Historical Investigation Into King Arthur Chevalier College, Modern History Essay

2086 words - 9 pages

Discuss the differing historical interpretations of King Arthur.
King Arthur has progressed throughout history as a historical figure, folk tale and popular
icon. First recorded in the writings of Nennius, Arthur moved quickly from historical fact to
legend through the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. From the vision of Malory, the
romantics of Wordsworth and Tennyson to the critically acclaimed, historically inaccurate
musical Camelot, King Arthur has been manipulated and exploited for political
empowerment and social comment. Johnson states, “The question of whether or not Arthur
was a historical character is one that has occupied scholars for centuries; it is almost an
obsessive distraction of the British peoples.”1 The earliest interpretations of King Arthur
portray him as an English hero and warrior king. As the science of historical writing has
progressed two schools have emerged – the traditionalist and revisionist – believers and non-
believers. Ultimately, the historical schools and interpretations that have emerged regarding
King Arthur are broad and significantly varied.
The earliest interpretations of King Arthur present a glorified historical figure, who was the
King of England. This portrayal eventually developed into legend with further manipulations
and interpretations. The first existing record of King Arthur came through the writings of a
welsh historian Nennius in 769 AD. In Nennius’ writings he lists Arthur’s heroic
involvement in twelve separate battles in the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England (5th and 6th
century).2 Nennius writes: "Arthur fought against them in those days, together with the kings
of the British; but he was their leader in battle.”3 Drawn entirely from Welsh poetry the
various battles Nennius lists took place in an array of different times and places making it
unlikely that Arthur actually participated in all (if any) of them.4 Following this, other Welsh
writers drew on Nennius’ work and the fame of Arthur spread beyond the Welsh and Celtic
world, especially after the Norman conquest (1066 AD). In the 12th century, historian
Geoffrey of Monmouth further popularised King Arthur through presenting the first full story
of Arthur’s life in his book ‘History of the Kings of Britain.’ The book was a blend of “myth
and fact” which introduced Arthur’s magic sword ‘Excalibur’, his trusted Knight Lancelot,
Queen Guinevere and the wizard Merlin.5 The inspiration for the book was supposedly a lost
Celtic manuscript that only Geoffrey was able to examine.6 Towards the end of the 13th
century, mythical British rulers were increasingly situated in the prologues of ‘Royal
Chronicles’ – they were portrayed as warrior king’s and heroes whose achievement was
territorial and not developmental.7 Rajsic argues, “Arthur belongs first and foremost to the
history of England and the (imagined lineage of contemporary English Kings).”8 Evidently,
1 Flint Johnson. (2014). Evidence of Arthur: Fixing the Legend in Factual Place and...

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