The story of King Arthur has grown and changed over the years. One of the first books to mention Arthur was written in the year 830 by a monk named Nennius. Nennius wrote a book called the History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), and in it, he mentions that a king named Arthur commanded a number of battles. Nennius even lists these battles that he claimed were led by Arthur.
Another author in the 11th century, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote a book called The History of the Kings of Britain. In this book, Monmouth described Arthur’s whole life from his birth right up to his death.
One of the most famous books about King Arthur was published in 1485 and is called Le Morte D’Arthur (The Death of Arthur). It is a collection of Arthur stories that were translated and combined by Thomas Malory. Malory took a number of French stories from the thirteenth century (1201–1300) as well some English stories and reworked them into one big story which covers Arthur’s birth, his life, and his death. Most of the stories you hear about Arthur are based on this book.
Arthur’s father was Uther Pendragon, the king of Britain. He was a good king and for most of his reign, the country was at peace, but Uther was worried because he didn’t have a child to take over his reign. Uther fell in love with a woman named Igraine but there was one problem—she was married to someone else.
Uther invited all the nobles in the land to a grand feast at his castle. Igraine and her husband, a duke, attended the feast and Uther spent the evening chasing after Igraine. When her husband saw this, he became angry and left with his wife to head back home to Tintagel without telling the king.
Uther was very angry that they had left and demanded that they return. No one had ever left a feast held by the king without getting permission first. As a result, Uther went to war with Igraine’s husband. Uther marched his army to Tintagel and fought a battle with the duke’s forces.
While the battle was going on, Uther talked to his magician Merlin about his love for Igraine and Merlin decided to help him. Merlin changed Uther’s appearance so that he looked exactly like Igraine’s husband. In return for Merlin’s help, Uther agreed to give Merlin any children born as a result of his meeting with Igraine. Uther then snuck into the castle and went to her room. Igraine, thinking that her husband had returned, open the door and welcomed Uther. After the two had spent the night together, news came from the battlefield that Igraine’s husband had been killed. Shortly after, Uther married Igraine and she gave birth to a baby boy who they named Arthur.
To keep the promise he made to Merlin, Uther and Igraine gave Arthur to Merlin and they never saw him again. Merlin gave Arthur to a man named Sir Ector to raise but Merlin never told Ector (or Arthur) that the baby was Uther’s son. Uther died shortly after giving up his son, and since Uther did not have an heir (that anyone knew about), fighting broke out in the country as everyone tried to become the new king.
The New King
Arthur was not treated well at Sir Ector’s, particularly by Sir Ector’s son, Sir Kay, who teased him constantly. When Arthur was older, Merlin began to visit Arthur and teach him. The main thing Merlin tried to teach Arthur was that knowledge was more important than force. Merlin hoped that Arthur would become a wise king who would bring together all the various groups fighting for the crown.
With all the fighting that was going on, the English nobles went to Merlin to ask for help. Merlin placed a sword in an anvil and then placed them on a rock. Merlin told everyone that whoever could pull the sword out of the anvil would be the new king. Many people tried to pull the sword from the stone, but no one could do it.
When Arthur was fifteen years old, Merlin took him to visit the sword in the stone. There was a large crowd gathered around the sword and after many people (including Sir Kay) had tried to remove the sword, Arthur took his turn. He easily removed the sword and was pronounced the new king.
After one of Arthur’s battles, he wanted to rest. Even though Merlin tried to stop him, Arthur stopped for the night at a local castle. While he was sleeping, he heard the sound of a harp being played. He followed the music and found Guinevere. Arthur thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and he was determined to marry her. Merlin warned the king that Guinevere would cause Arthur a lot of problems but he didn’t care. Arthur asked Guinevere’s father if Arthur could marry Guinevere and was told yes.
Merlin was worried about Arthur and since he had broken his old sword during the previous battle, Merlin decided to help Arthur get a new sword, Merlin took him to a magical lake with an island called Avalon in the middle. The Lady of the Lake lived on this island (there were actually two women with the title Lady of the Lake according to Malory) and she gave Arthur a magical sword. The sword could cut through steel and iron and the scabbard (the place you put the sword when you weren’t using it) would protect Arthur from wounds. Merlin warned Arthur to always keep the scabbard by his side.
The Round Table
As a wedding present, Guinevere’s father, Lodegreance, gave Arthur a round table. The table had actually been a gift to Lodegreance from Arthur’s father, Uther. Arthur was pleased with the gift because it had enough space for all of his knights and it allowed them to discuss things as equals. Each seat had the name of one of Arthur’s knights on it except for one seat which was nameless. This seat became known as the Siege Perilous. This seat was for the greatest knight in the world and if anyone who was unworthy sat there, that knight would die.
Before Arthur had married Guinevere, Arthur had met a young woman who came to his castle seeking shelter. Arthur was very attracted to the woman and spent the night with her. In the morning, the woman had disappeared and Arthur never gave her a second thought. The woman’s name was Morgause and she was actually Arthur’s half-sister (her father was Uther). Morgause had named her son Mordred and he was both Arthur’s son and his nephew.
A number of years after Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, three women and a young boy arrived at the castle. The three woman were Arthur’s half-sisters. Two of the women wanted to make peace with Arthur but the third, Morgan le Fay, wanted to bring Arthur down and she planned on using Mordred to do it. Morgan le Fay was behind the plan to have Arthur get Morgause pregnant in order to use his son against him.
The Disappearance of Merlin
Merlin came to love Nenive, another Lady of the Lake, and he constantly followed her around. Nenive did not appreciate Merlin’s attention so she made a plan to get rid of him. She pretended to be in love with Merlin so that he would teach her his magic. Once she learned his magic, she took him for a walk in the forest where they came to a cave. Nenive convinced Merlin to enter the cave first and as soon as he did, she placed a magic spell on the cave entrance so that Merlin could never leave.
With Merlin gone, Nenive became Arthur’s main advisor. Nenive asked Arthur to do her a favour. She wanted Arthur to train a young man by the name of Lancelot. Arthur was impressed with Lancelot and immediately agreed. Lancelot became the Queen’s Champion and it was now his job to protect Guinevere and defend her honour. Lancelot’s was very good at fighting and he soon became not only Arthur’s best knight but also his best friend.
One day, Lancelot disappeared and was gone for a number of years. Lancelot had ended up in the city of Corbenic where he met King Pelles and his daughter, Elaine. Elaine loved Lancelot but Lancelot was in love with Guinevere. Elaine used magic to trap Lancelot and ended up having a son. Lancelot’s son was named Galahad. Lancelot was very upset by what Elaine had done to him and he left to return to Camelot. Elaine then killed herself.
The Holy Grail
Once Galahad became old enough, he was knighted by Lancelot and brought to Camelot. Galahad entered the hall and was led by an elderly knight to the Siege Perilous (the seat for the best knight). This seat became Galahad’s.
Shortly after Galahad sat down, an image of the Holy Grail appeared hovering over the Round Table. Arthur took this as a sign that he needed to search for the Grail. Many knights died or were injured in the search for the Grail. Galahad found the Grail but he had a vision that told him Camelot was unworthy of the Grail and it needed to be taken to Sarras, a city in the Middle East.
Lancelot was in love with Guinevere, and even though Arthur knew that Lancelot loved his wife, Arthur didn’t say anything because he trusted Lancelot. He believed that Lancelot would remain loyal to him. Also, the search for the Grail had left many knights dead or hurt so Arthur needed Lancelot.
One evening, Mordred visited Arthur and told him that he had seen Lancelot and Guinevere together. Arthur didn’t want to do it but he agreed to set a trap for the two lovers. Guinevere told Arthur that she was going to go riding and when she left, she was followed by Mordred and some of Arthur’s knights. As soon as Guinevere met Lancelot in the forest, Mordred and the other knights came rushing out. Lancelot was able to get away but they captured Guinevere.
Guinevere had a trial and was found guilty. She was sentenced to be burned to death at the stake but before the sentence could be carried out, Lancelot and his men attacked. Lancelot was able to free Guinevere and escape during the fighting.
Arthur followed the couple and chased them to Lancelot’s castle. Arthur laid siege to the castle. The siege lasted a number of months. Finally, the two sides came to an agreement. Guinevere would return to Arthur and Lancelot would be sent to France.
Arthur wasn’t satisfied with this agreement and entered France to attack Lancelot. Arthur left Mordred in charge and while Arthur was away, Mordred made himself king and claimed Guinevere as his wife. Arthur was forced to give up his fight with Lancelot and return to Camelot in an attempt to regain his kingdom.
The Death of Arthur
As he was preparing to attack Mordred, Arthur had a dream warning him not to attack Mordred right away. In order to postpone the attack, Arthur sent messengers to Mordred’s camp to talk. During the talks, an adder (a snake) bit one of Mordred’s men. The man drew his sword to kill the snake. Unfortunately, the blade glinted in the sun and the two armies, assuming that the other was about to attack, began fighting.
During the battle, Arthur lost both Excalibur and the magic scabbard. Arthur picked up a spear to continue the fighting. Arthur saw Mordred and rushed to attack. Mordred met the attack and hit Arthur in the head with his sword just as Arthur’s stabbed Mordred’s heart with the spear.
As he lay dying, Arthur asked that both Excalibur and the magic scabbard be returned to the lake where he had gotten them. When Arthur arrived at the lake, three Fairy Queens arrived and took Arthur’s body to Avalon, an island in the middle of the lake. Some people claimed that Arthur was not dead, but merely sleeping on the island and he would wake up to protect Britain in its hour of greatest need.
Was King Arthur Real?
Although Arthur is mentioned in a number of books, he isn’t mentioned in any books that were published during Arthur’s life. Arthur’s name does not appear on the list of kings for the time and one author, Gildas, who was writing in the time of Arthur names a different person as the leader of the country.
Even though there is not a lot of evidence for the existence of King Arthur, a number of scholars believe that the legend of King Arthur is based on a real person or a number of people from the Dark Ages (476-800). It was common during this time for storytellers to give the heroes of their stories supernatural qualities.
Regardless of whether Arthur was real or not, the story of King Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the Holy Grail continue to interest people today. Countless books, movies, and articles have been written on the subject.