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French Arthur

Chapter 5

French Arthur

Many Britons escaped to Brittany (France) during the Saxon invasions, naturally we can assume taking many legends, one of which being that of Arthur. The spreading and notoriety of the Arthurian stories has been, up until quite recently, believed to have sprung from this period, although it should be stated that Britain had been in contact with the French since the eighth century, and from the eleventh after the Norman push into Wales. Arthur's notoriety and fame could have begun sooner and spread wider, if the missionary work of the early Celtic Church is seen as one possible avenue. After the arrival of many Britons in Brittany, over a four-five-hundred year period, Arthur re-appears as a central figure in many of the twelfth-century French romances.

In AD1155, the Anglo-Norman writer, a Jersey man, 'Robert Wace' (See Wace), then develops the concept of the 'Round Table' in his work entitled 'Roman de Brut' or 'Brut d'Angleterre', associating the idea of the Round Table to the known form of Celtic gatherings, when leaders would come together around a fire in a circle so that no one man was seen to have precedence over another. Wace, who refers to the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, is believed to be responsible for giving the new name of 'Excalibur' to Arthur's sword. The Celtic associations made to the 'Round Table', appear to have been completely amalgamated with the Christian Knights, which led to the development of the 'Knights of the Round Table'. It is suggested that it was in Wace's work that the amalgamation of the two concepts is evident for the first time. This is a work that greatly inspired many future French writers, such as 'Chrétien de Troyes' (See Chrétien de Troyes).

Chrétien de Troyes was a writer for, and a member of, the French Court of the twelfth-century, who is known to have ha d 'Henry II' as a patron. We know that Henry's aim at this time was to establish a blood connection to the Arthur, and therefore the Welsh and Britain, in order for his own son to be able to claim the throne. Chretien's writing can be seen to have considered this prospect, holding marriage and kingship in high state. It is in his writing that the first reference to 'Camelot' (See Camelot) is made, not as a real place though, but as an imaginary location.

It is thought that Chretien's Guinevere, also known as 'The Bride of Britain', was modelled on the 'Countess Marie de Champagne', daughter of 'Louis VII of France', and to whom the work of 'Yvain and Lancelot' was dedicated (perhaps another attempt to reflect and associate the French and British legends). It has been suggested that 'Marie de France', (c.AD1160/1190), a French poet of romantic narratives mainly based on Celtic material influenced the development at this time of the character of Guinevere. She was born in Normandy but spent much of her life in England, viewed as an important writer of the twelfth-century, and believed to have influenced later French writers. Marie de France is reputed to have dedicated the work 'Lais', focusing on romantic narratives based on Celtic material which must have made some reference to Arthurian legends, to 'Henry II' .

Circa AD1170 Chrétien de Troyes introduces us for the first time to the revised Lancelot, now known as 'Lancelot du Lac', (See Lancelot), described as a Knight without peer, seen to rescue Guinevere when Arthur fails to act. Many have described this version of the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot du Lac as being extremely romantic and erotic. Here Arthur is established as a committed defender and governor of Christendom, but he is now a weak husband. Whether this symbolises an attempt by Chretien to reflect Norman thinking on kingship and marriage is questionable. 'Sir Kay', (See Kay), reputed to have been the first Knight of the Round Table, so often a feature in Celtic writing, is redrawn by Chretien, and rather than being the likeable jovial character seen previously, Sir Kay is turned into a villain, making Lancelot du Lac the only heroic character. Lancelot du Lac's love for Guinevere in this Arthurian instalment threatens the very stability and existence of both the Kingdom of Britain and the Order of the Knights of the Round Table. Chrétien de Troyes makes further additions to the Arthurian epic, believed to have been responsible for introducing the unfinished story of 'Perceval' (c.AD1180), (See Perceval), a Knight of the Round Table, and the stories of 'Erec et Enide' (c.AD1160), and 'Geraint' (See Geraint). It has been suggested that Chrétien de Troyes drew much of his inspiration from the Welsh Chronicles of the Mabinogion to develop his version of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere but this is disputed.

It appears that many of the French writers of the early Middle Ages seem to purposefully relocate the Arthurian court of 'Camelot' (See Camelot), moving it to Tintagel (See Tintagel). Perhaps this is the result of the action of the then 'Duke of Cornwall' rebuilding a castle at Tintagel in the thirteenth-century, suggested to be due to the location featuring so heavily in contemporary Arthurian legends. Could it be that the movement of Arthur's court was to further underpin the link between the Duke of Cornwall and Arthur to help the Duke's brother, 'Henry III' and his right of ascendance? The Duke's brother, Henry III, at this time, is reputed to have had a round table constructed (See Round Table). At this time, the Norman monarchy was still worried about the claim held in the Welsh, Cornish and Breton beliefs of the return of Arthur, 'the once and future king'. It seems that only by conquering Wales or at least being able to rely on Welsh support would the Normans be able to relax. The Saxon monarchy had worked hard to bury the dead Arthur. In the twelfth-century the news of Arthur and Guinevere being entombed at Glastonbury Abbey by the Benedictines with no prospect of revival must have seemed to aid the Norman cause. It seems that written texts about Arthur in connection with Wales had finally died in the thirteenth-century, after his removal for burial to England.

Despite the work of all concerned by the fifteenth century there were still some people who actually thought that Arthur was English, and that the city of Winchester, England, was the location of the Arthurian court of 'Camelot' (See Camelot) rather than Wales or even Somerset. We now know this claim is unlikely to be true, as the building of Winchester Cathedral did not commence until circa AD1050.

Sir Thomas Malory (See TH White) is known to have been a staunch believer not only in Arthur, but in the Round Table. He is said to have worked tirelessly to compile and, we must also remember, to edit the many Welsh and Breton ballads and romances. The result was Mallory's 'Le Morte d'Arthur', thought of as a great work of romantic prose. It has been said that this work is the most successful attempt to unify all the Arthurian French romances into one epic.

During the fifteenth-century, and the 'War of The Roses', the legend of Arthur was manipulated in line with political movement, as we are told the story of Arthur 'pulling a sword from a stone' (See Excalibur) in the churchyard, images that were to become central to Arthurian legend in later centuries. We are introduced to a new story of 'Merlin' (See Merlin), now seen as the personification of the tension between the Christian and pre-Christian Church. Merlin is described as taking Arthur in a boat to the 'Lady of the Lake' (See Lady of the Lake) to fetch the sword Excalibur. Sir Thomas Malory is attributed as having developed the character of Mordred known to be Arthur's own illegitimate son, now clearly described as the result of an incestuous affair with his half-sister 'Morgan le Fay' (See Morgan le Fay). It has been suggested that the legend of Merlin as explored by Malory had been a development of the work known as 'Roman de Merlin' by 'Robert de Borron' in AD1200. Robert de Borron's examination of the 'Holy Grail', 'Estoire del Saint Graal', The Story/Legend of the Holy Grail and 'Joseph d'Arimathie' is also thought to heave influenced Malory and perhaps led to the development of the quest/search for the Grail/Chalice in romantic literature.

One of the main reasons why Malory's new rewrite of the Arthurian legend has become a primary source for future generations maybe the fact that Le Morte d'Arthur was the first book to be mass produced on a printing press by Caxton (UK) in AD1485. With the distribution of the book came the revival of the idea of Arthur as the 'once and future king', the inscription on the tomb at Glastonbury, now interpreted to indicate the possibility of Arthur's return.

A few days after the publication of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, 'Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond' and of the 'Royal House of Lancaster' arrived in Wales, flying the flag of the 'Red Dragon' (a reference perhaps to Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Arthur carrying a Dragon Banner and helmet, symbolic of the claimed Welsh heritage). Henry Tudor travelled to defeat the King, 'Richard, Duke of Gloucester' and the 'House of York', at the 'Battle of Bosworth' in AD1485. He succeeds as 'Henry VII, King of England', starting the Tudor dynasty, winning the crown of the Plantagenets. Many Britons, including the Welsh, thought this a sign of Arthur returned if not Arthur revived.

As Henry VII was crowned in AD1485 he was twenty-eight years old. He went through the motions of establishing that he was of Welsh origin, the son of the half-Welsh nobleman, 'Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond' and 'Lady Margaret Beaufort', a Plantagenet heiress and a descendant of 'John Gaunt'. We know that Henry Tudor, having been borne at 'Pembroke Castle, Wales' (28 January, 1457), was secured in France, in political exile, for his personal safety after the death of 'Henry VI' and the 'Prince of Wales' resulting from the 'Battle of Tewkesbury'. Henry's ascendance marked the end of the 'War of the Roses', establishing his reign from the day before the Battle of Bosworth, so making any who fought against him guilty of treason.

The Welsh were given a more elevated position in the Royal Court, being made minor court officials. Henry VII tried giving more credence to his claim to be of Welsh origin by recognising the Celtic feast day of David, who was later to became the patron saint of Wales, with the advent of St. David's Day (See Mystical-WWW Mystical Time : Dates, 1 March). Indeed Henry VII went further to link himself with the Welsh by naming his first son born nine months after his coronation as 'Arthur, Prince of Wales'. He was known as the 'Rosebush of England'. Naming the heir to the throne after Arthur was interpreted to be Henry's belief in a past and future greatness of the man Arthur and of his kingdom, and increased the fame of Malory's work. The Arthur spoken of in legend, the once and future king, it seemed had been reborn. Arthur, Prince of Wales was betrothed to 'Catherine of Aragon', but died (AD1502) before being crowned king or reaching his sixteenth birthday. His brother Henry inherited the title and betrothal to Catherine, a political alliance with Spain, (who he later denounced in AD1505 but married in AD1509), and is later crowned King Henry VIII of England in AD1509.

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