Back to top

Early British Church--The Arthurian Legends


1 Müller, "Science of Language," p. 13.
2 "Chips from a German Workshop," vol. ii. p. 13.
3 Morley's "Tables of English Literature, No. 1." Skene's "Four Ancient Books of Wales."
4 "The Mabinogion." Second edition. 1877.
5 "Arthurian Localities."
6 "The Four Ancient Books of Wales."
7 "Literature of the Kymry."
8 "Essay on Welsh Saints."
9 Archæological Journal, 1859.
10 "History of England."
11 Ritson (King Arthur) quotes:—

"Cedamus patriâ: vivant Arturius istic,
Et Catulus" (Juvenal, Sat. iii. 29).

The more approved reading is Artorius—a common Roman name.
12"King Arthur:" Introduction.
13 M'Lauchlan's "Early Scottish Church," p. 146.
14 A similar plan of preventing jealousy among brethren is said to have been carried out in the octagonal house, with as many doors, at John O'Groat's, by the Dutchman who, in the reign of James IV., bought the lands of Duncansbay, and thus secured equal possession by the eight families among whom it was divided.
15 Bede's "Ecc. Hist.," ii. c. 2.

THE story of Arthur, Prince or King in ancient Britain, is unique in modem literature. It runs through the song, the romance, the epic of the last thirteen hundred years, reaching its most perfect form in the "Idylls of the King." Among the first to be sung or said, it was also among the first to be printed. To many it is the story of a shadow; to others it has substance as well as suggestion. I propose to make a section of ancient British life, and try to set forth the circumstances in which it rose like a spring from the rock. That section will reveal the thought and life of the early British Church in its maturity, but on the eve of its decline in the South, though it was then to have a vigorous life in the North and elsewhere.

Whatever may be thought of the historical existence of Arthur, there need be no question as to the character of the period in which he is said to have lived—the close of the fifth and the early part of the sixth century. Till the middle of the fifth century, when the English secured a footing in Kent, the Celtic race, with unimportant exceptions of a few Romans and perhaps Scandinavians on the coast, occupied Great Britain. About fifty years before, the Romans had left the Britons to themselves. South of the Forth and Clyde, there was, as far as could then be, a United Kingdom. From a very early period a British Church had been in existence here; and we have distinct evidence that, from the beginning of the fifth century, active evangelistic effort had carried its organisation far into North Britain. In both North and South there was a native Church, apostolic in organisation and in doctrine, well acquainted with Holy Scripture, and possessing much faith and zeal. There was but one Church on both sides of the Wall; missionaries from the South worked in the North—from Ireland in Britain, and from Britain in Ireland. The dream of a later day, to have one Church in Great Britain and Ireland, was already a reality. Among the population in which this Church was planted there was still, doubtless, much of the earlier heathenism, modified or even unaltered, and there were also districts into which the Gospel had hardly penetrated; but the Early British Church was a powerful factor in the national life, and was as yet uncoloured by sectarian division. Even the Roman Church, now growing and grasping after its later power, had not yet affected the primitive character of the British.

The Britain of Arthur stretched northward through the heart of modern England—from Cornwall, by the Severn and Bedford, to the Roman Wall; and across the Wall, the conflicts between South and North Britons had carried his name as far as Perthshire and the borders of Forfar. From the time when the Romans withdrew, there must have been a natural desire to preserve the national unity that had existed so long. There was a considerable civilisation. There were cities with villas in the neighbourhood. There were strongholds and villages scattered over the country. Various chiefs had less or more territorial influence. The government of any one in the position of a sovereign would be exposed to the jealousy and insubordination of powerful chiefs. Nothing but the necessities of war would raise a commander to the place and power of a king. And there was war from the first, through the forced settlement of the English in Kent; there were also conflicts with the North Britons near the Wall, and here and there with bands from the western hills of Wales. An alliance with the English, for the purpose of repressing these disorders, only increased the foreign force on the soil. These Continental invaders were unmixed heathens, and were merciless in the use of fire and sword. Thus the British nation, south of the Wall, had not only to fight for their land, but for their religion. The struggle continued for nearly a hundred years, at the end of which the invaders remained triumphant. Some great victories of the British arms, however, for a time raised hopes of ultimate victory; but these were not to be fulfilled, though long cherished in North Britain by those who saw the South gradually conquered by the English, and by those who fled from ruthless slaughter to their kinsmen in Brittany, there to wait a better time.

The period to which Arthur is assigned is the close of this great struggle of Briton against Teuton, of Christian against heathen, of a high purpose among some, that failed of its end because of the weak hands or hearts of others. The time is clearly definable from such records as exist; and though no historical trace of Arthur could be discovered, the idea of such a life, generated from such a time, would have great historical importance. But it is hardly possible to account for the Legends without positing some foundation of fact; and the only basis needed is historically consistent with all that we know, or may justly infer regarding the time. There are three forms through which the imagination works on a basis of fact—the Myth, the Legend, and the Romance or Fiction. These spring from the same mental tendencies, but belong to different stages of human progress. The Myth is the earliest, the Legend later, and the Romance latest. The Myth, in its root-form, was originally a word, which, "from being a name or attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantive existence;"1 the Legend is some story written to be read; the Romance is a later enlargement. The Myth belongs to the most primitive strata of language, before nations and national tongues were formed;2 the Legend is the product of a much later age, when writing has come into use; the Romance has been formed latest, in times which still exist. The myth was constructed with the least amount of conscious thought, the legend with more, the romance with most. But all have some basis of fact, less or more immediate, and rightly or wrongly used; for all life must have a germ. We find in those times such a basis as can account for the legends; we know that these legends, in their simplest form, took hundreds of years to grow, even into that form. The facts were in the popular mind from the first; the legends, in a propitious period, took up what was familiar to the people, and added fancy to fact; but in all cases there was a nucleus of fact.

Our resources for any exact history of the period, whether of Celt or Teuton, are very fragmentary. We miss here the precision and historic faculty of such Roman authors as Cæsar or Tacitus; and the works of those writers which we do possess are few. Bede, who was born one hundred and fifty years after the events, does not mention Arthur, though he speaks of one who just preceded him, Ambrosius Aurelianus, as leader of the Britons, "a modest man, who alone of the Roman nation had survived the storm, in which his parents, who were of the royal race, had perished." Probably he was of British, as well as of Roman blood, and occupied the position of one who wore the purple. Bede further speaks of Gildas as "one of their own (British) historians," and mentions the battle of Baddesdown Hill, otherwise famous as Arthur's last. Gildas, called Badonicus, because born in the year of this battle, or near this spot, is not an annalist, and gives no dates; but he refers to some persons living, known as immediate descendants of Ambrose, who are denounced as utterly degenerate. He does not mention Arthur, but most graphically depicts the misery of his time. A reason will be afterwards suggested, that may possibly account for this absence of Arthur's name. Nennius, who lived perhaps fifty or sixty years after Bede, says: "Then it was that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons;" and after naming his great battles, adds: "The twelfth was a severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon." For two hundred years, then, if we have few facts, we have no legends. It is four hundred years further on, before we come to the legends of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The people preserve legends; they do not invent the facts. It is chiefly the old and the young that preserve the facts; and they are accustomed to repeat, rather than create. It needs a poet to make a legend; and Geoffrey had the poetic faculty both to select material and to mould it. He says that he had access, beyond Gildas and Bede, "to a very ancient book in the British tongue," offered him by the Archdeacon of Oxford, and which he translated into Latin. Even William of Newbury, a younger contemporary of Geoffrey, severely criticised the fabulous additions he introduced into his history, although it was received with almost universal applause. Besides these documents, there exist very important fragments of the minstrelsy of four bards, who, there is little doubt, lived at the very period assigned to Arthur;3 and one of these is Myrrdin, or Merlin, famous as his counsellor. Finally, there is a large number of stories in the Welsh tongue that belong, as shown by Lady Charlotte Guest,4 to two different periods—one portion to a time before Arthur, and the other celebrating the heroes of his circle, and of course belonging to a subsequent period.

But for such ancient times there are other records than written chronicles. The topography of the country is inscribed with the peculiarities of Briton, Roman, and Teuton, as if fresh from the chisel. The streams are still vocal with the ancient tongues that named them; and attached to some such imperishable monuments are interpretations and illustrations in story and song, which, in some cases, remain as fresh as ever. In these topographical treasures we may find as veritable historic evidences as in the bricks of Nineveh, or the wall-paintings of Pompeii. In these early days there were few that wrote annals. They were making history rather than writing it. The period assigned to Arthur, and for generations after, was full of desperate struggle, of widespread slaughter, of sudden flight, of fire as well as sword. Much of what little was written would often be lost, consumed with flame, or defaced by moth and moisture. But in such times, when little is written and less read, more is remembered and more retold. The tongue is then the pen of a ready writer; the memory has its leaves printed with indelible ink, and these are ceaselessly read and copied by earnest learners in the house and by the way. When histories were stories and songs, and were mainly committed to memory, there was a grip and mastery of past events by that faculty which only in rare instances can be familiar to an age accustomed to note-books. Even in modern days, among such as still retain the old-world simplicity of story-telling and of ancient ballads, it is surprising with what verbal accuracy long descriptions will be repeated from quaint, rustic lips; like quiet runlets trickling on among moss, or worn and weathered stones, but coming from deep and distant springs among the seeming-silent hills.

When we turn to the existing evidence of this kind of history, we find it points unmistakably to the same facts that are gathered from the written documents already cited. A great deal has been done in recent years by Mr. Stuart Glennie,5 with an extraordinary expenditure of time and labour, to collect and collate this class of evidence. He has been able to trace, by such landmarks, the old Arthurian land, which, with the deduction of Cornwall and Devon, very much corresponds with the kingdom of Strathclyde. That kingdom extended from the Bristol Channel, by Bath to Chester, up the centre of our modern England by Carlisle, and across the Scottish border to the line of Forth and Clyde; and the Arthurian traces pass even into Perthshire and the borders of Forfarshire. There are distinct tide-marks in Cornwall, Wales, and Somerset; but the most numerous, as well as the deepest, are in the Lowlands of Scotland. There are no fewer than a hundred and fifty places thus recovered, or brought together, in not a few of which, on repeated visits, Mr. Glennie heard Arthurian legends from living lips. The topographical traces of a real Arthur thicken as we come north. Arthur's Seat, near Edinburgh, is identified by Mr. Skene6 as occupying the neighbourhood of one of the last of Arthur's twelve battles; and Beudon, near Linlithgow, instead of Badon, near Bath, is regarded by him and Mr. Stuart Glennie as the site of the last of these, and the scene of his fatal wound. There are remains, near the Avon, of strongly fortified ramparts; and chests of bones have been again and again exhumed. At Meigle, on the borders of Perth and Forfar, are some very ancient sculptured stones that bear the name of Ganore's grave,—Guenever being called also Ganeura. All this seems to point to active campaigning by Arthur in the northern part of the Celtic kingdom, which negatives the popular notion that he was only a Welsh chief, or that his battles were fought merely or mainly in Southern Britain. The relations of Merlin with the north are also quite as strong; so much so, that some scholars have supposed a Caledonian Merlin, in order to account for them. These topographical landmarks correspond with what we know from other sources regarding the course that the great struggles of these times must have taken. From a consideration of Welsh literature alone, Mr. Stephens7 came to the conclusion that Arthur had a peculiar relation to Cornwall, the Celtic dialect there and in Brittany being most nearly allied, and the traditions of Arthur being peculiarly strong in both, as we might infer would be the case, if the followers of his failing cause fled at last from the southernmost coast of Britain. He judges that, as the traditions of Arthur are more vivid in Cornwall and Devon than in Wales, there was some reason why, in the latter, the bards seemed in the earlier time somewhat colder to his memory; and this appears to be accounted for by the indications of his principal activity being so much in the north. Rice Rees,8 from an independent study of Welsh literature, comes to a somewhat similar conclusion: "that Arthur was a native of Devon or Cornwall; that his connection with the Kymry of North Britain was entirely of an intrusive character; that, indeed, he appears to have obtained the chief sovereignty of the Britons by usurpation, and was more often engaged in conflict with his own countrymen than with the Saxons."

Now, historical facts make it clear that in Arthur's time there were not only struggles in the south and northwards with the English, but also in the further north with the Picts or the Celts, at and beyond the wall; there were also contests arising from internal disorder,—fratricidal fights between the Britons of Wales and Strathclyde themselves. It is also clear that the commander-in-chief just before Arthur's time was a Roman, or Romanised Briton named Ambrose, and that in Arthur's time some of his descendants occupied a leading or regal position, although with degenerate character. Arthur, therefore would not be the natural leader, at least in the south, though probably a field might be open for a brave leader in the north. He is said indeed by Geoffrey to be, map uther—a son of Uther, "the king's brother;" but Dr. Guest,9 like Milton before him,10 asserts that Geoffrey misunderstood these words, which in Celtic mean "a terrible boy," and thus constructed his legend of Uther Pendragon. It might be "son of the fierce Pendragon," pointing to a chief in Cornwall—Pen, head, forming one element of the largest class of Cornish words extant (Müller, "Chips," iii.) We have, then, the more likely fact stated by Nennius, that "though there were many more noble than Arthur, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander." Arthur himself seems to have been a Romanised Briton. Like Ambrose Aurelianus, he had a Latin name.11 The best and the worst Britons of that time would be familiar with Roman civilisation. Moses was first trained in Egyptian learning before he became Israel's leader. The custom of electing an Imperator would likely be retained from the Roman legions. The necessities of a long period of war would give an opening to the genius of a subordinate prince or chief like Arthur. He would distinguish himself on various fields in the south, leaving his mark, like Cromwell, in hard-won fights, before he rose to supreme command. But the army in such times would have a supreme voice; and the presence of Arthur, like that of every great captain, would awaken enthusiasm, and make a memory.

There may thus appear two reasons why the name of Arthur is not mentioned by Bede. In the first place, the sphere of Arthur's activity was mainly in the north; and it has been the habit of southern writers, even to the present time, to take little notice of northern lights; nor is it surprising if, to Bede, Arthur's name may not have bulked so largely as it does to us; and in the second place, if Arthur was only at first a commander, perhaps nominally subordinate to the son of Ambrose, or if, latterly occupying the position of king, he was believed to be a usurper, and had many who were envious of his power, or had a hatred of his Christian character, we can understand why a considerable portion of the British chiefs, with some of their attendant bards, would have little interest in his fame, and therefore his name would be loved and cherished chiefly by brave followers who were exiles in Brittany, or were scattered over various parts of the land.

We have, then, a limited nucleus of germal fact:—a critical time such as might naturally produce a great man; a great struggle with that flood of heathenism that was inundating Europe; an apostolic faith with the fervour of the primitive martyrs; and Arthur gradually approving himself before chiefs and people as the man for the time. Arthur has a Christian ideal for his life and his warfare; and his Round Table is the symbol of his fellowship in arms; Merlin is the aged bard and counsellor; Geraint and Modred are types of the faithful and the false, Lancelot of one that is both strong in hand and weak in heart; Guinevere, the fair bride and matchless queen, if she had not swerved and fallen. That is all the history warrants, and all the legends require. The superstition of the Holy Grail, we know, was centuries later, and could not possibly have sprung from the Early British Church. The gay housings and furnishing of knight and tourney of course belong to other days. The magic of Merlin, and probably his prophecies, are the product of a later age. Even the sword Excalibur is of Teutonic origin, and belongs to the later period of Romance. One would fain hold with Bulwer Lytton12 that "the fable of the guilty love between Lancelot and Guinevere has no warrant in legends genuinely Cymrian; it had its origin in the French courts of gallantry;" and so in his Epic he falls back on the hint of the Romance of Merlin, that there were two Guineveres very like each other—one the wife of Lancelot and the other of his lord, "one name indeed, but with a varying sound." But the topographical traces of the false queen are as distinct, if not so numerous, as those of the true king; and in consistency with the northern account of Arthur's life and the scene of his closing fight, we have Ganore's grave away still farther north, where she would most likely seek a refuge in the mad hour of her flight. There were at that time, in those parts, Culdee settlements,13 where she could easily find refuge; yet these might be so near that Arthur could easily make a brief visit on horseback from Edinburgh or Stirling ere he sought the field of his last fight. It is more than probable that there were then, in the Christian ministry, men who might deal faithfully even with a queen—men of the type of Ninian, who lived half-a-century before, or of Columba, who flourished half-a-century after; and when her repentance had ripened into peace, she may, like other noble women of the Early British Church, have joined the fellowship of those that ministered to the Lord still earlier. She may have gone as far as Meigle on missionary work, and there found her grave.

The truth underlying the Arthurian Legends thus manifestly sprung from an earnest Christian life; and it throws an interesting light on the character of the Early British Church. There was a real primitive piety that sought to saturate the nation with its spirit, a desire to see the frame-work of government and of society as much under its influence as the Church; this in later days has found a fitting soil chiefly in North Britain—Arthur's Land—for questions of the Civil Magistrate, but not the less in the England of the Commonwealth and in the Westminster Assembly. The Round Table, where Arthur assembled his chiefs for council—some of whom probably had larger territorial influence, while all were independent—set forth the idea of fellowship at meat and work, "as good soldiers of Jesus Christ," who had one Master, and were all brethren. Though the Early Church had Scripture warrant for speaking of an altar, yet it was a table—the Table of the Lord—not an altar for sacrifice, but a table for eating what has been offered once for all. And nothing would be more natural to a Christian leader than to combine the symbol of fellowship and equality in the Round Table of the tent and the hall, especially since the type of all Christian brotherhood was familiar to the presbyters of a Church that had an Abbot but no Archbishop;14 the Abbot being primus inter pares, a brother presiding over a brotherhood, or the principal of a college. The fervid fighting against the heathen could only have sprung from the fervour of a missionary Church, although it had to learn that English heathenism was to be conquered by other than carnal weapons; but in this, as in Joshua's time, the carnal was to precede, and prepare for the spiritual. The love of liberty and of fatherland, with all its heritage of good, naturally belonged to a Church that soon afterwards fought another battle for ancient doctrine and practice with the emissary of the Pope.15

That there was then, as long after, a deep religious spirit among the Britons, in the midst of much that was wild and wicked, we have ample proof. They had received the faith from the primitive Church of the best type, and they had preserved a primitive simplicity and fervour that appear in their deep acquaintance with Holy Scripture, using, evidently, not the Vulgate, but some other version. Gildas, little understood by some of his commentators, and hence called querulous and gloomy, like another Jeremiah, writes his lamentations over the desolations of the land, and shows himself saturated with Scripture, with its spirit, as well as its letter. The subject of his "complaint is the general destruction of everything that is good, and the growth of evil throughout the land." "I have kept silence, I confess," he says, "with much mental anguish, compunction of feeling, and contrition of heart, whilst I revolved all these things within myself, and, as God, the searcher of the reins, is witness, for the space of ten years or more,—my experience, as at present also, and my unworthiness, preventing me from taking on myself the character of a censor. But I read how the illustrious lawgiver, for one word's doubting, was not allowed to enter the desired land." And, referring to a time just preceding Arthur, he says: "No sooner were the ravages of the enemy checked, than the island was deluged with the most extraordinary abundance of all things, greater than was before known, and with it grew up every kind of luxury and licentiousness. But besides this vice, there arose also every other to which human nature is liable, and in particular, that hatred of the truth, and of its supporters, which still at present destroys everything good in the island." It was under such circumstances, and, doubtless, at the cry of such men as Gildas represents, that there arose, as in the time of the Hebrew judges, a God-given deliverer. The better times were recalled. The evil spirit was for a time repressed. He gathered round him some who really loved the old paths, and others that for a time seemed to themselves and others to be new men. He loved Christ as his King, and hoped and tried to make his land and people a kingdom of Christ;
                                          "He pitched
His tents beside the forest; and he drave
The heathen, and he slew the beast, and fell'd
The forest, and let in the sun, and made
Broad pathways for the hunter and the knight."
His sword, like his spirit, seemed something supernatural. He raised a standard against the heathen coming in like a flood, and against the heathen ways of his own people. Wrong was redressed. Scattered and broken forces were united and organised;
"The old order changeth, giving place to new."
But there was secret treachery among his nearest and mightiest,— not only in the circle of his trusted chiefs, but also in the nearer circle of his domestic life. The fair building of his house and kingdom became suddenly weather-worn, and was seen, here and there, to settle down on imperfect foundations, and to fall in pieces from imperfect materials. At length, after wisest plans and mightiest deeds, he passed away, showing to those who love him what might have been with such a king, and what might still be, if such a king came back again. Over these facts, the best men of the time, beaten and half despairing, must have ceaselessly brooded. Such of them as fled to Brittany would tell over and over again, to their kinsfolk there, the story of Arthur's strange rise, his bright progress, the lurid sunset of his going down, and the darkness following. Familiar with Holy Scripture, they would think and talk of his likeness to his Master, and how there was treason among the Twelve, and faithlessness in his bride. Thus, more and more, the story of Arthur would be painted and repainted on the background of the Gospel history, till, at one point or another, as the colours faded and were retouched, they would become blended; and from their devout way of looking at earthly things, they would get to talk of something mysterious in the coming of Arthur, and gradually, half in metaphor and half in hope, would speak of his coming again. Thus they would feed their faith in the true Lord and King, and perfect their ideal of every true king, like Arthur, that served Him, and of every true brotherhood that might be gathered to carry on His work.