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The Quest for Arthur's Britain

The Quest for Arthur's Britain

by Geoffrey Ashe ASHE
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ISBN-13: 9780897332873
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 01/28/1987
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 318
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

Geoffrey Ashe is a distinguished British medievalist and cultural historian.

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The Quest for Arthur's Britain

By Geoffrey Ashe

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1987 Geoffrey Ashe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89733-287-3


The Visionary Kingdom

Geoffrey Ashe

When a medieval story-writer was looking for themes and inspiration, there were three major sources he could go to. They were not the only sources, but they were the ones held in general respect. He could tap what was called the Matter of France; or the Matter of Rome; or the Matter of Britain.

The first of these meant the cycle of tales about Charlemagne and his peers, headed by the dauntless Roland, and their battles with the Saracens around the year AD 800. The second meant the literary legacy of the classical world, not only Roman but Greek: the siege of Troy, the adventures of Aeneas, the fortunes of the City itself. The third meant the legendary history of Britain. Above all, it meant the deeds of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Each 'Matter' had its own geography, and to some extent its political undertones. The king of France was the heir of Charlemagne, and claimed the glory of his legend. The eastern part of Charlemagne's former realm was now a distinct state miscalled the Holy Roman Empire; this included Rome, and kept at least a trace of its glamour. But the country of King Arthur was England. Indeed, Arthur was what England stood for in many continental minds. The Matter of Britain was a more complex, elusive thing than the Matters of France and Rome, and could not be pinned down with the same historical confidence. Yet it was just as haunting and just as durable; in some ways more so.

From the twelfth century onward, the visionary kingdom of Arthur hovered behind the real kingdom of his supposed successors who wore the English crown: a presence counterpointed to it, moulding its literature, colouring its ideas, even affecting its politics. Arthur's Britain rooted itself in the national imagination. It was destined to remain rooted there for a long time, not only through the Middle Ages but afterwards.

What, in fact, was it? Where did this vision come from? Let us begin by examining the legend and what it has meant.

The Matter of Britain was a later growth than its French counterpart, and, indeed, originally took shape as a retort to it. When William the Conqueror advanced against Harold, the minstrel Taillefer rode with the Norman army singing of Charlemagne and Roland. No warrior in the English force replied with a song of Arthur. To all but a handful, the name would probably have meant nothing. But the Normans owed feudal allegiance to the French king, spoke his language, and knew the lays about his forebears.

These early ingredients of the Matter of France were known as chansons de geste. The most famous, the Song of Roland, gave epic form to a legend that had grown round a rearguard action in the Pyrenees. All this French poetry was martial, masculine, straightforward. Its prevailing motif was the warfare of Christendom against the Saracen paynim. One side was 'right' and the other 'wrong'. During the Crusades this tone suited the times. The kings of France enjoyed higher dignity because of the Charlemagne mystique. In 1147, Louis VII did what was expected of him by going on the Second Crusade in person, as Eldest Son of the Church and hereditary champion of the faith.

Ills. 1, 2. Pages from two of the earliest histories of England, in both of which King Arthur is mentioned. Ill. 1, is from William of Malmesbury's Gesta Kegum Anglorum, written c. 1125. William mentions Arthur as 'a man clearly worthy to be proclaimed in true histories'. The manuscript illustrated here is from a twelfth-century edition, perhaps from William's own lifetime (c. 1090 c. 1143). Ill. 2 shows a page from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Arthur's reign was the climax of Geoffrey's history which became one of the most important books of the Middle Ages, and is the chief source for the Arthur of medieval literature.

The young monarchy founded in England by the French king's nominal vassals, the dukes of Normandy, already possessed a character of its own. But it had no equivalent legend, no sense of a pedigree or vocation. For some years, the quarrels of King Stephen and Empress Matilda threatened to tear it apart. A fortifying mythos became a psychological need. In civil war the Matter of Britain was born; and, after peace returned, the Anglo-Norman monarchy found itself equipped to confront France with a rival mystique and a counterpoise to Charlemagne.

Ill. 5

The birth was a strange one. On the Celtic fringe of the Anglo-Norman lands, in Wales and Cornwall and Brittany, a medley of popular lore was current about a mysterious 'King Arthur'. His fame was already spreading outside these regions, through Breton minstrels descended from the British migrants who had long ago colonised the Armorican peninsula and changed its name. Welshmen supplied obscure notes on his career. He was said to have led the sixth-century Britons, who were the ancestors of all these assorted Celts, against the Saxons and Angles from across the North Sea, who were the ancestors of the English. Victorious over Britain's invaders as long as he reigned, he was killed at an unlocated Battle of Camlaun or Camlann, where a British opponent called Medraut also fell. Confusingly, he was also said to be still alive. In 1113, some French priests visited Bodmin with holy relics, and a man with a withered arm, who came to be healed, assured them that King Arthur lived. When they laughed at him, the bystanders took his side and a fight broke out.

Ill. 1

The literary reconstitution of this cloudy figure began at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, an ancient foundation dating from before the Saxons. According to tradition, Christians had come there in Roman times and built a small church of wattle-work which was still standing. Between 1125 and 1130, William of Malmesbury visited the abbey. Born in Somerset of mixed Norman and Anglo-Saxon blood, William was England's first notable historian after the Conquest. He was librarian at his own monastery of Malmesbury, and at Glastonbury his fellow-Benedictines introduced him to such legends and traditions as remained for British history in the dim age between the Roman and Saxon, when their community already existed and Arthur was alleged to have flourished. In that context William caught a glimpse of a fairly credible Arthur: a Christian warrior who, it seemed, had temporarily broken the Saxons at the 'siege of Mount Badon', wherever that was. This warrior (William realised, and remarked when he came to write about him) must be the person of whom the Cornish and others talked such nonsense; 'a man clearly worthy', he urged, 'to be proclaimed in true histories' instead of in fables.

William worked under the patronage of Empress Matilda's half-brother Robert, earl of Gloucester. Robert had a Welsh mother and a Welsh wife. His patronage extended to two other authors, Henry of Huntingdon and Caradoc of Llancarfan, who retrieved a little more from British antiquity. Stephen's brother Henry de Blois, who was abbot of Glastonbury from 1126, took an interest in the process. The disputed royal succession of 113 5 brought the Norman magnates into conflict with each other. But a year or two later, the group of writers was joined by a fourth, who followed up William's hint with amazing results.

Ill. 2

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a minor ecclesiastic and at least partly Welsh. His father's name was Arthur: a fact which may have given a bias to nursery storytelling. Now Geoffrey produced a complete History of the Kings of Britain in Latin, with Arthur's reign as its climax.

Geoffrey's History is one of the key books of the Middle Ages. It purports to be based on an ancient original 'in the British language' (Welsh or Breton?) given him by 'Walter, archdeacon of Oxford'. His source has never been run to earth, and his archdeacon, though identifiable, is unenlightening. To be fair, Geoffrey is certainly not such a shameless fabricator as used to be thought. He draws on Welsh monastic writing, on Breton folklore, on poems and legends. Once or twice he has been oddly supported by archaeology. But, on the whole, he is more creative artist than historian; and the realm of Arthur, as known to literature, is his chief creation.

Ill. 26

He traces the ancient Britons in Virgilian style to a settlement of wandering Trojans, led by Brutus, Aeneas's great-grandson. The royal line descends through such doubtful monarchs as Lud, founder of London, and Bladud, founder of Bath Spa. In due course the Romans arrive. Geoffrey reduces their rule to a vague protectorate. At the end of it stands a sovereign named Constantine. He, at least, is a real person: the emperor or pretender Constantine in, who was proclaimed in Britain in 407 and took the last legionaries out to fight on the continent. But Geoffrey prolongs the line through him to a series of post-Roman princes. During the fifth century, the heathen Angles and Saxons come to Britain, first as auxiliary troops invited by the usurper King Vortigern, then as would-be conquerors. Two sons of Constantine, Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, reassert the claims of the rightful dynasty.

111. 6

Arthur enters the scene as the child of Uther by Ygerne, whose husband he impersonates with the aid of the wizard Merlin. Their son is born at Tintagel in Cornwall. After the husband's death in battle, Uther marries Ygerne and Arthur is legitimised. Succeeding to the throne as a youth, he launches a raid on the Saxon settlers in Britain which broadens into a full-scale campaign. With a sword called Caliburn, forged in the fairy island of Avalon, he reduces the heathen to subjection at a battle near Bath — Geoffrey's interpretation of the traditional 'Badon'.

Ill. 25

King Arthur marries Ganhumara, a lady of Roman family, and extends his sway to Ireland, the Orkneys and Iceland. Twelve years of peace ensue. Then he conquers Norway and Gaul. His viceroys include the British noblemen Kay, Bedevere and Lot, the last of whom has a son named Gawain. Arthur holds court at Caerleon-upon-Usk, ruling over a Britain which is the wealthiest, most Christian and most civilised land in Europe. There is no Round Table in Geoffrey's story, but there is an order of knighthood. The ladies of the court, he says, 'would not deign to have the love of any till he had thrice proved himself in the wars. Wherefore did the ladies wax chaste, and knights the nobler for their love.'

Ill. 3

Ill. 21

Ill. 5

Demands for tribute come from Rome, and Arthur leads an army to Gaul. The Emperor Lucius brings allies against him from the east. (Here Geoffrey is almost certainly interweaving the exploits of Maximus, who was proclaimed emperor in Britain in 383, and held Western Europe for several years with a largely British army.) Arthur presses toward Rome. But he is recalled by the rebellion of his nephew Modred — the 'Medraut' of the older Welsh annals. In the resulting civil war, this upstart and most of the nobility perish. Arthur himself receives a deadly wound at the final battle in Cornwall, and is borne away to Avalon to be healed, leaving his crown to a kinsman and dropping out of the story. The year of his disappearance is 542. Geoffrey goes on to the Anglo-Saxon recovery as a result of British dissensions and vices, and the Britons' downfall under their last king, Cadwallader. Here the History closes. Later Geoffrey added some Prophecies of Merlin and a long poem on the enchanter's life, adapted in part from genuine Welsh poetry of the dark ages. This gives a fuller account of Arthur's retirement to Avalon, described as an Isle of the Blest in distant seas. Its name means, literally, the Place of Apples.

Though Geoffrey became bishop of St Asaph, his literary public grew only slowly. But in 1154, Stephen died and Matilda's able son Henry 11 restored the stability of England. Henry and those around him found in the History the mystique they needed. If the Plantagenets were the heirs of the mighty Arthur, by adoption at any rate, they could claim an equal dignity — indeed a senior dignity — to the heirs of Charlemagne. Legendary Britain was quite as potent as legendary France. Geoffrey's own object had perhaps been merely to glorify the Welsh, who were the principal remnants of whatever Arthurian Britain had ever existed; but the Anglo-Saxons were his villains, and the Normans, having conquered the Anglo-Saxons, could feel that there was a spiritual pedigree. As they assimilated their conquest, becoming less and less like foreigners in the island, they were restoring Britain's ancestral majesty after a disruptive intrusion. The History, already translated into Norman-French, was accordingly believed by all but a few sceptics. The name Arthur was given to Henry n's grandson, born in 1187, whose accession as King Arthur 11 was a natural expectation. His uncle, John, however, removed him; tradition has it he was murdered at Rouen or Cherbourg in 1203.

Ill. 75

Ill. 74

Mutterings still came from the unsubdued Celts of Wales. They wanted to keep Arthur for themselves, not resign him to any self-styled heirs in London, and they prophesied his return from Avalon as their avenging chieftain. Henry, however, astutely checkmated the Welsh and confirmed his annexation of the entire legend. While passing through Wales, he learned from an imprudent bard that Arthur was, in fact, dead and buried, and that the secret of his grave was known. Seemingly, it was between two pillars in the cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey. Glastonbury, almost surrounded by marshes and lagoons, was then more or less an island in wet weather, and some said it was the actual Isle of Avalon. Henry suggested to the monks that they should look for the body. For several years nothing was done. Then, in 1184, the abbey burned down. The king organised its rebuilding, and in 1190, soon after his death, the ground between the pillars was probed.

Ill. 73

Seven feet down (according to the report given out) the diggers found a slab of stone and a lead cross inscribed HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLITUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA: Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon. Nine feet below these objects, they unearthed a huge coffin made of a hollowed oak log, embedded in the soil at a slight angle. Inside was the skeleton of a tall man, the skull damaged, and also some slighter bones with a scrap of yellow hair, presumably the remains of Arthur's queen.

Ill. 4

Thus it was proved that Arthur was really dead, and that his heritage belonged to the Plantagenets, in whose kingdom Glastonbury lay. The bones were ceremoniously gathered into a casket and deposited with the abbey's treasures. In 1191, Richard 1, on his way to the Third Crusade, presented Tancred of Sicily with a sword which he said was Excalibur — the name now preferred for Arthur's sword — and had also been dug up in the abbey.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was not the only source of the Matter of Britain, or the only architect of the visionary kingdom. Once he had given King Arthur substance and value, the Celtic tales which he did not use himself acquired a fresh interest. Even before his time, bits and pieces of Arthurian lore had spread surprisingly far. Minstrels may have accompanied early Breton crusaders who travelled through Italy. Whether they did or not, it is a fact that Modena Cathedral has carvings dating from the first decade of the twelfth century, which portray Arthur rescuing his queen from an abducter. In a mosaic at Otranto he rides (for reasons unknown) on a goat*. A poet, Bleheris, can be dimly discerned recounting his deeds.

What this disjointed saga was like before Geoffrey of Monmouth, nobody knows in any detail. Apart from one Welsh story which lies outside the main stream, very little survives but names and hints. Only after Geoffrey — after him and because of him — did the now familiar body of romance begin to crystallise. It drew both on him and on the popular lore, which his History enabled other writers to unify and develop in a better defined setting. In 1155, the prolific Wace, born in Jersey, produced a French verse chronicle dedicated to Queen Eleanor, Henry n's consort. It covered Geoffrey's ground from the reign of 'Constantine' onward, but with poetic amplifications and additions. The most important was the Round Table, said to have been devised by King Arthur so that no knight should have precedence. An adaptation of Wace by a cleric, Layamon, was the first long poem in English.

With the advent of frankly imaginative writers under royal aegis, the Matter of Britain outgrew both folklore and pseudo-history. Wace did little more than embroider a narrative which he believed to be true in substance. But his successors shifted the balance and made the throne of Arthur the starting point of a new mythology. It's popularity was rapid and immense. In the 1170s, a commentator on Geoffrey of Monmouth exclaims:

What place is there within the bounds of the empire of Christendom to which the winged praise of Arthur the Briton has not extended? Who is there, I ask, who does not speak of Arthur the Briton, since he is but little less known to the peoples of Asia than to the Bretons, as we are informed by our palmers who return from the countries of the East? The Eastern peoples speak of him as do the Western, though separated by the breadth of the whole earth. Egypt speaks of him, and the Bosphorus is not silent. Rome, queen of cities, sings his deeds, and his wars are not unknown to her former rival Carthage. Antioch, Armenia and Palestine celebrate his feats.


Excerpted from The Quest for Arthur's Britain by Geoffrey Ashe. Copyright © 1987 Geoffrey Ashe. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents


General Chronological Chart,
The Visionary Kingdom Geoffrey Ashe,
The Arthurian Fact Geoffrey Ashe,
Romance and Reality in Cornwall C.A. Ralegh Radford,
Wales in the Arthurian Age Leslie Alcock,
Glastonbury Abbey C.A. Ralegh Radford,
Glastonbury Tor Philip Rahtz,
Cadbury: is it Camelot? Leslie Alcock and Geoffrey Ashe,
Extending the Map Geoffrey Ashe,
Life in the Arthurian Age Geoffrey Ashe with Jill Racy,
Arthur and English History Geoffrey Ashe,
The New Matter of Britain Geoffrey Ashe,
List of Illustrations, Maps and Tables,

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As a big fan of Hetalia, I have to admit I laughed a bit at the title....