Author - TBA
Originally Published 1995
If you go into any pagan, new age or major book retailer in the country you will find at least half a dozen, even a score, of books dedicated to the legends of King Arthur or the Grail, often within a “celtic magic” or “Celtic mysteries” section.
These are just a tiny selection of the countless hundreds, if not thousands, of books written about Arthur and the Grail mysteries or including pathworkings based upon Arthurian legend and symbolism or on the Grail Tradition.
So who was the real “King Arthur”? Why is he so important to readers today? In particular, why does he appeal to so many practising pagans?
In this article, I intend to review a number of practical questions concerning Arthur. Who was Arthur? Did he exist as a flesh and blood historical character? If so, where was he born? Where did he live and where was his power base? Was he a king at all? If he was, was he the agreed king of the resisting British tribes? How many of the exploits and legends attributed to him are true and how much is exaggeration or simply false? Where are the sites of his many exploits and battles? Did the supporting characters attributed to his legends really exist and in the relationships to him as described? Finally, where was he laid to rest? Up to a decade or so ago, many historians decried the existence of Arthur as a real life character, preferring to consign him to the ranks of mere legend and myth. Over recent years attitudes have changed and the consensus of opinion amongst respected historians seems to accept the reality of Arthur as at least a leading battle chief, a dux bellorum, of the Britons, if not actually the king. However it should come as no surprise that often today’s “historical fact” can become tomorrow’s “old wives’ tale”. (No disparagement intended to any old wives out there.)
Unfortunately we have, to day, no surviving written accounts contemporaneous with the period, the late 5th and early 6th centuries CE, of the British resistance to the encroachment by the Angles, Jutes, Irish, Saxons and others. Britain had been under increasing siege from both raiding parties and colonists since the withdrawal of the Roman legions at the end of the 4th or early 5th century CE.
The earliest account we have in our museums and libraries are copied manuscripts of Gildas’ writings of the 6th century, De excidio conquesta Britanniae; by his own account, born at the pinnacle of one of the great victories of the Britons attributed to Arthur, the Battle of Badon.
It is also true, however, that Gildas (in his book of complaints against his fellow contemporary British kings and leaders) mentions the Battle of Badon but does not state who was the British leader - a ‘sin’ he is guilty of in many of his historical allusions.
It has also been suggested that Arthur was not popular with the clergy in his own lifetime and later, that he had already become invested by the populace with the virtues and powers of a pagan god; invincible, eternal and capable of resurrection, full of a magical strength and possessed of magickal artefacts such as excalibur/caliburn. Gildas would certainly have frowned upon such superstition, barbarism and competition to his own god. Perhaps this is the reason for his failing to mention him by name. This would also explain the wealth of legend which seems to have been attached to Arthur so soon after his demise.
In Nennius’ 9th century copy or version of an original work which he names as the Historia Brittonum, we have the first known written account of the warrior leader of the Britons who took over from Ambrosius: “Arthur fought against the Saxons alongside the kings of the Britons, but he himself was leader in the battles.” Then follows a list of Arthur’s major victories.
The Annales Cambriae compiled in the 10th century mentions Arthur in at least two places; for the year 518 it records “The Battle of Badon in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his “shoulders”1 and the Britons were the victors.” For the year 539: “The Battle of Camlaun (Camlan) in which Arthur and Medraut were slain and there was death (plague) in England and Ireland.”
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae of 1135 is worth quoting in full on the matter: “The strength of the Britons decayed straight away; they would have come to ruin had not Ambrosius, the survivor of the Romans who was monarch of the realm after Vortigern repressed the overweening barbarian through the distinguished achievements of the warrior Arthur. This is the Arthur of who the trifling of the Britons talks so much nonsense even today; a man clearly not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables but to be proclaimed in veracious histories as one who long sustained his tottering country and gave the shattered minds of his fellow countrymen and edge for war.”
William of Malmesbury, writing some 10 years before Geoffrey, makes mention of Arthur aiding Ambrosius Aurelianus in fighting the Angles and Saxons and of leading the Britons at Badon.
The worrying thing is that all these accounts, excepting that of Gildas, who makes not mention of Arthur, were written from 400 to 600 years after Arthur’s supposed death. Nennius purports to have obtained much of his account from a venerable and ancient document, the Historia Brittonum, but unfortunately no copies of it exist today.
It would be comforting to be able to take the accounts of William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth at face value as being based on what has been passed down to them as historical facts relating to well-known characters, but Geoffrey’s Historia in particular is full of wildly erroneous and fanciful accounts of the Britons, including one that the British Isles were originally peopled by Trojan colonists fleeing the Greeks, that the Romans never managed to conquer England, and that Merlinus was the son of a demon (all of which makes me at least doubt the value of his medication if not his sanity).
Are there any earlier accounts that we may rely upon? Most of the earliest stories relating to the exploits of Arthur are found in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Black Book of Carmarthen (these books were named after the colour of their bindings). The earliest copies we have of these are from 1400, 1325 and 1567 respectively. However each of these accounts purports to be a compilation of earlier stories and today linguists believe that by the style and content of the stories there are of a much earlier date than the compilations themselves and were almost certainly memorised and communicated through the oral traditions of the bards.
In the Spoils of Annwn Arthur is depicted as having to steal a magical sword and cauldron from the other world, thus suggesting a pre-Christian legend which later became Christianised into the form we know today as Excalibur/Caliburn and the Grail.
Many other pre-Christian tales are attached to the name of Arthur which, again, from linguistic style and content are believed to be from a very early date. He is mentioned in various bardic triplets including the Three Wicked Uncoverings, a reference to the digging up of the head of Bran the Blessed, thereby allowing the conquering of Britain by invaders, the Three Famous Prisoners and the Three Red Ravagers, in many of which Arthur is depicted as neither the king nor in a positive light.
A number of the biographies of the saints also refer to Arthur, though most of these were written some 300 to 400 years after Arthur’s supposed death, including, ironically, the Life of Gildas written by Caradoc who recounts how Melwas kidnapped Gwenhwyvar and held her at his fort at Glastonbury and how Arthur was unable to storm the fort and of Gildas' intervention and successful conclusion of the matter. Probably the earliest written reference to Arthur as a sing at all (far less King of the Britons) is in a legend from Brittany, the Legend of St Goesnovius, written in the early 11th century.
The name Arthur is contained in a poem Goddodin written down in the early 9th century but in an earlier style. It is a battle poem of the Votadini bard Aneirin from what are now the lowlands of Scotland, describing an epic battle against the Anglo Saxon advance into their territory at the end of the 6th century; a battle in which though they fought bravely they eventually lost. In describing the exploits of one hero Gwawrodur, Aneirin wrote: “Gochone brein du ar vur, Caer ceni bei ef Arthur” - “He glutted black ravens on the wall of the fort, though he was no Arthur”.
In a masterly and well argued book by Graham Philips and Martin Keatman (see Suggested Reading) they argue that Arthur was a descendant of the Votadini clan invited to colonise Wales in the mid 5th century to act as a buffer against raids by the Irish and that the name Arthur was a descriptive epithet or title rather than the hero’s given name, taken from the Brythonic Arth and the Latin Ursus, both meaning Bear, in the same was that Uther was called Pendragon. Certainly no previous name Arthur exists in a British genealogy except as a rare roman reference to an Artorius of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, from which many authors have assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the name Arthur originated by the end of the 6th century; by comparison, no fewer that six of the British royal genealogies show members given the name Arthur, which is quite convincing as further evidence that a war leader who came to be known as Arthur existed.
Allowing therefore that he did exist, where was he born, where was his power base, what of his companions and exploits and where, if at all!, did he die?
Philips and Keatman argue for Arthur’s origin as being in the Kingdom of Gwynedd as the descendent of Cunedda and of Enniaun Girt, warrior kings of the Votadini tribe, the same tribe as that described in the Goddodin, and that his power base was at Viraconium in east Wales or the West Midlands, now Shropshire. Geoffrey gives us Ygerna of Tintagel as the mother of Arthur and his birth place as being at Tintagel; however early excavation of the Norman castle there has so far revealed only an earlier monastic community. In Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Mallory, published 1485) Mallory equates Camelot with Winchester, though due to his patronage and sponsorship this is highly suspect.
Other modern authors have been happy to allow Arthur’s birth anywhere between north Wales and the south west of England, based on the proliferation of legend and early writings from these parts of Britain, on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s and William of Malmesbury’s accounts and on an almost complete lack of decent evidence to the contrary. Favourite candidates for Camelot are those given above, and Leslie Alcock and Geoffrey Ashe’s claims for Cadbury Hill in Somerset. Norma Lorre Goodrich votes for Carlisle and for Arthur having been born in Galloway in south west Scotland. J Morris sees Camelot as being at Camulodunum, ie Colchester in Essex, and R Barber states that the oldest reference to a historical Arthur is that or Arthur MacGabron, King of Dalriada, ie Argyllshire.
Leslie Alcock, in a well-researched and written though sadly outdated book The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, draws us a map of suggested sites for Arthur’s famous battles based on the work of respected historians, which perhaps unconsciously, put such arguments into perspective, offering us six possible sites for the Battle of Badon, two each for Coit Celidon, Urbis Legionis and three for Linnius.
What about the characters and exploits surrounding Arthur? Geoffrey in his Vita Merlini describes Avalon as being the place where Caliburn was forged and also where Morgan led a sisterhood of nine maidens and where Arthur was taken after Camlan to have his wounds tended. For many readers the association of Avalon and Annwyn with Glastonbury Tor and its legends will be well-known. Suffice it to say that in the early Celtic tale The Spoils of Annwyn, nine maidens are the custodians of the magic sword and of the cauldron.
Furthermore, the 1st century Geographer Pomponius Mela describes an island to the west of what is now Brittany wherein live nine priestesses able to heal the sick and foretell the future. The magic sword and cauldron that Arthur had to recover perhaps gives rise to the later Christianisation of Excalibur and the Grail. There are too many accounts of magic cups, cauldrons of plenty, of rebirth and of wisdom to go into any detail in a short article. Interested readers should refer to the stories of the warrior Cuchulain, of the Cauldron of Dagda and of Ceridwen to name a few such tales.
Certainly the first mention of the world grail comes in the French Le Conte del Graal by Chrétien de Troyes, possibly referring to the medieval French word for a platter of dish. It is not until the later Robert de Boron that it is converted into the chalice or cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.
On the subject of late additions, Chrétien de Troyes first introduces Lancelot on his own admission from a story given to him by his patroness, Countess Marie de Champagne. Again, Chrétien in the 12th century adds Camelot to the growing legend. In his writings sponsored by Henry II for his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Robert Ace added the round Table and by the end of the 12th century we are in a Disneyland of Norman castles, drawbridges, wimples, chargers and plate armour, culminating in Thomas Mallory’s late 15th century Le Mort d’Arthur.
Why was there such a huge increase in interest in Arthur in the 12th century and onwards? One possibility is that there was a desire for legitimacy of rule by the Normans over the Anglo-Saxons in their ruling of Britain. There had been a fleeing of some people from Wales and south West England to Brittany in the 5th and 6th centuries to escape the influx of Germanic peoples into England, but more importantly anything that portrayed the resident Anglo Saxons as invaders and usurpers was useful political propaganda for the Norman aristocracy.
Such accounts, or the chivalric versions of them, appealed to the Norman sense of ideals and values, even if they were not always acknowledged in practice. In her book Guinevere, Goodrich offers to subject the rumours about Gwenhwyfar and Arthurian legend “either to evidence or the corroboration of reason ..... with a cool head.”
The name Gwynhwyvar appears in early but undatable Welsh triads as being the name of each of Arthur’s three wives but possibly modelled on an earlier, pre-Christian, goddess Gwenhwyfar meaning White Spirit, possibly a name for Epona in her form as a white lady on a white horse. Geoffrey names Arthur’s wife as Ganhumara from a noble Roman family though there is no mention of her from other, or indeed earlier, sources.
Goodrich states that “Lancelot was certainly Guinevere’s lover” and goes on to give a detailed account of Arthur being born in Galloway in south west Scotland, of Guinevere being a Pictish queen from Stirlingshire, an “area of vital importance to the defence of Britain” (being as it was beyond not only Hadrian’s Wall but also the Antonine Wall?) and of details of Guinevere’s coronation and marriage to Arthur complete with Lord Commissioners, sceptres, crowns, barons, viscounts and heralds, of Guinevere’s being attended by the Lady of the Lake who was High Priestess of the Isle of Man where (according to Goodrich) the Grail Castle was located. And on, and on, and on .....
I do apologise for such vicious criticism of a fellow writer, but when so many authors from Nennius in the 9th century onwards have attempted in their clumsy ways (in Nennius’ own words) to “have heaped together all that I have found from the annals of the Romans, of the Irish and the Saxons and the traditions/stories of our own old men”, to have Goodrich extrapolate from the Romances written for Medieval audiences to invent “facts”, dates, places and relationships is bizarre, not unlike arguing an historical account based on the fine Celtic novels of Stephen Lawhead or the Greek novels of Mary Renault.
Furthermore, she makes conclusions based in the descriptive details contained within such accounts as the Prose Lancelot manuscripts written during the time of Henry II whereas, as Goodrich herself admits, “nothing in the Prose Lancelot comes very close to Guinevere’s real life .....”.. This is very sad, as I had hoped for a much better researched and argued book on an interesting topic from a feminist or sociological, if not a pagan or historical, point of view.
However the same can be said of many of the characters that have become associated with Arthur. None of the texts or triads written down before the 12th century romances include Merlin, Morgan2, Gwenhwyvar, Gawain, Kay or Bedevere, though it is possible that both Morgan and Gwynhwyvar are based upon Celtic goddess legends, just as Percival may well be based upon the Celtic hero Peredur and Merlin on an historical Welsh bard Myrddin, mentioned in the year 575 in the Annales Cambriae, though probably post-dating the lifetime of a historical Arthur. Bedevere makes an appearance in any early tale as a spearman in Culhwch and Olwen with Kay or Cei in the same story as possessing supernatural powers.
Thus many stories and legends of heroes and of gods have attached themselves to the Arthurian flag staff, some between his lifetime and the medieval authors who came to write about his life, but many others from before his lifetime and arising from earlier beliefs and traditions.
And of the manner of Arthur’s death and of his final resting place? Just as many possible sites abound for the Battle of Camlan as for the site of Camelot. The Romances tell us that Arthur’s nephew Mordred (or his son through incest with his sister Morgan) attempts as regent in Arthur’s absence, fighting in the crusades, extending his kingdom or pursuing Guinevere’s lover Lancelot, to usurp the throne and kingdom. Arthur hears of this and fights Mordred at Camlan (in Cornwall, Somerset, west central Wales or Cambo Glana fort/Hadrian’s Wall) and kills him but receives his own fatal wound and is then taken to the Isle of Avalon to die.
The earliest written reference we have to the Battle of Camlan in the Annales Cambriae simply says for the year 539 “the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished and there was a plague in Britain and in Ireland.” There is no mention of the relationship between Medraut and Arthur or indeed that the actually fought against each other.
As for the location of Arthur’s final resting place, the best and most accurate reference to it occurs in the Black Book of Carmarthen which translates simply as “a mystery, the grave of Arthur.”
There is such a wealth of legend and symbolism surrounding Arthur and many well written and well thought out (and many not so) attempts to cast light on a field of which the one thing we know is that we know so very little for definite. At the end of this article please refer to a short bibliography which may well help you to unravel for yourself some of the many matters I have only been able to touch upon.
In conclusion is seems at first glance ironic and not a little mysterious that the figure of Arthur, of his knights and of the Grail should appeal to so many pagans when based on what little we do know of him he was the last bastion of the Christian Britons against the invading pagan Saxons. However I believe that he is relevant on many different levels of understanding. In 6th and 7th century Britain there was little clear division between Christianity and paganism, the beliefs and values of our pagan Celtic forebears continuing on in the rituals, beliefs, superstitions and legends and worship of local gods and goddesses and the practices of the Britons.
Much of this can be seen in the earlier stories of Arthur, the Grail and his knights and indeed even in the later romances of the “purely” Christian England, France and Germany of some 600 to 700 years later. The fact that he had already passed into legend before Nennius’ rendition of the ancient manuscript he claimed to have discovered and that supernatural and magical powers were being attached to him in local legend may well explain some of the early church’s slighting of him in their accounts.
Thus in these earliest romances and legends we hear echoes of our earlier pagan heritage which both enlighten and teach us. It is almost certain that Arthur existed as a real character and that he was a battle chieftain if not a king (or the King of Britain) leading a resurgence of the Britons against the invaders. It is also certain that many earlier and later legends have been built around his person as a useful repository or foundation. Indeed, the symbolical or archetypal Arthur is in many ways more important than the historic flesh and blood Arthur. It is this level that has generated the magic for many people. At various times, Arthur has been depicted as the ideal ruler or leader, as the saviour of his people, as an example of all that is good, holy and just, as a god of the land and of the fertility of the land, as consort of the White Goddess, Epona or Gwenhwyvar, and as the spring, summer and winter king (winter being his betrayal, degradation thus causing a blight upon the land, ultimate sacrifice in death and the recover of the Grail or cauldron as being the hope of rebirth and plenty in spring).
Woven around this symbolic Arthur are the characters of Gwenhwyvar, Merlin, Lancelot, Medraut, Morgan, The round Table, Caliburn/Excalibur and the Grail itself and what these figures represent for us. Thus, whilst I do not do so myself, I believe that it is perfectly legitimate for pagans to borrow from the Arthurian material for pathworkings, for symbolism in ritual or on which to base their values of right action, honour, compassion and generosity of spirit.
One thing is certain, that for centuries to come countless thousands of books will follow in an attempt to disperse the mists that are the veil shrouding the Real Arthur.
1. The Brythonic words for shoulders and shield are almost identical in spelling and sound, and it is likely that the meaning refers to the emblem on Arthur’s shield.
2. Morgan only later becomes the evil Morgan la Fay in the writings of the 13th century vulgate cycle believed to have been written by Cistercian monks.
Suggested Further Reading
Geoffrey Ashe - King Arthur’s Avalon, 1990. A fascinating account and very readable, linking Arthur with Glastonbury.
Leslie Alcock - The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, 1989. A bit heavy going on sources of evidence but very informative.
Richard Barber - King Arthur: Hero and Legend, 1990. Worth reading.
Philips and Keatman - King Arthur, The True Story, 1993. Very well researched and convincing arguments.
Norma Lorre Goodrich - Guinevere, 1992. Hilarious.
R W Dunning - Arthur: the King in the West, 1995. Well written book re-inforcing Arthur’s connection with the west of England.