Legend or reality? The wizard Merlin, the miraculous sword Excalibur, the young Arthur, destined to become not only a king, but also a mythical hero of past and future Britain, the Knights of the Round Table and their exploits, the mysterious island of Avalon to which the mortally wounded Arthur headed … the most famous British legends who merged with the collective unconscious until the story of Arthur became a vivid dream. Yet, as many modern researchers point out, Arthur, a historical figure, does seem to exist.
He was certainly not a medieval knight, although we owe his character the most to that age. Existing testimonies point to him as the military leader of the century that followed the fall of Roman Britain.
It was a time of deep unrest and insecurity for all Britons. Until 410, they enjoyed almost four centuries of unprecedented progress as part of the great Roman Empire. Thanks to a strong central government and the protection of a well-trained and efficient army, the British freely enjoyed the benefits of civilization that, until then, they could not even dream of.
At the end of the 4th century, the power of Rome began to weaken, and in 410, the emperor Flavius Honorius was faced with threats to Rome itself. He therefore told the British to take care of their own defense and withdrew the Roman legions from Britain. No matter how much the honoris considered it a temporary measure, Britain never belonged to the Roman Empire again.
THERE IS NO ROUND TABLE, NOR CAMELOT
After the rather sudden withdrawal of the Romans, the British Isles again became a battlefield of warrior-minded tribes under the rule of local chiefs. But as early as 425, dictator Vortigen managed to achieve absolute power, ruthlessly violating any resistance and engaging the skilled Saxons as a paid army.
The arrival of the warlike Saxons in the British Isles conditioned a short-lived peace, so that, in 455, these mercenaries rebelled against their employers and started a new war, bringing their tribesmen as reinforcements.
The British are trying to organize and defend themselves from the attackers. The victory won by the British at the Battle of Badon, around 518, was so convincing that it ensured fifty years of peace. Folklore says that the hero of that significant victory was called Arthur.
The belief that there was a historical Arthur, at the beginning of the 6th century, is considered completely justified, but, not without regret, it must be admitted that in reality there was no Round Table, the miraculous castle of Camelot, or even the famous knight Lancelot. All of these are products of medieval processing of Arthurian tales.
From the middle of the 6th to the 10th century, it was created through stories about Arthur and his exploits, which are usually just the fruit of narrative imagination. The legend of Arthur began to develop soon after the Norman conquest of Britain, in 1066. From Wales and Cornwall, the areas where the Celtic spirit of the natives was preserved for the longest time, stories spread about Arthur who, like the Normans, fought against the Saxons. Traveling singers spread the fame of King Arthur throughout Britain, and the Norman Knights brought it to Europe, so that by the end of the 11th century, Arthur became famous throughout Western Europe. In any case, the current form of the legend of King Arthur actually originated in France.
The most deserving for the development of Arthurian romances is the French knight Chrétien de Troyes, the man who determined the basic characteristics of the legend. Chrétien wrote several romances in verse, between 1170 and 1182, and they mention for the first time Percival, Lancelot, Tristram, and Iselt (better known as Tristan and Isolde), as well as Arthur’s Castle Camelot. Another knight, Robert de Boron of Burgundy, created around 1000 what became a standard legend of Arthur’s youth. In his work, the role of the wizard Merlin in the education of the young Arthur is emphasized, and at the same time the Holy Grail is mentioned for the first time.
Thus, unrelated stories about Arthur have been turned into a legend, but is anything known about that Arthur who is credited with the victory at Badon? Everything that is known about the historical Arthur comes, unfortunately, from only three documents that were created in his time and during the next three centuries.
These documents exist today only as medieval transcripts. The oldest document is the book De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Collapse and Conquest of Britain) made by the monk Gildas shortly after the battle of Badon and probably during Arthur’s lifetime. Although he mentions the battle of Badon as a recent event, Gildas does not mention Arthur, and as he is more concerned with proving the imminent doom of the ungodly, Gildas often replaces the names of places and peoples, using historical facts as they see fit.
The second book, Annales Cambrinae (Annals of Wales), mentions very clearly Atrura who in 518, at the battle of Badon, ‘carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors’. As the Welsh words scuid (shoulder) and scuit (shield) are very similar, it is probable that the mentioned Arthur wore a shield with the sign of the cross.
This probable error in the transcription of the Welsh word indicates the possibility that this information was copied from an older, Welsh document. In the same book, along with the year 539, the battle of Kamlan ‘in which Arthur and Mordred perished’ is mentioned.
The third document is the Historia Britonnum (History of Britain) which is attributed to the monk Nenius, and was probably made around 850. The book mentions the conflict between the Saxons, under the leadership of Octa, and the British, led by Arthur. The penetration of the Saxons from the north was stopped, and as it is known that Octa began his rule in 512, then the battle of Badon probably took place in 518, according to the Annals of Wales.
The content of these documents has been disputed and confirmed, but after numerous analyzes, it must be admitted that although the battle of Badon can be considered a historical event, there is no basis, except folklore, to link Arthur to that battle. Who then was the legendary King Arthur?
According to one theory, Arthur was an insignificant warrior who fought on the border with Scotland and whom the British tore from oblivion when they needed a national hero. There is a possibility that the victory at Badon gained great significance only much later, when the Saxons took over Britain and pushed the British to the West, to Wales and Cornwall, where they dreamed of a hero who would lead them to the final victory over the Saxons.
It is interesting that the lack of information about Arthur can be explained to some extent on the basis of the biographies of several saints. Although historically unreliable, the saints’ lives give a surprisingly coherent, but also completely unexpected picture of Arthur. Namely, in the Life of St. Kadok, made around 1100, Arthur is depicted as a debaucher and a pervert, while in the Life of St. Padern there is talk of a tyrant called Arthur. The life of St. Gildas describes Arthur as a tyrant and a rebellious king (Rex Rebellus). The Church seems to have nurtured a long and deep-rooted intolerance of Arthur even during the twelfth century when Arthur was already widely celebrated as a national hero. Such persistent intolerance of the Church could hardly have been caused by some insignificant warrior from the Border Area or a rebel from the western parts.
Arthur must have been an influential person who insulted the Church in some way, although he was not in open conflict with Christianity. We will probably never know what Arthur did and did do, but it seems that, by insulting the Church, he became a victim of a kind of censorship because history was written almost exclusively by representatives of the powerful Church.
At the end of the 12th century, more precisely in 1191, the tomb of the legendary King Arthur was allegedly excavated in Glastonbury. The church in Glastonbury is firmly woven into the legend, although it did not exist in the 6th century. At the time, Glastonbury was surrounded by swamps, and its big name was Ynys Avalon (Apple Island). It should not be reminded that the mortally wounded Arthur sailed for Avalon.
There are four different descriptions of the excavation of Arthur’s tomb, but they all agree on the basic details – the tomb was discovered between two stone pyramids or two stone crosses, and a cross with the inscription ‘HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA’ ( Here lies the famous King Arthur on the island of Avalon).
This cross was located in the nearby city of Wales until the 18th century, when all trace of it is lost. If the preserved drawing of that cross corresponds to the original, then another riddle appears because, judging by the shape of the letter, the inscription does not originate from Arthur’s time (VI century), nor from the time of the tomb opening (XII century) but from the X century. It is possible that the cross was placed in the grave during the leveling of the terrain and the fencing of the old cemetery during the 10th century, but that cannot be proven or disputed.
The last excavations at that place (during 1962) irrefutably proved that there was a grave from which, between 1181 and 1191, the sarcophagus was removed, and the pit was buried again. The monks from Glastonbury did dig up someone’s grave, but was King Arthur in it?
The opinion was accepted that it was in fact a fraud, and several possible motives were stated, but none of this confirms the assumption that it was indeed Arthur’s tomb.
Whether Arthur really existed and what he did during his life will probably remain a secret forever, but believing in his existence has created a powerful figure that eludes history so that the legend of Arthur will continue to live with high moral values of his own and his future age.