Arthur is the legendary ruler of Britain, the central character in the collection of medieval legends known as the Matter of Britain, around whom hundreds of tales of knights, ladies, squires, villains and supernatural figures all revolve.

According to these medieval pseudo-histories and romances, Arthur led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the early 6th century, then went on to reign throughout a period of peace and abundance. The details of Arthur's story are mainly composed of folklore and literary invention, and his historical existence is debated and disputed by modern historians.

Family[edit | edit source]

Early Welsh sources give Arthur a large family. Besides his father Uther Pendragon he had a brother Madoc and two nephews, Eliwlod and Gwalchmei. Historia regum Britanniae identifies Uther as his father, Igraine as his mother, and his cousin Gawain. Also has a full younger sister, Anna but there is some confusion on the issue in the text.

Chretien first identified Morgan le Fay as Arthur's sister.

Arthur's Children[edit | edit source]

Despite his childlessness (at least in marriage) often being a key factor in the tragedy of Camelot, different legends give Arthur a fair number of offspring.

In the earliest record, Historia Brittonum, Nennius writes that Arthur had a son, Anir, killed by Arthur himself.

In the Vulgate Cycle longtime antagonist and sometimes nephew Mordred is revealed as Arthur's son through unwitting incest with his half sister Morcades. In Erec et Enide and Perlesvaus he has a son, Loholt, who is slain by his brother Kay.

Wolfram von Eschanbach's Parzival gives Arthur an illegitimate son named Illinot. Arthur had a daughter, Melora, in the Irish tale of Melora and Orlando. The Icelandic Thiðrekssaga gives King Arthur a daughter named Hilde. Malory names Arthur's son Borre, who goes on to be a proud Knight of the Round Table.

Birth and Early Life[edit | edit source]

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Uther Pendragon went to Igraine, wife of Gorlois magically disguised by Merlin to appear as her husband. Under this deception Arthur was conceived. The Gesta Regum Britanniae, a 13th century Latin metrical version of Geoffrey relates that for the begetting of Arthur, it was necessary that Uther should remain with Igraine three days and three nights.

Young Arthur pulls the sword from the stone.

Lawman's Brut tells that Elves took Arthur as soon as he was born and gave him three gifts: to be the best of knights, to be the richest of kings, and to have long life. They also gave to him virtues, especially generosity.

The pseudo-historical documents provide no indication that Arthur was not brought up in his father's court and the verse romances, in the few cases where they concern themselves with Arthur’s boyhood, assume likewise. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival mentions the young Arthur searching for his missing mother in Uther Pendragon’s time. Heinrich von dem Türlin’s tells how Uther died when Arthur was not yet six years old and how the young boy mourned his father.

In The Story of Merlin, Merlin has Uther summon a worthy knight named Antor to court where Uthers orders that Antor is to take charge of the upbringing of a child that he will be given. Antor is to take his own nursling son and have him nurse at some other woman’s breast and give the infant which will be provided to him to his wife to nurse. Antor agrees and Arthur is raised not knowing of his heritage, assuming he will grow to be the squire of his brother Kay.

In Idylls of the King, the baby Arthur washes up magically onto a beach, before being swooped up by Merlin and given to Antor.

Becoming King[edit | edit source]

It also remains uncertain in the earliest texts whether Arthur was considered a king. Neither the Historia nor the Annales calls him "rex": the former calls him instead "dux bellorum" (leader of battles) and "miles" (soldier).

Badley James as Arthur in Merlin (BBC)

Robert de Boron was the first to write of the mythical Sword in the Stone. Also adapted by Malory and many later writers, at a tournament in London, young Arthur. acting as a squire for Kay, misplaces Kay's sword, and draws the sword of kingship instead, emblazoned with "Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England"

Malory has Arthur remove the sword multiple times to please suspicious nobles; he pulls it again at Candlemas, Easter, and Pentecost. At Pentecost the peasants rise up and demand Arthur's coronation.

Although opposed by many kings, including Lot, Urien, and the King with 100 Knights, Arthur rallied and drove them off. Arthur formed alliances with Kings Bans and Bors to rescue King Leodegrance from King Rience.

Great Feats[edit | edit source]

King Arthur as portrayed by Nigel Terry in Excalibur (1981).

Arthur the Giant Slayer[edit | edit source]

Arthur had his share of great mythical feats as a solo warrior as well as a general. One such feat was the slaying of the Giant of Mont St. Michel in single combat.

An early Welsh poem, The Spoils of Annwn, located in the book of Taliesin , tells how Arthur and three shiploads of warriors sail to Annwn, the Welsh otherworld. Arthur returns with a magical cauldron, but only seven warriors have survived the expedition.

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur joins his cousin Culhwch in accomplishing many great deeds, including hunting the great boat Twrch Trwyth (and event also in Historia Brittonum} leading up to the slaying of the giant Ysbaddaden.

Arthur The General[edit | edit source]

Nennius wrote that Arthur engaged in twelve battles, climaxing with the Battle of Mount Badon, where he finally halted the Saxons's advance.

In Geoffrey, the fifteen-year-old Arthur succeeds his father as King of Britain and fights a series of battles, similar to those in the Historia Brittonum, culminating in the Battle of Bath. He then defeats the Picts and Scots before creating an Arthurian empire through his conquests of Ireland, Iceland and the Orkney Islands. After twelve years of peace, Arthur sets out to expand his empire once more, taking control of Norway, Denmark and Gaul. Gaul is still held by the Roman Empire when it is conquered, and Arthur's victory naturally leads to a further confrontation between his empire and Rome's.

Arthur The Emperor[edit | edit source]

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of an Arthur that conquered all of Britain, the surrounding Islands, Scandinavia, Gaul, and Rome. Some wrote his empire extended farther, to Africa and the far east. In creating this portrayal, Geoffrey gave the British a past “golden age” upon which they might look with pride and for inspiration.

Marriage[edit | edit source]

Sir Sean Connery as Arthur in First Knight (1995)

Arthur's marriage to Guinevere, daughter of King Leodegrance forms one of the backbones of the story in later versions. It is as a wedding gift that Arthur receives the Round Table. Her unfaithfulness with Lacelot is consistently seen as one of, if not the primary, cause for the fall of Camelot.

The earliest mention of Guinevere was in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, where she appears as Arthur’s queen, but little more is said about her. Much of the detail of Arthur's marriage is elaborated on in Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory wrote numerous chapters on Arthur's marriage to Guinevere, from her imprisonment with Meleagant to her affair with Lancelot that leads to Agravain's revenge upon the Fellowship of the Camelot. Tennyson invents the tale that Arthur sent Sir Lancelot to bring her to Camelot for their wedding, and Guinevere and Lancelot fell in love on the return journey.

Death[edit | edit source]

Arthur and Mordred's last meeting at the Battle of Camlann.

The Historia Regum Britanniae says only that when Arthur was ready to cross the sea to Gaul to fight the Romans "... he [Arthur] handed over the task of defending Britain to his nephew Mordred and to his Queen, Guenevere."When King Arthur is starting into the Alps on his way to Rome, news arrives that Mordred has rebelled, had put the crown on his own head, and has taken Queen Guenevere as his wife. Mordred is also reinforcing with Saxon mercenaries.

Most versions end with the Battle of Camlann. Malory places the fatal encounter between Arthur and Mordred on foot. Mordred stands with his sword in a heap of dead men, and Arthur runs toward him, spear in his hands. While the Vulgate Mort Artu has Arthur then pull the spear out of the wound, in this account Mordred forces his body up the spear and strikes his father on the head into the brain.

In the Alliterative Morte Arthure the surviving Knights of the Round Table take Arthur to Glastonbury where he dies and is buried.

By the time of the Vulgate Cycle it was established that Arthur's last command was to have the sword of power, Caliburn, thrown back into the water. Chretien chose Griflet and Malory had Bedivere reported to have performed this action.


Malory has Arthur taken to the water, where he is carried away on a barge by women, including his half-sister and long time rival Morgan le Fay and Nimue. He tells Bedivere that he is being taken to Avalon to be healed. The Vulgate Mort Artu only mentions Morgan by name. Geoffrey and Wace both wrote that Arthur had gone to Avalon, but no mention of Morgan or a barge.

"Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place... many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rexque futurus."

Character Traits[edit | edit source]

In the earliest materials and Geoffrey he is a great and ferocious warrior, who laughs as he personally slaughters witches and giants and takes a leading role in all military campaigns, whereas in the continental romances his "inactivity and acquiescence constituted a central flaw in his otherwise ideal society". Much of this 12th-century and later Arthurian literature focuses less on Arthur himself than on characters such as Lancelot and Guenevere, Perceval, Galahad, Gawain, and Tristan and Isolde. Whereas Arthur is very much the key figure of the pre-Galfridian material and Geoffrey's Historia itself, in the romances he is rapidly sidelined.

Arthur's role in these later works is frequently that of a wise, dignified, even-tempered, somewhat bland, and occasionally feeble monarch. So, he simply turns pale and silent when he learns of Lancelot's affair with Guinevere in the Mort Artu, whilst in Chrétien de Troyes's The Knight with the Lion he is unable to stay awake after a feast and has to retire for a nap. Nonetheless, as Norris J. Lacy has observed, "his prestige is never — or almost never — compromised by his personal weaknesses ... his authority and glory remain intact."

An Arthurian tapestry.

By the Victorian era, especially the Idylls of the King, Arthur became a symbol of ideal manhood whose attempt to establish a perfect kingdom on earth fails, finally, through human weakness.

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