edward I as acted by the great Patrick McGoohan in ‘Braveheart’ / wordpress.com

As Geoffrey’s tales were embellished and re-told by other writers, it comes as no surprise to learn that people thought them true. In Edward the First’s childhood Arthuriana was a booming business, with a huge industry built up around the myth. Some people swore Tintagel in Cornwall had been Arthur’s palace. Others believed that the burning of Glastonbury Abbey had revealed the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere buried beneath the ruins. Above all the Welsh believed that Arthur was Welsh and that he would return to liberate them from the cursed English. Tournaments between knights were re-named ‘Round Tables’, where prizes were awarded for gallantry and good jousting. When the young, athletic and romantic Edward married Eleanor of Castile the first thing he did on their honeymoon was to whisk her off to see the tomb at Glastonbury.

Arthur, it was popularly believed, had been Welsh, with a mission to crush the English. Edward thought the opposite. In 1277 he assembled an army of 15,000 men, equipped with horses, supplies and the latest in lethal weaponry. This splendid array advanced along the road into Wales from Chester, rumbling and trotting towards Gwynedd to root out Llywlyn the Last, ‘rebel and disturber of the peace’. The army cut down the thick woods that overhung the routes to Snowdonia, clearing the way hundreds of feet wide, making them impervious to Welsh guerilla tactics, which had always relied on sudden swoops out of the trees to slash and hack impertinent intruders.

The army marched deep into Llwelyn’s territory and reached Conwy. At every main outpost they stopped for their engineers to create sites where permanent castles would later be built. Edward’s marines landed at Anglesea, occupied the island and harvested the grain, emptying the richest farmland in Wales. Llywelyn surrendered within days and on 9th November of that year agreed to a truce. He was allowed to keep Gwynedd, but almost everything else was taken away from him. He was forced to agree he would do homage to Edward not only on his borders, but in Westminster itself. To solidify the English position, castles were to be built in Aberystwyth, Builth, Flint and Rhuddlan (where the Treaty was signed).

Edward I would do similar things later in Scotland, and earn his ‘hammer of the Scots’ nickname as a result. He had used the imaginary but imaginative myth of Arthur to positive ends. For Edward, the legend of an Anglicized Arthur was more than merely entertaining; it was a mental template for his entire approach to kingship. His father Henry III had fixed on the figure of Edward the Confessor as his ideal and his guide, and Edward the first of that name would see the world through the prism of his own private version of Arthurianism. It was a convenient myth, but mythical it was. Students must not confuse Arthur with Alfred.

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