The earliest surviving "historical" evidence about a mighty British king that might have been Arthur (or might not[) comes from a short "history." The work is really a rant against the pride of the "British"--that is, the Celtic peoples of Wales--by a writer named Gildas from about the year A.D. 550. Gildas mentions a fierce battle at Mount Badon against invading pagan Saxons, a war that later writers claim Arthur fought. How long it took for the legend of Arthur to develop is not certain.
And So the Tale Grows
However, stories about King Arthur only really started flowing in the mid-1100s, almost 600 years after he was supposed to have lived! It began with a popular history by Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing about 70 years after the Normans had conquered England by defeating the Anglo-Saxons. Geoffrey, who came from Wales but spent most of his life near Oxford University, says he was given "a very ancient book in the British [i.e., Welsh] language." He claims that he simply translated the text into Latin, the common language of historical writing, for his English and Norman readers.
How much Geoffrey created and how much he somehow learned is as mysterious as King Arthur himself. Geoffrey's history, which was finished by 1138, describes a period of English and Welsh history that other historians barely covered: from about the year 1200 B.C. to about A.D. 689. In his dry style, Geoffrey tells of a king who makes a flying machine. He also includes a story about King Leir and his two ungrateful daughters and one loving daughter named Cordelia. This tale is actually the earliest version of the story that the renowned English playwright Shakespeare made famous around 1605 in his tragedy titled King Lear.
Geoffrey first presented Arthur in "historical" terms, dating his reign to A.D. 542. He describes Arthur's birth, however, in amazing terms. He tells how Arthur's father, King Uther Pendragon, asked the magician Merlin to make him look like the husband of Igerna, a beautiful, married lady whom Uther loved. It may be no accident that in Welsh literature, the term eigr often is used to mean "beautiful woman." Luckily for Uther, Igerna's real husband died in a fight. According to Geoffrey, the new couple loved each other anyway, and Arthur was born.
He Shall Return!
The "sword in the stone" story, and Lancelot's love for Arthur's wife, Guinevere, are well-known, but neither appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's version. Instead, Geoffrey dryly relates how Arthur conquered all the kings of Britain, Europe, and even Rome. Geoffrey does tell the sad story of Arthur's downfall. Betrayed to the Saxons by his nephew Mordred, Arthur, mortally wounded, was taken to the isle of Avalon. Again according to Geoffrey, Merlin prophesied that Arthur was kept magically safe on the isle so he could return alive some day. Other writers from the 12th and even 13th centuries said that the Welsh especially believed this. But only in the 16th century did Arthur's return become a regular part of the story.
Geoffrey's picture of a vanished heroic "British" world must have impressed his Norman English readers, who considered the Anglo-Saxons whom they had conquered only a few decades earlier crude and primitive. Since Geoffrey says that the Saxons destroyed Arthur's glorious kingdom, the Normans might also not look so bad for having destroyed the Anglo-Saxons. Most medieval writers treated Geoffrey's story as real--or real enough to use its dates and names. Kings claimed to be descended from him. Countless further romances about Arthur's knights were written in all languages spoken throughout medieval Europe.
'Don't Believe Any of It!'
Was history really different from good stories for people so long ago? At least one medieval writer in Geoffrey's time thought it was all legendary. William of Newburgh scoffed at the idea of a king whose power was so great that "his little finger was broader than the back of Alexander the Great." William was also troubled that so few major Latin historians before Geoffrey knew anything about so great a king. Interestingly, William does mention the existence of "old, fictitious stories by the Britons." But, for William, Geoffrey's reliance on and elaboration of old Welsh fables just made his "shameless lying" worse. Still, until the 14th and 15th centuries, it is difficult to find other writers who seriously doubt Geoffrey's basic story. By the mid-14th century, however, more skeptics did appear. Yet many others continued to defend Arthur's reality.
Most modern historians think Geoffrey's account is a compilation of scattered legends. If so, it was an amazing hoax that many chose to repeat. The skeletons of both Arthur and Guinevere were said to be unearthed at Glastonbury Abbey in the late 1100s, near a tablet with Latin text on it (see page 27). The tablet was lost sometime after 1600, but a Renaissance historian had made a sketch of it. In the sketch, the writing appears to be in the style of the 10th century--well before it was dug up. Still, that is hundreds of years after Arthur supposedly lived. The oldest books and charters owned by Glastonbury Abbey also date to the 10th century. Perhaps someone or a group of people, copied their style of writing to make the tablet seem old.
A Kernel of Truth?
Stories passed down from memory can contain truth, especially in a world where few people could read or write. But stories that are passed down in that manner usually are transformed to suit people's lives or ideals at the time. For all of its dry and simple style, Geoffrey's history certainly shows creative rewriting. It would be extremely interesting if someone could find the "very ancient book" he used--if it ever existed! Meantime, old medieval books fill special libraries, awaiting more investigation. The story of Arthur continues to give people a good reason to explore an ancient, lost past--just as it did in Geoffrey of Monmouth's day.
Andrew Galloway teaches and writes about medieval literature at Cornell University.