King Arthur is undoubtedly one of the most enduringly popular heroes to come out of the medieval era, and he has meant many things to many people for
King Arthur is undoubtedly one of the most enduringly popular heroes to come out of the medieval era, and he has meant many things to many people for hundreds of years. Over time, the mythology of Arthur grew as new stories were added to the existing ones and his fame spread throughout Britain and beyond. As a result of his popularity through the ages, King Arthur has come to represent various political causes as a symbolic figurehead, earning him a reputation as “champion of causes”.
From medieval Welsh rebels to 20th century anti-Nazi campaigners, the British peoples have rallied behind Arthur’s war banner since a time before the idea of “Britain” ever existed. But was Arthur more than just a hero to these people? Britain has had countless heroes throughout its history, but is Arthur’s enduring, overwhelming popularity a sign that he has become something more? Something like a Messiah?
The Early Mythology
It is impossible to know when the earliest tales of King Arthur were first told. The mythology of “Arthur” in its primordial form seems to have begun soon after the Roman occupation of Britain – his name is mentioned in the heroic poetry of the Welsh bards Taliesin and Aneirin, as well as the mysterious “Ambrosius Aurelianus” spoken of in Gildas’s famous work On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain . However there is earlier evidence that tales about Arthur were passed down orally in the Celtic languages before being written down, and so it is possible they had already been circulating for some time by the 5th century.
With Gildas’s writing though, the legend of Arthur was first written down in Latin, and thus became part of the Romano-British literary caucus. In his work, Gildas gives us the first impression of the heroic figure which would come to define how Arthur was represented in later texts:
“A remnant, to whom wretched citizens flock from different places on every side … take up arms and challenge their victors to battle under Ambrosius Aurelianus. He was a man of unassuming character, who, alone of the Roman race chanced to survive in the shock of such a storm.”
Anglo-Saxon migration and settlement in Britain (mbartelsm / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
After the cruel Saxons decimated the British and took their land from them, the survivors rallied behind their champion and fought to reclaim their lands, culminating in victory at the Battle of Badon Hill.
This idealized image of the defender and savior of the British people against the evil greed of the conquering Saxons gathered momentum in the Middle Ages, as other authors took up the tradition and the name Ambrosius became Arthur. The 9th century eclectic history known as the Historia Brittonum paints the “magnanimous” Arthur as leader of all the kings of Britain and their armed forces, famously listing the twelve battles against the Saxons in which he was chosen to be their commander. It is in the Historia Brittonum that Arthur begins to take on a persona of something more than an ordinary hero, and supernatural qualities begin to emerge in his character:
“The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the Hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance.”
No singular warrior, no matter his competence, could pull off such a feat, but the accounts of Arthur’s miraculous skills appear again in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain . Geoffrey describes how Arthur led the Britons into battle against the Saxon army:
“as he called on God, he killed any man he touched with a single blow and pressed forward until with Caliburnus [Excalibur] alone he had laid low four hundred and seventy men.”
Such superhuman strength and skill renders Arthur more than an ordinary hero, more mythology than man, but supernatural qualities alone do not transform Arthur into a Messianic figure. It is in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth that other Messianic qualities begin to appear in Arthur.
The Chosen Man of God
Many of the medieval tales written about Arthur, or characters such as Ambrosius Aurelianus who we presume equate to Arthur, describe his association with God and attribute his successes in battle to divine assistance. This was not an unusual thing for medieval authors to do however, as it was widely believed that the events of the world were controlled by divine providence, and thus victory in battle would only be achieved if God willed it. It was also common for medieval heroes to be described as an agent of the Lord or fighting in the Lord’s name, because devotion to God was considered part of being a good warrior.
Many later Arthurian legends have Christian overtones, such as the Quest for the Holy Grail (Évrard d’Espinques / Public Domain )
Arthur, while certainly one of God’s “chosen” warriors, was also protected by the Virgin Mary , and this made him more unusual. According to the History of the Kings of Britain, Arthur was a pious man, who carried a shield on which was depicted the Holy Mother Mary, so that he may keep her image with him always.
He is also said to have called on the Virgin Mary to aid him in battle and give him the strength to kill any man he touched with a single blow. The Historia Brittonum also recounts Arthur’s victory over the Saxons through the power of the Holy Mother, whose image Arthur bore on his shoulders.
There is a similar passage in the Welsh Annals (the Annales Cambriae ) in which Arthur is described as carrying the cross of Jesus Christ on his shoulder for three days and nights. This certainly incites strong Messianic imagery, bringing to mind the story of Jesus carrying the cross to his own crucifixion.
Arthur after the Battle of Badon, depicted with a cross on his shoulder. Cymru Cathedral (Llywelyn2000 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
However, both this passage and the similar one from the Historia Brittonum likely resulted from a mistranslation: the Welsh word for “shoulders” is iscuid, while the word for “shield” is iscuit, and so it seems likely that in both instances Arthur was carrying the image of Mary or the cross on his shield, as Geoffrey of Monmouth reports, rather than on his shoulders.
Arthur’s Holy Mother
Through his association with the Virgin Mary, Arthur’s image becomes even more Christ-like, not only in the stories written about him but also through the histories of Glastonbury Abbey and his role as patron of the Glastonbury church. Glastonbury itself had long been associated with the Virgin Mary, with the original church built on the site by Joseph of Arimathea having been consecrated to Mary according to William of Malmesbury’s Antiquities of Glastonbury .
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Arthur became associated with Glastonbury Abbey after the claimed discovery of his bones in the church graveyard in 1191, and following on from that the Abbey’s chronicles began to write Arthur into their history and draw closer links between him and their patroness, Mary. The 14th century Chronicles of Glastonbury Abbey, presumed to be written by the monk John of Glastonbury, tells of how Arthur is visited in a dream by an angel of the Lord whilst visiting Glastonbury, urging him to go to the nearby hermitage of Mary Magdalene.
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey (lovelygrey / Public Domain )
Upon visiting the chapel there, Arthur sees a vision of the Holy Mother and her infant son, Jesus Christ, in which he pledges servitude and devotion to her and is given in return a crystal cross by the Virgin Mary as a symbol of her protection. John also claims that following this encounter, Arthur chooses to change his shield so that it displayed both the cross and the image of the Holy Mother.
Not only his connections to the Holy Mother, but also the matter of Arthur’s own parentage and the portentous nature of his birth draw parallels with Christ and the story of his birth. Arthur was not immaculately conceived of course, as Christ was, but the tale of Arthur’s conception is undoubtedly supernatural as well and perhaps even divinely ordained.
The story is a familiar one, first appearing in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History but retold many times since. Uther Pendragon , king of the Britons, desired the Lady Igerna (more commonly known as Ygraine) who was the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. When Gorlois learned of this, he hid Igerna away at Tintagel castle, but Uther was not to be deterred.
Tintagel Castle, Cornwall ( Alexey Fedorenko / Adobe Stock)
Uther enlisted the help of Merlin, a being of supernatural power and the son of an incubus and a human woman, who magically transformed Uther to appear as Gorlois so he could gain entry to the castle and Igerna. Thus Arthur was conceived.
While the story itself bears no direct resemblance to the Biblical tale of Christ’s conception and birth, the supernatural nature of Arthur’s birth elevates him to a similar status as being “chosen” from birth for greatness. The influence of Merlin, a figure of divine parentage himself, implies the hand of God at work in Arthur’s creation and a divine purpose for the child’s future – and that purpose was to be the savior of his people.
King Arthur, Savior of Britain
From his earliest depictions, Arthur has always been seen as a savior in a similar manner to Christ. The difference between them is that while Christ was to be a spiritual leader, Arthur was a military man and he acted as savior by winning battles against his people’s enemies. The Latin histories – Gildas, the Historia Brittonum , Geoffrey of Monmouth – unanimously portray Arthur as delivering his people from the Saxon scourge, and Geoffrey of Monmouth goes one step further to add Biblical imagery to the tale.
Saxons were depicted in the Historia as a warrior people (Garyuk31 / Public Domain )
The Saxons are consistently referred to as “wicked”, of “evil repute”, or “treacherous pagans” in the History of the Kings of Britain , strikingly similar terminology to that used in the Christian texts to refer to the Devil and his agents, who are often described as “foul” and “wicked”, and the “enemy of the human race”. So if the Saxons are agents of Satan, then Arthur, as their enemy, becomes Christ-like and as he defeats the Saxons, he acts as savior to his people in both an earthly and a divine capacity.
Not only in the Latin texts, but also in Welsh and Breton literature Arthur appears to perform a Messianic role as savior of his people – including the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, or the little-known Cornish hagiography Life of St Goeznovius . The image of Arthur as Messiah was so strong in the medieval Welsh cultural zeitgeist that parts of Wales and Cornwall self-identified as “Arthur’s country”. When the Anglo-Norman conquest began to spread into Wales as it had with the Saxons before them, the Britons turned to Arthur as a symbol of resistance since he had expelled invaders from his lands once before.
To the medieval Britons, Arthur was more than a war hero and symbol of rebellion – it had been prophesied long ago that one day Arthur would be resurrected, like Christ, and return to liberate his people from their oppressors and once again rule as king. Although the prophecy of Arthur’s resurrection was looked upon with much scorn in Anglo-Latin literature, it was nonetheless popular after Geoffrey of Monmouth included it in his History.
In Geoffrey’s tale, Arthur is mortally wounded by the treacherous Mordred in the battle at Camlann and carried to the Isle of Avalon, where his blood relative Morgana was to heal his wounds. There he awaits the time foretold by Merlin that God has ordained for the Britons to rule, in which Arthur will return.
The Death of Arthur (James Archer / Public Domain )
Geoffrey expands on the tale in his subsequent work, the Vita Merlini or the Life of Merlin . In this version, both Merlin and the Welsh bard Taliesin accompany Arthur to Avalon and Merlin proclaims that the Saxon invasion is a punishment from God for the sins of the Britons:
“Upon them shall come the Saxon people, fierce in war, who shall again cruelly overthrow us and our cities, and shall violate God’s law and his temples. For He shall certainly permit this destruction to come upon us because of our crimes that He may correct the foolish.”
Taliesin replies that Arthur would return to “drive off the enemy with his accustomed vigor and re-establish the citizens in their former peace”, but Merlin prophesies that Arthur shall not return until:
“Conan shall come in his chariot from Brittany, and Cadwallader the venerated leader of the Welsh, who shall join together Scots and Cumbrians, Cornishmen and men of Brittany in a firm league, and shall return to their people their lost crown, expelling the enemy and renewing the times of Brutus.”
Merlin refers to other Welsh and Breton heroes in this passage, but Taliesin voices the belief of the common people that it is Arthur who will return from his long sleep to save them from tyranny and restore the Britons to their former glory.
A Messianic Figure?
The image of King Arthur as the savior of the British people was so powerful it endured the centuries, even into the 20th century when anti- German sentiments ran strong in the British community in the wake of the Great War and the lead-up to World War II . As a British leader who had triumphed over the Germanic peoples (Saxons) in the distant past, Arthur was invoked as a rallying point for the national cause and a symbol of British patriotism.
Arthur still holds an important place in Britain’s self-identity, and surely will for many centuries more, whether his people continue to see him as a kind of Messiah or as an ordinary mortal man – albeit a great one.
Top Image: Statue of King Arthur at Tintagel. Source: Ian Capper / Gallos / CC-BY-SA-2.0.
By Meagan Dickerson
Geoffrey of Monmouth. Historia Regum Britanniae . Ed. Michael D. Reeve, trans. Neil Wright. 2007. Boydell Press.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Life of Merlin . Sacred Texts Archive. Available at: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/vm/vmeng
Gildas. De Excidio Britanniae . Ed. and trans. Hugh Williams. 2006. Llanerch Press.
Gunn, Bill, ed. 1819. The “Historia Brittonum” . J. and A. Arch.
Higham, Nicholas J. 2018. King Arthur: The making of the legend . Yale University Press.
John of Glastonbury. Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie . Ed. James P. Carley, trans. David Townsend. 1985. Boydell Press