Lancelot

Here’s the real deal on Lancelot:  In the Welsh tales, he doesn’t exist.  The only adultery that may or may not have occurred is between Gwenhwyfar and Modred and not by Gwenhywfar’s choice.

The French made him up.  There.  I said it.

“Sir Lancelot first appears in Arthurian legend in ‘Le Chevalier de la Charrette’, one of a set of five Arthurian romances written by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes (completed by Godefroy de Lagny) as a large collection of verses, c.1180 to 1240. Lancelot is characterised alongside other knights, notably Gawain, Kay, and Méléagant (or Meliagaunce) – a consistent rival and parallel anti-hero against Lancelot – and is already heavily involved in his legendary romance with Guinevere, King Arthur’s queen.

…Chrétien de Troyes composed ‘Le Chevalier de la Charrette’ at the request of the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, then later the wife of Henry II of England. It was apparently written to foster the notion of the ‘Courts of Love’ as the principal settings for (adulterous) social relations rather than the spontaneous passion typified by the story of Tristan and Iseult. Like other courtly ladies of the day, Guinevere required a lover, and the literary Lancelot – a convenient and suitable hero – was pressed into service.”   http://www.arthurian-legend.com/more-about/more-about-arthur-6.php

In that context, it makes sense (though I still hate it–and hate it more that the Lancelot story has become the King Arthur story.  It is interesting to note that this author also makes the same observation I do in my rant (http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/the-fictional-king-arthur-rant/) that “Lancelot is arguably as important a figure as Arthur himself. In French versions of the legend more attention is focused on Sir Lancelot than on King Arthur”.

“He is first introduced by Chrétien de Troyes and substantially enlarged by the Vulgate cycle. Malory furthers his prominence.

Lancelot is the son of the King of Benoic, Ban. He is carried away from this province of western France, by the Lady of the Lake. She raises him and presents him to Arthur‘s court upon his eighteenth birthday. His marshall prowess and inward nobility are soon apprehended by all. When not on the Quest, he meets with the Round Table and participates in the tournaments, often victoriously. He makes his home the northern castle of Joyous Gard, possibly Bamburgh, at the location of a British fort named Din Guayrdi.

Perhaps his most recognizable role is that of paramour to Arthur’s queen, Guinevere. Though the Queen’s treatment of him at court is aloof and disdainful, according to the tenets of courtly love, their love runs deep and is lasting, though stormy at times. Their love is also integral to Grail legend. While Lancelot is the guest of the Grail-keeper Pelles, Pelles contrives magically to have the knight sleep with his daughter Elaine in the guise of the Queen, whom he has led Lancelot to believe is in the area. Lancelot sleeps with Elaine and the result of their union is Galahad, the chosen Grail-knight. Upon reaching manhood, Galahad comes to court and many knights set forth on the Quest for the Grail. Lancelot himself is denied the Grail because of his aldultery. Ironically however, it is that love that conceived the knight that attains the Grail.”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/l/lancelot.html

The one version of the Lancelot story that I find interesting is actually told by Norma Goodrich, who works with languages.  She claims that Lancelot is derived from a Scottish King Angus (with etymological detail of the transformation of the name).  She says that there was no adultery, which we already knew 🙂 http://www.amazon.com/King-Arthur-Norma-Lorre-Goodrich/dp/0060971827/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

 

 

The Triumph of Medieval Propaganda


Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain back in the 12th century. It was at the behest of Robert of Gloucester, his patron, that he claims to have transcribed/copied/invented his history, placing King Arthur at the center of a national–and by that I mean English–origin myth. The idea was to justify the conquest of Britain by the Normans as a mirror to what King Arthur had done in the 5th century, including crossing the English Channel from Normandy to  Britain.

Children’s author Phillip Womack (author of The Other Book and The Liberators) said in the Times Online:  “As inhabitants of these islands, we don’t have many myths that bring us together, but King Arthur is one.  I think that we will always seek him as a saviour, whatever situation we’re in, because that’s human nature. The reason the Arthur myths are currently so popular is that they reflect our age brilliantly.”

This is a nice quote, and not at all inaccurate, but none-the-less astonishing because this is EXACTLY WHAT GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH INTENDED!  He wrote his book in 1139 AD. It was meant to be a mythology for the nation of England, justifying the Norman conquest of England (and particularly Empress Maud’s claim to the throne) and placing her in the line of rulers dating back to King Arthur and earlier.

Geoffrey’s book was an immediate hit, and for the most part taken by the populace to be ‘true’, even if the scholars at the time dismissed it.  One site states:  “There is nothing in the matter or the style of the Historia to preclude us from supposing that Geoffrey drew partly upon confused traditions, partly on his own powers of invention, and to a very slight degree upon the accepted authorities for early British history.  His chronology is fantastic and incredible; William of Newburgh justly remarks that, if we accepted the events which Geoffrey relates, we should have to suppose that they had happened in another world.”

Furthermore: “William of Newburgh  . . . belongs to the northern school of historians, who carried on the admirable traditions of the Venerable Bede. This was a spirit very unlike that which inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mythical “History of the British Kings” with its tales of King Arthur, and William attacks Geoffrey and his legends with great indignation, calling the latter “impudent and shameless lies“. This striking illustration of his historic integrity won for him from Freeman the title of ‘the father of historical criticism’, and the compliment is not altogether undeserved.”  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15634c.htm

But it doesn’t matter.  Geoffrey had launched the legend of King Arthur upon the world and there was no turning back.

The Great Prophecy of Britain

Armes Prydein Fawr, the Great Prophecy of Britain, is a poem attributed to Taliesin (although could not be his work as it was composed in the 10th century) in which he sings of the return of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon (the hero in my book, The Last Pendragon) and Cynan, another dark age leader of the Welsh people.  Among the Welsh, it was these two, not Arthur, who would return in the future to save Britain.  The motivation was the same, however, in that the poet desires to drive the invading Saxons out of the land that had belonged to the Cymry.

In the poem, Taliesin predicts the allliance of the Irish and Scots with the Welsh towards that purpose.  John Davies, in his book, The History of Wales, writes that the poem expresses frustration with the peaceful, compromising policies of Hywel Dda (c. 930)  towards the Saxons (2007:93).  Further, the poem finds the root of its anguish in the deep sense of loss which became the motivating force behind much of Welsh mythology–the loss of their country to the Saxons after the fall of Rome (2007:48).

Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon was a King of Gwynedd, born in 633 AD.  His father, a powerful king himself who’d allied himself with Mercia in marrying Alcfrith, sister of King Penda, was killed in battle in 634.  With Cadwallon’s death, Gwynedd was left in disarray, and Cadwaladr’s people (whoever they were–there is no record of what happened to Alcfrith so perhaps she died in childbirth), fled Gwynedd with him.  His place was taken by a man named Cadfael of unknown origin.

http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/cadwagd.html

Cadwaladr grew up and returned to overthrow the usurper, ruling from 655 to 682 AD and is recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth as the last great King of Wales.  Consequently, anything that we ‘know’ about Cadwaladr that is based on his story, is probably apocryphal.  What is well established is that the red dragon of Wales–The Red Dragon of Cadwaladr–is attributable to him.

Far less is known about Cynan, who ruled in the middle/late 6th century Powys in the east and southeast of Wales.

http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/cynangpw.html

From Taliesin’s poem (not a fabulous translation, but a free one

http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/t06.html):

With sharp-ground blades utterly they will kill.
There will be no advantage to the physician from what they do.
The armies of Cadwaladyr, mighty they come,
The Cymry were exalted, a battle they made.
A slaughter without measure they assailed.
In the end of their taxes, death they know.
0thers, large branches they planted.
For age of ages their taxes they will not leave off.
In wood, in plain, on lull,
A candle in the dark will go with them.
Cynan opening a forward way in every descent.
Saxons against the Brython, woe they will sing.
Cadwaladyr a pillar with his princes.
Though prudence utterly attending to then.
When they drop their covering over their support.
In affliction, and the crimson gore on the cheeks of the Allmyn.
At the end of every expedition spoil they lead.

Also included in the Book of Taliesin is an enigmatic poem, cut off almost before it begins.  It is called The Prediction of Cadwaladr.

The knight of the swift bay horse
with the double face, creates turmoil:
With treachery afoot, a blessing his
death and burial in Snowdonia.
When our war-lord comes he will make,
in a mead in Prydein, a chief place.
His manifest life will invigorate morals:
and his confines will be to us an Eden.
There will come, thither,
A Saxon seeking hospitality.
Grief he will know; from excess
of presumption, he will sin
The yoking of a wife by a vassal
will renew old hatred: he will
know grief: from presumption
comes contempt; he commits treason.
Did you see my friend
playing with my spouce?
I saw a slim corse,
and crows full of activity.
But the catastrophe lacks the prostrate form
of the sword-stroke.
And beyond the bank of…  (the manuscript is cut off)

Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon

Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon was a real person.  His father, Cadwallon, was killed in the battle of Catscaul or “Cad-ys-gual”, the Battle of the Wall (Heavenfield, near Hexham) in 634 AD.  An unknown usurper, Cadfael ap Cynfeddw, placed himself on the throne of Gwynedd, and was himself overthrown in 655 AD by the twenty-two year old Cadwaladr, Cadwallon’s son, who’d been raised in exile until he could return to claim his birthright.

Cadwaladr is mentioned in the following sources:

The Harlaein Genealogies:  a collection of old Welsh genealogies preserved in British Library, Harleian MS 3859.  They’ve been dated to the reign of Hwyel Dda (10th century).  Cadwaladr is mentioned as the son of Cadwallon and the father of Idwal, all Kings of Gwynedd.

Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales):  A single line:  682 – A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon dies.

Historia Brittonum:  This text was composed sometime between 828 and 830, attributed to Nennius.  Of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, he states:  “Catgualart (Cadwallader) was king among the Britons, succeeding his father, and he himself died amongst the rest.  He slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.”

The Book of Taliesin:  Taliesin was a Welsh poet born in the mid to late 6th century.  Two poems are attributed to him that mention Cadwaladr.  One is The Great Prophecy of Britain in which he rails against the Saxon incursions and praises the rule of Cadwaladr:  “Cadwaladr is a spear at the side of his men; In the forest, in the field, in the vale, on the hill; Cadwaladr is a candle in the darkness walking with us; Gloriously he will come and the Welsh will rise . . .”  (my interpretation)

The second is the Prediction of Cadwaladr, which is incomplete.  It speaks of Cadwaladr, not Arthur, as the one who sleeps in the mountains to return at the nation’s greatest need.

History of the Kings of Britain:  This is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s romantic and fanciful tale, telling the supposed story of the history of Britain from its founding by Brutus to the death of Cadwaladr.

The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is now Wales and England—for about five minutes.

It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions from Europe.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

The rule of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon sits at the resting point between the Welsh retreat and the Saxon advance.  As romanticized by Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the last Pendragon, the last King of Wales before the Cymry fell irretrievably under a wave of Saxon invaders.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth was born sometime around 1100, probably in Monmouth in southeast Wales. “His father was named Arthur. Geoffrey was appointed archdeacon of Llandsaff in 1140 and was consecrated bishop of St. Asaph in 1152. He died c. 1155.

Geoffrey is one of the most significant authors in the development of the Arthurian legends. It was Geoffrey who, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (completed in 1138) located Arthur in the line of British kings. Such an action not only asserted the historicity of Arthur but also gave him an authoritative history which included many events familiar from later romance. Geoffrey also introduced the character of Merlin as we know him into the legends. Geoffrey’s Merlin, a combination of the young and prophetic Ambrosius in Nennius’s history and the prophet Myrddin who figures in several Welsh poems, first appears in a book known as the Prophetiae Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin), which was written about 1135 but then incorporated as Book VII of the Historia. This book contains the prophecies made by Merlin to Vortigern, which foreshadow not only the downfall of Vortigern but also the rise and fall of Arthur, events subsequent to the end of the Historia, and events of the obscure future.”  http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/geoffrey.htm

“Modifying the name of the northern bard Myrddin, Geoffrey uses Welsh predictions of a Celtic revival and many of his own probable invention and ascribes them to the prophet. This work was followed toward 1136-1138 by the Historia Regum Britanniae that incorporated the prophecies in it. Near the end of 1150 he composed a long narrative poem expanding on Welsh traditions about the prophet entitled, Vita Merlini (“Life of Merlin”).”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/geoffrey_of_monmouth.html

By his late twenties, Geoffrey certainly seems to have travelled eastwards to work at the Collegiate Church of St. George at the castle in Oxford.   He remained there, as a tutor of some kind, for at least the next twenty years  and began writing not long after he arrived.  The Prophecies of Merlin appear to have been a series of ancient Celtic prophecies which, at the request of Alexander of Salisbury, Bishop of Lincoln, Geoffrey translated into Latin, perhaps with some additions of his own. “Whether they had previously been attributed to the Northern British bard, Myrddin, is unknown. As with all his works, Geoffrey hoped the prophecies might bring him a lucrative preferment in the Church, and he used its dedication to ingratiate himself with Alexander who was Bishop of his local diocese. Geoffrey made a more appreciative acquaintance while at St. George’s, in the person of Walter the Provost, who was also Archdeacon of the city. In his writings, Geoffrey tells us that Walter gave him “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” and, probably because he was unable to read Welsh (or Breton) himself, the Archdeacon encouraged Geoffrey to translate it into Latin.”

Geoffrey began writing History of the Kings of Britain’ dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Waleran, Count of Mellent in 1136. “At the time, the work was taken at face value and accepted by most as a true history of the Welsh nation from around 1100 bc to around AD 689. Merlin appeared again, as an advisor to Kings Ambrosius and Uther, but the work was most notable for its extensive chapters covering the reign of the great King Arthur. Since the 17th century, however, its author has been largely vilified as an inexorable forger who made up his stories “from an inordinate love of lying”. Modern historians tend to be slightly more sympathetic.

At the end of 1150, Geoffrey appears to have come into the possession of further source documents concerning the life-story of his original subject, the bard, Myrddin (alias Merlin). Unfortunately, these did not line up terribly well the information he had given about this man in his History of the Kings of Britain – perhaps indicating that this part was either invented or, more probably, that Merlin’s name had been rather over-eagerly attributed to an otherwise unknown Royal adviser. Keen to put across the true story, without losing face, Geoffrey wrote the Life of Merlin, correctly placing its events after the reign of Arthur, but thus giving his title role an impossibly long lifespan. It was dedicated to his former colleague at St. George’s, Robert De Chesney, the new Bishop of Lincoln.

“The following year, Geoffrey’s sycophancy at last paid off. He was elected Bishop of St. Asaphs, for good service to his Norman masters; and was consecrated by Archbishop Theobald at Lambeth Palace in February 1152. As a Welsh-speaker, he was probably chosen in an attempt to make the diocesanal administration more acceptable in an age when Normans were not at all popular in the areas of Wales which they controlled. However, the strategy seems to have been unsuccessful. Owain Gwynedd’s open rebellion was in full swing and Geoffrey appears to have never even visited his bishopric. He died four years later, probably in London.”   http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/geofmon.html

“Whenever his dates are checked, as in the Roman period, Geoffrey emerges clearly as a writer of fiction and cannot be relied upon for facts. Following medieval tradition, he fully modernizes Arthur’s court to the 12th century. Later, however, from Caesar on he is using what passed for real history at the time and some of his source materials can be identified – the Historia Brittonum, Bede and Gildas in addition to Roman historians.

For the most part he is creating and aggrandizing very little data but in his preface he claims to be translating from a much fuller source, one “ancient book in the British language” (maybe Welsh but probably Breton) bestowed upon him by Walter, archdeacon at Oxford. This claim remains dubious as no copy of this source is extant. But the tale of Arthur scribed by Geoffrey cannot be fully accounted for from the aforementioned sources hinting at some unknown text of some kind. There is a possible tie to the Continent from the resonance with 5th century events in Gaul. Traces of a similar source are found in the preface to the Breton Legend of St. Goeznovius.”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/geoffrey_of_monmouth.html

All about King Arthur

King Arthur:  was he real?  was he even a king?  Someone reached my blog the other day by typing in “King Arthur wasn’t Welsh”.  What?  Clearly that person needed to be pointed in the proper direction and I’m glad my blog was here to do it.

I have written extensively about King Arthur in many places on this blog, and with that poor lost soul in mind, I realized that it might be of some benefit to put these posts all in the same place.  To find out about the origins of King Arthur, see:

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Historical Sources for King Arthur

Possible King Arthur (s)

Was King Arthur Real?

Who Was Guinevere?

Lancelot

Morgan/Morgana/Morgan le Fey

The British (Welsh/Cymry) High Council

For information on the places associated with King Arthur:

The Holy Grail and Dinas Bran

King Arthur’s Round Table–or why it wasn’t just found in Chester

Mount Badon

Mount Badon/Caer Faddon (part 2)

The Roman Fort of Caerleon (and Arthur’s Camelot?)

Tintagel Castle

For a discussion of fictional/mythological aspects of King Arthur:

The Best and Worst of King Arthur Movies

The Fictional King Arthur (rant)–or why stories about King Arthur drive me crazy sometimes.

King Arthur’s Family Tree

Thirteen Treasures of Britain

Triumph of Medieval Propaganda

The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack extensive (or in some instances, any) historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

TLP blog“Initially, this era took on the term “dark” . . . due to the backward ways and practices that seemed to prevail during this time. Future historians used the term “dark” simply to denote the fact that little was known about this period; there was a paucity of written history. Recent discoveries have apparently altered this perception as many new facts about this time have been uncovered.

The Italian Scholar, Francesco Petrarca called Petrarch, was the first to coin the phrase. He used it to denounce Latin literature of that time; others expanded on this idea to express frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements. While the term dark ages is no longer widely used, it may best be described as Early Middle Ages — the period following the decline of Romein the Western World. The Middle Ages is loosely considered to extend from 400 to 1000 AD.”  http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is nowWales andEngland—for about five minutes.

From Gildas:

As the Romans went back home, there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea-valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts. … They were more confident than usual now that they had learnt of the departure ofthe Romans and the denial of any prospect of their return. So they seized the whole north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to (i.e. as far south as) the wall (presumably Hadrian’s). A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them, but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground.

From contemporary accounts in 411:

Zosimus

They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britainand some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica, [Emap (7)] and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces ofBritain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

Fastidius — letter to a widow in Britain

We see before us many instances of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are being judged at the present moment, and denied this present life no less than the life to come. This is not hard to understand, for in changing times we expect the deaths of magistrates who have lived criminally, for the greater their power, the bolder their sins. … Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to shed their own. … Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others have been individually torn limb from limb. Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children, leaving them bare and beggared … for they plundered the property of the men they killed. But now it is their wives who are widowed, their sons who are orphaned, begging their daily bread from strangers.

http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBbestest.html

It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions fromEurope.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

445:  In the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, the English came to Britain.

Bede

449:  The British consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations. They all agreed with their king Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation. … The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

449:  Martian and Valentinian assumed the Roman empire(actually in 450) and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed inBritainin a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.

Nennius

453:  But Hengest was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Sizing up the king’s incompetence, and the military weakness of his people, he held a council, and said to the British king “We are a few; if you wish, we can send home and invite warriors from the fighting men of our country, that the number that fight for you and your people may be larger.” The king ordered it be done, and envoys were sent across the sea, and came back with sixteen keels, with picked warriors in them. In one of the keels came Hengest’s daughter, a beautiful and very handsome girl. When the keels had arrived, Hengest held a banquet for Vortigern, and his men and his interpreter, whose name was Ceretic, and told the girl to serve their wine and spirits. They all got exceedingly drunk. When they were drinking Satan entered Vortigern’s heart and made him love the girl. Through his interpreter he asked her father for her hand, saying “Ask of me what you will, even to the half of my kingdom”.

http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBbestest.html

It’s important to point out that Welsh literature, language, and culture flourished during the Dark Ages.  Much of the material in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Camarthen date to this time.

The Holy Grail and Dinas Bran

That King Arthur got mixed up with Jesus Christ can’t be too surprising, given the myth-making that went into the King Arthur story.  Rumor has it that Bran, for whom the castle, Dinas Bran, was named, was Joseph of Arimithea’s son-in-law.  Legend has it that after Jesus’ death, Joseph brought the Cup of Christ from Israel to Britain.  It does seem unlikely, doesn’t it?

But that is what the ‘Holy Grail’ is, that King Arthur’s knights go in search of:  “The Holy Grail of Christian legend is the vessel given by Christ to his disciples to sup from at the Last Supper. Later, it is said to have been given to his grand-uncle, St. Joseph of Arimathea, who used to collect Christ’s blood and sweat whilst he hung upon the Cross.”  http://www.arthurianadventure.com/holy_grail.htm

Dinas Bran, in turn, is the “site of an ancient Iron-Age hill-fort, believed to have been the home of the Kings of Powys, well into the 8th century. It is particularly associated with King Elisedd of Eliseg’s Pillar fame. The castle is, however, named for King Bran Fendigaid (the Blessed), a Celtic God known from both Welsh and Irish mythology who was later mortalized into a monarch of North Wales.” http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/corbenic.html

 

“Much of the information available about Bran the Blessed strongly suggests that at least part of his legend entered into later Arthurian romance. His Magic Cauldron is probably that sought by King Arthur in the Welsh poem, the “Spoils of the Annwfn”.  As in Bran’s Irish tale, Arthur travels to the Celtic Otherworld and, like the Welsh tale, only seven men survive. The vessel was later reborn as the Holy Grail, the cup of plenty or cornucopia found in mythology from across the Globe. The wound to Bran’s foot, inflicted by a poisoned spear, which caused his lands to fail is echoed in that of the Arthurian Grail guardian, known as the Grail or Fisher King.

His latter title may be related to Bran’s association with rivers and river-crossings (such as those he encountered in Ireland). His castle was Corbenic or Castell Dinas Bran, both names deriving from the word Raven or Crow. The Fisher King, like Bran’s head, could feast with his followers indefinitely and his forename was said to be Bron (or Brons) in the so-called Didot Perceval: clearly a transformation of Bran. Here, he is given a wife, Anna, the daughter of St. St. Joseph of Arimathea, probably through confusion with his grandmother, Beli Mawr’s wife, Anu. Bran may also be the original of other Arthurian characters like Brandegorre, Bran de Lis, Brandelidelin or Ban of Benoic.”  http://www.whiterosesgarden.com/Nature_of_Evil/Underworld/UNDR_Deities/UNDR-D_western_europe/UNDR_bran2.htm

It was Joseph of Arimathea who gave his tomb to Christ upon his death and (again, legend has it) first brought Christianity to Britain aroun 63 AD, along with the cup.

“During the late 12th century, Joseph became connected with the Arthurian cycle, appearing in them as the first keeper of the Holy Grail This idea first appears in Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain. This theme is elaborated upon in Boron’s sequels and in subsequent Arthurian works penned by others. Later retellings of the story contend that Joseph of Arimathea himself travelled to Britain and became the first Christian bishop in the Isles.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_of_Arimathea

Glastonbury Tor claims this too, but we know that can’t be true 🙂

The Fictional King Arthur (rant!)

Yes, I have some issues with King Arthur as a fictional character.

King Arthur, as usually written, comes off as either as a flat character, someone whom the author employs as a backdrop to explore the personalities of other characters (Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot), or as unheroic and human, tripped up in the end by the overwhelming burden of his imperfections. Arthur is either a pawn, buffeted by the winds of fate, or so flawed, one has to ask how he was remembered as a hero in the first place.  Only the most recent example of this is Starz’s aborted Camelot series, at least the bit I watched, where it is inexplicable that Merlin would come to him as the hero (in a totally deserted castle) and expect anything good to happen.

There is a simple reason for this: it is very hard to synchronize the different aspects of Arthur’s story into a complete whole because the essential, heroic element of Arthur’s story—his defeat of the Saxons for a generation—has been grafted, at both the beginning and the end, to a romantic tale told for reasons having more to do with the medieval authors who were telling the story, and the time in which they were living, than with Arthur. In so doing, his character is incomplete and inexplicable, one who reacts instead of acts, and who never has a say in his own destiny.

Instead, it is Merlin who is the active character. It is he who sets the whole plot in motion, whose behavior acts at times like a ‘get out of jail free card’ for Arthur, who manipulates everybody else, but who is powerless to stop Arthur’s downfall in the end.  In the classic Norman/French tale, it is through Merlin’s actions at the beginning of the story that Arthur becomes high king, and because of Merlin’s abandonment at the end of the story that (in rapid succession), Arthur loses his wife, his best friend, his son, and his life.

In the Welsh tales, on the other hand, Arthur is nearly super-human.  He may have a few flaws, yes, but he is a ‘hero’ in the classic sense.  He takes his men to the Underworld and back again, he finds the 13 treasures of Britain, and he rescues his friends and relations from danger and death.   It is these tales, however, that are rarely told in modern fiction.  Why is that?  Why do authors have an easier time grafting sorcery (of the Merlin and Morgane kind) onto a tale of the gritty, Dark Age Arthur than the mythology that is far older and ‘authentic’ for the period in which Arthur actually lived?

Tell me that story, and I’ll be enthralled …

King Arthur (2004) movie review

King Arthur has been fodder for a hundred movies and will undoubtedly continue to be so. I truly wish that someone would come up with one where the history isn’t appalling. Ridley Scott is famous for acting as if there are no actual historical facts (see my review of Robin Hood), but the absurdity of the history Jerry Bruckheimer puts in this movie made me glad that my workout was only 30 minutes so I didn’t have to watch the whole thing at once.

The Good:

Is there anything good about this movie? Actually, the visuals are spectacular, and they obviously put a lot of money into making it. The acting is good, in fact, and if I didn’t know anything about British history, warfare, Christianity, or the Roman empire, maybe the plot even makes sense. I will grant that the Romans conscripted the people it conquered into the army, requiring it of subsequent generations too, but …

The Bad:

Did I mention that the history was bad? Just a head’s up: Gawain and Tristan are not names from Sarmatia. Even if I grant you the Celtic past of those areas, which Wikipedia doesn’t, to put all of Arthur’s knights (and did Rome have knights? I think not!) as originating in Asia ignores the background of Arthur himself. In the movie, Arthur is supposed to have a Roman hereditary position ‘Artorius’, but just so you know, ‘Arth’ in Welsh means ‘bear’, and ‘Arthur’ was the name of several early post-Roman kings. You don’t have to go Roman to find it.

The movie also places the Battle of Badon Hill way too early in history. In the Welsh/Saxon chronicles, it takes place in 500. This movie sets it before the Romans left Britain, so before 401.

Gah.

The Ugly:
History aside, the plot makes no sense. Arthur and his ‘knights’, instead of being freed of their 15 year obligation to the Roman army, are sent on one last mission to rescue the pope’s favorite godchild and his family north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Everybody knows Rome is leaving, folks! The movie claims that the Saxons are already invading in the north, which they weren’t, FYI (sorry, getting back to bad history again).  So what on earth was a famous and rich Roman family doing north of the wall? EVER! The whole point of the wall was that Romans didn’t settle north of it!

The whole plot is then driven by utter stupidity and a Saxon invasion that didn’t exist.

End.of.Roman.rule.in.Britain.383.410

 

 

 

The Welsh/British High Council

Within British (and by that I mean Welsh/Cymry/Celtic) legend, a High Council–a Parliament of a sort–existed in the Dark Ages to choose a “high king”.  One of these high kings, according to legend, was King Arthur.  Later, during Arthur’s reign, he instituted his ’round table’, a gathering of equals, to discuss the troubles in his realm.  Or so the story goes.

But did this High Council ever exist?

The answer is ‘yes’–certainly during the reign of the last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.  In 1282 when Edward I of England wrote his letters to Llywelyn and Dafydd, demanding that they concede defeat, he also wrote a letter to the ‘Council of Wales’, laying out his case.  To this they responded:

“The people of Snowdonia for their part state that even if the prince desired to give the king seisin of them, they themselves would not do homage to any stranger, of whose language, customs and laws they are utterly ignorant. For by doing so they could be brought into perpetual captivity and barbarously treated . . .”  http://garthcelyn.com/letters_14.html

Our evidence for a council of ‘Britain’ (which in the post-Roman occupation period did include all of what is now England and Wales) is first and foremost, Gildas.  He writes:  “Then all the council members, together with that proud tyrant [theoretically, Vortigern], were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nation.”

From Robert Vermaat:  “What Gildas does not do is describe Vortigern as a sole ruler, or a ‘High King’ if you will. He rules as a king, but together with a Council, the members of which are rulers of their own territory. Gildas sees this as a logical but reprehensible evolution from the usurpation of Magnus Maximus, which has seen the progressive disintegration of the British territory from one single state (diocese) into several smaller kingdoms without overlord in Gildas’ day.

Though in the days of Vortigern this was clearly not the case, and Vortigern’s decisions seem to be obeyed in the whole diocese. Dumville has proposed that there is nothing to suggest that Vortigern’s rule did not encompass the whole diocese. But Vortigern is not ruling alone, as observed above. He has power over magistrates, who later evolve into sub-kings or provincial rulers, but that power may have been wielded by the Council as a whole, for Gildas puts the blame with all of them. Gildas does not mention the Council in this function elsewhere, or so it seems. Gildas does seem to indicate, however, that the members of the council in the days of Vortigern had become the warring princes of his own days.”  http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/gildvort.htm

That a council of Britain existed appears to have been a common understanding throughout the subsequent centuries, as Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century mentions it often.  He states that Britains ‘flocked together from all parts and in a council held at Silchester,’ and crowned Constantine High King;  furthermore, Aurelius holds a council in chapter 7 and 8 of book 6; and Arthur in chapter 1 and 16 of book 9.

Additional mention of some kind of council is found in the Chronicle of the Princes (Red Book of Hergest).  From 1096:  “And the Britons, having retreated to their strongest places, according to their usual custom, agreed in council to save Mona.”

Chronicle of the Princes (Ystrad Fflur).  From 1220:  “Llywelyn, prince of Gwynedd, gathered to him the princes and leading men of all Wales. . .”

1258:  “In this year all the Welsh made a pact together, and they gave an oath to maintain loyalty and agreement together, under pain of excommunication upon whomsoever of them broke it.”

Certainly the power of the Council was not constant, and in part depended upon the unity of Wales as a whole and the individual authority of the ruling high king, and later Prince.

As to whether King Arthur was ever high king?  At this point, we just don’t know.

The Welsh Dragon

For most of history, the Welsh dragon was not a very common symbol. In fact, it was flown by only one king, Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, who reigned from 655-682 AD. It was so distinct that his flag came to be known as “the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr”.  Today, it is known as the ‘Welsh dragon’ and the the Welsh flag looks like this:

 

(my The Last Pendragon Saga is about a mythic version of Cadwaladr)

Within Welsh mythology, the story of the two dragons, one red (for the Welsh) and one white (for the Saxons) fighting beneath Dinas Emrys dates back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century.

The coat of arms of the Welsh princes in the 13th century was actually this:

With the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and the complete suppression of everything that had belonged to or symbolized the Princes of Wales, this banner disappeared from royal heraldry.

It wasn’t until Henry Tudur (Henry Tudor/Henry VII) of England, in a quest for legitimacy to both the Welsh and the English, took the Red Dragon and made it his own that the dragon and Wales became synonymous. In flying the flag, he claimed that he was a direct descendent of Cadwaladr, but he laid the dragon over the green and white colors of the House of Tudor.  Henry then marched through Wales on his way to seize the crown on 22 August 1485 when he defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  The flying of the flag was very deliberate.  For the Welsh, it was Cadwaladr, not King Arthur, who was to ‘return’, to save the Welsh from their enemies. Henry Tudur very deliberately took up that mantle.

In an tragic twist, Henry’s first son was named ‘Arthur’, but he died in 1502, and was succeeded by his brother, Henry (becoming Henry VIII) as the heir to the throne.