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The Truth of Arthur

A Legendary King

By

King Arthur on the Christian Heroes Tapestry

Depiction of King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies on the Christian Heroes Tapestry, c. 1385.

Public Domain
In an age of treachery and darkness, one king brought peace and prosperity to his land, defended it from every danger, and expanded it to an empire that would rival Rome itself. His wise counselor taught him the ways of justice and to value truth. At his command a loyal band of fearless, gentle knights protected the helpless, struggled against evil, and faced unimagined peril in the search for the holiest of relics. Though his queen and his best knight would betray him, though his own son would defeat him, though the shining kingdom he had forged would fall into ruin, still he set the standard by which all other leaders would be judged for centuries.

He was the legendary King Arthur...

Alas, that's exactly what King Arthur is: legendary. Over the centuries, an extraordinary corpus of art and literature has grown up around this mythic figure--hundreds of books, poems, films and comics have told his story. It might be reasonable to assume that these tales are based on at least a kernel of fact. But the truth is that, as yet, no one has been able to offer any conclusive proof that a real, historical, human King Arthur ever existed in any incarnation or by any name.

The idea that Arthur was not a historical king has not always been prevalent. For several hundred years, particularly among late medieval British leaders, King Arthur enjoyed a respected, even exalted place in history. But that place rested on the shaky foundation of The History of the Kings of Britain, an ambitious chronicle by a monk of Welsh origins, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Although not the earliest existing source that mentions Arthur, it is the first to identify him as a high king from Britain's past.

In his History, Geoffrey sets forth Arthur's heritage, birth, childhood, ascension to the throne, military conquests, international relations, and death. He places Arthur's life in a span of time ranging from the late fifth century to 542, when the king was mortally wounded in his last, tragic battle. He names Arthur's family and associates and relates their deeds and backgrounds. It is the story set forth in this work that became the basis of the Arthurian legend as expounded upon by such literary greats as Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory.

Geoffrey completed his History sometime in the 1130's, using earlier sources such as Gildas, Nennius, The Annales Cambriae and Bede. Only the work of Gildas, who did not mention Arthur by name, dates as far back as the sixth century, when Arthur supposedly lived; and none of these chronicles provides the extensive details concerning Arthur's life that Geoffrey gives us. So where did he get his facts? Geoffrey claimed to have had in his possession a "certain very ancient book written in the British language." Unfortunately, this book has never been found, and as the centuries progressed its very existence was called into question. But would Geoffrey make any of his History up? And if so, why?

 

This feature was originally published at the Medieval History Site in March, 1999, and was revised in June, 2004.

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