Friday, March 29, 2013

King Arthur and the Church

A page from a copy of 'Parzival' shows the title character, centre, with Arthur, c.1220. AKG Images/Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich
Often portrayed as a paragon of Christian virtue, the real King Arthur was an embarrassment to the Church, writes Simon Andrew Stirling.
A page from a copy of 'Parzival' shows the title character, centre, with Arthur, c.1220. AKG Images/Bayerische Staatsbibliothek MunichCaesarius, a Cistercian monk at Heisterbach, near Bonn, told a revealing story in about 1220. The abbot at the time, Gevard of Heisterbach, was preaching when he realised that the monks of his chapter were dozing. Gevard suddenly exclaimed: ‘Listen, I have something new and wonderful to tell you! There was once a king whose name was Arthur ...’ Instantly the monks were rapt with attention. The abbot had proved his point: even the Cistercian brethren were more interested in the legends of Arthur than the Scriptures.

The European craze for all things Arthurian was at its height. A ‘well-known storyteller’ named Bleddri latimer ap Kadifor had travelled from Wales to Poitou in western France early in the 12th century, bringing with him the tales of Arthur and his heroes. Later French romancers would alter Bleddri’s name to Bleheris, Blihis and, eventually, Blaise, the ‘master of Merlin’ and an authority on the legends of the Grail.

Bleddri told his tales to the Count of Poitiers – probably William VII, whose granddaughter Eleanor of Aquitaine inspired a widespread fascination with the Arthurian legends, not least through her patronage of such poets as Robert Wace (whose Roman de Brut introduced the Round Table to European literature) and Chrétien de Troyes, who built on Bleddri’s legacy in his romances of Lancelot, Yvain, Perceval and the Graal. Europe was soon thrilling to the stories of Arthur and his knights. The Lais of Marie de France, Béroul’s Tristan, the anonymous Queste del Saint Graal and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival all appeared within a few short years of each other.
Even the Church was not immune to the lure of the legends. The Romanesque cathedral at Modena in Italy was consecrated in 1184. The cathedral’s north portal boasts a marble archivolt carved with a scene depicting ‘Artus de Bretania’ and his warriors besieging a castle. But there were those who looked askance at the growing popularity of Arthur. The cult of the ‘Holy Grail’ in particular troubled the ecclesiastical authorities. In his Bloodline of the Holy Grail (1996) Laurence Gardner argued that Grail lore ‘remains an unproclaimed heresy’ and was ‘openly condemned’ by the Roman Church. Imagery of the Grail was certainly adopted by sects which the Church deemed to be heretical. For example, the Cathars became associated with it and, during the Albigensian Crusade against them in the Languedoc region of France in the early 1200s, orthodox churchmen railed against the Grail romances. Like the songs of the troubadours, the romances of Chrétien de Troyes reflected the courtly ideals of the nobility of southern France, which challenged the orthodoxy of the Church; Wolfram von Eschenbach, meanwhile, located the Grail Castle in the Pyrenees, the very heartland of the Albigensian heresy.
The crusade against the Cathars was led by the Abbot of Cîteaux. Reputedly, when he was asked how the soldiers might tell the difference between Cathars and true Catholics, he replied, ‘Kill them all – God will recognise his own.’ This anecdote was handed down by Caesarius, who also told the disapproving story of Abbot Gevard and the monks of Heisterbach. The Cistercians, it would seem, were in the vanguard of attempts to purge Christendom of its love affair with all things Arthurian.

A change of image

But the legends of Arthur continued to delight and inspire, much to the chagrin of the Church. The solution was simple and effective. Arthur and his knights were brought into the orthodox fold, becoming the perfect Christian king and his pious cohorts. A key moment in this process of transformation occurred in 1184 when the old church at Glastonbury in Somerset caught fire. Funds were required to build a more resilient structure. Henry II (r.1154-89), Eleanor of Aquitaine’s second husband, threw the monks of Glastonbury a lifeline when he wondered aloud whether the remains of King Arthur might not be found in the abbey grounds.
The monks took the hint. Under the supervision of Henri de Sully, formerly Abbot of Fécamp in Normandy, an excavation was put in motion in 1191. In no time at all the monks uncovered a grave which they claimed was that of Arthur and ‘his second wife’, Guenevere. Henri de Sully then sought the maximum publicity to encourage a flood of pilgrims to Glastonbury.
Around 1200 the French poet Robert de Boron composed his Joseph d’Arimathie (or Le Roman de l’estoire dou Graal), asserting that the ‘Graal’ of legend was in fact the Cup of the Last Supper. Christ’s blood had been collected in the cup, which was then taken to Britain and the ‘Vales of Avalon’ in the west. De Boron was the first writer to give the Grail an unequivocally Christian provenance. The myth he spawned is likely to owe much to the fact that the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy had capitalised on its collection of sacred relics, which included a bone from the arm of Mary Magdalene and a quantity of Christ’s blood. Following Henri de Sully from Fécamp to Glastonbury, these money-spinning items transmogrified into the bones of Guenevere and the chalice which had held the holy blood. Arthur was on his way to becoming a Christian.
Prior to the Glastonbury hoax the Church had regarded Arthur as an enemy. A raft of ‘charter myths’ appeared during the 12th century, as ecclesiastical institutions sought to avoid paying taxes. To do so they needed to prove that their lands had been granted to them by a ruling monarch. The monastery founded by St Cadog at Llancarfan in South Wales in the sixth century led the way in making use of Arthur’s memory for its own purposes. The Life of St Cadog by Lifris of Llancarfan dates from about 1100. In this Arthur is first encountered with two companions, Cai and Bedwyr. Seeing the father of Cadog eloping with Cadog’s mother, Arthur’s first instinct is to rape the woman. He has to be talked out of doing this by his comrades. Later in the same account Arthur seeks compensation for the deaths of three of his men at the hands of a murderer whom Cadog has been sheltering. Cadog cheats Arthur out of his payment. Surprisingly Arthur then begs the saint’s forgiveness and bestows on him a generous gift of land.
About 30 years after the Life of St Cadog was written another monk of Llancarfan, Caradoc, composed a Life of Gildas, which also featured Arthur. Caradoc claimed that Arthur laid siege to Glastonbury because the ‘king of the Summer Country’ had abducted Arthur’s queen and was holding her captive on Glastonbury Tor. St Gildas was one of the churchmen who intervened to mollify Arthur – who in turn rewarded the Church with plenty of land.
These and other saints’ Lives of the period routinely portrayed Arthur as a thug who was easily humbled by a man of the Church. Arthur would then repent and donate land to the saint. In the absence of any legal charter this was often as close as a monastery could get to demonstrating that it owed its wealth to a royal grant. Such fables served a dual purpose: they emphasised the sanctity of a humble saint who stood up to a violent hoodlum while protesting that the original benefactor had been that most famous of kings.
It was all a far cry from the Christian exemplar that Arthur would later become. The medieval scribes inadvertently helped to foster the legends that would sweep through Europe like a contagion. Geoffrey of Monmouth seems to have been a friend of Caradoc of Llancarfan. A few years after Caradoc wrote his Life of Gildas Geoffrey completed his pseudo-historical Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), roughly a fifth of which was devoted to ‘King Arthur’. The genie was out of the bottle. The Church, which had so recently used Arthur as a convenient foil, would soon find itself slaying ‘heretics’ for having taken the legends to heart, while at the same time the monks of Glastonbury cashed in on his reputation. Before long, Arthur’s conversion was complete. No longer was he the robber-baron who gifted land to early saints. The Church now claimed to have put him on the throne. But the question remains: was the real Arthur a Christian prince or the enemy of God? Paradoxically, were it not for the Church, with its effective monopoly of the written word, we would know next to nothing about Arthur.

The first Arthur

The first Arthur to appear in the records was, in fact, a Scottish prince and a contemporary of St Columba (521-597 ad). A hundred years after Columba’s death his hagiographer, Adomnán of Iona, described the saint’s ordination in 574 of Áedán mac Gabráin as King of the Scots. In keeping with traditional practice, Columba used the occasion to predict the future for King Áedán and his family. Asked which of Áedán’s sons would succeed his father to the throne, St Columba declared that neither Artuir nor Domangart nor Eochaid Fínd would become king, ‘for they will fall in battle, slain by enemies’.
Adomnán confirmed in his Vita Sanctae Columbae that Artuir and Eochaid Fínd were later killed in a battle with the ‘Miathi’, a tribe of southern Picts whose name is preserved in the hillforts of Dumyat and Myot Hill, east and west of Stirling. At the time, Stirling was a vital bulwark on the front line of British-held territory – a legacy of the Roman occupation, which had divided the Britons from their Pictish cousins to the north. The Fords of Frew on the River Forth were the access points for marauding tattooed spearmen from the hellish lands of the Picts. The Castle Rock at Stirling guarded this vulnerable backdoor to Britain.
Writing his verse romance of Tristan in about 1200 the French poet Béroul identified Stirling as the site of the Round Table. This was apparently the central mound of the ornamental earthwork, now known as the King’s Knot, which rises in the meadow beside the Castle Rock. Archaeologists from Glasgow University announced in August 2011 that they had found evidence of a ‘circular feature’ beneath the surface of the King’s Knot mound. The tradition that the Round Table lay in the field below Stirling Castle goes back a long way. The site is just nine miles north of the huge Roman military station of Colania, which is now in the Camelon suburb of Falkirk. Revising Camden’s Britannia in 1695, Edward Gibson, Bishop of London, remarked of the Colania remains:
There is yet a confused appearance of a little ancient city, where the common people believe there was formerly a road for ships. They call it Camelot.
The Irish Annals also record the death of Artuir, or Arthur, the son of the King of the Scots. The Annals of Tigernach indicate that four of King Áedán’s sons – ‘Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Fínd & Artur’ – died in a battle fought in 594 in the Pictish province of Circenn or, as we now know it, Angus. Like the Annals of Ulster (which date the battle to 596), the Annals of Tigernach were drawn from earlier notes made in the margins of the Easter Tables compiled at St Columba’s abbey on Iona.
Shortly after Columba, first abbot of Iona, died in 597, an Irish bard composed an elegy for the saint – Amra Choluimb Chille – remarking that Columba had ‘turned the mouths of the fierce ones who lived on the Tay’ to the ‘will of the King’. The monks of Iona were therefore familiar with the Tayside region in which Arthur son of Áedán was killed in a battle fought just a couple of years before Columba’s death.
One hundred years later, Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona, stated that Arthur was one of two sons of King Áedán, who died fighting against the Miathi. Presumably, this was the battle fought in about 594 in Circenn, where the monks of Iona were already spreading the Gospel among the southern Picts (according to Adomnán, Arthur’s brother Domangart ‘fell slaughtered in battle in England’ soon afterwards). The monks of Iona evidently knew that at least two sons of Áedán died fighting the Picts in Angus and one of them was almost certainly Arthur – the very first Arthur to be named in historical documents. St Columba, meanwhile, was an ‘island soldier’ whose monks doubled as warriors.

Four-and-twenty horsemen

Born into the Irish nobility, Columba had been exiled to Dalriada – an Irish enclave on the west coast of Scotland – because he had led an uprising in 561 against the High King of Ireland, Diarmait mac Cerbaill. Diarmait had marked his accession to the Irish throne with a pagan kingship ceremony known as the Feast of Tara. He took for his queen a woman named Mugain, whose father maintained a base in the Irish-held territory of Dyfed in south-west Wales. Conchrad Fair-Beard, the father of Mugain, also had a son named Cai, who would enter the legends as the foster-brother of Arthur.
Columba’s arrival on the Isle of Iona in 563 brought him into conflict with the family of Áedán mac Gabráin. The fact that he ordained Áedán as King of the Scots can be misleading. The account later written by Adomnán of Iona makes it clear that Columba had opposed Áedán’s bid for the throne. The saint even issued a warning to King Áedán and his sons. The likelihood is that Columba’s antipathy towards the Cenél nGabráin sprang from the same source as his hostility towards Diarmait mac Cerbaill: Arthur and his family were pagans.
Christianity was one of several cults introduced into Britain during the days of Roman rule. There were occasional flare-ups – ‘civil troubles’, as St Gildas called them – but by Arthur’s time, the old and new religions were capable of coexistence. Arthur’s uncle, known to the Britons as Cynon, remained close to Arthur in the early British legends. The Scots came to know him as Kentigern, the first bishop and patron saint of Glasgow. Likewise Arthur’s cousin became a saint of the early Church. He appears in the ninth-century Book of Deer as St Drostán, a youth who accompanied St Columba on a diplomatic mission to the King of the Picts and established a monastic settlement at Old Deer in Aberdeenshire.
Drostán is a Gaelic version of the Pictish name Drust. The Britons called him Drystan. In the hands of the Continental romancers this later became ‘Tristan’. Quite how Christian such warrior-princes as Cynon and Drystan were is a moot point. The Scottish Church saw them as saints. The Britons, however, thought of them as magicians. A 15th-century list of the ‘Four-and-Twenty Horsemen of the Court of Arthur’ names other saints of the early Church as members of the Round Table alliance; they include Cadog, whose medieval Life features a disreputable Arthur and his foster-brother Cai.

Dove of the Church

It was at the monastery founded by St Cadog near Stirling that Arthur was supposedly defrauded of his compensation, as Lifris of Llancarfan recalled in his Life of St Cadog. The 24 warriors of Arthur’s Round Table were his teulu – his ‘war-band’ or ‘family’. Each individual named in the 15th-century list was contemporary with Artuir mac Áedáin and a kinsman by blood or fosterage. The Round Table brought together both Christian and pagan in a common cause: the defence of North Britain.
Columba, however, was intent on establishing his own Church. He had already shown his intolerance of political rivals by going to war with the pagan High King of Ireland. There would be no place for rivals in politics or religion in a Scotland dominated by the followers of the ‘Dove of the Church’. By the year 590 Arthur and his comrades had driven the Northumbrian Angles back to the sea. The Britons had the Anglian warlords pinned down at Lindisfarne while an Irish contingent was besieging Bamburgh, a little further down the coast. There might never have been a country called England if the Angles had lost their foothold in the North. But the British counterattack faltered when Arthur’s Cumbrian kinsman, Urien, was assassinated on the sands of Budle Bay.
Arthur and his allies had been undermined by treachery. Morgan Mwynfawr (‘Wealthy’) had lost his Northumbrian kingdom at an early age, when the Angles declared Ida their first ‘English’ king in 547. At a later date Morgan had overthrown Arthur’s maternal grandfather, Clydno of Edinburgh, and hounded his son Cynon out of Lothian. Although Morgan became one of the 24 members of Arthur’s teulu, his sights were set on a kingdom of his own. It was he who commissioned the assassination of Urien, having struck a deal with Arthur’s enemies. He was not alone in trafficking with the Angles: Columba’s baker on the Isle of Iona was an ‘Englishman’.
Having betrayed his compatriots at Lindisfarne, Morgan the Wealthy fled north into Aberdeenshire, taking Arthur’s wife with him. Four years of planning and preparation passed before Arthur set out on his final campaign. A great fleet sailed from the Firth of Forth, up the Pictish coast, to make land at Cruden Bay, near Peterhead. The map recalls that the place where Arthur led his mounted warriors ashore was also known as Longhaven or Llongborth, in the British tongue.
‘In Llongborth I saw Arthur,’ sang the poet Taliesin of this violent amphibious assault. Arthur’s quarry was the renegade Morgan and his kidnapped queen, Gwenhwyfar. Surrounded by Pictish supporters, Morgan struck southwards, heading towards British-held territory and picking up Anglian reinforcements on the way. The two sides eventually met on the border of the Gowrie region which had been annexed by Arthur’s grandfather Gabrán in the 520s and reconquered by Arthur as recently as 580 at the battle of Badandun Hill.
The location of the final battle is revealed in the sixth-century poem, Y Gododdin. Wrongly ascribed to a theoretical battle fought at Catterick, the poem of ‘The Gododdin’ – the tribesmen of Lothian – in fact discloses precisely where Arthur was mortally wounded. ‘Again the battle-shout about the Alledd,’ sang the poet Aneirin, who was there. The ‘Alledd’ was the Hill of Alyth, east of Blairgowrie. Arthur had taken up position on the south bank of the River Isla, on the hollow plain of Camno, immediately to the east of a ridge known to this day as Arthurbank. The name of his enemy is recalled at Morganstone, seven miles away along the course of the River Ericht. This was in the Pictish province of Circenn, and among Arthur’s opponents were the spearmen of the Miathi.

Mixed messages

An ancient Welsh tale reveals that one of Arthur’s men – Iddog, son of Mynyo, the ‘Churn of Britain’ – instigated the bloodshed by relaying false messages between the rival commanders. The name Iddog was a British attempt at the Gaelic Aedóc, a variant form of Cadog. Like St Cadog, the ‘Churn of Britain’ was a ‘son of Mynyo’, or rather Mynyw, the Welsh name for the settlement of St David’s in Dyfed.
The monastery founded by Cadog in central Scotland is now known as Kilmadog, the ‘Chapel of My Aedóc’, near Doune. The chapel was essentially a daughter cell of St Columba’s monastery on Iona. Columba called it cella Diuni, while in the Y Gododdinpoem Aneirin referred to it as Din Dywydd – from Dewydd, the old Welsh form of the name David.
Aneirin’s elegy of the last battle captured the shock of what happened:
To battle! To battle! Blow the horn! Blow the horn! A tempest of pilgrims, a raucous pilgrim army ...
From Din Dywydd they attacked, groaned Aneirin. Marching up from Cadog’s monastery near Doune, the ‘raucous’ pilgrims attacked Arthur from the rear on the Mains of Camno. Arthur fought his way across the plain to Arthurbank, where, up until the 1790s, an ‘Arthurstone’ megalith marked the spot where he fell.
Within a year of that battle the Northumbrian Angles had overrun much of North Britain. Arthur’s father Áedán led an army against them in 603 but was heavily defeated. He died five years later and, in a departure from tradition, was not buried on the Isle of Iona, but on the Isle of Bute. Iona was now the preserve of the very people who had conspired against Aedan and his family. By the mid-seventh century, St Columba’s community on Iona had commenced its conversion of the Angles under St Aidan of Lindisfarne. The first king whose burial on Iona is a matter of historical record was an English one, Ecgfrith, in 685.
The treacherous surprise attack unleashed against Arthur in 594 put an end to the hopes of the Britons. Columba had neutered his rivals by handing the Old North to the conquering Angles. His actions changed the course of British history. They also left a nasty taste. The very name of Arthur became an embarrassment to the early Church. So the clergy tried to forget him. Then, when it suited them, they invoked Arthur as a bad king who was easily outwitted by early churchmen like Cadog.
But the phenomenal popularity of the legends, especially among ‘heretics’, created a problem for the medieval Church. This could only be ameliorated by reinventing Arthur as the perfect Christian king.
Simon Andrew Stirling is the author of The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero, published by The History Press.

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