Geoffrey of Monmouth continued: the Saxon invasion
As a result, Britain became populated by increasing numbers heathen Saxons, and fearing the country would be overrun by the new race, the Briton’s leaders protested to the King, who, having married a Saxon, refused to listen. So the leaders proclaimed Prince Vortimer as King, who in a succession of battles drove large numbers of Saxons (including Hengist himself) out of Kent and back to the Continent.
Vortimer was poisoned on the orders of his stepmother and King Vortigern resumed his rule, encouraging the Saxons to return. Hengist reappeared in Kent with a large army and massacred a number of unarmed British nobles at a conference supposedly arranged to draw up a peace treaty between the British and the Saxons. He spared Vortigern’s life but Saxons took over the country’s major cities, such as London and York. Vortigern took refuge in the remote mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, where he tried to build a fortress, but the stones of its walls kept sinking into the ground – a problem that soothsayers said could only be solved by sprinkling on the stones the blood of a boy with no father.
The appearance of Merlin and the end of Vortigern
Enter Merlin. Vortigern’s messengers found him as a boy in Carmarthen – his mother claimed he had been begotten by a spirit who would appear and disappear. Merlin solved the problem of the sinking stones not by being sacrificed but by detecting an underground pool on Vortigern’s chosen site. The pool was emptied and two dragons appeared – one white and one red. The dragons fought each other and at first, the white one (which according to Merlin represented the Saxons) was winning, but eventually the red one won (representing the Britons). This foretold that the current Saxon dominance in Britain – all Vortigern’s fault – would eventually be overcome by the forces of Good.
Merlin warned Vortigern that his end was nigh. The refugee Princes, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, were on their way back from exile in Brittany. When they landed, Aurelius was crowned King, and he laid seige on Vortigern in a castle near Monmouth. The castle was set on fire and Vortigern perished at last. Aurelius’s army went on to drive the Saxons back towards the North Sea, where Hengist was also caught and killed, but the reign of Aurelius was short. One of Vortigern’s surviving sons arranged to have him poisoned by a fake doctor when he was sick, and he was succeeded by his younger brother, Uther Pendragon. After dealing with a Saxon revival, King Uther held court in London one Easter.
After one of Vortigern’s surviving sons had arranged to have King Aurelius Ambrosius poisoned by a fake doctor when he was sick, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Uther Pendragon. Uther’s arrival on the throne opened the door to the recovery of Merlin the Wizard’s ‘red dragon’ (Britons) but it was through the appearance of King Arthur (ably assisted by Merlin) that the danger from the Saxons and internal feuding among Britons would be finally dealt with.
At a court gathering in London one Easter, King Uther was overcome with an intense and obvious lust for Ygerna, the beautiful wife of the Duke of Cornwall. So the Duke – called Gorlois – took his wife away from the court, which greatly offended Uther, who ordered Gorlois to return. Gorlois had tucked Ygerna away in Tintagel Castle at his dukedom in Cornwall and he refused to bring her back to London, so Uther marched to Cornwall with his army. He beat his way past Gorlois’ weaker forces, and having taken one of Merlin’s potions, which turned him into an exact likeness of Gorlois, he tricked his way into the castle and to Ygerna. Thinking he was her husband, she allowed Uther into her bed, and Arthur was conceived. The unfortunate Gorlois was subsequently killed and Uther, in his true identity, took Ygerna as his own wife.
Arthur becomes the King of Britain and defeats the Saxons
As King Uther began to fail in health, the Saxons remained a problem. They eventually managed to have him poisoned but Arthur was nonetheless crowned King of Britain at Silchester. Though still young, he was an able leader, and after winning three battles around the country he forced the Saxons – who were assisted by the Picts and Scots – to promise to leave Britain. But once out at sea, they went back on their promise, believing they could sail from the North Sea round into the English Channel and surprise Arthur by landing in Devon. The plan was foiled. Arthur and his army met the Saxons at the ancient Roman city of Bath and – once and for all – defeated them in battle on a nearby hill. He also secured final victory in the North, against the Picts and Scots.
Arthur was a popular King, who became known for his outstanding courage and generosity. Lands were given back to their rightful owners and churches were rebuilt. He also married Guinevere, who was of Roman descent, then he conquered Ireland and Iceland. As a result of his wise rule, there followed a ‘golden age’ of peace, stability, and dignity in Britain.
King Arthur goes into Europe
King Arthur’s new ethos of courtliness, nobility, and selfless bravery became established in common life, and his influence began to extend itself. He took his armies into Norway and Denmark, then invaded Gaul, which was still under the loose hold of Rome in the form of the Roman tribune, Frollo, whom Arthur killed in combat. The Kingdom of Britain had by now risen above all others, in its riches and in its chivalric codes of conduct. Knights had become famed for their personal bravery and wore armour and colours of their own style. Women vowed only to give their devotion to brave men who had proved themselves three times in battle – thus the knights became ever more daring and the women ever more virtuous.
The Procurator of the Republic in Rome, Lucius Hiberius, sent a formal letter to King Arthur, complaining that Britain hadn’t been paying its normal tribute to the empire and condemning his invasions into the European mainland. Rome was threatening war unless Britain made amends. Arthur would have none of this, and responded by marching a huge army down through Gaul, leaving Mordred, his nephew, in charge at home. Nobly assisted by his other nephew, Gawain, he overcame the Romans in the Burgundy region, killing Lucius in the process and sending his body back to Rome with a message that Britain would pay no further tributes.
The death of King Arthur and beyond
Arthur was planning to cross the Alps and attack Rome itself at the end of the winter, but he received the news that Mordred had proclaimed himself as King of Britain and was living in adultery with Guinevere. Arthur returned home, defeating the traitor’s army in Cornwall by the River Camel. During the battle, Mordred was killed, but Arthur was also fatally wounded. According to the story though, Arthur gave the crown to a cousin while he was taken to the Isle of Avalon for his wounds to be nursed (by, later said by Geoffrey, to be Morgan the Enchantress). The Isle of Avalon has always remained a vague, mythical place, and Geoffrey leaves it unclear whether or not Arthur is supposed to have died of his wounds.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ continues after King Arthur, with five more kings. The fortunes of Britain decline again towards the end, when once again the Saxons, with the support of Gormund, king of the Africans, return to possess most of what is now England, the remaining Britons being driven to take refuge in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.
Two different Arthurs
The King Arthur of legend is not the ‘historical’ Arthur who may have existed in real life. Some historians believe that the now-popular Arthurian legend can be traced back to a little-known figure called Riothamus who existed in post-Roman Britain in the 5th century AD, and who may also have been called Arturius. Others believe a historical Arthur may have been of early Welsh origin. But the legendary King Arthur, the knights of the Round Table, and the court of Camelot are literary creations developed hundreds of years later in medieval times.
Arthurian Legend does not investigate or explain Riothamus or any other ‘historical’ Arthur but is concerned with the literary King Arthur, the mythical characters who make up his fabulous entourage of knights and ladies, and other mythical aspects of the legend: the Sangreal (Holy Grail) and the Round Table itself.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s King Arthur may have been inspired by a real figure who existed hundreds of years earlier in a vague period of European history and who might even have been called Arthur, but he did not pretend that most of his magnificent story – ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’ – was anything other than fiction.
Read the first page of <<the origins of King Arthur.