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King Arthur

"This Arthur is the hero of many wild tales among the Britons even in our own day, but assuredly deserves to be the subject of reliable history rather than of false and dreaming fable..."

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum

The text of Nennius preserved as part of Harley 3859, a manuscript written in the early twelfth century, is the first written record to mention Arthur by name. There, are listed twelve battles in which Arthur is said to have fought.

"At that time the English increased their numbers and grew in number. On Hengest's death, his son Octha came down from the north of Britain to the kingdom of the Kentishmen, and from him are sprung the kings of the Kentishmen. Then Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings of the British; but he was their leader in battle....The twelfth battle was on Badon Hill and in it nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day, from a single charge of Arthur's, and no one laid them low save he alone; and he was victorious in all his campaigns."

It is interesting to note that Nennius does not describe Arthur as a king, although the others are, but as a military chief or war leader (dux bellorum), and it is to him that he attributes the British victory at Mons Badonicus.

Appended to Nennius in the Harley manuscript is the "The Annals of Wales" (Annales Cambriae), written about AD 960. Two refer to Arthur:

516. The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders [shield] and the Britons were the victors.

537. The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut [Mordred] fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

(The entry for 547 mentions "A great death" and probably refers to the plague that swept the Roman empire in the 540s.)

Although the battle of Mons Badonicus, itself, is likely to be historical, given its nearly contemporary account by Gildas, Arthur, himself, is more likely to be a legendary figure or folkloric hero who has been historicized, that is, associated with important events in the past so as to take on their historical reality.

If there is doubt as to an historical Arthur, there is none about the literary figure constructed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae.

Dating from the Conception, which had been introduced by Bede, was just beginning to be accepted when Nennius wrote. Certainly, none of the earlier works that he excerpted followed the convention of anno domini. Nor do the "Welsh Annals," which uses an Easter Table based on a cycle of 532 years plus one. Years are not dated from a single reference in time but listed serially, with each year beginning a new line in the manuscript. For them to make any sense, they must be calibrated against a known date, which usually is taken to be AD 447. Some editors reckon from a different date and indicate Arthur's battles as occurring in AD 518 and 539. Either date for the Battle of Badon, however, disagrees with the nearly contemporary account of Gildas and must, therefore, be suspect.

The story of the Round Table was introduced by Wace in Le Roman de Brut.

"On account of his noble barons--each felt he was superior, each considered himself the best, and no one could say who was the worst--Arthur had the Round Table made, about which the British tell many a tale. There sat the vassals, all equal, all leaders; they were placed equally round the table, and equally served. None of them could boast he sat higher than his peer; all were seated near the place of honour, none far away."

Early in the thirteenth century, Henry III converted the castle at Winchester into a medieval palace and had a Great Hall constructed. It held a massive round table, eighteen feet in diameter, that even then probably was associated with King Arthur.

In 1485, just three weeks before Henry Tudor succeeded to the throne as Henry VII, William Caxton published Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur. Henry named his son Arthur, with the intention that he fulfill the prophecy of the fabled king's return. But the boy died young and the crown went to his younger brother Henry. It was Henry VIII who had the table at Winchester decorated prior to the visit of the Holy Roman Emperor, who viewed it in 1522, the figure of Arthur painted to resemble the king, himself.

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