“On a lonely sword leaned he,
Like Arthur on Excalibur
In the battle by the sea.”
G K Chesterton The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911
Well, which sea, you might ask? King Arthur is a legendary figure claimed by much of northern Europe, but we’d argue that Wales’s relationship with the Once and Future King is the most compelling.
His story is a sweeping epic filled with grisly foes, timeless romance and unmatched heroism, so it’s unsurprising that everyone wants a piece of the Arthur legend.
Today, academics widely agree that King Arthur is a wholly fictional chap. Despite this, many locations in the UK and beyond have been linked with the legendary king and his valiant knights, such as Camelot, the mythical seat of Arthur and home of the famous Round Table.
Wales, with its bardic tradition of storytelling and singing, has a particularly deep connection with the Arthur legend. In 1879, folklorist Wirt Sikes wrote: “In a certain sense, Wales may be spoken of as the cradle of fairy legend. It is not now disputed that from the Welsh were borrowed many of the first subjects of composition in the literature of all the cultivated peoples of Europe.”
The very first references to Arthur were written in ancient Welsh (or Brythonic, the language from which Welsh descends). Starting with the Roman invasion and continuing until around 1000 AD, the Brythonic people were systematically pushed west by a string of conquerors. As they fled, their language and culture went with them, to be preserved in the oral tradition by the Welsh bards. This goes some way to explain why the Arthurian legends become more tangible the further west you travel in Britain.
The earliest reference to Arthur is in Aneirin’s Y Gododdin, a poem dating from around 594 AD. It is the earliest surviving Welsh poem and tells the tale of the warriors of Gododdin who died at the Battle of Catraeth (modern day Catterick in Yorkshire) fighting the Saxons.
The poem references Arthur, which suggests he was already a celebrated figure at the time of its composition. Arthur’s appearance in such an early text suggests that his story is rooted deep in Welsh folklore.
A bard’s tale
There is also an early Welsh text, the Historia Brittonum, from around 800 AD, which reads: “Arthur fought at that time against them (the Saxons) in those days along with the kings of the Britons, but he was their leader in battles.”
The poem lists Arthur’s battles, culminating with his participation in the Battle of Badon Hill.
A matter of record
In the earliest mentions of Arthur in Welsh texts, he is never given the title of king. However, the texts frequently refer to him as ameraudur which means emperor or war leader. Among Arthurian historians, there is a belief that the real Arthur was actually a Romano-British warlord who defended Britain against waves of Saxon invaders in the 5th or 6th century.
The earliest version of the Welsh Annals was composed in the mid-10th century. In it, there are two key references to Arthur: firstly, at the Battle of Badon where he is said to have carried the cross of Jesus on his shoulders for three days and nights (most likely emblazoned upon his shield); and, secondly, at the Battle of Camlann, where he was killed at the hands of the evil knight Mordred.
These chronicles were compiled or derived from diverse sources at St David’s in Dyfed, Wales. Like the Annals, all other sources that name Arthur were written at least 400 years after the events they describe and it is possible they are a mix of many orals traditions, not just Welsh.
However, both the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth and French troubadour Chrétien de Troyes place Camelot in Caerleon, South Wales, one of three significant Roman forts in early medieval Britain.
… and that’s a fact!
Most of Arthur’s contemporaries were content to wax lyrical over the king’s valour, fictitious or otherwise, but early chronicler William of Malmesbury went one step further.
In Gesta regum Anglorum, he writes: “This the Arthur about whom the foolish tales of the Britons rave even today. One who is clearly worthy to be told about in truthful histories rather than to be dreamed about in deceitful fables, since for a long time he sustained his ailing nation, and sharpened the unbroken minds of his people to war.”
He seemed very sure that Arthur was indeed a native Briton.
The legend of Arthur and his knights also appears in The Mabinogion, a collection of eleven stories collated from early medieval Welsh manuscripts (you can read more about it here).
The Mabinogion stories meld mythology, folklore and history. They were written down in the fourteenth century but are based on much older stories from the oral tradition – when tales and news were spread by travelling storytellers or bards.
Five of the tales involve Arthur and his knights and include one of the earliest references to the Grail legend. Three of them are set at Arthur’s court which, according to The Mabinogion, is located in Wales.
If you fancy physically following in King Arthur’s footsteps, why not take a look at this blog we wrote? With it you will explore Snowdonia from a completely new perspective!
Image courtesy: Creator:John Garrick / Public domain, 1862.