Thursday, May 9, 2013

In Search of King Arthur

by Maggi Andersen

The Legend of King Arthur is one that fascinates and inspires. We’d all like to believe that Arthur existed.

Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, tapestry 1385

“Arthur is to Cornwall what Theseus is to Greece. His myth is everywhere,” says Daphne Du Maurier, who lived in Cornwall for most of her life. Many of her works are set there. 

“Here is where Arthur sat or Arthur slept, he feasted upon this stone, he hunted upon these moors; Tintagel was his birthplace, Castle-an-Dinas his hunting lodge, at Slaughter Bridge by Camelford he received his fatal wound, in the Warbstow Burrows lies his grave.”

A rousing myth about the conflict between good and evil perhaps, but apparently the legend of King Arthur is based on historical fact. There was an Arthur, a Christian warrior, perhaps a Cornish chief, who lived at the end of the fifth century A.D. and fought the Saxon kings. 

The rest is supposition, but the tradition that he was born and lived, fought and died on Cornish soil, remains dear to the Cornish heart, and despite claims of Brittany, Somerset and Wales, it would seem to have foundation in fact, and has come to be part of history.

Arthur is seen as a Celtic Warrior in Brittany, a Breton prince, as well as a Cornish king. The bards sang his praises, the storytellers told of his valorous deeds, his battles, his conquest, and the people in after years, when paying tribute to the Saxon kings of England, whispered among themselves how Arthur would come again and set them free. 

Later the chronicles of medieval times wrote how King Arthur introduced the Age of Chivalry, of tilting, jousting, of rescuing maidens beset by magician’s wand or marauder’s sword, of the search for the Holy Grail; and so the Legend of the Round Table was born.

The legend that his magic sword Excalibur was flung by one of his warriors into a lake after his death, and his body placed in a barque on the same lake and floated to the vale of Avalon, watched over by three weeping queens, remains a dream for all us romantics.  

We might like to keep our dreams of turreted castles and armoured knights while reading Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Malory's Morte d'Arthur, but hill-castles of the first century A.D. were defensive circular earthworks, sometimes three trenches deep, and within these ramparts were wooden huts where the occupants ate and slept.  

Arthur’s historical existence is debated and disputed by modern historians. The sparse historical background of Arthur is gleaned from various sources, including the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum, and the writings of Gildas. Arthur's name also occurs in early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin.

Source: Daphne Du Maurier's Vanishing Cornwall, Virago Press.


Maggi Andersen is a historical romance author. Her Victorian novels were inspired by Daphne Du Maurier and Victoria Holt. Her new release is The Folly at Falconbridge Hall.

1 comment:

  1. Fun read but 99% unfounded rubbish. Even the sources you cite at the bottom have almost nothing in terms of Cornwall.


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