KING ARTHUR AND THE DOORWAY TO AVALON
'Three Futile Battles of the Isle of Britain:
The Battle of Goddeu, caused by a bitch, a roebuck and a plover;
The Battle of Arfderydd, caused by a lark's nest;
The Battle of Camlann, caused by a quarrel between Gwenhvyfar
And the battles were called futile because their causes were so barren.'
[Triad 84, in Peniarth 50, mss c.1425-1456, cited in Troiedd Ynys
Prydein, ed. Rachel Bromwich, University of Wales (1961)]
The life and career of the legendary early medieval British ‘King’ Arthur are well known, and are largely the invention of Anglo-French writers in the 12th -13th centuries. Against a background of crusades, the descendants of William of Normandy (the Conqueror, King of England 1066-1087) built up, largely through dynastic marriages, a powerful empire comprising England and large areas of France. By 1154, Henry II (Henry Plantagenet, great grandson of William), ruled England, Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Gascoigne and Aquitaine. This Angevin Empire was a major player in international politics: Henry's son Richard I (Coeur de Lion - Lionheart) was a leading figure in the Third Crusade (1189-92), but when he died his incompetent brother John succeeded and by 1214 had lost virtually all of the French lands. England struggled to retake these territories for more than 200 years, but was finally defeated in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).
The invention of King Arthur as the great British hero dates from the Norman and Angevin period.
I. Medieval Texts:
In his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) in 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth provided the main outline for the story of King Arthur.
He recounted that after the fall of the Roman Empire and the departure of the Roman troops, Britain was attacked by Picts and Huns (sic), until a usurping British leader, Vortigern, invited the Anglo-Saxons (English) over as mercenaries to defend Britain, a policy that had disastrous results as the Saxons promptly invaded in their own right. When the legitimate rulers of Britain, the brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther, reasserted themselves, Vortigern was killed and the Saxons temporarily defeated. With the aid of the magus Merlinus (who had prophesied Vortigern’s death) Uther seduced Igerna, wife of his ally Gorlois of Tintagel, and from that union Arthur was born. Aurelius and Uther were both later poisoned in Saxon plots.
Arthur grew up to be a great king, inflicting several defeats on the Saxons, at York, Celidon, Bath and Thanet. He ruled from Caerleon and Winchester, his company of knights and allies including his nephew Walgan, Bedwerus, Caius, Peredur, and Urian. Arthur married a Roman noblewoman, Guanhamara, and later set off on a campaign of European conquest. While he was away, Guanhamara and Modredus (brother to Walgan and nephew to Arthur) plotted to take the throne. Arthur returned, Guanhamara went into a convent while Arthur pursued Modredus, defeating and killing him at the battle of Camblam in Cornwall in AD 542. Arthur was himself mortally wounded, and ‘was carried off to the Isle of Avallon’ (insula Avallonis) to be healed of his wounds.
In his Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) in 1151, Monmouth described Arthur’s resting place as the Fortunate Isles or Isle of Apples (insula pomorum), presided over by Morgen le Fay and her nine sisters.
Monmouth’s Historia served a political purpose, pandering to the Normans by vilifying the Saxon English (whom the Normans had conquered in 1066), providing Britain with a legendary national hero to match the French Charlemagne, and painting a vision of a British empire extending far into Europe. As a Welshman, Monmouth also used the opportunity to glorify the Welsh (descendants of the pre-Saxon Britons), moulding his new national hero out of earlier Welsh traditions, creating as he did so a cultural history of Britain drawing on Celtic roots far more subtle and interesting than Beowulf and other brutal and tiresome Anglo-Viking epics.
Much of Monmouth’s account was his own invention, but Arthur’s origins date back six centuries earlier, and many of his companions also have older pedigrees. Bedwyr (Bedwerus) and Gwalchmei (Walgan) were first associated with Arthur in a poem, The Song of the Graves (dated to c. 900, in the Black Book of Carmarthen, compiled c. 1180-1220), in which the location of Arthur’s own grave was described as forever concealed. They, along with Gwenhwyfar (Guanhamara) and Cei (Caius) were also linked to Arthur in the story Culwch and Olwen (composed c. 950, found in the 14th century texts, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, from which the collection of Welsh stories in the Mabinogion was compiled).
Stories of Arthur and his company had travelled far from their Welsh roots even before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia: Artur, Galvagin (Gwalchmei/Walgan) and Che (Cei/Caius) are depicted rescuing Winlogee (Gwenhwyfar/Guanhamara) from abduction in a fresco in Modena, Italy, carved between 1100 and 1130.
Later writers drew on Monmouth’s story, and gradually the other familiar features of the Arthurian romances emerged:
Robert Wace in his Roman de Brut (1155) translated Monmouth from Latin into French for Eleanor of Aquitaine (Henry II’s queen), and added courtly romance and the Round Table.
Chretien de Troyes (who wrote romances for Eleanor’s daughter Marie de Champagne, half sister to Richard I and John) gave Arthur’s capital as ‘Camelot’ (the name derived from Camulodunum - Roman Colchester; John Leyland in 1540 identifying Camelot with Cadbury hillfort, Somerset). In his Erec et Enide (c. 1170) Chretien identified Morgain as Arthur’s sister. In his Chevalier a la Charrette (Knight of the Cart), also known as Lancelot (c.1180) he introduced a new hero, Lancelot (probably derived from Peredur, whose name, like Lancelot, is a pun on ‘spear’). Lancelot’s weakness, despite his heroism, was his love for the queen, Ganievre, whom he rescued from abduction by Meleagaunt of Goirre. Courtly love was a prominent element in Chretien’s romances, although he made it clear that this was more to Marie de Champagne’s tastes than his own.
In England, Layamon of Worcester’s Brut (c.1190), an epic translation of Wace into English, had Arthur raised by his sister Argante (a variant on Morgen/Morgain) and her fays in Avalon. After the treachery of Wenhover with Modred, Arthur executed the queen, killed Modred in the final battle, and then returned to Argante in Avalon.
The German romance Lanzelet by Ulrich von Zatzikhoven (c1200), possibly based on a lost Anglo-Norman original, had his hero raised mysteriously by the Lady of the Lake, the mother of Mabuz (i.e. Mabon, son of Modron in Culwch and Olwen in the Mabinogion, thus rendering Ulrich’s unnamed Lady of the Lake identifiable with the Celtic goddess Modron. See below.)
Around the same time Robert de Boron’s Merlin introduced the idea that Arthur was recognised king by drawing the sword from the stone.
By 1200 or so, the Welsh romances The Lady of the Fountain; Gereint, Son of Erbin; and Peredur, Son of Efrawg were composed. Later incorporated into the Mabinogion, they closely paralleled three of Chretien’s tales, Yvain, Erec et Enide and Conte du Graal , and may have derived from Chretien, or from some lost Anglo-Norman source from which Chretien also (perhaps) drew.
In the sprawling French Vulgate Cycle (c. 1215-1230), drawing on Chretien, Ulrich and Robert de Boron, Arthur’s sword was called Escalibur (in Geoffrey’s Historia it was ‘Caliburn’), Modret was now Arthur’s illegitimate son by an incestuous affair with one of his sisters (i.e. the product of Arthur’s sin), and it was the affair between Lancelot and Queen Guenievre that provided ammunition for Modret’s treachery to destroy Arthur’s kingdom. The final battle was fought on Salisbury Plain and Escalibur was thrown into the sea.
In the Huth Merlin (c. 1230-1240) it was the Lady of the Lake who gave Arthur the sword Excalibur, Morgain La Fee plots against her brother, Arthur (a convoluted knock-on effect of Arthur’s incest), and another Lady of the Lake, Nivienne, seduced Merlin after learning his art, and took him away into magical incarceration.
Le Morte D’Arthur of Thomas Malory (1470) - a condensation of the French Vulgate Cycle, incorporating parts from the Huth Merlin, the French Prose Tristan (c.1250) and the Thornton Morte Arthure (c.1350-1400) - introduced Launcelot to English audiences. Up until then, Gawain had been Arthur’s leading knight, especially in tales and poems from Cumberland and Lancashire, most notably Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1380). After the Battle of Camlann, Bedivere cast Excalibur into the water, returning it to the keeping of the Lady of the Lake.
The Holy Grail: Interwoven with the growing Arthurian cycle were the legends of the ‘Holy’ Grail.
A major inspiration here was a tradition recorded at Fécamp in France in 1171, that Nicodemus (who had helped bury Christ in St John’s Gospel) had brought two small cruets of Christ’s blood as a holy relic to that site. This established the idea of Christ’s blood as a relic, brought to northern Europe by one of his followers – an idea later incorporated into the Grail stories.
The first Grail romance was the Conte du Graal (or Perceval), composed between 1180-1190 by Chretien de Troyes, for Count Philip of Flanders. The central characters were Gauvain (Gawain) and Perceval (the Welsh Peredur, described here as ‘the son of a widow’, a formulation later of significance in Freemasonry), who discovered the Grail in a land desolated by a tragic spear wound which had maimed the ‘Fisher King’ through the thighs (i.e. castrated him). The Grail itself was not identified (although Graal simply means a large serving dish), but was described as ‘holy’ and giving light, and appearing in a procession with a bleeding spear and a question (‘Whom does one serve with the Graal?’) that, if uttered, would heal all. From the start the Grail story was set against an Arthurian background (although tangential to the business of Arthur’s court), but the Grail was not yet a chalice, nor linked to the Last Supper or the blood of Christ (although it was linked to the Mass and Crucifixion, and contained the Eucharist). It was itself mysterious, and the mysteries were compounded by Chretien’s claim that he took the story from a book given to him by Philip of Flanders, and by the fact that Chretien died before he could finish his account. Current orthodoxy claims that the Conte du Graal was entirely the work of Chretien’s imagination, but the truth is that, like Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien was drawing creatively on older sources.
After Chretien’s unfinished story, a plethora of Grail romances followed, none of which can be precisely dated, but most seem to have been composed between around 1190 and 1215.
The Welsh Peredur in the Mabinogion may have drawn on the same source as Chretien, but substituted a head on a plate for the Grail (an icon with much older Celtic significance). The head was that of Peredur’s cousin, killed by nine Amazons of Gloucester, whom Peredur and Gwalchmei then slaughtered.
Two French Continuations of Chretien were written, both for Countess Jeanne of Flanders. One, by Wauchier de Denain, described the Grail as ‘rich’ rather than holy, providing food for the people, and taboo (not to be spoken of). In this version, the Grail knight was Gauvain, who saw the Grail as a cup into which blood dripped from a spear held above it. The key question was ‘What is the Graal?’. In the other Continuation, by Manessier, the Grail was made by Joseph of Arimathea (who presided over the burial of Christ in the Gospels) to collect Christ’s blood, and the spear was the one used by the centurion to pierce Christ’s side as he was on the Cross. The Rich Fisher, a descendant of Joseph, was keeper of the Grail.
In the Elucidation to Chretien, again Gauvain is the Grail knight, but here the quest for the Grail is explained in terms of redeeming terrible events of a thousand years before, when Amangons brought desolation to the Rich Fisher’s kingdom by raping the mountain virgins who had provided sustenance for travellers, and stealing their golden cups. This event echoes Câd Goddeu (the Battle of the Trees), one of the Three Futile Battles of the Isle of Britain (Triad 84, Peniarth 50). The10th century poem, Câd Goddeu, in the Book of Taliesin (mss. 13th century), recounts the defeat of Arawn of Annwn by Gwydion and Amathaon (Amangons?), the sons of Dôn, who decipher and speak the sacred name of Arawn’s secret ally. In the Elucidation, Arthur is told that the legacy of the crime of Amangons can be rectified by a seven-fold quest to achieve the Grail and re-establish the Rich Fisher’s realm. The man who reveals the secrets of this sacred quest to Arthur is Blihos-Bliheris, i.e. Bledhericus, a 12th century Welsh bard, allegedly the source of Thomas of Britain’s Tristran, c.1160, Wauchier’s Continuation, and the Elucidation. Bledhericus may be identifiable with Bledri ap Cadivor, prince of Dyfed, c.1070-1150.
In the German Perlesvaus, possibly written by a Teutonic Knight (the German equivalent of the Templars), and burning with a zealous missionary vision of Arthur militarily enforcing a ‘New Law’, Lanzelet was an important figure, and the Grail was described as having five incarnations, four of which were secret, but the fifth was a cup containing the blood of Christ, in association with the spear of Longinus, the centurion who wounded Christ on the Cross.
In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival the Grail is a mysterious stone talisman (the alchemical ‘philosopher’s stone’?), guarded by Templeisen (Templars?), and revealed in an elaborate procession carried by young women. The key question to heal the maimed king here is ‘What aileth thee?’. Wolfram added to the sense of mystery surrounding the Grail stories by claiming that he had received the story from one Kiot of Provence, who had in turn heard it from a Jewish astrologer in Toledo. Wolfram insisted his account contained deep mystical secrets, while Chretien’s Conte du Graal was a hopelessly garbled version of the tale.
In Robert de Boron’s trilogy, Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, and Perceval, the Gréal was clearly identified as the cup of the Last Supper, used to collect the blood of Christ at the Crucifixion, brought to ‘Avaron’ in Britain by Joseph of Arimathea’s brother-in-law Bron, the ‘Rich Fisher’. The Gréal would not feed the unworthy and was now of central importance to Arthur’s Round Table, as subject of a great quest. The Round Table itself was made by Merlin for Uther (Arthur’s father) as a replica of the table of the Last Supper and the table of Joseph of Arimathea. Perceval was the Grail knight, and the Gréal was alleged to dispel doubts about the Trinity.
This golden age of Grail stories came to a sudden end soon after 1215 as their religious legitimacy came under attack. Grail romances revered a vessel unique and holy because it held the true blood of Christ, and this challenged Catholic belief in transubstantiation, that during Mass the wine in the consecrated church chalice miraculously became the blood of Christ. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council confirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation as Roman Catholic dogma, and the Grail stories, undermining the literalness of transubstantiation, became heresy.
Some authorities have suggested there was a Grail Cult in existence in the late 12th century – a fertility cult in which the spear and cup featured as sexual symbols, the principal theme being the ritual curing of the maimed (castrated) king by a hero (Gawain). Bledhericus may have been an initiate into such a cult. Daffid Benfras (c. 1300) claimed the Grail symbolised Mary, and that communion with Mary gave access to God. The Grail Cult allegedly flourished along with other heretical and Gnostic cults, including the Templars (established 1119, closely liked to the region of Champagne, and sponsored by the Angevins), the troubadours of Provence (from where Kiot, the source of Wolfram’s esoteric version of the Grail story was alleged to have come; Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne were patronesses of the troubadours), and the Cathars of Languedoc – all inspired by unorthodox beliefs brought back from the Holy Land by the crusaders. From 1209, a crusade launched by King Philippe of France and Pope Innocent III destroyed the Cathars, the most notorious event being the massacre at Montsegur in 1244. The suppression of the Cathars was supported by the Inquisition, established in 1231 to root out heretics, and in1307 instrumental in the destruction of the Templars. Whether Grail Cults existed or not, esoteric Grail romances had become dangerously heretic and seemingly vanished.
Grail stories continued to appear however, but they were harnessed by the Church and turned into Christian propaganda (ironically, by the Cistercians, the order most closely connected to the Templars).
In the Vulgate and Huth versions of Merlin (c.1215-1240) the Grail quest extolled the virtues of celibacy and virginity, courtly romance was exposed as sinful, and chivalry as inadequate. Gawain and Lancelot were side-lined by a new character, Galaad (Galahad), son of Lancelot, introduced as the only one saintly enough to achieve a properly Christian quest for the Grail (although Perceval was permitted to see it, and, like Galaad, be transported to heaven forthwith).
In 1470, Thomas Malory, in his Morte D’Arthur, sought to rescue the values of knightly chivalry from Christian saintliness, but the Grail legend was by then firmly in the possession of the Roman Catholic Church.
Glastonbury: The linking of Arthur, Avalon and the Grail with Glastonbury is a 12th century invention.
William of Malmesbury launched the cult of Glastonbury in his De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae, originally c.1130, but surviving only as a mss. dated c.1240 and heavily contaminated by later interpolations. William’s principal purpose was to inflate Glastonbury’s status as a unique site in British religious history, and to this end he made a series of spurious claims. Firstly, that there had been a church at Glastonbury in the 1st century [unsubstantiated: most scholars date the first church at Glastonbury to sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries]. Secondly, that there was a secret mystery encoded in the floor of the Abbey [unidentified]. Thirdly that he had seen a charter dated 601 which identified Glastonbury as Ynys Witrin (= Insula Vitrea = Isle of Glass): [unfortunately no-one else has ever seen this ‘charter’].
In his Gesta Regum (c. 1125-1140), he made reference to Arthur, suggesting sensibly that he deserved attention from historians as the victor of the Battle of Mount Badon, and should not remain merely the plaything of fanciful poets. William recorded that Arthur’s grave had never been found, and made no connection between Arthur and Glastonbury.
Other texts from the mid 12th century, however, started to weave various strands of popular legend together.
In the hagoigraphical Life of St Collen, the King of Faerie, Gwyn ap Nudd (Leader of the Wild Hunt), was said to be based at Glastonbury Tor – the first connection between Glastonbury and the ‘Otherworld’.
Around the same time, Caradoc’s Life of St Gildas (c.1140) identified Glastonbury Tor as the ‘Glass Castle’ of Melwas, King of the Summer County (Somerset). Melwas abducted Guennuver to his Glass Castle, and Arthur rescued her – the first connection between Arthur and Glastonbury. [Melwas appeared in Chretien’s Erec et Enide as Maheloas, lord of L’Isle de Voire (the Glass Island), and in Lancelot as Meleagaunt of Goirre (= Voire?), a magical otherworld comprising a water encircled tower accessible only by a bridge made from a sword blade. Meleagaunt incarcerated Ganievre in his tower, and Lancelot had to crawl over the sword-bridge to rescue her.]
Giraldus Cambrensis drew it all together in his De Principis Instructione (1193-1199), claiming that ‘Glastonbury’ and ‘Inis Gutrin’ both meant ‘Isle of Glass’, and were identifiable with Avallon (named from Welsh aval = apple; NB Geoffrey of Monmouth had already equated Avalon with the Isle of Apples). Avallon was ruled by Morgan, a relative of Arthur, and her girls. Avallon was also the final resting place of Arthur, and Giraldus cited as proof of this the recent exhumation of the remains of Arthur and Wenneveria, buried there by Morgan after Camlan, along with a lead cross inscribed ‘Hic iacet sepultus inclytus rex Arthurus cum Wenneveria uxore sua secunda in insula Avallonia’ (‘Here lies the grave of renowned King Arthur and his second wife Wenneveria in the Isle of Avallon’). In his Speculum Ecclesiae (c.1216), Giraldus refers to this exhumation again, attributing a confused date of somewhere between 1189-1191, and slightly altering the wording on the lead cross.
John Leland claimed to have seen a copy of the cross in the 1540s (after Glastonbury Abbey had been dissolved by Henry VIII), and in 1607 William Camden drew it. His drawing of the cross reveals the lettering to be of a much later style than 6th century, ‘Arthurus’ had become ‘Arturius’ and there was no reference to Wenneveria. Despite attempts by some enthusiasts to give credence to Giraldus’ claims, there can be little doubt that the ‘exhumation’ was a move designed for ulterior motives. In part, simple financial interest: the abbey had been damaged in a fire in 1184, and on the succession of Richard to the throne in 1189, the funding Glastonbury had received from Henry II came under threat, as Richard diverted all available cash into his crusading coffer. Discovering the grave of King Arthur would at the very least boost the pilgrimage industry – as had the remarkably fortuitous ‘discoveries’ of the remains of St Patrick, St Brigit, St Gildas and St Dunstan (among others) at Glastonbury, all since 1184. Moreover, discovering the grave of Arthur would serve a political purpose. There was a danger that Geoffrey Monmouth’s new national hero – Celtic and supposedly waiting his time in the magic isle of Avalon – might some day return, accompanied by a Welsh rebellion. Finding Arthur’s grave, proving he was thoroughly dead after all, would dampen Welsh enthusiasm and reassure the Angevins, who could still use Arthur as their national (pre-English) hero without the danger of the Welsh getting over-excited and rebellious. And pleasing the Angevins just might safeguard Glastonbury’s income from the crown. Giraldus was in fact quite open that the impetus to ‘discover’ the grave had come from Henry II himself who had ‘heard’ about it from a Welsh bard, and that the Welsh must be stupid to think Arthur could ever return. Ironically, one effect of this ‘exhumation’ was to inspire a wave of legends that Arthur slept beneath an enchanted hill, waiting for the call that would summon him to the defence of Britain once more.
Only in around 1200 was the Grail brought into the picture. Robert de Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea described the Gréal being taken by Joseph’s brother in law Bron to the Vale of ‘Avaron’, while the author of Perlesvaus claimed his epic was based on a text held at Glastonbury, where Arthur and Guenievre were buried, and the Grand St Graal (c. 1200) alleged that the Grail had been brought to the ‘Abbey of Glays’ (Glastonbury?). Arthur’s links with Avalon (Monmouth, 1136), Glastonbury (Caradoc c.1140), and the Grail (Chretien’s Conte du Graal c.1180-1190) were at last woven in together.
Finally, in the French Vulgate (c.1230), Joseph of Arimathea was grafted on. According to the Charter of St Patrick (c. 1120), Joseph had come to Gaul on a mission, but the Vulgate suggested that he had come across the channel to Britain, and the Pseudo-Preface to William of Malmesbury (c. 1240) alleged he came to Ynys Witrin (i.e Glastonbury) in AD 63.
By the late 14th century, the Thornton Morte Arthure (c. 1350-1400) placed Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury; while in John of Glastonbury’s Prophecy of Melkin (c.1390) Joseph of Arimathea brought cruets of Christ’s blood to the ancient burial ground of Glastonbury (an obvious plagiarising of the French tradition of 1171 that Nicodemus brought cruets of Christ’s blood to Fécamp). The cruets were depicted in a 15th century stained glass window in Glastonbury. In Triad 90 - mss. Peniarth 185 and 216 (17th century), Ynys Witrin was identified with the Isle of Avallach.
In Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, (1470), the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, containing the blood of Christ. It was the subject of the climactic quest of Arthur’s court, and after the final battle at Camlann, Arthur was taken to Avalon, and was later buried at Glastonbury. When Guenever died soon after, she was buried with him. However, Malory did acknowledge the legends of Arthur return, and referred to the belief that on his tomb was inscribed ‘Hic iacet Arturus, rex quondam rexque futurus’ (Here lies Arthur, the Once and Future King).
The medieval tradition from Geoffrey of Monmouth onwards located Arthur largely in southern Britain: Bath, Caerleon, Winchester, Tintagel, Cadbury, and Glastonbury. However, looking back into the past beyond the 12th century, through Welsh legend to the post-Roman dark ages, possibilities emerge that suggest the links between Arthur, Avalon and the ‘Grail’ have considerable antiquity, and that the oldest roots locate them all in the north of Britain.