King Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, was famously introduced to the world by the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth in the work Historia Regnum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain; Thorpe 1966) written around 1135. Geoffrey's Historia traced the origins and development of Britain from its foundation by Brutus, son of the Trojan hero Aeneas in 1200 BC, to the golden age of Arthur in the late fifth century and at last to the last British king, Cadwaladr, in 688.
The motivation for the work was to provide a history of Britain that was at once in line with the other important powers of Europe of the time as having a classical origin and to supply the Norman dynastic rulers a pedigree and a symbol of power to rival these powers (Blake and Lloyd 2002, pp. 10-11, 33-34), as much for the rulers as for Geoffrey's personal advancement. The work was presented as a genuine history to this purpose, and the fictitious nature of much of the work must be viewed as the kind of embellishment common to that period (Phillips and Keatman 1992, p. 4) for Geoffrey to provide a comprehensive historical record of the British monarchy.
Geoffrey's Historia gave the first detailed life of King Arthur to the rulers of medieval England, replete with action and description, giving life to an interest in him that had then recently been awakened through the works of William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntington (Blake and Lloyd 2002, p.10). In these works brief mentions of Arthur's battles had been made, drawing from lists and dates in the ninth century manuscript compilations Historia Brittonum edited by Nennius and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Phillips and Keatman 1992, pp. 11, 54), but Geoffrey had taken this information further, drawing upon, he said, an ancient book (Blake and Lloyd 2002, p.34) and he developed a full history that went beyond the motive for the work, and captured the imagination.
The great king Arthur stood as the centrepiece of Geoffrey's Historia, and much of the work is devoted to his life and kingship in the fifth century in the wake of the departure of the Roman legions in 410 and the treachery of the Saxon mercenaries lead by Hengist and Horsa. Geoffrey brought the Dark Age alive: Constantinus the king was killed amid the chaos following the withdrawal of Rome but his heirs too young to rule; Vortigern usurps the throne, brings in Saxon mercenaries to fight against the Picts and gives them land to settle in return for their aid, but the Saxons treacherously rebel; the heirs of Constantinus return and take their rightful throne: first Ambrosius, poisoned by a Saxon physician, then Uther, under the title Pendragon 'Dragon's Head', and victories are made against the Saxon. Magic is introduced in the personage of Merlin, adviser to Uther, who shape-changes Uther into the likeness of Gorlois so Uther can sleep with his beautiful wife Ygraine - and Arthur and his sister Anna are born. Merlin's magic is elsewhere encountered when the Giant's Dance, Stonehenge, is brought from Mt Killaraus and in the fight of the Dragons at Dinas Emrys - rich and colourful episodes sparking the imagination. After the death of Gorlois, Uther admits his love of Ygraine and his adultery atoned. Arthur is made king at age fifteen following Uther's death through Saxon treachery, and wielding a magical sword called Caliburn, forged in the mystical isle of Avalon, he battles the Saxons and the Picts, defeating their forces; Arthur Pendragon establishes a court renowned throughout Christendom, but a messenger arrives from Rome with a demand for Arthur to pay homage to the Pope; Arthur's response is to set out to attack Rome. Having conquered Gaul and crossing the Alps towards Rome, Arthur hears that his nephew Medrod has done the unthinkable and usurped the throne and his beautiful wife Ganhumara. Arthur returned to Britain to meet the armies of Medrod at Camlan and a great battle was fought in which Arthur was mortally wounded, and close to death, Arthur is taken to the Isle of Avalon under the care of the enchantress Morgan and her sisterhood of nine.
Geoffrey's Historia is alive with treachery and betrayal; with magical feats, a wondrous sword and another world almost within reach just beyond the sea; with love and lust, insult, heartache and revenge. Battles are fought with evocative names from the scale of nations to the sake of a man. The scope of Arthur's conquests and the sense of assuredness in the time of his kingship make his time a golden age; an age that demands attraction with a mystique and an heroic air.
The Historia laid the foundation upon which the future Arthurian Legend would grow, for the details that Geoffrey provided allowed for the development of themes and plots and elaborations beyond his history. In 1155, the cleric Wace translated Geoffrey's work into Anglo-Norman verse and the Roman de Brut (The Romance of Brutus), the first Arthurian Romance, was dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II - in this work was introduced the concept of courtly love and the name Guinevere, and also the great Arthurian icon the Round Table: the Arthurian literary juggernaut had taken flight.
Copyright © John Bonsing & S Rhys Jones 2006. All Rights Reserved
Blake, S & Lloyd, S 2002, The lost legend of Arthur, Rider, London.
Phillips, G & Keatman, M 1992, King Arthur - the true story, Random House, London.
Thorpe, L (transl.) 1966, Geoffrey of Monmouth The History of the Kings of Britain Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.
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