Historians Draw Closer to the Tomb of the Legendary King Arthur

Historians Draw Closer to the Tomb of the Legendary King Arthur

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For many decades, researchers have tried to confirm the existence of King Arthur of Camelot, the legendary ruler that was said to have led the defense of Britain against the Saxons in the 5th century AD, and to find his final resting place. After years of speculations, the British researcher and writer Graham Philips believes he is closer than ever before.

According to the legend, King Arthur , after the battle with his enemy Mordred, was transported to the Isle of Avalon. Now, new research suggests that location may lie in a field in Shropshire, England.

Graham Phillips has been researching the life of King Arthur for many years. According to the Daily Mail , Phillips believes he has discovered evidence confirming that the medieval ruler was buried outside the village of Baschurch in Shropshire. In his latest book The Lost Tomb of King Arthur , he suggests that the most probable location of the tomb is outside the village in the old fort, dubbed ''The Berth'' or at the site of the former chapel.

The deceased King Arthur before being taken to the Isle of Avalon

Phillips is calling on English Heritage for permission to start archeological works at The Berth, and in the former chapel nearby the Baschurch village. Phillips has already located a pit containing a large piece of metal, which Phillips believes may be remnants of King Arthur’s shield.

Phillips told the Daily Mail :

''In the Oxford University Library there is a poem from the Dark Ages which refers to the kings from Wroxeter who were buried at the Churches of Bassa - and when you think about anywhere in Shropshire that sounds similar, you think of Baschurch. There is a place that matches the description just outside the village, an earthworks known as The Berth, which were two islands in a lake, though obviously the lake has now gone.''

Does the final resting place of King Arthur lie here at “The Berth” in Shropshire? ( BBC)

According to Phillip’s previous book, King Arthur lived in the Roman fortress at Wroxeter, a small village in Shropshire. Historical texts state that Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, and later became a famous character of many legends, related to for example his sword – the Excalibur. However, Phillips believes that a lot of the legends about Arthur are wrong, including his place of birth, which Phillips says was Shropshire, and not South West England.

Apart from the sites nearby the Baschurch, Phillips claims that King Arthur could also be buried in a country lane in Birch Grove village . In the 1930s, archeologists discovered part of a gravestone there with the inscription in Latin ''Here Lies…''.

At the same time as Phillips is searching for the grave of Arthur, archeologist Dr Richard Brunning, from South West Heritage, started excavations at Beckery Chapel , near Glastonbury in Somerset. The aim of the work is to accurately date an early Christian chapel. It is hoped that the investigations may shed new light on King Arthur, who is said to have visited this place, and according to the legend had a vision of Mary Magdalene and the baby Jesus there. It is the first time since 1968 that archeologists have investigated the site. Moreover, the place is also famous as a part of the stories related to the Irish saint Bridget, who visited the site in 488 AD. Previous works suggested that before the chapel, a Saxon mastery had been present on the site. The most recent works will allow the precise dating of the monastic cemetery.

Sketch of Beckery Chapel, Somerset ( geomancy.org)

The history of King Arthur is also connected with Glastonbury Abbey, which has been believed to be a place of burial of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere since the 12 th century. According to an article by Jason Urbanus and archeologist Roberta Gilchrist, who head up the Glastonbury Archaeological Archive Project , the site may indeed date back to the 5th century, the time of King Arthur, but they say there is no evidence of any connection with the king. Moreover, Urbanus explained in Archaeology magazine that the burial actually belongs to 12 th century monks. It seems that the legend about the burial of Arthur being at Glastonbury Abbey was created by monks of the Abbey who needed an attraction to raise money.

Historicity of King Arthur

The historicity of King Arthur has been debated both by academics and popular writers. While there have been many suggestions that Arthur was a real historical person, academic historians today consider King Arthur to be a mythological or folkloric figure. [1] [2]

The first definite mention of Arthur appears in 829, [3] where he is presented as a military leader fighting against the invading Saxons in 5th- to 6th-century Sub-Roman Britain at the Battle of Badon, written more than three centuries after the events depicted. He develops into a legendary figure in the Matter of Britain from the 12th century, following Geoffrey of Monmouth's influential but largely fictional Historia Regum Britanniae.

Non-specialists continue to propose a variety of theories for a possible historical identity of Arthur: Artuir mac Áedán, a son of the 6th-century king of Dál Riata in modern Scotland Ambrosius Aurelianus, who led a Romano-British resistance against the Saxons Lucius Artorius Castus, a 2nd-century Roman commander of Sarmatian cavalry the British king Riothamus, who fought alongside the last Gallo-Roman commanders against the Visigoths in an expedition to Gaul in the 5th century. Academic historians have not supported these hypotheses in the 21st century.

Is "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" a True Story? Not Exactly

"We don't have any contemporary evidence for King Arthur as a historical figure," says historian Chris Snyder of Marymount College. "He may have existed. He certainly existed in the minds of the Britons as a figurehead for their resistance against the Saxons." The Germanic tribes known as the Saxons pressed into the island of Britain from the east, and according to medieval legend, a dynamic prince named Arthur led British forces against the Saxons in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD. -History.com

When did the legend of King Arthur first appear in history?

Are The Mage and Guinevere the same person?

If you're wondering if Astrid Bergès-Frisbey's character The Mage is Guinevere or an entirely separate character, then you're not alone. Plenty of others have asked that question too. The Mage essentially translates into "the magician." The character is not a Merlin-esque version of Guinevere, but is rather an entirely separate character. "There are so many characters," says director Guy Ritchie of the legend. "We hardly touch on Merlin, we don't touch on Guinevere, we don't really deal with the peripheral knights" (South China Morning Post). The lack of Guinevere in the movie is partly due to the fact that the film focuses on the time period prior to when Arthur becomes king (there are plans for five more films if Legend of the Sword does well). The Mage herself is an integral part of Arthur's fight in the movie. She has the psychic ability to control animals and helps Arthur to realize his true power.

Was Londinium a real city in Britain?

When did the modern telling of King Arthur first appear, including his magical sword Excalibur, wife Guinevere, and wizard Merlin?

King Arthur as we know him today is mainly drawn from Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudohistorical 12th-century book Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), in which he wrote the first life story of Arthur. Combining myth and fact in a tantalizing way, the Welsh cleric described Arthur's magic sword Caliburn (later renamed Excalibur), Queen Guinevere, the wizard Merlin, and the loyal knight Lancelot. It is unknown how much of Manmouth's book was invented by him and how much he drew from earlier folktales, which themselves have been debated with regard to historical significance. Many of these tales had been circulated orally for some 700 years, so if an actual Arthur did exist, there was a lot of time for his true story to become misconstrued and exaggerated. In 1155, Wace's Norman language adaptation of Manmouth's book included King Arthur's court, the Knights of the Round Table. Wace did not take credit for creating the Round Table but rather attributed it to earlier Breton writings, a claim that has been debated.

Is the villainous King Vortigern, portrayed by Jude Law, based on a real person?

The existence of the evil King Vortigern is almost as equally contested as Arthur's existence. In the movie, he kills Arthur's parents to take the throne when Arthur is a small child. This is invention and is not part of Geoffrey of Monmouth's The History of the Kings of Britain, which is considered to contain the most well-known story of Vortigern. In earlier writings, Vortigern is mentioned as possibly being a 5th-century Briton warlord. However, as with Arthur, scholars have debated the details of those writings. It has even been suggested that Vortigern might be a title instead of a name, since in Brittonic Vortigern means "Great King" or "Overlord". However, the latter part of the name includes the element *tigerno, which was a regularly occurring element in Brittonic personal names.

Did castles really exist at the time when King Arthur supposedly lived?

So how much of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is based on a true story?

Likely very little. Given that early texts that mention Arthur have been called into question with regard to their historical accuracy, including Nennius' Historia Brittonum, there will likely never be a way of knowing if King Arthur was a real person or a fictional hero whose reputation spread via folklore. Historians land on both sides of the debate. What is much clearer is that other elements of the story, like the wizard Merlin, Arthur's sword Excalibur, wife Guinevere, and his Knights of the Round Table, are almost entirely fictional and appear together in Geoffrey of Monmouth's c. 1136 AD chronicle The History of the Kings of Britain or its later adaptations. Monmouth's fantastical work is not regarded as being a true story and historians give it no value as history. As for other exaggerated and fantasy-based elements of the movie, like the giant mammoths, squid-human hybrids, and the supernatural abilities of the characters, these details were included to give the film more of a Lord of the Rings feel.

So when you're watching King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, enjoy the movie but take what you see with a grain of salt, and even that grain is probably mostly fiction.

Watch a King Arthur documentary that explores the myth about the legendary British hero, including whether he was a real person, then view the King Arthur: Legend of the Sword trailer.

King Arthur was likely inspired by several different historical figures

Likely the first written account to mention the figure we now know as King Arthur was composed in the sixth century by Welsh monk named Gildas, in a work about the Roman conquest of Britain and its aftermath. In his account, a Roman-British military leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus wins a series of battles against the invading Saxons, most notably at Badon Hill.

Some 200 years later, Arthur appears again, this time in the work of ninth-century historian Nennius, who compiled a series of works called the History of the Britons. According to Nennius, Arthur won 12 surprising victories over the Saxons, including at Badon. But while he was a masterful military leader, Nennius does not say that he was a king. Historians and archaeologists have also struggled to identity the present-day locations where Arthur is presumed to have fought, leading many to believe that even at this early stage much of Arthur’s story had taken on mythical tones — thanks in part to Nennius’ claims that Arthur singlehandedly killed more than 900 Saxons at the Battle of Badon.

In Search of the Once and Future King: Arthur and Edward I

To many Arthur is the Once and Future King, a fabled paragon supported by a cast of heroes whose legends resound down the ages. Yet such tales are neither inert nor inviolate. Instead, they continually adapt to meet the evolving needs and inclinations of the cultures which they travel through. In this series we will examine the changing character of King Arthur and his tales within their historical contexts as we attempt to ascertain what these shifts in the representation of Arthurian Romance can tell us about our past and present.

In Arthur and the distinctive genre of literature that had grown up around the celebration and adaption of his mythical exploits, King Edward I of England found not only a role model but a political tool every bit as puissant as the legendary king himself. Through the conscious emulation and glorification of the Arthurian ideal, King Edward would come within a hair’s breadth of matching Arthur’s legacy, the unification and domination of the British Isles. In chasing the specter of a manifest destiny swathed in the trappings of Arthurian iconography, Edward formalized and enshrined the hegemonic and imperial inclinations of his predecessors, fundamentally altering the way in which England related to its neighbours.

At the time of Prince Edward’s birth in 1239, romance literature and its Arthurian sub-genre in particular had already enjoyed several generations of wild popularity amongst the nobility of Europe. Abetted by wider sociological and cultural shifts, the chivalric romance was already entering its golden age in which its emulation would assume a position of cardinal importance within the aristocracies’ sense of self. Romance Literature and to a large extent the histories it freely intermingled with was, to use the modern parlance, open source. No single element of Arthur’s legends or established pseudo-history was sacrosanct. Everything was fair game for modification to better appeal to the increasingly extravagant tastes of contemporary patrons who incorporated it into a burgeoning and universal chivalric mythos.

Before the benefits of either archaeology or the technology and cultural context necessary for mass communication, more often than not, when asked to envisage the past most people within the middle ages would have pictured a world whose social structures and material culture was very similar to their own. The past was a foreign country but one whose tourist traps and landmarks would have been well known.

In the latter half of the twelfth century, the troubadour Chrétien de Troyes and his contemporaries, working amongst others under the patronage of Edward’s great-grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, conjured stories from the pseudo histories and chronicler traditions of England. In doing so, they added new characters unknown in the earliest Welsh legends, while imposing new structures and conventions which allowed these stories to reflect and expound upon elements of their patron’s aristocratic and chivalric culture. In many ways, this perception was the secret to the romance genres enduring and seminal popularity. Yes, it provided a vicarious adventure to an aristocratic class eager for entertainment and cogent of the advantages of conspicuous consumption and pageantry, but its lauding of chivalric culture, simultaneously mirrored and elevated the world around them. Arthurian Romance literature presented the audience with a fantastic idealized form of chivalric conduct and activity that was at once instantly recognizable and seldom practiced. The future Edward I grew up immersed in a culture that seamlessly blended the precarious and often brutal political realities of the present with a veneration for the heroes of an idealized and glorious past.

Edward’s father, Henry III, has on occasion been characterized as a weak and ineffectual king, possibly for the sake of creating a pleasing symmetry between the two of them and Edward’s own son and grandson. While this criticism is in many ways unfair, it is undeniable that over the course of his long reign, Henry faced several major challenges. The eldest legitimate son of the controversial, to say the least, King John, Henry came to the throne at a young age during a troubled time and was forced to endure a long tense regency under the clique of aristocrats who had repelled the French invasion and pacified the rebellious barons on his behalf. Henry’s enduring mission in life was the elevation of the dignity and splendor of the English throne. Rather than mere vanity, this was a deliberate strategy on Henry’s part, by emphasizing the unique ceremonial status and majesty of the king, and by adopting a largely conciliatory attitude to his nobles, he hoped to make himself ideologically and politically unassailable. Far from a passive figure, Henry instituted an aggressive series of governmental reforms as well as a daring and acquisitive foreign policy. Indeed, Henry III was, if anything, too ambitious with such endeavors spiraling out far beyond his or his councilors ability to control or material support and fund, creating a shortfall which inevitable, not only compromised their effectiveness, but generated further friction.

Just as his son would come to venerate and deliberately associate himself with Arthur, Henry had a royal role model of his own, Edward the Confessor. As a Saint and the last Anglo-Saxon King, after whom Henry named his heir, Edward was revered not just for his piety but as a symbol of unambiguous Englishness who had successfully reunited a troubled land plagued by war and dissent. While Prince Edward’s father worked to co-opt the Confessor into a royal cult and replicate his largesse and magnanimity, his heir pursued the more martial ethos and chivalric enthusiasm that would come to characterize his reign.

Some of Edward I’s first significant appearances, outside of the fragmented records of the royal household, come from the attention given to his youthful participation in the European continent’s flourishing and prestigious tournament scene. After filtering out the gilded obsequiousness offered to any royal heir, it seems clear that Edward performed adequately but not exceptionally during these initial sojourns. Nevertheless, the prince apparently relished his time immersed within knightly and martial culture, returning to the circuit several times and choosing to seek refuge there after the failure of his amateurish attempts at plotting in the build-up to the Second Baronial Rebellion. Edward’s military career began in earnest with the outbreak of the rebellion, where despite his defeat and temporary imprisonment at the battle of Lewes, he quickly emerged as the figurehead and premier field commander of the royalist cause, going on to command the army that crushed the forces of the rebel leader, Simon de Montfort, at Evesham.

Shortly after the conclusion of the rebellion and restoration of royal authority, the prince departed on Crusade. While undoubtedly a reflection of genuine piety, it is interesting to consider Edward’s participation in the context of his conceptions of knighthood and the Arthurian romances which informed them. The institution of knighthood and the chivalric customs which it represented had over the previous two centuries gradually taken on, and become conflated with, a distinctly Christian character. The increasingly elaborate and formalized knighting ceremony, while not strictly proscriptive, now carried many strong religious connotations. Knights were seen as soldiers of Christ, with knighthood nominally requiring its holder to embrace and defend Christian virtues. This prominent religious thread in the representation of knighthood harmonized perfectly with chivalric models of behavior for moving ever in lockstep with the trends and taste of aristocratic society in which the Arthurian Romances incorporated substantial religious symbolism, themes and iconography. The imagined Arthur of the 13th century was like Edward and his contemporary monarchs, a pious and virtuous figure as much because of his military prowess and chivalric exploits as despite them.

When Edward I succeeded to the throne in 1272, this formative interest in the personage of Arthur and wider chivalric culture did not dissipate, instead, if anything, it took on a deeper resonance. Arthur and his ever-increasing cast of knights represented and embodied traits and chivalric virtues such as martial prowess, piety, largesse and fidelity which held considerable value within contemporary society. Now a king, Edward’s legendary predecessor offered a potential model for deed as well as character, while providing a potent source of symbolism for the righteousness and inevitability of his inherited ambitions.

Chrétien de Troyes, his colleagues, and imitators drew their inspiration for the Arthurian Romances from two primary intellectual strains. The first of these was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae which traced the history of Britain through the lives of its legendary kings, all the way back to its alleged founding by Trojan refugees. In compiling his pseudo-historical account, Geoffrey cherry picked and adapted the work of a number of older chroniclers such as the Venerable Bede, Gildas and Nemnius. He used these often disparate monastic sources with, I think it’s safe to assume, considerable aid from his own fertile imagination and dramatic instincts, to sketch a portrait of not just Anglo-Saxon history, but the legendary world of ancient Britain, which their arrival had brought crashing down. The Historia Regum Britanniae which was dedicated to and perhaps sponsored by Henry I’s illegitimate son and righthand man, Earl Robert of Gloucester, was widely distributed and would prove highly influential in both the rise of Arthurian Romance literature and the works of later historians.

The second group of sources that the troubadours called upon were the still extant Welsh myths and folk tales in which Arthur and his companions figured prominently. While stories such as Culhwch and Olwen which included romance, adventure and monster-slaying seem like natural fits for the genre, their essential Welshness and specific cultural context provided a barrier to accessibility. In both chronicles and poems, Arthur’s identity as a Briton or Welshman was a major component of his portrayal but not so the Arthur of the epic romances to come. The authors of the 12th and 13th centuries essentially toned down or cannibalized these elements of his stories in favour of appealing to wider European aristocratic culture through the creation of a universally accessible cult of chivalry.

The Arthurian romances, as disparate and contradictory as they sometimes were, came to be known under the umbrella title, the Matter of Britain. This appellation served as a handy means to distinguish the stories of Arthur and his knights from those concerning the other two great subject matters that dominated the genre, the Matter of Rome and the Matter of France. The Matter of Rome was primarily composed of adaptations of Classical mythology, as well as stories pertaining to the founding and transformation of the Roman Empire, while the Matter of France covered the legends of Emperor Charlemagne and France’s origins. By way of both content and comparison then, the Matter of Britain that Edward I grew up enthralled by had shed much of its Welsh roots, becoming instead about explaining and celebrating the history of a Britain dominated by England and its warrior elite. Arthur’s wars were now fought not just against foreign invaders but against either rebels on the so-called peripheries of the British Isles or corrupt continental powers that challenged the prestige of Arthur’s English court and the safety of his mainland allies. A fictional past warped to better reflect the readers’ presents.

Arthur then was a Briton or Welshman who had been transfigured, as if by magic, into an English king. He was British only in the sense that he was the just and righteous feudal overlord of an English dominated British Isles. That this change occurred alongside the backdrop of a sustained period of conflict between the English and Welsh is, of course, not coincidental. Sometime around 1190, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have made a near-miraculous discovery, the lost tomb of Arthur and Guinevere. The timing of this find is interesting, even beyond the new shrine’s role in restoring the abbey’s flagging fortunes, coming as it did shortly after the death of Edward I’s great-grandfather, the formidable Henry II. Henry had fought two largely inconclusive wars in Wales but had ultimately succeeded in reaching a concordant with the Welsh Princes, even compelling the two most powerful of their number to do him homage, albeit under vague terms. The extension of this period of relative peace in Wales would have been a priority to Henry’s successor, Richard I, who was eager to pacify and secure the borders of his father’s vast domain before his imminent departure on Crusade.

The revelation that Arthur, welsh national hero and the once and future king, was not only verifiably dead but also in English hands, was one that held considerable symbolic significance, given the political context. It is unclear if Richard ever visited the alleged tomb himself, but the king was a noted patron of romance literature and a highly engaged participant in chivalric culture. Richard was certainly aware of the great political utility that could be gained through the careful mobilization of history and the symbolism of the European wide cultural phenomena. Upon arriving in Sicily, which was being used as a staging post by the crusaders, he presented King Tancred with what he claimed was Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur himself.

Edward I, who had after all grown up with stories of Arthur and his Knights that loomed ever larger within the cultural makeup of the aristocracy, deliberately pushed this vague association to its natural conclusion. Edward consciously and conspicuously cultivated an association with the mythical figure of Arthur and the trappings of chivalric culture as a means of simultaneously justifying and abetting his conquests within Britain. Edward’s early reign was spent fighting a brutal series of spiraling wars against the remaining Welsh Princes led by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, which culminated with the conquest and annexation of the country. Having at the cost of much bloodshed and gold finally completed the long-standing Norman ambition to dominate Wales, Edward went to considerable expense and effort to secure his new possession. He did this through a staggering ambitious castle-building program, the imposition of garrisons and English colonists, as well as calling upon the hovering specter of Arthurian mythology.

In 1284, Edward took the crown of the slain Llywelyn and laid it before the shrine of Edward the Confessor, his father’s role model and favoured saint. This dramatic piece of political theater was elevated yet further by Edward’s symbolism laden insistence that Llywelyn’s ancestral coronet was none other than the crown worn by Arthur. The crown’s removal from Wales and presentation before an English royal saint represented more than the simple domination of Wales by the English throne, although that was almost certainly a factor. The unification of this potent symbol of Arthur’s kingship and the widely popular cult of the last Anglo-Saxon king under Edward’s custodianship, drew an implicit link between the three, lending legitimacy to Edward’s claims to be both the rightful overlord of Britain and inheritor of this dual legacy. The Welsh Princes could reputedly trace their lineage back past the pre-Roman kings of Britain to the trojan refugees which legend held had first founded its kingdoms. The Romans own origin myth, of course, held that they too were founded by refugees fleeing the Greek sack of Troy. By inserting himself into this lineage and usurping its symbols for his own use, Edward I was not only justifying his conquest of Wales but positioning himself as the inheritor of an imperial pedigree comparable to that of Rome. Interestingly, this deliberate association between his hegemonic wars within the British Isles and imperial imagery can be seen writ into the stone of the castles he built in his pacification of Wales which incorporate into their design elements taken from both imperial Byzantine architecture and the roman ruins prevalent within the region.

Edward’s strategy to legitimize and further glorify his imperial aspirations through an association with the personage of Arthur and the chivalric virtues he represented within contemporary society can clearly be seen during his visit to Glastonbury in 1284. Edward, accompanied by his wife Eleanor of Castile, organized and presided over a lavish occasion in which amidst much pomp and ceremony, the remains of Arthur and his queen, first rediscovered in the reign of his great uncle, were reinterred in a position of honour at the foot of the abbey’s high altar. While the ceremony no doubt had significant personal resonance for the royal, it also contained a clear and potent political message. King Edward of England, not the remaining Welsh nobility, was the rightful guardian and inheritor of Arthur’s legacy and domains.

Edward also utilized elements of his deliberate association with Arthur’s imperial and chivalric connotations in Scotland. There, Edward first arbitrated the prolonged dynastic dispute over the vacant Scottish throne in an attempt to exercise and gain explicit recognition of his overlordship of Britain, before finally seizing the opportunity presented to him by the squabbling Scottish nobility to simply seize the kingdom. Writing to Pope Nicholas IV, whose legates also participated in the arbitration process, Edward explicitly cites King Arthur as a precedent to justify English overlordship of Scotland. Scotland and its often-contentious relationship with its larger southernly neighbor provides another fascinating, albeit earlier, example of the symbiotic connection between politics and the development of Arthurian romance literature. During the late 12th century, Galloway, then an autonomous and semi-independent entity, began to receive significant representation within works of Arthurian romantic literature at a time in which control of the region was becoming a source of conflict and the subject of a great deal of wrangling between the English and Scottish kings.

Portrait in Westminster Abbey, thought to be of Edward I

Perhaps the grandest and most explicit way in which Edward I sort to mobilize his self-appointed position as Arthur’s heir, to legitimize his imperial ambitions through their conflation with chivalric culture, was the staging of Round Table Tournaments in newly pacified British territories. Bleached of crucial cultural context and with much of their symbolism diluted by the passage of time, the Round Table now seems strange, almost risible affairs. In reality, Round Tables were complex events replete with political and chivalric symbolism. Steeped in the themes and trappings of the Arthurian romances, the participants would masquerade as characters from the stories, often engaging in elaborate role-play. Such events were framed by scenarios derived from the staples of romance literature, incorporating the performance of military and social rituals. Such festivals usually included aristocratic women whose fictional counterparts played a central role within romance literature as the arbiters of, and inspiration for, heroic deeds and chivalric exploits.

Far from the sole preserve of the kings of England, Round Table Tournaments were a European wide phenomenon. Indeed, Edward I may have been initially inspired to host his own version of such an event after his ally and vassal, the marcher lord Roger Mortimer, staged one at Kenilworth in 1279. While he did not attend the tournament personally, Edward, for whom Kenilworth held a special significance for its association with the death of his former nemesis, Simon De Monfort, evidently approved of the event dispatching a generous gift which was presented to Mortimer in the tournament’s opening ceremony. The king’s hosting of events so replete with chivalric and Arthurian themes, first at the traditional Welsh seat of Nefyn in 1284 and then later at the site of his famous victory at Falkirk in 1302, was a conspicuous display of both Edward’s temporal power as well as the chivalric credentials and associations through which he derived legitimacy. Nefyn, in particular, was a site of particular Arthurian significance as it was widely believed that the prophecies of Merlin were first discovered there.

Part of Edward’s enthusiasm for such events was that besides pontificating upon the close association between kingship and chivalric activity, they served a secondary very practical purpose. A long-running issue, which came to a head during the reign of Edward I, was that the gradually shifting underpinnings of the European economy and the ever-increasing cost of properly outfitting knights for war, greatly reduced the number of knights within England. In order to reconstitute and resurrect English chivalry, which the king held was greatly diminished from the glory day of Richard I, not to mention provide a reliable source of heavy cavalry for his frequent war, the king set about harnessing the popularity of Arthurian romance literature as a recruiting tool. Edward passed laws requiring that every Englishman with an annual income above a certain threshold was required to take up the arms of knighthood but such measures on their own were of limited effectiveness. Round Table tournaments and similar, with their lavish pageantry and surreal performative aspects, proved a heady mix that served to engender enthusiasm for chivalric exploits and support for the king’s wars. Often such events culminated in the public swearing of ostentatious and elaborate, but very real, oaths in which those present pledged themselves to certain causes. Edward even went as far as to commission a physical copy of Arthur’s Round Table which became the centerpiece for a number of tournaments and chivalric festivals held at Winchester throughout the late 1280’s and ’90s which often culminated with mass knighting ceremonies.

Edward I in many ways a hard-nosed practical man who built upon his cultures internalized fascination with Arthurian romance literature to legitimize and aid his imperial ambitions through a public emulation and veneration of the legendary king. Yet Arthur and his knights were dynamic figures, the vast canon of their stories and legends even shifting. Even as Arthur settled in his newfound Englishness Edward I’s grandson Edward III and the generations that followed him would begin to interpret and deploy this chivalric oriented mythology in radical new ways.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Arthur becomes political

By the time the Tudor king Henry VII came to the throne in 1485, chivalric tales of Arthur's knightly quests and of the Knights of the Round Table, inspired by Chrétien de Troyes, had roused British writers to pen their own versions, and Arthur was a well established British hero. Thomas Malory's work the Death of Arthur, published in 1486, was one of the first books to be printed in England.

It is a haunting vision of a knightly golden age swept away by civil strife and the betrayal of its ideals. Malory identified Winchester as Camelot, and it was there in the same year that Henry VII´s eldest son was baptised as Prince Arthur, to herald the new age.

It is a haunting vision of a knightly golden age swept away by civil strife and the betrayal of its ideals.

In the meantime Geoffrey of Monmouth's tome had not been forgotten, and Arthur was also seen as a political and historical figure. Nowhere was this more true than in the minds of 16th-century rulers of Britain, trying desperately to prove their equal worth with their sometimes-ally sometimes-foe Charles V, the great Holy Roman Emperor.

The young prince Arthur did not live to be crowned king and usher in a true new Arthurian age, but in 1509 his younger brother became Henry VIII and took in the message. He had the Winchester Round Table of Edward III repainted, with himself depicted at the top. Here he was shown as a latter-day Arthur, a Christian emperor and head of a new British empire, with claims once more to European glory, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory had described.

The real King Arthur: why are we so obsessed with trying to solve the mystery?

Was King Arthur a real person? And why we so intent on solving the mystery of King Arthur in the first place? Writing for HistoryExtra, historian Miles Russell separates fact from fiction and explains our enduring fascination with the Arthurian legend…

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Published: July 20, 2020 at 11:00 am

The tale of Arthur, the “once and future king”, is epic and timeless. With its key themes of magic, chivalric brotherhood, courtly love and the eternal quest (for the Holy Grail) set in a lost golden age, Arthur’s legend has become one of the most potent, successful and well-known stories in world mythology.

Today, of course, there are two separate and discrete Arthurs: the fictional king, whose life is retold and reinvented for every generation and the historical figure, whose story, we assume, originates in the chaos of post-Roman Britain, sometime in the fifth or sixth century.

Watch: According to archaeologist Miles Russell, the legendary figure (as featured in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth) was based on five real historical figures…

The biggest problem for anyone attempting to uncover the ‘real’ King Arthur is the lack of reliable, contemporary source material. Our best text for the period is On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by the sixth-century sermon writer Gildas. Gildas depicts a period of anarchy and violence in which the degenerate and demoralised Britons are ultimately cowed by their pagan Saxon foe. Unfortunately, he fails to mention Arthur, although he does praise a successful general by the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus, to whom he credits the victory of ‘Mount Badon’ – a battle thought to have occurred between Celtic Britons and Anglo-Saxons in the late fifth or early sixth century.

In the ninth-century History of the Britons, a character called Arthur, described as dux bellorum (supreme commander), is the acclaimed victor of 12 battles. The names of these are garbled and difficult to interpret (and in some instances undoubtedly duplicated), but one in particular stands out: Badon Hill. Here, we are told, Arthur carried “the image of the holy Mary” on his shoulders (presumably painted on a shield), single-handedly killing “nine hundred and sixty men”.

Evidently, this particular battle has not only been significantly dramatised through the addition of fantastic detail, but it has also been taken away from Gildas’s hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus, to whom the victory was originally credited.

It’s not until the early 12th century that we get a whole life-history for King Arthur, thanks to the quill pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey’s work features all of Arthur’s key battles, taken from the History of the Britons, but also adds detail such as his conception at Tintagel in Cornwall his parentage (the son of Uther Pendragon and Ygerna) his sword (Caliburn) and his struggles against enemies across Europe. Along the way Geoffrey also outlines Arthur’s love for Ganhumara (Guinevere) the epic bravery of his band of brothers and the final treachery of Mordred, who deals Arthur a mortal blow at Camblam (Camlann), after which his body is conveyed to Avalon.

The History of the Kings of Britain set the template for future stories about Arthur, but unfortunately, Geoffrey provided no clue as to where the story came from, leading many later writers to suggest that he simply made it all up.

The absence of a clear and present origin for King Arthur has created a ‘void’ which many are keen to fill. In recent years, the concept of a hidden, forbidden or secret history has emerged in the quest for the king, thanks, undoubtedly, to the popularity of archaeological detective work combined with the conspiracy-led nature of pop culture fiction (such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003). Every year new books, articles and television programmes claim to have discovered a ‘lost truth’ or exposed a new aspect of King Arthur’s identity. Some are genuinely intriguing others are clearly delusional, but the ‘quest’ is both enthralling and lucrative, from whichever angle you approach it.

The most recent attempt to identify King Arthur comes from the author David Carroll. His claim, that Arthur was the son of a sixth-century king in what is now Scotland, is particularly eye-catching given that it has been linked with an offer of £50,000 to anyone who can prove his thesis wrong. Carroll’s money is, it is fair to say, safe – for, intriguing though the theory is, the absence of definitive evidence one way or another means that no one will ever be able, in a court of law, to prove the case.

Of all the various petty British kings jostling for power or fighting invaders in the fifth and sixth centuries, the strongest candidate for a ‘real’ King Arthur will always be Ambrosius Aurelianus. Unfortunately, just as with Arthur himself, we know very little about the man other than the brief comments provided by Gildas: that he was descended from Roman nobility and led a pro-British force against the Saxons, winning a great victory at Badon Hill. It is doubtful that anyone will ever know where Badon was exactly (a number of locations have been identified across England and Wales), but the battle was significant enough to be remembered for generations and later become known as a key moment in Arthur’s career.

If we examine the first detailed life of King Arthur (the account provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth), it becomes clear that Arthur is a composite: a gestalt Celtic superhero formed from the deeds of others. The chronological ‘Dark Age’ anchor is provided by Ambrosius Aurelianus, while other elements in his story derive from the lives of Magnus Maximus [a Roman general illegally made emperor in Britain in AD 383] Constantine ‘the Great’ [who was proclaimed emperor at York in AD 306], and Cassivellaunus [a British tribal leader who fought against Julius Caesar in 54 BC]. Once you detach these characters from Geoffrey’s narrative, there is simply nothing left for Arthur.

Geoffrey’s History was the medieval equivalent of a best-seller, winning popularity not just with a British audience, but also with Saxon and Norman readers. Within a generation of its publication, significant numbers of Arthurian tales were popping up across continental Europe. Later writers, such as the 12 th -century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, introduced concepts of courtly love to the myth, helping to shift the emphasis away from the blood-soaked world of the warrior. Most potent of all Chrétien’s additions was the introduction of Lancelot, and his adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere and Perceval, whose quest for the Holy Grail would further inspire poets, novelists, artists and filmmakers alike.

Over the years, the tale of King Arthur, the flawed hero, and his cast of supporting characters has been successfully reinvented and reimagined, acquiring new detail and changing emphasis along the way. Today, the tale is as strong as ever and shows no sign of fading.

Dr Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University and author of Arthur and the Kings of Britain: the Historical Truth Behind the Myths (Amberley Publishing, 2017).


The historical basis for King Arthur was long debated by scholars. One school of thought, citing entries in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), saw Arthur as a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons some time in the late 5th to early 6th century.

The Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century Latin historical compilation attributed in some late manuscripts to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, contains the first datable mention of King Arthur, listing twelve battles that Arthur fought. These culminate in the Battle of Badon, where he is said to have single-handedly killed 960 men. Recent studies, however, question the reliability of the Historia Brittonum. [7]

The other text that seems to support the case for Arthur's historical existence is the 10th-century Annales Cambriae, which also link Arthur with the Battle of Badon. The Annales date this battle to 516–518, and also mention the Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) were both killed, dated to 537–539. These details have often been used to bolster confidence in the Historia's account and to confirm that Arthur really did fight at Badon.

Problems have been identified, however, with using this source to support the Historia Brittonum ' s account. The latest research shows that the Annales Cambriae was based on a chronicle begun in the late 8th century in Wales. Additionally, the complex textual history of the Annales Cambriae precludes any certainty that the Arthurian annals were added to it even that early. They were more likely added at some point in the 10th century and may never have existed in any earlier set of annals. The Badon entry probably derived from the Historia Brittonum. [8]

This lack of convincing early evidence is the reason many recent historians exclude Arthur from their accounts of sub-Roman Britain. In the view of historian Thomas Charles-Edwards, "at this stage of the enquiry, one can only say that there may well have been an historical Arthur [but . ] the historian can as yet say nothing of value about him". [9] These modern admissions of ignorance are a relatively recent trend earlier generations of historians were less sceptical. The historian John Morris made the putative reign of Arthur the organising principle of his history of sub-Roman Britain and Ireland, The Age of Arthur (1973). Even so, he found little to say about a historical Arthur. [10]

Partly in reaction to such theories, another school of thought emerged which argued that Arthur had no historical existence at all. Morris's Age of Arthur prompted the archaeologist Nowell Myres to observe that "no figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian's time". [11] Gildas' 6th-century polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written within living memory of Badon, mentions the battle but does not mention Arthur. [12] Arthur is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or named in any surviving manuscript written between 400 and 820. [13] He is absent from Bede's early-8th-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, another major early source for post-Roman history that mentions Badon. [14] The historian David Dumville wrote: "I think we can dispose of him [Arthur] quite briefly. He owes his place in our history books to a 'no smoke without fire' school of thought . The fact of the matter is that there is no historical evidence about Arthur we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books." [15]

Some scholars argue that Arthur was originally a fictional hero of folklore—or even a half-forgotten Celtic deity—who became credited with real deeds in the distant past. They cite parallels with figures such as the Kentish Hengist and Horsa, who may be totemic horse-gods that later became historicised. Bede ascribed to these legendary figures a historical role in the 5th-century Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain. [16] It is not even certain that Arthur was considered a king in the early texts. Neither the Historia nor the Annales calls him "rex": the former calls him instead "dux bellorum" (leader of wars) and "miles" (soldier). [17]

The consensus among academic historians today is that there is no solid evidence for his historical existence. [2] However, because historical documents for the post-Roman period are scarce, a definitive answer to the question of Arthur's historical existence is unlikely. Sites and places have been identified as "Arthurian" since the 12th century, [18] but archaeology can confidently reveal names only through inscriptions found in secure contexts. The so-called "Arthur stone", discovered in 1998 among the ruins at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall in securely dated 6th-century contexts, created a brief stir but proved irrelevant. [19] Other inscriptional evidence for Arthur, including the Glastonbury cross, is tainted with the suggestion of forgery. [20]

Andrew Breeze has recently argued that Arthur was historical, and claimed to have identified the locations of his battles as well as the place and date of his death, (in the context of the Extreme weather events of 535–536) [21] [22] but his conclusions are disputed. [23] [24] [25]

Several historical figures have been proposed as the basis for Arthur, ranging from Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer who served in Britain in the 2nd or 3rd century, [26] to sub-Roman British rulers such as Riotamus, [27] Ambrosius Aurelianus, [28] Owain Ddantgwyn, [29] and Athrwys ap Meurig. [30] However, no convincing evidence for these identifications has emerged.

The origin of the Welsh name "Arthur" remains a matter of debate. The most widely accepted etymology derives it from the Roman nomen gentile (family name) Artorius. [31] Artorius itself is of obscure and contested etymology, [32] but possibly of Messapian [33] [34] [35] or Etruscan origin. [36] [37] [38] Linguist Stephan Zimmer suggests Artorius possibly had a Celtic origin, being a Latinization of a hypothetical name *Artorījos, in turn derived from an older patronym *Arto-rīg-ios, meaning "son of the bear/warrior-king". This patronym is unattested, but the root, *arto-rīg, "bear/warrior-king", is the source of the Old Irish personal name Artrí. [39] Some scholars have suggested it is relevant to this debate that the legendary King Arthur's name only appears as Arthur or Arturus in early Latin Arthurian texts, never as Artōrius (though Classical Latin Artōrius became Arturius in some Vulgar Latin dialects). However, this may not say anything about the origin of the name Arthur, as Artōrius would regularly become Art(h)ur when borrowed into Welsh. [40]

Another commonly proposed derivation of Arthur from Welsh arth "bear" + (g)wr "man" (earlier *Arto-uiros in Brittonic) is not accepted by modern scholars for phonological and orthographic reasons. Notably, a Brittonic compound name *Arto-uiros should produce Old Welsh *Artgur (where u represents the short vowel /u/) and Middle/Modern Welsh *Arthwr, rather than Arthur (where u is a long vowel /ʉː/). In Welsh poetry the name is always spelled Arthur and is exclusively rhymed with words ending in -ur—never words ending in -wr—which confirms that the second element cannot be [g]wr "man". [41] [42]

An alternative theory, which has gained only limited acceptance among professional scholars, derives the name Arthur from Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes, near Ursa Major or the Great Bear. [43] Classical Latin Arcturus would also have become Art(h)ur when borrowed into Welsh, and its brightness and position in the sky led people to regard it as the "guardian of the bear" (which is the meaning of the name in Ancient Greek) and the "leader" of the other stars in Boötes. [44]

The familiar literary persona of Arthur began with Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-historical Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), written in the 1130s. The textual sources for Arthur are usually divided into those written before Geoffrey's Historia (known as pre-Galfridian texts, from the Latin form of Geoffrey, Galfridus) and those written afterwards, which could not avoid his influence (Galfridian, or post-Galfridian, texts).

Pre-Galfridian traditions

The earliest literary references to Arthur come from Welsh and Breton sources. There have been few attempts to define the nature and character of Arthur in the pre-Galfridian tradition as a whole, rather than in a single text or text/story-type. A 2007 academic survey led by Caitlin Green has identified three key strands to the portrayal of Arthur in this earliest material. [45] The first is that he was a peerless warrior who functioned as the monster-hunting protector of Britain from all internal and external threats. Some of these are human threats, such as the Saxons he fights in the Historia Brittonum, but the majority are supernatural, including giant cat-monsters, destructive divine boars, dragons, dogheads, giants, and witches. [46] The second is that the pre-Galfridian Arthur was a figure of folklore (particularly topographic or onomastic folklore) and localised magical wonder-tales, the leader of a band of superhuman heroes who live in the wilds of the landscape. [47] The third and final strand is that the early Welsh Arthur had a close connection with the Welsh Otherworld, Annwn. On the one hand, he launches assaults on Otherworldly fortresses in search of treasure and frees their prisoners. On the other, his warband in the earliest sources includes former pagan gods, and his wife and his possessions are clearly Otherworldly in origin. [48]

One of the most famous Welsh poetic references to Arthur comes in the collection of heroic death-songs known as Y Gododdin (The Gododdin), attributed to 6th-century poet Aneirin. One stanza praises the bravery of a warrior who slew 300 enemies, but says that despite this, "he was no Arthur" – that is, his feats cannot compare to the valour of Arthur. [49] Y Gododdin is known only from a 13th-century manuscript, so it is impossible to determine whether this passage is original or a later interpolation, but John Koch's view that the passage dates from a 7th-century or earlier version is regarded as unproven 9th- or 10th-century dates are often proposed for it. [50] Several poems attributed to Taliesin, a poet said to have lived in the 6th century, also refer to Arthur, although these all probably date from between the 8th and 12th centuries. [51] They include "Kadeir Teyrnon" ("The Chair of the Prince"), [52] which refers to "Arthur the Blessed" "Preiddeu Annwn" ("The Spoils of Annwn"), [53] which recounts an expedition of Arthur to the Otherworld and "Marwnat vthyr pen[dragon]" ("The Elegy of Uther Pen[dragon]"), [54] which refers to Arthur's valour and is suggestive of a father-son relationship for Arthur and Uther that pre-dates Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Other early Welsh Arthurian texts include a poem found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, "Pa gur yv y porthaur?" ("What man is the gatekeeper?"). [56] This takes the form of a dialogue between Arthur and the gatekeeper of a fortress he wishes to enter, in which Arthur recounts the names and deeds of himself and his men, notably Cei (Kay) and Bedwyr (Bedivere). The Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen ( c. 1100 ), included in the modern Mabinogion collection, has a much longer list of more than 200 of Arthur's men, though Cei and Bedwyr again take a central place. The story as a whole tells of Arthur helping his kinsman Culhwch win the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Chief-Giant, by completing a series of apparently impossible tasks, including the hunt for the great semi-divine boar Twrch Trwyth. The 9th-century Historia Brittonum also refers to this tale, with the boar there named Troy(n)t. [57] Finally, Arthur is mentioned numerous times in the Welsh Triads, a collection of short summaries of Welsh tradition and legend which are classified into groups of three linked characters or episodes to assist recall. The later manuscripts of the Triads are partly derivative from Geoffrey of Monmouth and later continental traditions, but the earliest ones show no such influence and are usually agreed to refer to pre-existing Welsh traditions. Even in these, however, Arthur's court has started to embody legendary Britain as a whole, with "Arthur's Court" sometimes substituted for "The Island of Britain" in the formula "Three XXX of the Island of Britain". [58] While it is not clear from the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae that Arthur was even considered a king, by the time Culhwch and Olwen and the Triads were written he had become Penteyrnedd yr Ynys hon, "Chief of the Lords of this Island", the overlord of Wales, Cornwall and the North. [59]

In addition to these pre-Galfridian Welsh poems and tales, Arthur appears in some other early Latin texts besides the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae. In particular, Arthur features in a number of well-known vitae ("Lives") of post-Roman saints, none of which are now generally considered to be reliable historical sources (the earliest probably dates from the 11th century). [60] According to the Life of Saint Gildas, written in the early 12th century by Caradoc of Llancarfan, Arthur is said to have killed Gildas' brother Hueil and to have rescued his wife Gwenhwyfar from Glastonbury. [61] In the Life of Saint Cadoc, written around 1100 or a little before by Lifris of Llancarfan, the saint gives protection to a man who killed three of Arthur's soldiers, and Arthur demands a herd of cattle as wergeld for his men. Cadoc delivers them as demanded, but when Arthur takes possession of the animals, they turn into bundles of ferns. [62] Similar incidents are described in the medieval biographies of Carannog, Padarn, and Eufflam, probably written around the 12th century. A less obviously legendary account of Arthur appears in the Legenda Sancti Goeznovii, which is often claimed to date from the early 11th century (although the earliest manuscript of this text dates from the 15th century and the text is now dated to the late 12th to early 13th century). [63] [64] Also important are the references to Arthur in William of Malmesbury's De Gestis Regum Anglorum and Herman's De Miraculis Sanctae Mariae Laudunensis, which together provide the first certain evidence for a belief that Arthur was not actually dead and would at some point return, a theme that is often revisited in post-Galfridian folklore. [65]

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, completed c. 1138 , contains the first narrative account of Arthur's life. [66] This work is an imaginative and fanciful account of British kings from the legendary Trojan exile Brutus to the 7th-century Welsh king Cadwallader. Geoffrey places Arthur in the same post-Roman period as do Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae. He incorporates Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, his magician advisor Merlin, and the story of Arthur's conception, in which Uther, disguised as his enemy Gorlois by Merlin's magic, sleeps with Gorlois's wife Igerna (Igraine) at Tintagel, and she conceives Arthur. On Uther's death, the fifteen-year-old Arthur succeeds him as King of Britain and fights a series of battles, similar to those in the Historia Brittonum, culminating in the Battle of Bath. He then defeats the Picts and Scots before creating an Arthurian empire through his conquests of Ireland, Iceland and the Orkney Islands. After twelve years of peace, Arthur sets out to expand his empire once more, taking control of Norway, Denmark and Gaul. Gaul is still held by the Roman Empire when it is conquered, and Arthur's victory leads to a further confrontation with Rome. Arthur and his warriors, including Kaius (Kay), Beduerus (Bedivere) and Gualguanus (Gawain), defeat the Roman emperor Lucius Tiberius in Gaul but, as he prepares to march on Rome, Arthur hears that his nephew Modredus (Mordred)—whom he had left in charge of Britain—has married his wife Guenhuuara (Guinevere) and seized the throne. Arthur returns to Britain and defeats and kills Modredus on the river Camblam in Cornwall, but he is mortally wounded. He hands the crown to his kinsman Constantine and is taken to the isle of Avalon to be healed of his wounds, never to be seen again. [67]

How much of this narrative was Geoffrey's own invention is open to debate. He seems to have made use of the list of Arthur's twelve battles against the Saxons found in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, along with the battle of Camlann from the Annales Cambriae and the idea that Arthur was still alive. [68] Arthur's status as the king of all Britain seems to be borrowed from pre-Galfridian tradition, being found in Culhwch and Olwen, the Welsh Triads, and the saints' lives. [69] Finally, Geoffrey borrowed many of the names for Arthur's possessions, close family, and companions from the pre-Galfridian Welsh tradition, including Kaius (Cei), Beduerus (Bedwyr), Guenhuuara (Gwenhwyfar), Uther (Uthyr) and perhaps also Caliburnus (Caledfwlch), the latter becoming Excalibur in subsequent Arthurian tales. [70] However, while names, key events, and titles may have been borrowed, Brynley Roberts has argued that "the Arthurian section is Geoffrey's literary creation and it owes nothing to prior narrative." [71] Geoffrey makes the Welsh Medraut into the villainous Modredus, but there is no trace of such a negative character for this figure in Welsh sources until the 16th century. [72] There have been relatively few modern attempts to challenge the notion that the Historia Regum Britanniae is primarily Geoffrey's own work, with scholarly opinion often echoing William of Newburgh's late-12th-century comment that Geoffrey "made up" his narrative, perhaps through an "inordinate love of lying". [73] Geoffrey Ashe is one dissenter from this view, believing that Geoffrey's narrative is partially derived from a lost source telling of the deeds of a 5th-century British king named Riotamus, this figure being the original Arthur, although historians and Celticists have been reluctant to follow Ashe in his conclusions. [74]

Whatever his sources may have been, the immense popularity of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae cannot be denied. Well over 200 manuscript copies of Geoffrey's Latin work are known to have survived, as well as translations into other languages. [75] For example, 60 manuscripts are extant containing the Brut y Brenhinedd, Welsh-language versions of the Historia, the earliest of which were created in the 13th century. The old notion that some of these Welsh versions actually underlie Geoffrey's Historia, advanced by antiquarians such as the 18th-century Lewis Morris, has long since been discounted in academic circles. [76] As a result of this popularity, Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae was enormously influential on the later medieval development of the Arthurian legend. While it was not the only creative force behind Arthurian romance, many of its elements were borrowed and developed (e.g., Merlin and the final fate of Arthur), and it provided the historical framework into which the romancers' tales of magical and wonderful adventures were inserted. [77]

Romance traditions

The popularity of Geoffrey's Historia and its other derivative works (such as Wace's Roman de Brut) gave rise to a significant numbers of new Arthurian works in continental Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in France. [78] It was not, however, the only Arthurian influence on the developing "Matter of Britain". There is clear evidence that Arthur and Arthurian tales were familiar on the Continent before Geoffrey's work became widely known (see for example, the Modena Archivolt), [79] and "Celtic" names and stories not found in Geoffrey's Historia appear in the Arthurian romances. [80] From the perspective of Arthur, perhaps the most significant effect of this great outpouring of new Arthurian story was on the role of the king himself: much of this 12th-century and later Arthurian literature centres less on Arthur himself than on characters such as Lancelot and Guinevere, Percival, Galahad, Gawain, Ywain, and Tristan and Iseult. Whereas Arthur is very much at the centre of the pre-Galfridian material and Geoffrey's Historia itself, in the romances he is rapidly sidelined. [81] His character also alters significantly. In both the earliest materials and Geoffrey he is a great and ferocious warrior, who laughs as he personally slaughters witches and giants and takes a leading role in all military campaigns, [82] whereas in the continental romances he becomes the roi fainéant, the "do-nothing king", whose "inactivity and acquiescence constituted a central flaw in his otherwise ideal society". [83] Arthur's role in these works is frequently that of a wise, dignified, even-tempered, somewhat bland, and occasionally feeble monarch. So, he simply turns pale and silent when he learns of Lancelot's affair with Guinevere in the Mort Artu, whilst in Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, he is unable to stay awake after a feast and has to retire for a nap. [84] Nonetheless, as Norris J. Lacy has observed, whatever his faults and frailties may be in these Arthurian romances, "his prestige is never—or almost never—compromised by his personal weaknesses . his authority and glory remain intact." [85]

Arthur and his retinue appear in some of the Lais of Marie de France, [87] but it was the work of another French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, that had the greatest influence with regard to the development of Arthur's character and legend. [88] Chrétien wrote five Arthurian romances between c. 1170 and 1190. Erec and Enide and Cligès are tales of courtly love with Arthur's court as their backdrop, demonstrating the shift away from the heroic world of the Welsh and Galfridian Arthur, while Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, features Yvain and Gawain in a supernatural adventure, with Arthur very much on the sidelines and weakened. However, the most significant for the development of the Arthurian legend are Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, which introduces Lancelot and his adulterous relationship with Arthur's queen Guinevere, extending and popularising the recurring theme of Arthur as a cuckold, and Perceval, the Story of the Grail, which introduces the Holy Grail and the Fisher King and which again sees Arthur having a much reduced role. [89] Chrétien was thus "instrumental both in the elaboration of the Arthurian legend and in the establishment of the ideal form for the diffusion of that legend", [90] and much of what came after him in terms of the portrayal of Arthur and his world built upon the foundations he had laid. Perceval, although unfinished, was particularly popular: four separate continuations of the poem appeared over the next half century, with the notion of the Grail and its quest being developed by other writers such as Robert de Boron, a fact that helped accelerate the decline of Arthur in continental romance. [91] Similarly, Lancelot and his cuckolding of Arthur with Guinevere became one of the classic motifs of the Arthurian legend, although the Lancelot of the prose Lancelot ( c. 1225 ) and later texts was a combination of Chrétien's character and that of Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet. [92] Chrétien's work even appears to feed back into Welsh Arthurian literature, with the result that the romance Arthur began to replace the heroic, active Arthur in Welsh literary tradition. [93] Particularly significant in this development were the three Welsh Arthurian romances, which are closely similar to those of Chrétien, albeit with some significant differences: Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain is related to Chrétien's Yvain Geraint and Enid, to Erec and Enide and Peredur son of Efrawg, to Perceval. [94]

Up to c. 1210 , continental Arthurian romance was expressed primarily through poetry after this date the tales began to be told in prose. The most significant of these 13th-century prose romances was the Vulgate Cycle (also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle), a series of five Middle French prose works written in the first half of that century. [96] These works were the Estoire del Saint Grail, the Estoire de Merlin, the Lancelot propre (or Prose Lancelot, which made up half the entire Vulgate Cycle on its own), the Queste del Saint Graal and the Mort Artu, which combine to form the first coherent version of the entire Arthurian legend. The cycle continued the trend towards reducing the role played by Arthur in his own legend, partly through the introduction of the character of Galahad and an expansion of the role of Merlin. It also made Mordred the result of an incestuous relationship between Arthur and his sister Morgause and established the role of Camelot, first mentioned in passing in Chrétien's Lancelot, as Arthur's primary court. [97] This series of texts was quickly followed by the Post-Vulgate Cycle ( c. 1230–40 ), of which the Suite du Merlin is a part, which greatly reduced the importance of Lancelot's affair with Guinevere but continued to sideline Arthur, and to focus more on the Grail quest. [96] As such, Arthur became even more of a relatively minor character in these French prose romances in the Vulgate itself he only figures significantly in the Estoire de Merlin and the Mort Artu. During this period, Arthur was made one of the Nine Worthies, a group of three pagan, three Jewish and three Christian exemplars of chivalry. The Worthies were first listed in Jacques de Longuyon's Voeux du Paon in 1312, and subsequently became a common subject in literature and art. [98]

The development of the medieval Arthurian cycle and the character of the "Arthur of romance" culminated in Le Morte d'Arthur, Thomas Malory's retelling of the entire legend in a single work in English in the late 15th century. Malory based his book—originally titled The Whole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table—on the various previous romance versions, in particular the Vulgate Cycle, and appears to have aimed at creating a comprehensive and authoritative collection of Arthurian stories. [99] Perhaps as a result of this, and the fact that Le Morte D'Arthur was one of the earliest printed books in England, published by William Caxton in 1485, most later Arthurian works are derivative of Malory's. [100]

Post-medieval literature

The end of the Middle Ages brought with it a waning of interest in King Arthur. Although Malory's English version of the great French romances was popular, there were increasing attacks upon the truthfulness of the historical framework of the Arthurian romances – established since Geoffrey of Monmouth's time – and thus the legitimacy of the whole Matter of Britain. So, for example, the 16th-century humanist scholar Polydore Vergil famously rejected the claim that Arthur was the ruler of a post-Roman empire, found throughout the post-Galfridian medieval "chronicle tradition", to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians. [101] Social changes associated with the end of the medieval period and the Renaissance also conspired to rob the character of Arthur and his associated legend of some of their power to enthrall audiences, with the result that 1634 saw the last printing of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur for nearly 200 years. [102] King Arthur and the Arthurian legend were not entirely abandoned, but until the early 19th century the material was taken less seriously and was often used simply as a vehicle for allegories of 17th- and 18th-century politics. [103] Thus Richard Blackmore's epics Prince Arthur (1695) and King Arthur (1697) feature Arthur as an allegory for the struggles of William III against James II. [103] Similarly, the most popular Arthurian tale throughout this period seems to have been that of Tom Thumb, which was told first through chapbooks and later through the political plays of Henry Fielding although the action is clearly set in Arthurian Britain, the treatment is humorous and Arthur appears as a primarily comedic version of his romance character. [104] John Dryden's masque King Arthur is still performed, largely thanks to Henry Purcell's music, though seldom unabridged.

Tennyson and the revival

In the early 19th century, medievalism, Romanticism, and the Gothic Revival reawakened interest in Arthur and the medieval romances. A new code of ethics for 19th-century gentlemen was shaped around the chivalric ideals embodied in the "Arthur of romance". This renewed interest first made itself felt in 1816, when Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was reprinted for the first time since 1634. [105] Initially, the medieval Arthurian legends were of particular interest to poets, inspiring, for example, William Wordsworth to write "The Egyptian Maid" (1835), an allegory of the Holy Grail. [106] Pre-eminent among these was Alfred Tennyson, whose first Arthurian poem "The Lady of Shalott" was published in 1832. [107] Arthur himself played a minor role in some of these works, following in the medieval romance tradition. Tennyson's Arthurian work reached its peak of popularity with Idylls of the King, however, which reworked the entire narrative of Arthur's life for the Victorian era. It was first published in 1859 and sold 10,000 copies within the first week. [108] In the Idylls, Arthur became a symbol of ideal manhood who ultimately failed, through human weakness, to establish a perfect kingdom on earth. [109] Tennyson's works prompted a large number of imitators, generated considerable public interest in the legends of Arthur and the character himself, and brought Malory's tales to a wider audience. [110] Indeed, the first modernisation of Malory's great compilation of Arthur's tales was published in 1862, shortly after Idylls appeared, and there were six further editions and five competitors before the century ended. [111]

This interest in the "Arthur of romance" and his associated stories continued through the 19th century and into the 20th, and influenced poets such as William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite artists including Edward Burne-Jones. [112] Even the humorous tale of Tom Thumb, which had been the primary manifestation of Arthur's legend in the 18th century, was rewritten after the publication of Idylls. While Tom maintained his small stature and remained a figure of comic relief, his story now included more elements from the medieval Arthurian romances and Arthur is treated more seriously and historically in these new versions. [113] The revived Arthurian romance also proved influential in the United States, with such books as Sidney Lanier's The Boy's King Arthur (1880) reaching wide audiences and providing inspiration for Mark Twain's satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). [114] Although the 'Arthur of romance' was sometimes central to these new Arthurian works (as he was in Burne-Jones's "The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon", 1881–1898), on other occasions he reverted to his medieval status and is either marginalised or even missing entirely, with Wagner's Arthurian opera—Parsifal—providing a notable instance of the latter. [115] Furthermore, the revival of interest in Arthur and the Arthurian tales did not continue unabated. By the end of the 19th century, it was confined mainly to Pre-Raphaelite imitators, [116] and it could not avoid being affected by World War I, which damaged the reputation of chivalry and thus interest in its medieval manifestations and Arthur as chivalric role model. [117] The romance tradition did, however, remain sufficiently powerful to persuade Thomas Hardy, Laurence Binyon and John Masefield to compose Arthurian plays, [118] and T. S. Eliot alludes to the Arthur myth (but not Arthur) in his poem The Waste Land, which mentions the Fisher King. [119]

Modern legend

In the latter half of the 20th century, the influence of the romance tradition of Arthur continued, through novels such as T. H. White's The Once and Future King (1958), Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave (1970) and its four sequels, Thomas Berger's tragicomic Arthur Rex and Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982) in addition to comic strips such as Prince Valiant (from 1937 onward). [120] Tennyson had reworked the romance tales of Arthur to suit and comment upon the issues of his day, and the same is often the case with modern treatments too. Stewart's first three Arthurian novels present the wizard Merlin as the central character, rather than Arthur, and The Crystal Cave is narrated by Merlin in the first person, whereas Bradley's tale takes a feminist approach to Arthur and his legend, in contrast to the narratives of Arthur found in medieval materials, [121] and American authors often rework the story of Arthur to be more consistent with values such as equality and democracy. [122] In John Cowper Powys's Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages (1951), set in Wales in 499, just prior to the Saxon invasion, Arthur, the Emperor of Britain, is only a minor character, whereas Myrddin (Merlin) and Nineue, Tennyson's Vivien, are major figures. [123] Myrddin's disappearance at the end of the novel is "in the tradition of magical hibernation when the king or mage leaves his people for some island or cave to return either at a more propitious or more dangerous time" (see King Arthur's messianic return). [124] Powys's earlier novel, A Glastonbury Romance (1932) is concerned with both the Holy Grail and the legend that Arthur is buried at Glastonbury. [125]

The romance Arthur has become popular in film and theatre as well. T. H. White's novel was adapted into the Lerner and Loewe stage musical Camelot (1960) and Walt Disney's animated film The Sword in the Stone (1963) Camelot, with its focus on the love of Lancelot and Guinevere and the cuckolding of Arthur, was itself made into a film of the same name in 1967. The romance tradition of Arthur is particularly evident and in critically respected films like Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac (1974), Éric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois (1978) and John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) it is also the main source of the material used in the Arthurian spoof Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). [126] The Crystal Cave was adapted as a TV series by the BBC in 1991, starring George Winter as Merlin.

Retellings and reimaginings of the romance tradition are not the only important aspect of the modern legend of King Arthur. Attempts to portray Arthur as a genuine historical figure of c. 500 , stripping away the "romance", have also emerged. As Taylor and Brewer have noted, this return to the medieval "chronicle tradition" of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Historia Brittonum is a recent trend which became dominant in Arthurian literature in the years following the outbreak of the Second World War, when Arthur's legendary resistance to Germanic enemies struck a chord in Britain. [127] Clemence Dane's series of radio plays, The Saviours (1942), used a historical Arthur to embody the spirit of heroic resistance against desperate odds, and Robert Sherriff's play The Long Sunset (1955) saw Arthur rallying Romano-British resistance against the Germanic invaders. [128] This trend towards placing Arthur in a historical setting is also apparent in historical and fantasy novels published during this period. [129]

Arthur has also been used as a model for modern-day behaviour. In the 1930s, the Order of the Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table was formed in Britain to promote Christian ideals and Arthurian notions of medieval chivalry. [130] In the United States, hundreds of thousands of boys and girls joined Arthurian youth groups, such as the Knights of King Arthur, in which Arthur and his legends were promoted as wholesome exemplars. [131] However, Arthur's diffusion within modern culture goes beyond such obviously Arthurian endeavours, with Arthurian names being regularly attached to objects, buildings, and places. As Norris J. Lacy has observed, "The popular notion of Arthur appears to be limited, not surprisingly, to a few motifs and names, but there can be no doubt of the extent to which a legend born many centuries ago is profoundly embedded in modern culture at every level." [132]


  1. ^Neubecker 1998–2002
  2. ^ ab Tom Shippey, "So Much Smoke", review of Higham 2002, London Review of Books, 40:24:23 (20 December 2018)
  3. ^Higham 2002, pp. 11–37, has a summary of the debate on this point.
  4. ^Charles-Edwards 1991, p. 15 Sims-Williams 1991. Y Gododdin cannot be dated precisely: it describes 6th-century events and contains 9th- or 10th-century spelling, but the surviving copy is 13th-century.
  5. ^Thorpe 1966, but see also Loomis 1956
  6. ^ See Padel 1994 Sims-Williams 1991 Green 2007b and Roberts 1991a
  7. ^Dumville 1986 Higham 2002, pp. 116–169 Green 2007b, pp. 15–26, 30–38.
  8. ^Green 2007b, pp. 26–30 Koch 1996, pp. 251–253.
  9. ^Charles-Edwards 1991, p. 29
  10. ^Morris 1973
  11. ^Myres 1986, p. 16
  12. ^ Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, chapter 26.
  13. ^Pryor 2004, pp. 22–27
  14. ^ Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Book 1.16.
  15. ^Dumville 1977, pp. 187–188
  16. ^Green 2009 Padel 1994 Green 2007b, chapters five and seven.
  17. ^Historia Brittonum56, 73 Annales Cambriae516, 537.
  18. ^ For example, Ashley 2005.
  19. ^Heroic Age 1999
  20. ^ Modern scholarship views the Glastonbury cross as the result of a probably late-12th-century fraud. See Rahtz 1993 and Carey 1999.
  21. ^ Andrew Breeze, "The Historical Arthur and Sixth-Century Scotland", Northern History52:2:158-181 (2015)
  22. ^ Breeze, Andrew (2020). British Battles 493-937: Mount Badon to Brunanburh. London. pp. 13–24. JSTORj.ctvv4187r.
  23. ^
  24. "King Arthur 'was real, wasn't a king. and lived in Strathclyde ' ". The Independent . Retrieved 30 December 2015 .
  25. ^
  26. Higham, Nicholas J. (2018). King Arthur: The Making of the Legend. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 262–63. ISBN978-0-300-21092-7 .
  27. ^
  28. "537 and Camlann (Flint Johnson, University of Wisconsin - River Falls)". researchgate.net . Retrieved 19 April 2021 .
  29. ^Littleton & Malcor 1994
  30. ^Ashe 1985
  31. ^Reno 1996
  32. ^Phillips & Keatman 1992
  33. ^Gilbert, Wilson & Blackett 1998
  34. ^Koch 2006, p. 121
  35. ^Malone 1925
  36. ^ Marcella Chelotti, Vincenza Morizio, Marina Silvestrini, Le epigrafi romane di Canosa, Volume 1, Edipuglia srl, 1990, pp. 261, 264.
  37. ^ Ciro Santoro, "Per la nuova iscrizione messapica di Oria", La Zagaglia, A. VII, n. 27, 1965, pp. 271–293.
  38. ^ Ciro Santoro, "La Nuova Epigrafe Messapica "IM 4. 16, I-III" di Ostuni ed nomi" in Art-, Ricerche e Studi, Volume 12, 1979, pp. 45–60
  39. ^ Wilhelm Schulze, "Zur Geschichte lateinischer Eigennamen" (Volume 5, Issue 2 of Abhandlungen der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philologisch-Historische Klasse, Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften Göttingen Philologisch-Historische Klasse), 2nd edition, Weidmann, 1966, p. 72, pp. 333–338
  40. ^ Olli Salomies, Die römischen Vornamen. Studien zur römischen Namengebung. Helsinki 1987, p. 68
  41. ^ Herbig, Gust., "Falisca", Glotta, Band II, Göttingen, 1910, p. 98
  42. ^Zimmer 2009
  43. ^Koch 1996, p. 253
  44. ^ See Higham 2002, p. 74.
  45. ^ See Higham 2002, p. 80.
  46. ^Chambers 1964, p. 170 Bromwich 1978, p. 544 Johnson 2002, pp. 38–39 Walter 2005, p. 74 Zimmer 2006, p. 37 Zimmer 2009
  47. ^Anderson 2004, pp. 28–29 Green 2007b, pp. 191–194.
  48. ^Green 2007b, pp. 45–176
  49. ^Green 2007b, pp. 93–130
  50. ^Padel 1994 has a thorough discussion of this aspect of Arthur's character.
  51. ^Green 2007b, pp. 135–176. On his possessions and wife, see also Ford 1983.
  52. ^Williams 1937, p. 64, line 1242
  53. ^Charles-Edwards 1991, p. 15 Koch 1996, pp. 242–245 Green 2007b, pp. 13–15, 50–52.
  54. ^ See, for example, Haycock 1983–1984 and Koch 1996, pp. 264–265.
  55. ^ Online translations of this poem are out-dated and inaccurate. See Haycock 2007, pp. 293–311 for a full translation, and Green 2007b, p. 197 for a discussion of its Arthurian aspects.
  56. ^ See, for example, Green 2007b, pp. 54–67 and Budgey 1992, who includes a translation.
  57. ^Koch & Carey 1994, pp. 314–15
  58. ^Lanier 1881
  59. ^Sims-Williams 1991, pp. 38–46 has a full translation and analysis of this poem.
  60. ^ For a discussion of the tale, see Bromwich & Evans 1992 see also Padel 1994, pp. 2–4 Roberts 1991a and Green 2007b, pp. 67–72 and chapter three.
  61. ^Barber 1986, pp. 17–18, 49 Bromwich 1978
  62. ^Roberts 1991a, pp. 78, 81
  63. ^Roberts 1991a
  64. ^ Translated in Coe & Young 1995, pp. 22–27. On the Glastonbury tale and its Otherworldly antecedents, see Sims-Williams 1991, pp. 58–61.
  65. ^Coe & Young 1995, pp. 26–37
  66. ^ Bourgès, André-Yves, "Guillaume le Breton et l'hagiographie bretonne aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles", in: Annales de Bretagne et des pays de l'Ouest, 1995, 102–1, pp. 35–45.
  67. ^ See Ashe 1985 for an attempt to use this vita as a historical source.
  68. ^Padel 1994, pp. 8–12 Green 2007b, pp. 72–75, 259, 261–262 Bullock-Davies 1982
  69. ^Wright 1985 Thorpe 1966
  70. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum BritanniaeBook 8.19–24, Book 9, Book 10, Book 11.1–2
  71. ^Roberts 1991b, p. 106 Padel 1994, pp. 11–12
  72. ^Green 2007b, pp. 217–219
  73. ^Roberts 1991b, pp. 109–110, 112 Bromwich & Evans 1992, pp. 64–65
  74. ^Roberts 1991b, p. 108
  75. ^Bromwich 1978, pp. 454–455
  76. ^ See, for example, Brooke 1986, p. 95.
  77. ^Ashe 1985, p. 6 Padel 1995, p. 110 Higham 2002, p. 76.
  78. ^Crick 1989
  79. ^Sweet 2004, p. 140. See further, Roberts 1991b and Roberts 1980.
  80. ^ As noted by, for example, Ashe 1996.
  81. ^ For example, Thorpe 1966, p. 29
  82. ^Stokstad 1996
  83. ^Loomis 1956 Bromwich 1983 Bromwich 1991.
  84. ^Lacy 1996a, p. 16 Morris 1982, p. 2.
  85. ^ For example, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum BritanniaeBook 10.3.
  86. ^Padel 2000, p. 81
  87. ^Morris 1982, pp. 99–102 Lacy 1996a, p. 17.
  88. ^Lacy 1996a, p. 17
  89. ^Pyle 1903
  90. ^Burgess & Busby 1999
  91. ^Lacy 1996b
  92. ^Kibler & Carroll 1991, p. 1
  93. ^Lacy 1996b, p. 88
  94. ^Roach 1949–83
  95. ^Ulrich von Zatzikhoven 2005
  96. ^Padel 2000, pp. 77–82
  97. ^ See Jones & Jones 1949 for accurate translations of all three texts. It is not entirely certain what, exactly, the relationship is between these Welsh romances and Chrétien's works, however: see Koch 1996, pp. 280–288 for a survey of opinions
  98. ^BNF c. 1475, fol. 610v
  99. ^ abLacy 1992–96
  100. ^ For a study of this cycle, see Burns 1985.
  101. ^Lacy 1996c, p. 344
  102. ^ On Malory and his work, see Field 1993 and Field 1998.
  103. ^Vinaver 1990
  104. ^Carley 1984
  105. ^Parins 1995, p. 5
  106. ^ abAshe 1968, pp. 20–21 Merriman 1973
  107. ^Green 2007a
  108. ^Parins 1995, pp. 8–10
  109. ^Wordsworth 1835
  110. ^ See Potwin 1902 for the sources that Tennyson used when writing this poem
  111. ^Taylor & Brewer 1983, p. 127
  112. ^ See Rosenberg 1973 and Taylor & Brewer 1983, pp. 89–128 for analyses of The Idylls of the King.
  113. ^ See, for example, Simpson 1990.
  114. ^Staines 1996, p. 449
  115. ^Taylor & Brewer 1983, pp. 127–161 Mancoff 1990.
  116. ^Green 2007a, p. 127 Gamerschlag 1983
  117. ^Twain 1889 Smith & Thompson 1996.
  118. ^Watson 2002
  119. ^Mancoff 1990
  120. ^Workman 1994
  121. ^Hardy 1923 Binyon 1923 and Masefield 1927
  122. ^Eliot 1949 Barber 2004, pp. 327–328
  123. ^White 1958 Bradley 1982 Tondro 2002, p. 170
  124. ^Lagorio 1996
  125. ^Lupack & Lupack 1991
  126. ^Porius. New York: Overlook Duckworth 2007. pp. 8–19.
  127. ^ C. A. Coates, John Cowper Powys in Search of a Landscape. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1982, p. 139.
  128. ^ New York: Simon and Schuster. C. A. Coates, John Cowper Powys in Search of a Landscape. pp. 92–97.
  129. ^Harty 1996 Harty 1997
  130. ^Taylor & Brewer 1983, chapter nine see also Higham 2002, pp. 21–22, 30.
  131. ^Thompson 1996, p. 141
  132. ^ For example: Rosemary Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers (1959) and Sword at Sunset (1963) Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave (1970) and its sequels Parke Godwin's Firelord (1980) and its sequels Stephen Lawhead'sThe Pendragon Cycle (1987–99) Nikolai Tolstoy's The Coming of the King (1988) Jack Whyte's The Camulod Chronicles (1992–97) and Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles (1995–97). See List of books about King Arthur.
  133. ^Thomas 1993, pp. 128–131
  134. ^Lupack 2002, p. 2 Forbush & Forbush 1915
  135. ^Lacy 1996d, p. 364


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Further reading

  • Breeze, Andrew (September 2015). "The Historical Arthur and Sixth-Century Scotland". Northern History. LII (2): 158–181. doi:10.1179/0078172x15z.00000000085.
  • Breeze, Andrew (September 2016). "Arthur's Battles and the Volcanic Winter of 536-7". Northern History. LIII (2): 161–172. doi:10.1080/0078172x.2016.1195600.
  • Halsall, Guy (2013). Worlds of Arthur: Facts & Fictions of the Dark Ages. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN978-0-19-870084-5 .
  • Higham, Nicholas J. (2018). King Arthur : the making of the legend. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN978-0-300-21092-7 .
  • Media from Wikimedia Commons
  • Quotations from Wikiquote
  • Texts from Wikisource
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Aegean Art

Aegean art covers two major pre-Greek civilizations: the Minoans and the Mycenaeans. This unit provides a nice segue between ancient Near Eastern (Mesopotamian and Egyptian) art and Greek art. Both the Minoans and the Mycenaeans were influenced by these earlier civilzations (their writing systems, for instance, are thought to be adaptations of Egyptian and Mesopotamian systems), and the Mycenaeans, who eventually colonized Minoan Crete, were the immediate forerunners of the ancient Greeks.

This unit is a wonderful place to talk about the ways that artistic representation expresses cultural values: for the Minoans, in terms of their relationship to the environment, and for the Mycenaeans, in terms of displays of political power. These two concepts are still very palpable in students’ lives today, and it’s fun to use this lesson as a way for them to think about how contemporary visual culture relates to our social, political, and geographic relationships.

This is also good chance to introduce the concept of institutional history, or historiography. Both the Minoan and Mycenaean sites were discovered and excavated around the turn of the last century by Western archaeologists, who had their own culturally specific agendas.

Finally, this unit is a wonderful opportunity to introduce the question of epistemology: how do we know what we know? The Minoan culture is an especially good place to get students to question their assumptions about what art means. You might begin the class by showing a simple Minoan object such as the Octopus Flask, and ask students to do a quick free write about what they think it symbolizes or represents. Then, either right away or later in the lesson, you can ask students to think about what evidence they would need in order to prove their theories—evidence that is unlikely to be available, since we have no decipherable written documents from the Minoan culture and thus know little about their specific beliefs and traditions.

Background Readings

Octopus Flask, Minoan, c. 1500 BCE.

Background reading could include excerpts from your course textbook, the thematic essays on Minoan and Mycenaean art from the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Teacher Guide, which covers the history of these cultures in detail. A good article titled “The Greek Age of Heroes: Myth Becomes History” by Carol G. Thomas is available through the Bulletin of The Historical Society (Boston)—this is a nice discussion of key German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s conflation of Homeric myths with archaeological research.

As for web resources, Undergraduate student Heather Gustafson (University of South Florida) has created a really nice, simple web overview of Knossos, which discusses Arthur Evans and the reconstruction of Minoan frescoes. This is not only a good example of a student research paper, but connects directly to the themes of institutional critique, historiography, and epistemology. The British School at Athens has an online virtual tour of Knossos with lots of good images. Classicist Janice Siegel (aka “Dr. J.”) of Hampden-Sydney College has an amazingly detailed website on many classical sites, including Mycenae. For a more simple introduction, Rick Steves has a great, short video clip on Mycenae.

Content Suggestions

This lecture is split into two main sections: Minoan and Mycenaean art. The main questions for this lecture are:

  • How are a society’s structure and values reflected in their art and architecture?
  • How do we know what we know about these societies, and what conclusions can we (or can’t we) draw from the available evidence?

In an hour and fifteen minutes, these questions can be investigated through many objects and architectural structures, including:

    (Minoan), c. 1500 BCE . c. 1500 BCE , Palace at Knossos, and its ruins today, c. 1500 BCE , c. 1500 BCE , c. 1600–1200 BCE , c. 1250 BCE
  • “Tomb of Agamemnon,” c. 1250 BCE
  • “Mask of Agamemnon,” 1600–1500 BCE , 1200–1100 BCE

(As an optional segue from Prehistoric art, you could start by talking about Cycladic art, which has little relation stylistically to later Aegean art, but demonstrates the importance of marble as a material for art and architecture in the region.)

The Minoan civilization (c. 3500–1050 BCE: named for the legendary King Minos, keeper of the Minotaur, by twentieth-century archaeologist Arthur Evans, who thought the ruins were similar to the mythical labyrinth) on the island of Crete was an agrarian society whose livelihood depended on farming, fishing, and sea trade. Returning to the Octopus Flask from your first activity, you might ask your class to ruminate on how these aspects of their society are reflected in their art. How can we tell, without written documents, that the sea was important to them? What can the intended use of this object (as a flask for holding olive oil or wine) tell us about how the society functioned economically?

A preference for aquatic motifs is further evidenced in the Dolphin Fresco from the ruins of Knossos, the capital among the Minoans’ four major urban centers. This is a great point at which to discuss the medium of fresco, which students will see again in later units.

The “Palace” (its twentieth-century appellation) at Knossos was actually a very large, urban complex comprising many kinds of spaces, including storage areas for olive oil, workshops, meeting rooms, and possibly ceremonial spaces as well, in addition to the royal living quarters. The Minoans were talented engineers: the “Palace” had a highly-functioning water system, including toilets that flushed. The “Queen’s Megaron” (home to the dolphin frescoes) is a good example of the kinds of spaces that the palace contained: open to the air through a colonnade on one side, it would’ve been comfortable year-round in the hot climate of the Mediterranean. Again, we don’t (and can’t) know for sure that this was actually the “Queen’s Megaron” (“Megaron” means “main room”)—this was the interpretation given to it by Evans.

Another Minoan mystery is bull-leaping, an activity depicted in several Minoan frescoes (here, the so-called Bull-Leaping Fresco) and sculptures where young men and women appear to perform acrobatic feats with these animals. This activity may have had a religious meaning, though the exact significance remains unclear. This is a great point in the lecture to emphasize the value of deciphering iconography: could we find out what this image actually depicted? Was it a real ceremony? If so, does it depict three people, or is there a narrative arc in the image depicting one person acting over time (i.e., leaping over the bull)? Is it a symbolic allusion to heavenly constellations (Orion and Taurus), as certain scholars have suggested? Something else? How can we know? Why have archaeologists and art historians “read” these images in these ways? What types of evidence did they/would we need in order to be sure, or, at the very least, to mount a convincing argument?

As a commercial society, the Minoans relied on written communication, first using a pictographic system probably adapted from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and then a linear one (which archeologists have dubbed “Linear A”), which is possibly an offshoot or version of Mesopotamian cuneiform. However, because Linear A has yet to be deciphered, much about the Minoan civilization (including what these people actually called themselves, and the intended meaning of the bull-leaping frescoes and other works of art) remains unknown.

What we can see in the bull-leaping frescoes, as well as in other works from Knossos and from neighboring Akrotiri, are clear artistic conventions that read as a distinct style. These conventions include the depiction of figures in profile, differing skin tones used to depict men (reddish-brown) and women (white), strong linearity, and a sense of movement and dynamism.

The Mycenaean culture arose on the Greek mainland around the same time as the Minoans, and they also had a writing system (called “Linear B” by archaeologists) which has been deciphered. Their language was a very early form of Greek, making them the closest forerunners to the classical Greek civilization that your students will learn about in a later unit.

Like the Minoan sites, Mycenae was excavated by a Western European archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, in the late nineteenth century. He was looking for evidence of the Homeric epics (the Iliad and the Odyssey), especially the legendary city of Troy. He claimed that Mycenae was the mythical and historical home of King Agamemnon, which is why one of the objects found there is still commonly referred to as the “Mask of Agamemnon.” Again, we are confronted here with the problem of verifying such claims.

As a society that was prone to military conflict, Mycenae takes the form of a citadel—a fortified palace complex surrounded by thick masonry walls and set on an easily defensible hill with sharp cliffs. This stands in stark contrast to the mercantile city Knossos, with its open design. The Mycenaeans’ wealth and power were displayed at the main entrance by the relief figures of two lions (called the “Lion or Lioness Gate”). Some historians surmise that their heads may have been made from bronze or gold, and were thus looted—there are still holes in the stone where their heads would have been attached. Here, again, we can ask how we know what we know: can we know whether the lions are male or female? Why would the Mycenaeans have chosen lions for this work? What do they symbolize? Can we know for sure?

Though we don’t know of any symbolic meaning or historical importance of lions within this society, we can be fairly certain that they stood there in order to represent the power and prestige of the Mycenaeans. Powerful, intimidating animals, the lions, with their shining heads (assuming they were made from precious materials), would have helped display the wealth and might of these people to any visitor or intruder.

Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans were also great engineers. They created massive, domed burial chambers (tholos or beehive tombs), such as the so-called “Tomb of Agamemnon,” that were spectacular for their time. The technique they used was the corbeled vault: the practice of laying stones on top of one another horizontally, with each layer positioned slightly further inward than the previous one, and balanced by other stones or, in this case, earth laid next to and on top of them. This is a good moment to discuss the difference between an arch and a vault. You can also take this opportunity to introduce the vocabulary of post and lintel construction, seen in the doorway of the tomb.

When they were first discovered by Schliemann, these graves held many gold burial objects, including the aforementioned “Mask of Agamemnon.” In addition to helping your students question how and why art objects get named, the mask is also a great example for discussing gold-working techniques such as repoussé, as well as formal qualities like the reductive stylization of the facial features. You could also use this object to compare Mycenaean burial practices to other funerary cultures such as those in ancient Egypt or Latin America.

Finally, there is evidence of mutual influence between Mycenaean and Minoan culture on the creation of pottery. The Stirrup Jar with Octopus displays a similar penchant for sea creature motifs, but the figure is depicted much more abstractly.

At the End of Class.

The Stirrup Jar with Octopus makes for a great compare-and-contrast exercise when paired with the Octopus Flask. You might have your students do a quick five-minute free write comparing the two objects and practicing the formal vocabulary they’ve learned (abstraction, figuration, linearity, stylization, and so on).

Alternatively, you could return to the Octopus Flask and continue your discussion of evidence. One way to do this exercise might be to have the students imagine that they are archaeologists from the future, coming upon a simple object from our own time, such as a mug with a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it. Without any written evidence to accompany it, what kinds of conclusions might such a person draw from simply looking at the object? Would they be correct? Help them explore the limits of what they can know from purely visual evidence.

Finally, a third option for a quick end-of-class activity would be to have students design their own version of the Octopus Flask or Lion(ess) Gate. If they were to create objects like this with themes from today’s world, what would they pick? How do these themes express our own culture’s values—our means of livelihood, our aesthetic preferences, and/or our means of political power?

Further Resources

Naraelle Hohensee is Managing Editor at Smarthistory and a digital content producer for education. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter or Instagram @naraelle.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.

AHTR is grateful for funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the CUNY Graduate Center.


Could the ruins of Viroconium be those of the historical Camelot? On visiting the site of this old Roman city I was astonished to find that it stood in quiet countryside just outside the tranquil village of Wroxeter, in central England. The remains of most Roman ruins are situated at the heart of modern cities, many of their ancient secrets buried beneath office blocks, apartment buildings, and busy streets. By contrast, the foundations of Viroconium--including a section of wall around thirty feet high, the largest free-standing Roman ruin in all England--can still be seen today. What now survives above ground is what had been the heart of Viroconium, including a basilica, a bath house, and recreational hall, together with administrative structures, and a public forum. The city had been a thriving metropolis in Roman times, but what about the period Arthur seems to have led the Britons, around AD 500, some ninety years after the Roman legions departed? Did it still survive, or had it been abandoned? A small museum stood on the site, so I interviewed the curator. He explained that as the remains of Viroconium were in open countryside they provided an excellent opportunity for excavation, and much archaeological work had been conducted there. It not only revealed much about the city during Roman times, but during the post-Roman era--the period King Arthur is said to have lived.

In the mid-1960s an extensive archaeological excavation was initiated at the Viroconium site. It was to last for over a decade, bringing to light a series of remarkable discoveries. The dig, led by archaeologist Philip Barker from the University of Birmingham, produced a mass of evidence for the period following the end of Roman rule. The results showed that rather than being abandoned for a more defensive site, like so many other Roman towns of the time, Viroconium not only continued to be occupied but was rebuilt and refortified. From the excavation of post holes, and other tell-tale signs in the foundations and substructure of the city, the new buildings were found to have been made primarily of timber, not bricks and mortar like the earlier Roman town. When the evidence emerging from the dig was collated, these new buildings were discovered to have been highly sophisticated. From the timber remains, it was possible to ascertain that the buildings were large and elaborate constructions of Roman design, with colonnades and orderly facades, many being several stories high. It appears, therefore, that shortly after the Romans left, Viroconium assumed a new importance. A second stage of rebuilding took place in the late fifth century, altogether more grandiose than the first. The excavation in the center of the city showed that the area had been entirely rebuilt. Not only were new buildings erected and streets re-planned, but the infrastructure was also repaired. A new drainage system and fresh water supply was installed through an elaborate arrangement of aqueducts. Long stretches of the Roman cobbled roads were also dug up and relaid. A new kind of town came into existence. Gone was the leisure complex of the imperial occupation, and in its place arose a dynamic trading center and hive of industry. Far from struggling to survive the civil strife inflicting the rest of early Dark Age Britain, Viroconium was a thriving industrial complex, the only example of such prosperity from that time discovered anywhere in the country. Without doubt, it had been the capital of post-Roman Britain right through the fifth century.

When I researched how such a thing was possible, at a time other contemporary cities had been deserted, the inhabitants making their homes in far less elaborated hill forts, I discovered that it was due primarily to two factors. The area around Viroconium had remained prosperous because it contained some of the most fertile land in Britain, and it was situated well away from the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons, Picts, and Irish that occurred in the fifth century. Where many other districts were struggling, suffering famine and fighting for survival, Viroconium was free to prosper. There was additional reason for the city’s fortune. It stood at a vital strategic location. Not only was it centrally placed, but it stood at the heart of the arterial trade routes of the period. At Viroconium, Watling Street, arguably the most important Roman road in Britain, made contact with the River Severn, one of the country’s most significant waterways. Upstream, the Severn penetrates deep into the heartland of Wales while downstream it arcs across the West Midlands, flowing to the sea through the Bristol Channel. Additionally, the Roman road network linked Viroconium with other important fortifications in the area, such as Forden to the west, Leintwardine to the south, and Chester to the north. Much of this network is still preserved in the pattern of modern roads. The heart of Viroconium was refortified, not with stone walls that needed Roman soldiers to patrol, but with timber stockades built on high earthen banks, surrounded by deep ditches, more than suitable to repel less-equipped warriors and hostile Dark Age warlords.

The nerve center of this new Viroconium appears to have been a massive winged building constructed on the site of the old basilica. It seems to have been a Roman-style mansion, accompanied by a complex of adjoining buildings and out-houses, similar to those that had once been the homes of Rome’s provincial governors. The archaeologists determined that this must have been the seat of the person who had organized the reconstruction of the city--someone who enjoyed considerable power. Archaeologists seldom speculate, but it was quite clear to me who this person had been. The period of rebuilding, around the year 500, corresponded precisely with the purported reign of King Arthur. Moreover, it was the very time that he was said to have ruled from Britain’s most prosperous and powerful city--a city that became known in legend as Camelot.

Watch the video: Η Απαγορευμένη ταινία: Η καταστροφή της Σμύρνης 1922 του Νίκου Κούνδουρου