The legend of Arthur
The story of King Arthur and his Round Table is one of the best-known accounts of chivalry. In the last couple of centuries frequent questions have arisen as to what, if anything, was really true about the story.
A recent discussion of this question is in a book by Guy Halsall, a professor of history at various British colleges. It is entitled “Worlds of Arthur,” and the subtitle tells you pretty much the direction he is heading: “Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages.”
The author is acquainted with that period, having taught the histories of France and Germany from 400 to 700 A.D. Those were the centuries of Frankish rule by the Merovingian family, and those were also the centuries when Arthur was said to have existed in Britain.
The only British writer living at the time Arthur was supposed to be, at least the only one whose writings are still known, was a British monk named Gildas, whose bad Latin account is called “The Ruin and Conquest of Britain.” It’s mostly a diatribe against a variety of Welsh rulers Gildas says were corrupt and inefficient.
The conquest he was talking about was the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons. Gildas says a leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus led a series of fights that culminated in what he called the “Battle of Mons Badonicas,” which most historians consider to be a check on the Saxon invasion.
But it would take a leap of faith to turn the vague reference to “Ambrosius” into a definite “Arthur.” It’s four centuries after Gildas when an anonymous Welsh chronicle says Arthur won the battle of Budon and gives a precise date of that fight at 516. But there was no mention of any knights, or a round table.
It was not until about 1140 that a monk named Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a history of the kings of Britain, which he said was based on an ancient book that came to his notice. He said a refugee from the Trojan War named Brutus settled on the island and had it named after him. He named successive kings with names and exploits that were later taken up by playwrights such as Shakespeare.
That list of kings included one named Arthur, who is described as having performed several heroic acts. It was only then that the legendary King Arthur came about, and the story was taken up and embellished by a number of other writers.
Professor Halsall does not mention it, but the Brittanica article on Geoffrey of Monmouth says Geoffrey’s father was named Arthur, which might give one reason why he made a person of that name so heroic. Some of Geoffrey’s contemporaries felt he was making it all up. One of them wrote:
“It is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors onward, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons.”
Professor Halsall doesn’t go to the extent of saying Geoffrey was a liar as such, but makes it clear he thinks there was no such Arthur living at the time he was supposed to live. By the days of Geoffrey chivalry was in full flower, and the Arthur legend was a product of that thinking.
The author discusses what he terms recent pseudo-histories that have tried to make Arthur out as a Roman legionary, a Scottish king, a German king, even a nomadic ruler from the plains of eastern Europe. He rather plainly shows that all those theories are based on false assumptions.
For instance, a Briton named Riothamus has been recorded as leading a military attack against the Visigoths in southern France. He was defeated and retreated to refuge with the Burgundians. Professor Halsall says: “Riothamus would have remained a historical footnote were it not for the fact one crazy Arthurian hypothesis makes him into King Arthur himself.”
The reader is asked to consider King Arthur as a chivalric legend and not a real ruler.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.