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6 Trailblazing Women in Medieval Times

Six trailblazing medieval women

Everyone has heard of Joan of Arc or Eleanor of Aquitaine, but which other women were important during this 1,000-year period? As Susan Signe Morrison explains, evidence abounds concerning medieval women who were doctors, musicians, writers, theologians, explorer and scientists…

Submitted by: Emma Mason
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a scientist, doctor of medicine, musician, philosopher and theologian, is “acclaimed as the most accomplished of medieval women”, says Susan Signe Morrison. (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

First female playwright: Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (c935–c1000)

 

The 10th-century Saxon canoness Hrotsvit of Gandersheim called herself ‘the strong voice of Gandersheim’. She had many firsts to her credit: first medieval playwright; first female playwright; first female German poet and first female German historian.

Dedicating her works to various members of Emperor Otto’s family, Hrotsvit was highly educated in both the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy) and the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic), as well as key writings by Christian theologians. Hrotsvit was also well-versed in Roman pagan authors, whose immoral comedies featured love affairs and women of suspect reputation, embodying the worst of misogynist beliefs. Hrotsvit took these well-plotted, but immoral, plays and turned them into morally admirable dramas featuring worthy women and weak men. Girls stood up to those who did not let them lead the lives they chose.

Hrotsvit put to vellum the first-known dramas since the classical period. Her plays extol females, from strong virgins to prostitute saints, willing to sacrifice themselves for God. What could have been happier for a devout medieval Christian than to end up in heaven? Her heroines include young girls, one as young as eight, who stand up defiantly under torture and humiliation from pagan Roman officials.  One holy virgin tells the violent emperor, “I have called him a fool, I now call him a fool, and I shall call him a fool as long as I live.” Nothing frightens her.

Hrotsvit uses misogynistic stereotypes about women – that they are more physically weak than men, for example – to argue the very opposite. Hrotsvit even has two fallen women as her heroines, who exemplify the category of the ‘holy harlot’, as seen most famously in the life of St Mary of Egypt.

Hrotsvit of Gandersheim

Hrotsvit presents Emperor Otto the Great with her Gesta Oddonis, in the background is Abbess Gerberga. Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1501.  (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Fighting crusader: Margaret of Beverley (c1150–c1214/15)

The 12th-century Margaret of Beverley, born in Jerusalem to her English pilgrim parents, returned to the Holy Land just as the great Muslim leader Saladin decided to reclaim Jerusalem from Christian control. Margaret lived in Jerusalem as the city came under siege by Saladin’s troops in September 1187. Mobbed with refugees from other defeated cities, Jerusalem was surrounded by enemy soldiers. No food or water could enter. Everyone living in this urban nightmare had to participate in its defence.

Forced to stay, Margaret willingly set to work. “[L]ike a fierce virago, I tried to play the role of a man,” her brother records her saying. She told how “During this siege, which lasted 15 days, I carried out all of the functions of a soldier that I could. I wore a breastplate like a man; I came and went on the ramparts, with a cauldron on my head for a helmet. Though a woman, I seemed a warrior, I threw the weapon; though filled with fear, I learned to conceal my weakness.”

The heat was blistering. The soldiers inside had to battle continually to prevent their enemies from entering. Women helped by using weapons and machines such as catapults when not enough men were available, filling in ditches and providing food and drink. Once, when Margaret gave water to the men to drink, a catapult sent a millstone over the walls. It burst apart. A small piece of stone flew off and struck her, causing blood to gush out. Margaret carried the scar throughout her life.

About two weeks after the tumult had begun, the siege was over. Later enduring imprisonment, torture and humiliation, Margaret ultimately gained her freedom and returned to Europe, becoming a Cistercian lay-sister in a French nunnery.

Scandalous nun: Heloise d’Argenteuil (c1100–64)

By the time she was not yet 20, Heloise d’Argenteuil was renowned as the most educated woman in Europe. Peter Abelard, arguably the most brilliant philosopher of his time, had already caused an uproar among the intellectual classes. No diplomat, Peter alienated respectable older theologians, making enemies.

Heloise’s uncle, Fulbert, a clergyman at the church of Notre-Dame on the Île-de-France in Paris, hired Peter, who gladly took on the role of tutor to this young girl. Peter later wrote how he intended to break his lifelong chastity with this student entrusted to him.  Featuring a pregnant teenager and the older teacher who seduced her, this scandalous affair stemming from 1118 became the gossip of Paris.

Soon after they met,  Heloise and Peter exchanged amorous glances, looks that transformed into touches. As Peter openly confesses, “My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages.” They soon were enjoying carnal embraces. “[O]ur desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it”. Heloise’s uncle remained oblivious, until he caught the lovers together. Meanwhile, Heloise was thrilled to learn she was pregnant.

The couple secretly wed. But Peter ignored Heloise after being tragically castrated by the henchmen of her vengeful uncle. In return, Heloise wrote brilliant, angry and passionate letters. Boldly proclaiming, “It would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called your whore,” she understands her passion to be authentically motivated; the true whores are those women who marry for position and money. Amazingly, scholars once refused to believe that a woman could have written such intelligent letters. Ultimately, Heloise became abbess at the Paraclete, a religious hermitage with daughter houses, six of which were set up under Heloise’s rule. She remained abbess until her death.

Héloïse d’Argenteuil with Peter Abélard,

Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abélard. (© Quagga Media/Alamy Stock Photo)

Audacious innovator: Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

Female scientists were active in both practical and theoretical medicine. The most famous of all is Hildegard of Bingen, who transcends categorisation. Scientist, doctor of medicine, musician, philosopher, theologian, mystic – Hildegard is acclaimed as the most accomplished of medieval women. A resident of medieval Germany, she explained confounding theological notions such as that of the Trinity (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost).  Standing up to male superiors in the church, she often succeeded in getting her desires, including founding a new convent.

Hildegard wrote about the human body, even using poetic language to describe reproduction from the woman’s perspective. Her music, much performed today, reflects her view that humans create music in an attempt to recapture the cosmically harmonious paradise lost with the fall, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. In Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum, a liturgical drama in song, the devil fights with the soul’s virtues; only the devil has a speaking role.

Hildegard’s other writings include theological, cosmological and visionary works. “Let no man be so audacious as to add anything to this writing lest he be blotted out from the book of life,” she asserts. While many medieval women turned to the divine to find meaning in their interior lives, Hildegard also commented publicly on state and church politics.  Creating voluminous letters to the pope and churchmen, she corresponded on issues of salvation and church organisation. Between 1158 and 1170 she also undertook four preaching tours – extraordinary in a time when women were expected to obey St Paul’s injunction to not teach or speak in the church.

Vocal feminist: Christine de Pizan (1364–c1430)

Feminist beliefs were espoused unashamedly by some trailblazing medieval women. The brilliant Christine de Pizan, for instance, was raised by an unconventional father who supported Christine’s desire to study and learn. Her arranged marriage at the age of 15 became a love match. When tragedy struck, cutting down both her father and husband in the prime of life, the 25-year-old Christine was suddenly left in charge of the extended household.

Christine had been left with no knowledge of how the financial accounts were arranged. She was even cheated by people claiming false debts. Initiating a feminist critique of marriage that still resounds today, she laments, “For it was the custom for married men not to talk about or declare the complete state of their affairs to their wives… it makes no sense unless women, instead of being ignorant, learn wise management of such matters.”

Christine had few options. “Now it was necessary for me to go to work, something which I, nurtured on the finer things of life, had not learned”. While initially she copied manuscripts as a scribe, she then became the first European professional female writer. Defying misogynist writers, calling anti-woman invective “hodgepodge, rubbish, and wasted words,” Christine boldly proclaimed to one anti-woman writer, “You have committed a great error without reason.”

In her masterpiece from 1404–5, The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine envisions an allegorical city populated only by women and ruled by the Virgin Mary. In this prose text, Christine asserts how women created all good culture, politics and science. Christine argued that women should be allowed to be what everyone should be given – the right to be human. Her final work extols a young maiden as embodying all that is fine about womanhood – none other than Joan of Arc.

Christine de Pizan, seated on a chair in carved wood. Miniature from a MS in the Burgundy Library, Brussels, 15th century. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Matchless matriarch: Margaret Paston (c1423–84)

With shades of Real Housewives of the Middle Ages, estate manager Margaret Paston protected her extended family’s vast properties during the War of the Roses, a time of violence and disruption. As adept and well-versed in legal intricacies as her male lawyer counterparts who were away in London, she defended the homestead, bidding her husband to send weapons such as crossbows, axes and protective garments should enemies attack.

In addition to protecting her lands and informing her husband of crises, Margaret undertook the activities that any woman would have to do to support an estate or even modest farm: making bread and wine, brewing ale, smoking ham and bacon, and drying fruit for the winter months. She oversaw the care of pigs, poultry and cows.  Needlecraft, such as embroidery, weaving, cloth making and mending, lay within a woman’s sphere. Given the Pastons’ estates and property, Margaret consulted with tenants, negotiated legal claims, and sought out (and gave) judicial advice.

Estate management also included selling products manufactured on the farm, such as foodstuffs, cloth and grain, as well as ordering supplies from larger cities in the area. Making and maintaining connections with powerful individuals who would support her during these political turbulent times, Margaret had to borrow jewellery when she finally met Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI.

Catherine Morland,  Jane Austen’s heroine in Northanger Abbey (1803), laments, “I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome….” Poor Catherine! If only she could come back today, when much medieval history focuses on gender and the everyday experiences of the vibrant, dynamic and unexpected lives of women from the medieval period.

 

Susan Signe Morrison is professor of English at Texas State University. Her award-winning historical novel, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, tells the story of the Old English poem, Beowulf, from the woman’s point of view. 

She can be found at amedievalwomanscompanion.com and susansignemorrison.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @medievalwomen.

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10 Important Medieval Dates

10 medieval dates you need to know…

Don’t know the battle of Bosworth from the battle of Bannockburn? Confused between Magna Carta and the Domesday Book? We’ve got you covered. Here we bring you 10 key medieval dates you need to know…

Tuesday 22nd March 2016    Submitted by: Ellie Cawthorne  from BBC History Extra
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Detail from the Bayeux tapestry. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Detail from the Bayeux tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

 

1066: The battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest

The Norman conquest of 1066 marked a dramatic and irreversible turning point in English history. Events began with the battle of Hastings, in which the Anglo-Saxon king Harold II attempted to defend his realm from the Norman invasion forces of William, Duke of Normandy (later known as William the Conqueror).

Harold’s English troops numbered around 5,000, compared to a well-equipped Norman force of 15,000 infantry, archers and cavalry. Although the English had some initial success using shield-wall tactics, they proved no match for William, who was a formidable warlord. English defences were eventually broken down and King Harold was killed. His crushing defeat and gory death on the battlefield is famously recorded in the Bayeux tapestry, which was completed in the 1070s.

Following William’s success at the battle of Hastings – dubbed by Andrew Gimson the “most durable victory of any monarch in English history”– William the Conqueror set about transforming the face of Anglo-Saxon England. He skillfully secured his hold on the lands he had invaded, replacing the English ruling class with Norman counterparts and building defensive fortresses at strategic points throughout the kingdom.

Under William the feudal system [a hierarchical system in which people held lands in return for providing loyalty or services to a lord] was introduced, the church reorganised and England’s links to Europe strengthened. The legacy of 1066’s Norman conquest can still be seen today in Britain’s language, culture and social structure.

 

William I

A portrait of William the Conqueror from the ‘Historia Anglorum, Chronica majora’. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

 

1085: The Domesday Book is completed

The Domesday Book is England’s earliest surviving public record, unsurpassed in depth and detail until the introduction of censuses in the 19th century.

Towards the end of the 11th century England came under threat from Danish invaders. William the Conqueror (who had himself been an invader two decades earlier) realised the need to catalogue the country’s financial resources in order to assess how much taxation he could reap from the land to fund a potential war. He therefore commissioned a massive survey of England’s landholdings and financial assets. The monumental resulting document, the Domesday Book, extensively catalogues the kingdom’s taxable goods and records the identities of England’s landholders at the time.

The Domesday Book is significant because it provides a unique and remarkably rich historical source for medievalists. Its vast amount of information offers historians, geographers, linguists and even lawyers invaluable insights into the nature of England’s government, landscape and social structure at the time.

The book now survives in two volumes: Great Domesday and Little Domesday.

1095: The First Crusade is decreed

Pope Urban II’s official call for “holy war” in 1095 heralded the beginning of centuries of religious conflict. The crusades were a significant and long-lasting movement that saw European Christian knights mount successive military campaigns in attempts to conquer the Holy Land. Religious conflict peaked during the 12th and 13th centuries and its impact can be traced throughout the Middle Ages.

Muslims in the Holy Land were not the only target of the crusades. Crusade campaigns were directed against a variety of people viewed as enemies of Christendom. Military campaigns against the Moors in Spain and Mongols and pagan Slavs in Eastern Europe have now also been recognised by historians as part of the crusade movement.

The crusades had a huge impact on medieval life in Britain. People from all walks of life were involved – everyone from peasant labourers to lords and kings took up the fight for Christendom. Richard the Lionheart (r1189–99) considered the quest to conquer the Holy Land to be so important that he was absent from England for many years of his reign, waging war in the Middle East.

These intercontinental military expeditions also had a much wider impact on global relations. They led to an unprecedented interaction between east and west, which had an enduring influence on art, science, culture and trade. Meanwhile the shared fight for Christendom arguably also helped to foster ideological unity within Europe. In the words of historian Linda Paterson, the crusades “transformed the western world and left a profound legacy in inter-cultural and inter-faith relations nationally and worldwide”.

 

Crusades

A battle during the crusades. Miniature from the ‘Historia’ by William of Tyre, 1460s. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

 

1170: Thomas Becket is murdered

Bloody proof of overflowing tensions in the ongoing power struggle between the medieval church and crown, the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 has gone down in history for its shocking brutality.

In 1155, after enjoying a successful career in the clergy, Becket (1120–70) became chancellor to King Henry II. Friendship and rapport developed between the two men and in 1161 Henry appointed Becket as archbishop of Canterbury.

However, following Becket’s appointment as archbishop, his harmonious relationship with the king was short-lived. Trouble began to emerge as it became clear that Becket would now fight for the interests of the church, often in opposition to the wishes of the crown.

Becket began to challenge the king over a wide range of issues and their turbulent disagreements lasted several years. Their relationship disintegrated to such an extent that between 1164 and 1170 Becket lived in France to avoid Henry’s wrath. He returned to Canterbury in 1170 but was soon in conflict with the king again, this time over the excommunication of high-ranking clerics.

This dispute was the final straw for Henry. According to popular legend he lost his temper with the archbishop, asking “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Believing this to mean that the king wished Becket dead, four knights travelled to Canterbury to seek out the archbishop. On 29 December 1170 they brutally murdered Becket in his own cathedral.

In 1173, three years after his death, Becket was canonised. His murder transformed him into a martyr figure and his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral became a major European pilgrimage site. The priest’s murder was extremely damaging to Henry’s reputation and in 1174 Henry visited Becket’s tomb to pay penance for his actions.

Thomas Becket

A late 12th-century illustration of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. (CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

1215: Magna Carta is signed

Sealed by King John at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, Magna Carta (meaning ‘great charter’) has become one of the founding documents of the English legal system.

At the time of its creation, however, the document’s long-lasting significance was not immediately recognised. Following a period of political and military upheaval in England, John was reluctantly forced to sign Magna Carta as part of peace negotiations with rebel barons. Drafted as part of a peace treaty, the initial document contained specific grievances dealing expressly with King John’s rule. At the time the agreement had little impact, as King John swiftly backtracked on its promises, prompting civil war.

Magna Carta’s real significance lay elsewhere. Buried within its many clauses were certain adaptable core values that ensured its influential legacy in English history. As the first document to establish that everyone, including monarchs, was subject to the law, Magna Carta laid the foundation for legally limiting the power of the sovereignty. Its 39th clause, meanwhile, ensured the right of all ‘free men’ to a fair trial.

The fundamental principles laid down in these clauses proved central to the establishment of the English legal system. The original document was adapted several times in subsequent years and three of the clauses from the original Magna Carta still remain on the statute books today. These establish the liberties of the English Church (Clause 1), the privileges of the City of London (Clause 13) and the right to trial by jury (Clauses 39 & 40).

 

1314: The battle of Bannockburn

The battle of Bannockburn saw Scottish leader Robert the Bruce take on the English king Edward II in a pivotal conflict in Scotland’s fight for independence.

In 1296 Anglo-Scottish tensions spilled over into open warfare when English forces under Edward I invaded Scotland. By 1314 the Scottish Wars of Independence had been raging for many years and Edward II’s hold over Scotland had begun to crumble. In an attempt to restore his grasp on the kingdom Edward II amassed a large body of troops to relieve Stirling Castle, which had been besieged by the forces of Robert the Bruce. However, Edward’s attempt to regain control backfired, as the Scots prepared to face the English forces head-on in what became the battle of Bannockburn.

The battle took place on 23 and 24 June 1314. Although the English force boasted greater numbers, the Scottish were well trained and well led, fighting on land they were motivated to defend. Their knowledge of the local land also worked in their favour, as they tactically targeted terrain that would be difficult for Edward’s heavy cavalry to operate on. English casualties were heavy and Edward was forced to retreat.

Bannockburn dealt a significant blow to English control over Scotland and Edward’s withdrawal left swathes of northern England vulnerable to Scottish raids and attacks. Robert the Bruce’s victory proved decisive for Scotland, solidifying the country’s independence and strengthening his grip over his kingdom. In 1324 Robert finally gained papal recognition as king of Scotland.

 

1348: The Black Death comes to Britain

The summer of 1348 saw the first outbreak of the bubonic plague in England, leading to an epidemic of huge proportions. The disease is estimated to have killed between a third and a half of the population – a devastating and unprecedented death rate.

Known as the Black Death, the bubonic plague was caused by a bacterium now know as yersinia pestis. Without any knowledge of how it was transmitted the disease spread like wildfire, particularly in urban areas. The writer Boccaccio saw the plague ravage Florence in 1348 and described the symptoms in his book The Decameron: “The first signs of the plague were lumps in the groin or armpits. After this, livid black spots appeared on the arms and thighs and other parts of the body. Few recovered. Almost all died within three days, usually without any fever”.

The dramatic death toll had a significant impact on the social and economic landscape of Britain in the following decades. Writing for History Extra, Mark Ormrod has argued that in the long-run the epidemic led to a “real improvement in the quality of life” for medieval people. He suggests that “the drop in the population resulted in a redistribution of wealth – workers could demand higher wages, and tenant farmers could demand lower rents, giving the poor more expendable income”.

 

Death strangles plague victim

Death strangling a victim of the plague. From the 14th-century Stiny Codex.(Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

1381: The Peasants’ Revolt

The first large-scale uprising in English history, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 threatened to overturn the existing social structure and undermine the country’s ruling elite.

The revolt was prompted by the introduction of a third poll tax (raised to fund the war against France), which had a particularly damaging effect on the poor. Unrest began in Essex, spreading rapidly to East Anglia, St Albans, Bury St Edmunds and London. As events escalated, government ministers were attacked and their homes destroyed. The chaos reached a peak as rioters captured and executed the king’s treasurer and the archbishop of Canterbury.

Soon, the rioters’ demands extended far beyond abolishing the third poll tax. They called for the abolition of serfdom and outlawry, and the division of lordship among all men. They also railed against the corruption of the church, demanding that its wealth be distributed among the people.

Faced with the threat of escalating violence in his capital city, the 14-year-old King Richard II met with one of the central figures of the revolt, Wat Tyler, to discuss the rioters’ grievances. However, violence broke out at the meeting and Tyler was murdered by William Walworth (Lord Mayor of London). Following Tyler’s death, government troops sought out and executed those who had rebelled, and resistance soon died out.

Peasants revolt

A 15th-century image depicting the meeting between Wat Tyler and the revolutionary priest John Ball during the Peasants’ Revolt. (Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

1415: Henry V defeats the French at Agincourt

Soon after becoming king of England in 1413, the ambitious young Henry V turned his attention to expanding his realm. During his father’s reign he had pushed for an invasion of France, and as the country was undergoing a period of political turmoil under its elderly monarch, Charles VI, it was the perfect time to launch an assault on the vulnerable kingdom.

After landing in France on 13 August 1415 and besieging the town of Harfleur, Henry’s troops marched on Calais. The French army met them at Agincourt and Henry’s men found themselves outnumbered as a bloody battle ensued. Despite this the French death toll was significant and Henry claimed victory.

Agincourt has gone down in history as a legendary victory for England and for Henry. However, historian Ralph Griffiths suggests that it was in fact a close-run and far from decisive battle. He argues that contemporaries exaggerated Henry’s achievements in France.

However, patriotic Agincourt propaganda undoubtedly had sticking power in the Middle Ages. The defeat proved devastating to French morale, while Henry’s reputation on the continent was enhanced dramatically. Henry was welcomed back to Dover with triumph and the story of his illustrious victory at Agincourt was celebrated for centuries to come.

 

Agincourt

A 15th-century image of the Battle of Agincourt. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

 

1485: Richard III is defeated at the battle of Bosworth

The last significant clash of the Wars of the Roses, the battle of Bosworth saw the Lancastrian Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII) defeat Richard III in a bloody fight for the English throne.

Following Richard’s deposition of Edward V in 1483, Henry challenged the Yorkist king as a usurper. In August 1485 Henry launched an attack on Richard in an attempt to seize control of England. Richard’s army of 15,000 vastly outnumbered that of Henry, who had only 5,000 men. Confident of defeating his challenger, Richard was reportedly overjoyed at Henry’s arrival in England and even delayed facing his troops in order to celebrate with a feast day.

However, once the battle began, Richard’s strong initial position was undermined by the desertion of his troops and the defection of Lord Stanley (who had previously fought on the Yorkist side and commanded significant troops). The Yorkist forces were defeated and Richard was killed on the battlefield.

The discovery of Richard’s skeleton in Leicester in 2012 has told us much about how the defeated king met his death. Writing for History Extra, Chris Skidmore states that “several gouge marks in the front of the skull seem to have been caused by a dagger, perhaps in a struggle. The two wounds that would have killed Richard include the back part of his skull being sheathed off; if this did not kill him, a sword blade thrust from the base of the skull straight through the brain certainly would have done the job”.

As the last major conflict of the Wars of the Roses and one that heralded the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, the battle of Bosworth marked a significant turning point in British history. It signalled the end of the medieval era and beginning of the Tudor period.

Was Guinevere Really an Adulteress?

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Was Guinevere really an adulteress?
Explorations in Arthurian History
This tradition is to be found entirely in the Legends. The story of Arthur’s queen, whom Geoffrey of Monmouth calls Ganhumara, goes back a long way. The Triads refer to Arthur’s three queens, all named Gwenhwyfar, the Welsh spelling. Welsh tradition also has the story of Gwenhwyfar’s abduction by Melwas. Two versions of the end of this episode exist: The first has Arthur riding to her rescue and killing Melwas; the second has Gildas, a 6th-century monk who wrote in Arthur’s time and who mentioned Badon Hill but did not mention Arthur, as the mediator in the dispute.
The legends, of course, would change this rescuer to Lancelot and would incorporate this story into the Love Triangle aspect of the relationship between Arthur’s best knight and his queen. But Lancelot is entirely the creation of Chretien de Troyes and is as such no part of historical investigation. As for Mordred, whom Geoffrey calls Modred and whom scholars think was also called Medraut, the tale of his seizing the throne with the help of the queen is to be found in Geoffrey. Later writers would hold Guinevere blameless in this, but Geoffrey says she broke her marriage vows to Arthur and settled in as Modred’s queen. When Arthur returned to fight his nephew, Guinevere fled to a nunnery (Geoffrey doesn’t say which) and lived out her days there in penitance.
Explorations in Arthurian Legend
We can point to one man to give us the Lancelot-Guinevere adultery story: Chretien de Troyes. He it was who invented Lancelot and added him to Arthur’s court as a Knight of the Round Table. He it was who said the queen so loved Arthur’s First Knight that she gave herself to him willingly. He it was who said the two were so ashamed and yet not shameful.
Other writers would build on this theme. Sir Thomas Malory put forward the idea that Arthur’s continuing to turn a blind eye (or not knowing at all) would serve as a measure of mistrust of his authority by his knights; they also would doubt his ability to rule if he couldn’t see or admit such an obvious thing. Malory would add the story of how Arthur found his queen guilty of treason and sentenced her to death by being burned at the stake and how Lancelot rescued her and carried her off. Arthur and Lancelot fought, of course, and Malory follows Geoffrey in placing Guinevere in a nunnery.
Tennyson finds the adultery to be the cause of all that is wrong with Arthur’s court. Because of his sin, Lancelot cannot behold the full glory of the Holy Grail. Because of the sin’s being known, Balin and Pelleas go mad. Modern writers would treat the adultery as a matter of course and even suggest that it was inevitable becaue Guinevere didn’t really love Arthur.
© DW, King Arthur: A Man for the Ages

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Arthurian Timeline Part 3~ 1533-2005

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Arthurian Timeline, Part 3

c.1533-39 – “Itinerary,” the modern title given to the collection of notes made by John Leland, Henry VIII’s court antiquary, during his extensive travels for the purpose of documenting the historical treasures of England. There are several items of Arthurian significance: in his notes on the county of Somerset, Leland relates a tradition equating the ancient hillfort, Cadbury Castle, with King Arthur’s Camelot; also in Somerset, Leland tells us that “a bridge of four stone arches which is known as Pomparles (over the River Brue near Glastonbury) is the place where, “according to legend, that King Arthur cast his sword into it;” in his Cornwall notes, Leland discusses a river in the Camelford area. He says, “in some histories it is called Cablan. It was beside this river that Arthur fought his last battle (Camlann), and evidence of this, in the form of bones and harness, is uncovered when the site is ploughed.”
1534 – Polydore Vergil completes “Anglica Historia” in which he is critical of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history, in general, and his portrayal of Arthur, in particular. He even goes so far as to question Arthur’s existence.

1539 – Dissolution of Glastonbury Abbey, after which Arthur’s burial cross is said to have lain in the “Reverstry” of St. John Baptist, Glastonbury (according to a late 17th century document, Bodleian Rawlinson B.416A, folio 10v) for approximately a hundred years.

1544 – Leland publishes “Assertio Inclytissimi Arturii” (Assertions of the Renowned Arthur), a compilation of most of the archaeological and literary evidence for King Arthur, as it was known in Tudor England. Here, Leland notes the inscription on the burial cross, allegedly belonging to King Arthur’s grave, found at Glastonbury. The editor of the “Assertio” commented that “his disquisition upon Arthur is more notable for heat than light.”

1599 – Edmund Spenser dies leaving his Arthurian poem, “The Faerie Queene,” unfinished. In it Arthur portrays “magnanimity,” to Spenser’s mind, the leading virtue.

1607 – Publication of William Camden’s “Britannia,” including illustrations of King Arthur’s Burial Cross.
c.1650 – Puritans chop down original Glastonbury Thorn on Wearyall Hill, said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, which, legend says, he planted upon his arrival there in AD 63.
1691 – “King Arthur,” an opera written by John Dryden with music by Henry Purcell, told the tale of Arthur’s battles with the (fictitious) Saxon leader, Oswald.
1695, 1697 – Richard Blackmore writes “Prince Arthur” and “King Arthur,” two transparently allegorical verse epics incorporating Christian moral themes. In the poems, Arthur is William III; his antagonist, Octa, is James II, and so on.
c.1700-20 – The burial cross of King Arthur vanishes from history in the early 18th century. It was last known to be in the possession of one William Hughes, Chancellor of the cathedral of Wells.
1808 – In the preface to William Blake’s “Milton,” the poet writes:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariots of fire!

I will not cease from mental flight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

It is believed that Blake’s words hark back to old tradtions which said that Joseph of Arimathea brought the boy, Jesus, to England in the time, unaccounted for in the Bible, between his 12th and 30th years of age.
These words were later made famous in a hymn entitled, “Jerusalem.” The words were set to music in 1916, by the English composer Hubert Hastings Parry, and later orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar in 1922. “Jerusalem” was first performed at a Votes for Women concert in 1916.
1809 – Sir Walter Scott anonymously publishes “The Bridal of Triermain,” a curious blending of Arthurian legend and the Sleeping Beauty story.
1822 – William Wordsworth writes “The Egyptian Maid,” a poem featuring Merlin and the Lady of the Lake.
1840 – Arthurian poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Merlin I” and ” Merlin II”.
c.1850-c.1900 – Gothic Revival inspired many poetic and literary works based on Arthur and Arthurian themes and embodying Victorian moral attitudes and neo-chivalric enthusiasms. Some of the many artists and their works are listed below:

Matthew Arnold: “Tristram and Iseult”
Gustave Dore: French illustrator, produced a collection of thirty-six drawings to illustrate an edition of Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.”

William Morris: “The Defense of Guinevere,” “King Arthur’s Tomb,” “Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery,” ” The Chapel in Lyonesse,” “Near Avalon”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: ” God’s Graal,” an unfinished poem: “King Arthur’s Tomb,” “Lancelot’s Vision of the Sangreal,” “Sir Tristram and La Belle Yseult Drink the Love Potion,” paintings in the pre-Raphaelite style.

Algernon Charles Swinburne: “Queen Yseult,” “Joyeuse Garde,” “Tristram of Lyonesse,” “The Tale of Balen,” “The Day Before the Trial,” “Lancelot.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson: “The Lady of Shalott,” “Sir Galahad,” “Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere: A Fragment,” “Morte d’Arthur,” “The Idylls of the King,” a cycle of Arthurian poems.

1859 – Richard Wagner completes the opera, “Tristan und Isolde.”
1882 – Wagner’s opera, “Parsifal,” is performed.
1889 – Mark Twain publishes “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
1893-4 – Aubrey Beardsley contributes over 400 black and white drawings to illustrate John M. Dent’s edition of Malory’s Morte d’ Arthur.
1903-10 – Howard Pyle illustrates “The Story of King Arthur and His Knights” and other similar stories.
1917 – N.C.Wyeth, star student of Howard Pyle, illustrates “The Boy’s King Arthur,” an abridgement of Malory.
1923 – Thomas Hardy writes “The Queen of Cornwall,” a one-act play based on the Tristan and Isolde story.
1930-44 – Charles Williams produces most important modern reinterpretations of Arthurian mythology in “War in Heaven” (1930), “Taliessin Through Logres” (1938), and “The Region of the Summer Stars” (1944). The three works cover the entire breadth of the traditional Arthurian story, making them into a moral epic of cosmic proportions. Williams deemphasizes the Guinevere-Lancelot affair, and instead focuses on the mystical aspects of the grail quest, comparing it to human spiritual development.
1945 – C.S. Lewis concludes his Space Trilogy with “That Hideous Strength,” a tale replete with Arthurian motifs and “grail” characters.
1952 – Lewis publishes “Arthurian Torso,” a “double” volume containing his friend, Charles Williams’, previously unpublished “Figure of Arthur” and Lewis’ commentary, “Williams and the Arthuriad.”
1953 – T.H.White completes the “Once and Future King.”
1960 – “Camelot,” a Lerner and Lowe musical stageplay based on T.H. White’s “Once and Future King,” is performed on Broadway, starring Richard Burton as King Arthur and Robert Goulet as Lancelot. A Film version, starring Richard Harris as Arthur and Franco Nero as Lancelot, appeared in 1967. Camelot was brought back on stage, this time starring Goulet as Arthur, in a Summer Stock tour of 1996.
1962 – “Castle Dor,” an updated version (19th century) of the Tristan and Isolde story originally begun by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944), was completed from his notes by Daphne du Maurier.
1963 – “Sword at Sunset” by Rosemary Sutcliff, a realistic telling of the Arthurian story from his own viewpoint.
1975 – “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” jokingly said by Geoffrey Ashe to be the most realistic of all celluloid Arthurian depictions, stars Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin.
1977 – “The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights,” John Steinbeck’s attempt at a modernization of Malory, is published posthumously.
1978 – Mary Stewart completes her trilogy of novels focusing on Merlin, “The Crystal Cave” (1970), “The Hollow Hills” (1973) and “The Last Enchantment” (1978).
1981 – “Excalibur,” an excellent adaptation of Malory by John Boorman, stars Nicol Williamson as Merlin.
1982 – “The Mists of Avalon,” by Marion Zimmer Bradley, adds a new wrinkle to the Arthurian story, by telling it from the point of view of the women involved in the tale: Igraine, wife of Gorlois; Morgaine, the daughter of Igraine and Gorlois; Morgause, Igraine’s younger sister; Viviane, the Lady of the Lake and Gwenhwyfar, Arthur’s Queen.
1995 – “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court,” a Disney film recalling Mark Twain’s story of a modern who is transported back in time to the days of King Arthur.
1995 – “First Knight,” a slick Hollywood production starring Sean Connery as Arthur and Richard Gere as Lancelot.
1998 – “Merlin,” a TV mini-series produced by Robert Halmi, starring Sam Neill in the title role; loosely following Geoffrey of Monmouth in some parts and in others, purely original. Nice scenery, interesting characterization of Merlin, great special effects, but a bit too Hollywood.

“Arthurian” Inscription Found at Tintagel – On 6th August 1998, English Heritage revealed that during the last week of digging on the Eastern terraces of Tintagel Island, a broken piece of Cornish slate (8″ by 14″) was discovered bearing the name “Artognov”. It was excavated on July 4th, by Kevin Brady, an archaeologist working with a team from Glasgow University (Scotland). “As the stone came out, when I saw the letters A-R-T, I thought uh-oh…”

The stone apparently bears two inscriptions. The upper strongly incized letters have been broken off and are sadly indecipherable. The lower inscription, though fainter, clearly reads “Pater Coliavificit Artognov”, which Professor Charles Thomas of Exeter University has carefully translated as “Artognou, father of a descendant of Coll, has had this built”. Possibly written by a Gaulish hand, the style of writing is certainly 6th century, a date confirmed by surrounding fragments of 6th century Mediterranean pottery already well known from the Tintagel site. Also found nearby was the remains of the only Spanish glass flagon known from this period of Britain’s history. Chris Morris, who has been leading the Scottish based excavation team for the past eight years, believes that the dedicatory “Arthur Stone,” as it has already been christened, was placed in the wall of a 6th century stone building which later collapsed soon after it was built. The slate was then reused as drain cover a century later.

Though “Artognou” (pronounced arth-new) proves that names similar to that of the great King existed in the, so called, Arthurian period, Chris Morris is sceptical about making too much of the obvious link with King Arthur’s traditional birthplace. He believes the stone’s importance lies in the fact that it is “the first evidence we have that the skills of reading and writing were handed down in a non-religious context”. However, Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, chief archaeologist at the, normally cautious, English Heritage declared the newly discovered link should not be dismissed. “Tintagel has presented us with evidence of a Prince of Cornwall, in the Dark Ages, living in a high-status domestic settlement at the time Arthur lived. It has given us the name of a person, Arthnou. Arthnou was here, that is his name on a piece of stone. It is a massive coincidence at the very least. This is where myth meets history. It’s the find of a lifetime.”

Adrian Gilbert publicises the work of Blackett & Wilson by publishing his ‘the Holy Kingdom’.

2000 – Publication of ‘The Keys to Avalon’ in which Blake & Lloyd attempt to relocate all Arthurian locations in Wales.

2001 – “The Mists of Avalon,” a TV mini-series based on the 1982 book by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Beautiful photography and evocative music highlight this Turner Network Television (TNT) production featuring Oscar winner Anjelica Huston, Emmy winner Julianna Margulies and two-time Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee Joan Allen. According to press materials, the series “delves into the romance, bravery and deceit linking the characters of Arthur’s Kingdom and exalts the powerful women behind the throne of King Arthur,” but in actuality it merely pretends to significance and provides no analysis or insight, at all. In one of the great casting mistakes of all time (rivaling the decision to allow Kevin Costner to play Robin Hood), Arthur is portrayed as a weak, sniveling little wimp (or, perhaps, the decision was intentional given the obvious gender orientation of the program). Much emphasis seems to be placed on promoting goddess worship and in a telling scene at the end of the film, a statue of the Virgin Mary is said to be nothing more than a christianized version of the old goddess.

Establishment of the ‘Centre for Arthurian Studies’ at the North-East Wales Institute for Higher Education in Wrexham, co-founded by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd, co-authors of “The Keys of Avalon” (2000) which claims to reveal the “true location of Arthur’s kingdom.”

2003 – “The Mystery of King Arthur, Vol. 1” is released. A Mick Fowler Productions/British History Club History Club enterprise, this series of DVD’s explores Arthurian history and legend as has never been done before on-screen.

2004 – “King Arthur,” a Jerry Bruckheimer film, is released with much fanfare and high expectations. The film, while likable enough as pure entertainment, takes impermissible liberties with history and legend (which is really what the film was supposed to be about). Case in point are Arthur’s horse soldiers. Historically, these were troops conscripted out of eastern Europe (Sarmatia) by the Romans and sent to remotest Britain to shore up the island’s defenses. Their Roman commander is said to have been one Lucius Artorius Castus, the central character in a not-too-widely-held scholarly theory that casts him as the original figure behind the legend of King Arthur (see timeline entry for 184 AD). One problem with this is that these cavalrymen lived in Britain in the latter half of the second century, 300ish years before the movie was supposed to have taken place, and another is that, in the 180’s, the Saxons hadn’t arrived in Britain, yet, and wouldn’t need battling for a long time to come.

Producer Bruckheimer, in his quest to be creatively original, also for the first time in history and legend sees fit to transform the reliably feminine figure of Guinevere into a painted-up, Celtic shield-maiden, fully the equal of any of her male co-combatants in the “manly” arts of war. He might have gotten away with this, had the naturally willowy actress, Keira Knightley, had the physique to make us believe — but she didn’t — and, as a result, we’re left conflicted with memories of what should have been our always-delicate Guinevere, rampaging around a dark age battlefield clad in some of the most improbably revealing and non-protective battle gear in the long history of warfare.

In our view, however glad Arthurians worldwide might have been when they heard that yet another attempt was going to be made by a major Hollywood talent to do justice to their favorite legendary character, they are surely disappointed, now, at having seen just another tarted-up, Hollywood summer “blockbuster”.

The release period (late June – early July) was sprinkled with programs attempting to provide serious analysis of the film, “King Arthur”, and the man behind the legend. The History Channel had two such shows, totaling 3 hours of air time and ABC-TV had a 20 minute segment on its PrimeTime Friday “20/20” show. The best of the bunch was clearly the History Channel’s “Quest for King Arthur” (June 20th), featuring Arthurian academic luminaries Geoffrey Ashe (“The Discovery of King Arthur” and Secretary of the Camelot Research Committee [see entry for 1966-70]), Christopher Snyder (“The World of King Arthur”), Bonnie Wheeler (Editor of the publication, “Arthuriana”) and Jeremy Adams (noted medieval historian from Yale and SMU). Although much material was presented that could’ve been confusing to the uninitiated, this was probably the most authoritative and satisfying treatment of Arthur’s historical and legendary background ever done for television…but, then again, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t make the “King Arthur” film into anything more than another swashbuckling knight movie.

2005 – IBM’s business consulting division trades on Arthur’s reputation for wisdom and integrity in a series of TV commercials which portray Arthur as a dark-age CEO eliciting advice from his board members (knights) on a series of timeless, but confounding administrative problems.

2006 – The book, “The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived: How Characters of Fiction, Myth, Legends, Television, and Movies Have Shaped Our Society, Changed Our Behavior, and Set the Course of History”, is released in paperback. King Arthur comes in at #3, behind “The Marlboro Man” at #1 and George Orwell’s “Big Brother” at #2 and just ahead of #4 Santa Claus.

Arthurian Timeline Part 2

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Arthurian Timeline, Part 2
From 1125-1485

1125 – William of Malmesbury completes “Gesta Regum Anglorum” (Deeds of the Kings of England), in which he states,
“this is that Arthur of whom the trifling of the Britons talks such nonsense, even today; a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories. as one who long sustained his tottering country and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war.”
The “Gesta” is significant, not only for the information it contains, but also for the fact that in its later editions (the third edition was written in the 1130’s), William includes long passages lifted verbatim from the “De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae.” All original manuscripts of the “De Antiquitate” are now lost and the only ones that remain are corrupt later interpolations. These interpolations were produced with the idea of supporting Glastonbury Abbey’s connections with certain legendary characters (e.g. Joseph of Arimathea, King Arthur, Melkin, St. Patrick). From the “Gesta” we can see what William had actually written in the “De Antiquitate.”
c.1129 – William of Malmesbury in residence at Glastonbury Abbey, where he writes “De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae,” a history of the abbey.
1129 – Henry of Huntingdon’s “Historia Anglorum” is based on Bede, Nennius and the AngloSaxon Chronicle.
1136 – Geoffrey of Monmouth publishes the famous “Historia Regum Britanniae” (History of the Kings of Britain), in Latin. His work would be used as the standard text on British history for the next 600 years.
1139 – In a letter to Warinus, Henry of Huntingdon describes Arthur’s last battle and mentions that the Bretons say that he didn’t die and are still waiting for his return..
c.1145 – Geoffrey Gaimar publishes “Estoire des Angles” (History of the English), a French adaptation of Geoffrey’s “History,” which is now lost.
1151 – Geoffrey of Monmouth appointed to bishopric of St. Asaph in Wales, but never actually visits there.
1155 – Master (Robert) Wace completes “Roman de Brut,” a version of Geoffrey’s “History” in French. He dedicated his work to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II, and is remembered as being the first writer to introduce the concept of the “Round Table” to the Arthurian cycle. Of Arthur, Wace says,
“I know not if you have heard tell the marvellous gestes and errant deeds related so often of King Arthur. They have been noised about this mighty realm for so great a space that the truth has turned to fable and an idle song. Such rhymes are neither sheer bare lies, nor gospel truths. They should not be considered either an idiot’s tale, or given by inspiration. The minstrel has sung his ballad, the storyteller told over his tale so frequently, little by little he has decked and painted, till by reason of his embellishment the truth stands hid in the trappings of a tale. Thus to make a delectable tune to your ear, history goes masking as fable.
c.1160-80 – Marie de France writes “Lais” (Lays), a collection of short poems. Two of the poems, “Chevrefueil” and “Lanval,” include Arthurian characters and themes.
c.1160-90 – Chretien de Troyes, the greatest of the medieval romance writers, makes his five contributions to the Arthurian cycle during this period. His Arthurian works are: “Eric et Enide,” “Cliges” “Le Chevalier de la Charette” (The Knight of the Cart, or Lancelot), “Yvain” (or Le Chevalier au Lion, The Knight with the Lion) and “Perceval” (Le Conte del Graal, The Story of the Graal).
Chretien’s work is noteworthy, not only for its quality, but for the introduction and further development of certain characters and themes into the Arthurian literature. He is, also, the first to apply the literary form of the romance, to the transmission of the stories of Arthur.
It is Chretien who first tells us of the Grail (Graal), but he never equated it with the cup of the Last Supper or the cup used to catch the blood of Christ. The word, grail, a commonly used term in the middle ages, simply referred to a dish or plate of a particular kind. One Helinand of Froidmont wrote in the 13th century “. . .a wide and somewhat deep dish in which expensive meats are customarily placed for the rich. . .and it is commonly called a grail” (Lacy, Norris J., ed., The Arthurian Encyclopedia, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1986, p.257). Chretien used the grail as a symbol of beauty and mystery, but he never presented it as an object of religious devotion (the spiritual aspect was introduced by later writers).
Chretien de Troyes is remembered as the first writer to give the name of Camelot to Arthur’s headquarters and capital city. He, also, is responsible for the introduction of the famous knights, Lancelot, Gawain and Perceval, into the literature of Arthurian legend.
c.1170 – Beroul, a French poet, writes “Roman de Tristan,” believed to be one of the earliest extant versions of the story of Tristan and Yseult, and independent of any other versions. The story, as told by Beroul, is connected with the mainstream of Arthurian legend through its chief antagonist, King Mark of Cornwall. The mention of the church of St. Samson in Cornwall, as the wedding place of Mark and Yseult, provides some basis for localizing the legend around the area of Fowey. Dating of “Roman de Tristan” is somewhat uncertain and may have been written a few years later.
c.1175 – Thomas d’Angleterre, an Anglo-Norman, writing in England, produces poem, “Tristan,” which would later inspire Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem of the same name. Thomas’ poem, with Beroul’s, is one of only two twelfth century Old French tellings of the Tristan and Yseult story.
A writer, known as the monk of Ursicampum, enlarged the chronicle of Siegebert of Gembloux and raised, perhaps for the first time, the possibility that King Arthur may have been the historical British king Riothamus. This same equation, although in far less direct terms, was made subsequently by the writers of the “Chronicles of Anjou” and the “Salzbury Annals,” and by Albericus Trium Fontium (1227-51), Martinus Polonus (c.1275), Jacques de Guise (late 14th C.) and Philippe de Vigneulles (1525). In a 1799 work called the “History of the Anglo Saxons,” Sharon Turner equates Arthur with Riothamus and in modern times, Professor Leon Fleuriot and Geoffrey Ashe are the main champions of the idea.
1184 – Great fire ravages Glastonbury Abbey destroying Old Church.
1190 – Discovery of Arthur’s grave between two pyramids in cemetary at Glastonbury Abbey.
c.1190 – Layamon (pronounced “lawmon”), a priest of Arley Regis, Worcestershire, publishes “Brut,” an English translation of Wace into alliterative verse. Although the dating of “Brut” is uncertain, his work marks the first appearance of the Arthurian story in English.
1192-3 – Gerald of Wales visits Glastonbury, reports on exhumation of Arthur’s grave in “Liber de Principis Instructione.”
c.1195-1205 – Hartmann von Aue, a German court poet, produces two Arthurian romances, “Erek” and “Iwein,” inspired by Chretien’s “Eric et Enide” and “Yvain.” Hartmann is the first to introduce Arthurian literature to Germany.
c.1198 – William of Newburgh writes “Historia Rerum Anglicarum,” a history of Britain beginning with the Conquest of 1066. The preface, however, tries to place Arthur in a historical context and uses the works of Gildas and Bede to harshly criticize Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claims for him, concluding that Arthur and Merlin are fictitious.
c.1200 – “The Dream of Rhonabwy,” last of the Mabinogion tales to be completed, takes place in the time of the historical character, Madawg, son of Maredudd, king of Powys, who died in 1159. Tale refers to Arthur as Emperor, and compares glories of his legendary kingdom with hardships of twelfth century Wales.
c.1200-10 – Wolfram von Eschenbach, the greatest of the German epic poets, produces “Parzifal,” his masterful expansion of Chretien’s “Perceval.” Wolfram’s epic would, centuries later, become the inspiration for Wagner’s 1882 opera, “Parsifal.”
c.1210 – Robert de Boron, in “Joseph d’Arimathie” and “Estoire del Saint Graal,” is responsible for transforming Chretien’s “grail” into “The Holy Grail.” Robert saw something spiritual in Chretien’s secular grail and transformed it into the cup which Joseph of Arimathea allegedly used to catch the blood dripping from Christ’s crucifixion wounds, and the object of many “Quests” undertaken by Arthur’s knights. Robert is the first to claim that Joseph and his family brought the Grail to unspecified parts of Britain. Subsequent accounts localized it in the vicinity of Glastonbury.
Gottfried von Strassburg produces, “Tristan,” the classic version of the love story, basing it on Thomas d’Angleterre’s earlier poem. Wagner would use Gottfried’s work as basis for his 1859 opera of the same name.
c.1210-30 – Vulgate (Lancelot-Grail) Cycle, a series of Arthurian tales, in French, which attempt to tell the whole history of the Grail and to recount the quests of the Grail knights. During this period, stories transition from verse to prose, and as change progresses, material takes on more historical and religious overtones. Cycle included: “Estoire del Saint Graal,” Estoire de Merlin,” “Lancelot du Lac” (also Roman du Lancelot), “Queste del Saint Graal” and “Mort Artu.”
c.1216 – Gerald of Wales writes his second, and slightly different, account of the discovery of Arthur’s grave in “Speculum Ecclesiae.”
c.1220 – Ralph of Coggeshall mentions discovery of Arthur’s grave in his “English Chronicle.”
c.1250 – Mabinogion, a collection of eleven Welsh folk tales and legends (some of which mention Arthur), takes final form, although some scholars argue for a much earlier date of c.1000. Collection includes such well-known tales as Culhwch and Olwen, “The Dream of Rhonabwy,” “Gereint and Enid,” “The Dream of Maxen” “Branwen Daughter of Llyr,” “Peredur Son of Evrawg,” etc.
“Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin” (Black Book of Carmarthen) compiled. Thought to be the work of one scribe, possibly working at the Priory of St John at Carmarthen, it contains 38 items, almost all poetry, including: Englynion y Beddau, Gereint fab Erbin, religious verses and “Merlin” poems.
Interpolated version of William of Malmesbury’s “De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae” written by Glastonbury monks (probably Adam of Domerham), including much questionable material never included in William’s original work.
1278 – Edward I and Queen Eleanor of Castille visit Glastonbury Abbey to officially reinter the remains of Arthur and Guinevere in the new abbey church. King Arthur’s cross is placed on top of the black marble tomb. Edward proclaims his son, Edward of Caernarvon, Prince of Wales, and positions himself as the legitimate successor of Arthur.
1300 – In Robert of Gloucester’s “Chronicle” he states that the Britons of Wales had been converted to Christianity by Phagan and Deruvian (middle 2nd Century), who had built the first church in England at Glastonbury.
c.1300 – A chronicle of Margam Abbey (Wales) tells of the discovery of Arthur’s grave.
1307 – Publication of Peter Langtoft’s “Chronicle,” which updates Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History” through Edward I’s reign. In it he praises Arthur as the greatest of kings.
c.1325 – “Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch” (White Book of Rhydderch), an incomplete version of Mabinogion, contains “Culhwch and Olwen,” the “Dream of Macsen Wledig” and many religious texts. A portion of the original manuscript is now lost.
c.1340 – “Joseph of Arimathie,” an alliterative poem written in English, pays particular attention to Joseph’s activities after the Resurrection of Christ and portrays him as an Apostolic evangelist as well as the keeper of the Grail.
c.1350 – “Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesiae” (Chronicle or Antiquities of the Church of Glastonbury), by John Seen, a monk of Glastonbury, continuing the history of the abbey originally begun by William of Malmesbury 220 years before. Much Arthurian material is here, including an account of the discovery of his grave and a prophecy of Melkin, allegedly a 5th century British bard, in which the grail and the grave of Joseph of Arimathea are said to have been at Glastonbury.
c.1370-90 – Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” are believed to have been written during this period. Two of the tales, the Squire’s and the Wife of Bath’s, make direct references to Arthurian characters or themes.
c.1400 – “Llyfr Coch Hergest” (Red Book of Hergest), the earliest complete version of the Mabinogion, is one of the most important Welsh medieval manuscripts. At 362 folios, it is the largest. The manuscript is dated between 1382 and 1410, and contains examples of many kinds of Welsh literature, excepting only the laws and religious texts. It includes: the “History of the Kings of Britain” of Geoffrey of Monmouth, “Brut y Tywysogyon,” a series of Triads, “Gereint fab Erbin”, “The Dream of Rhonabwy” and others. Its contents are similar to those of Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch.
c.1430 – John Capgrave, a friar at King’s Lynn, Norfolk, publishes “De Sancto Joseph ab Aramathea,” in which he states, quoting from an unnamed manuscript,
“Philip sent from a Gaul a hundred and sixty disciples to assist Joseph and his companions.”
But, it was not until the third edition (composed in the late 15th c.) of his “Nova Legenda Angliae,” printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1516, that a life of St. Joseph of Arimathea was included.
c.1450 – Herry Lovelich’s “History of the Holy Grail,” the first English translation of the French Vulgate tale, “Estoire del Saint Graal.” In the Vulgate, Josephes, Joseph’s son is the protagonist in the British portion of the tale. In Lovelich’s version, the emphasis is switched to Joseph of Arimathea and his conversion activities in Britain, but his connection with the Grail is diminished. “Llyfr Gwyn Hergest” (the White Book of Hergest) may have been a manuscript of some importance. Several descriptions of its contents indicate that it contained: “Y Bibyl Ynghymraec,” the “Laws,” a copy of the “Statute of Rhuddlan,” and strict metre poetry. It was destroyed by fire in the nineteenth century. Partial transcripts are preserved in both the British Library and the National Library of Wales.
1465 – John Hardyng completes his “Chronicle,” blending Glastonbury and Grail traditions in the process. He connects Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea, whom he credits with constructing the original Round Table. The “Chronicle” brings Joseph to Britain in 76 AD, after a 42 year period of imprisonment, and attributes to him the conversion of the land to Christianity. Hardyng’s work is an indication of the extent to which the Glastonbury traditions of Joseph and Arthur had integrated themselves into the mainstream.
1469-70 – Completion of “Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwichshire, while in London’s Newgate Prison. Malory’s work is the definitive English Arthurian romance and embodies many earlier French and Welsh tradtitions. He accepts Joseph of Arimathea’s association with Glastonbury, but distances him from the Grail.
1482 – “Polychronicon,” the most popular source of world history available in England, published by Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk from Cheshire. In it he questioned Geoffrey of Monmouth’s basis for his claims of Arthur’s continental conquests.
1485 – William Caxton’s first printing of Malory’s “Morte d’Arthu,” giving wider circulation to the Glastonbury, Arthur and Joseph traditions.
Part 3 Tomorrow!

Arthurian Timeline Part 1

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Arthurian Timeline

Part 1~ 33AD-c.1090

There is much written testimony about the fifth century in Britain. Some of it is contemporary, but, unfortunately, very little of it is indigenous to Britain. Almost all of it, at least in some points, is contradictory. It seems that the farther in time we move away from the period, the more information we get, but we always wonder how reliable the sources are, and what they are really based on.
Any attempt, then, to pin down an exact chronology of the period is a speculative enterprise, at best. Britannia’s “Arthurian Timeline” falls into that category, as well. No effort was made to adhere to any traditional dating schemes, except where there is firmly established documentation for them. Nor did we feel it to be incumbent upon us to follow, in every last detail, the viewpoints of the well-known scholars of the period, as their viewpoints are often at variance with one another.
In addition to historical information about the fifth century, we have included, in our Arthurian chronology, information about the fascinating and imaginative legends of Arthur that have developed in the vast body of literature that has been written through the years.
So then, this timeline is an original effort, which is based on the available sources for the period. We have attempted, so far as we are able, to weigh those sources and to assign probable values to them, and, in the end, to put them together into a plausible chronology. Yes, there are some blatant guesses here, which are based on nothing at all, except our logic (which, we admit, may be flawed), but they are all defensible, at least to some degree.
Do not blindly accept what is presented here, as if it were provable, absolute fact, lest you perpetuate a possibly serious error. Instead, use the sources, which we have attempted to gather, to form your own conclusions. And do feel free to challenge us on any point. We will be happy to alter our viewpoint if presented with better information.
33-37 AD – Christianity is said, by Gildas, to have come to Britain sometime during the latter part of the reign of Tiberius Caesar who ruled from 14-37 AD:
Meanwhile these islands, stiff with cold and frost, and in a distant region of the world, remote from the visible sun, received the beams of light, that is, the holy precepts of Christ, the true Sun, showing to the whole world his splendour, not only from the temporal firmament, but from the height of heaven, which surpasses every thing temporal, at the latter part, as we know, of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, by whom his religion was propagated without impediment, and death threatened to those who interfered with Its professors.
And, since Joseph of Arimathea is often credited with being the one who first introduced Christianity to Britain, then it is not too far-fetched to assume that the two must’ve arrived together. Christ is believed to have been crucified in 32 AD and allowing a year as a minimum time to organize and launch a mission, then Joseph could have come to Britain, at the very earliest, in 33 AD or at the latest, 37 AD. This assumes, of course, that Gildas can be trusted on this point. We report this not to suggest that it is true, merely to include it in the record for completeness.
63 – Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury on the first Christian mission to Britain. Legend says that he brought with him the Holy Grail, which was either a cup/bowl or two “cruets” thought to contain the blood and sweat of the crucified Christ.
184 – Lucius Artorius Castus, commander of a detachment of Sarmatian conscripts stationed in Britain, led his troops to Gaul to quell a rebellion. This is the first appearance of the name, Artorius, in history and some believe that this Roman military man is the original, or basis, for the Arthurian legend. The theory says that Castus’ exploits in Gaul, at the head of a contingent of mounted troops, are the basis for later, similar traditions about “King Arthur,” and, further, that the name “Artorius” became a title, or honorific, which was ascribed to a famous warrior in the fifth century.
383 – Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig), a Spaniard, was proclaimed Emperor in Britain by the island’s Roman garrison. With an army of British volunteers, he quickly conquered Gaul, Spain and Italy.
388 – Maximus occupied Rome itself. Theodosius, the eastern Emperor, defeated him in battle and beheaded him in July, 388, with many of the remnant of Maximus’ troops settling in Armorica. The net result to Britain was the loss of many valuable troops needed for the island’s defense (the “first migration”).
395 – Theodosius, the last emperor to rule an undivided empire, died, leaving his one son, Arcadius, emperor in the East and his other son, the young Honorius, emperor in the West. At this point the office of Roman Emperor changed from a position of absolute power to one of being merely a head of state.
396 – The Roman general, Stilicho, acting as regent in the western empire during Honorius’ minority, reorganized British defenses decimated by the Magnus Maximus debacle. Began transfer of military authority from Roman commanders to local British chieftains.
397 – The Roman commander, Stilicho, comes to Britain and repels an attack by Picts, Irish and Saxons.
402 – Events on the continent force Stilicho to recall one of the two British legions to assist with the defense of Italy against Alaric and the Visigoths. The recalled legion, known as the Sixth Victrix, was said by Claudian (in “De Bello Gallico,” 416) to be “that legion which is stretched before the remoter Britons, which curbs the Scot, and gazes on the tattoo-marks on the pale face of the dying Pict.” The barbarians were defeated, this time, at battle of Pollentia.
403 – Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, visited Britain for the purpose of bringing peace to the island’s clergy, who were in the midst of a dispute, possibly over the Pelagian heresy.
405 – The British troops, which had been recalled to assist Stilicho, were never returned to Britain as they had to stay in Italy to fight off another, deeper penetration by the barbarian chieftain, Radagaisus.
406 – In early January, 406, a combined barbarian force (Suevi, Alans, Vandals & Burgundians) swept into central Gaul, severing contact between Rome and Britain. In autumn 406, the remaining Roman army in Britain decided to mutiny. One Marcus was proclaimed emperor in Britain, but was immediately assassinated.
407 – In place of the assassinated Marcus, Gratian was elevated “to the purple,” but lasted only four months. Constantine III was hailed as the new emperor by Roman garrison in Britian. He proceeded to follow the example of Magnus Maximus by withdrawing the remaining Roman legion, the Second Augusta, and crossing over into Gaul to rally support for his cause. Constantine’s departure could be what Nennius called “the end of the Roman Empire in Britain. . .”
408 – With both Roman legions withdrawn, Britain endures devastating attacks by the Picts, Scots and Saxons.
409 – Prosper, in his chronicle, says, “in the fifteenth year of Honorius and Arcadius (409), on account of the languishing state of the Romans, the strength of the Britons was brought to a desperate pass.” Under enormous pressure, Britons take matters into their own hands, expelling weak Roman officials and fighting for themselves.
410 – Britain gains “independence” from Rome. The Goths, under Alaric, sack Rome.
413 – Pelagian heresy said to have begun, by Prosper (Tiro) of Aquitaine in his “Chronicle.”
420-30 – Pelagian heresy outlawed in Rome (418), but in Britain, enjoys much support from “pro-Celtic” faction. Traditionalists (pro-Romans) support Roman church. During this time, according to Prosper, Britain is ruled by petty “tyrants.”
429 – At the request of Palladius, a British deacon, Pope Celestine I dispatches bishops Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes to Britain to combat Pelagian heresy. While in Britain, Germanus, a former military man, leads Britons to “Hallelujah” victory in Wales.
c.438 – Probable birth of Ambrosius Aurelianus, scion of the leading Romano-British family on the island.
c.440-50 – Period of civil war and famine in Britain, caused by ruling council’s weakness and inability to deal with Pictish invasions; situation aggravated by tensions between Pelagian/Roman factions. Vacated towns and cities in ruin. Migration of pro-Roman citizens toward west. Country beginning to be divided, geographically, along factional lines.
c.441 – Gallic Chronicle records, prematurely, that “Britain, abandoned by the Romans, passed into the power of the Saxons.”
c.445 – Vortigern comes to power in Britain.
446 – Britons (probably the pro-Roman party) appeal to Aetius, Roman governor of Gaul, for military assistance in their struggle against the Picts and the Irish (Scots). No help could be sent, at this time, as Aetius had his hands full with Attila the Hun.
c.446 – Vortigern authorizes the use of Saxon mercenaries, known as foederati, for the defense of the northern parts against barbarian attack. To guard against further Irish incursions, Cunedda and his sons are moved from Manau Gododdin in northern Britain to northwest Wales.
447 – Second visit of St. Germanus (this time accompanied by Severus, Bishop of Trier) to Britain. Was this visit spiritually motivated, to combat a revived Pelagian threat or was Germanus sent in Aetius’ stead, to do whatever he could to help the desperate Britons?
c.447 – Britons, aroused to heroic effort, “inflicted a massacre” on their enemies, the Picts and Irish, and were left in peace, for a brief time. Could this heroic effort have been led, again, by St. Germanus?
c.448 – Death of St. Germanus in Ravenna. Civil war and plague ravage Britain.
c.450 – In the first year of Marcian and Valentinian, Hengest arrives on shores of Britain with “3 keels” of warriors, and are welcomed by Vortigern. This event is known in Latin as the “adventus Saxonum,” the coming of the Saxons.
c.452 – Increasing Saxon settlement in Britain. Hengest invites his son, Octha, from Germany with “16 keels” of warriors, who occupy the northern lands, to defend against the Picts. Picts never heard from, again.
c.453 – Increasing Saxon unrest. Raids on British towns and cities becoming more frequent.
c.456 – Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us of a probably fictitious, but entirely believable event in which Saxons massacre 300 leading British noblemen at phony “peace” conference. Ambrosius’ father, possibly the leader of the pro-Roman faction, may have been killed either during the Saxon uprising or this massacre.
c.457 – Death of Vortigern. Vitalinus (Guitolinus) new leader of pro-Celtic Pelagian faction. Battle of Aylesford (Kent) in which Ambrosius, along with sons of Vortigern, Vortimer and Cateyrn, defeat Hengest for the first time.
c.458 – Saxon uprising in full-swing. Hengest finally conquers Kent, in southeastern Britain.
c.458-60 – Full-scale migration of British aristocrats and city-dwellers across the English Channel to Brittany, in northwestern Gaul (the “second migration”). British contingent led by Riothamus (perhaps a title, not a name), thought by some to be the original figure behind the legends of Arthur.
c.460-70 – Ambrosius Aurelianus takes full control of pro-Roman faction and British resistance effort; leads Britons in years of back-and-forth fighting with Saxons. British strategy seems to have been to allow Saxon landings and to then contain them, there.
c.465 – Arthur probably born around this time.
c.466 – Battle of Wippedesfleot, in which Saxons defeat Britons, but with great slaughter on both sides. Mutual “disgust and sorrow” results in a respite from fighting “for a long time.”
c.466-73 – Period of minimal Saxon activity. Refortification of ancient hillforts and construction of the Wansdyke possibly takes place during this time.
c.469 – Roman emperor, Anthemius, appeals to Britons for military help against the Visigoths. Reliable accounts by Sidonius Apolonaris and Jordanes name the leader of the 12,000 man British force, Riothamus. The bulk of the British force was wiped out in battle against Euric, the Visigothic king, and the survivors, including Riothamus, vanished and were never heard from, again.
c.470 – Battle of Wallop (Hampshire) where Ambrosius defeats Vitalinus, head of the opposing faction. Ambrosius assumes High-kingship of Britain.
473 – Men of Kent, under Hengest, move westward, driving Britons back before them “as one flees fire.”
477 – Saxon chieftain, Aelle, lands on Sussex coast with his sons. Britons engage him upon landing but his superior force drives them into the forest (Weald). Over next nine years, Saxon coastal holdings are gradually expanded in Sussex.
c.480 – “Vita Germani,” the Life of St. Germanus, written by a continental biographer, Constantius.
c.485-96 – Period of Arthur’s “twelve battles” during which he gains reputation for invincibility.
486 – Aelle and his sons overreach their normal territory and are engaged by Britons at battle of Mercredesburne. Battle is bloody, but indecisive, and ends with both sides pledging friendship.
c.490 – Hengest dies. His son, Aesc, takes over and rules for 34 years.
c.495 – Cerdic and Cynric, his son, land somewhere on the south coast, probably near the Hampshire-Dorset border.
c.496 – Britons, under overall command of Ambrosius and battlefield command of the “war leader” Arthur, defeat Saxons at the Siege of Mount Badon.
c.496-550 – Following the victory at Mt. Badon, the Saxon advance is halted with the invaders returning to their own enclaves. A generation of peace ensues. Corrupt leadership, more civil turmoil, public forgetfulness and individual apathy further erode Romano-British culture over next fifty years, making Britain ripe for final Saxon “picking.”
c.501 – The Battle of Llongborth (probably Portsmouth), where a great British chieftain, Geraint, King of Dumnonia, was killed. Arthur is mentioned in a Welsh poem commemorating the battle.
508 – Cerdic begins to move inland and defeats British king Natanleod near present-day Southampton.
c.515 – Death of Aelle. Kingdom of Sussex passed to his son, Cissa and his descendents, but over time, diminished into insignificance.
519 – Kingdom of the West Saxons (Wessex) founded with Cerdic its first ruler.
c.530-40 – Mass migration of Celtic monks to Brittany (the “third migration”).
534 – Death of Cerdic. Cynric takes kingship of Wessex.
c.540 – Probable writing of Gildas’ “De Excidio Britanniae.”
c.542 – Battle of Camlann, according to Annales Cambriae. Death (or unspecified other demise) of Arthur (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth).
c.547 – “Yellow” Plague hits British territories, causing many deaths. Ireland also affected. Saxons, for whatever reason, are unaffected by it.
c.570 – Probable death of Gildas.
c.600 – Welsh bard, Aneirin, writes poem, Y Gododdin, alluding to Arthur’s prowess as a warrior.
c.600-700 – Original Welsh triads probably composed; only later, medieval collections survive.
c.830 – Nennius compiles Historia Brittonum.
c.890 – Compilation of Anglo Saxon Chronicle is begun, perhaps at the direction of Alfred the Great.
c.970 – Annales Cambriae compiled.
c.1019 – Earliest possible date of composition for the Legend of St. Goeznovius, a Breton legend, which, in its preface, mentions Arthur and calls him the King of the Britons. Date is disputed as some scholars think this legend should be dated later than Geoffrey of Monmouth.
c.1090 – Professional hagiographers, such as Caradoc of Llancarfan, Lifris and others, write various saints lives, some (St. Gildas, St. Padarn, St. Cadog, St. Iltud) include mentions of Arthur and his exploits.

Part 2 of Timeline Tomorrow! 🙂

Hope you all are enjoying your weekend!

All My Best,
1MorganLeFaye

The Historical King Arthur

I completely agree with this article by David Carroll concerning the history of Arthur. In my book due out this year,
The Infinite Character of King Arthur:
His History and legend;
His Camelot and Avalon
I delve into the conception of who Arthur was compared to the Medieval texts and Mythology surrounding him. I hope you enjoy David’s article as much as I have!

Arthur (Arturius) Son Of Aidan – King Of The Scots From 574 AD

There seems to be only one way to prove that the Legends of King Arthur were inspired by a real historical figure, and that is to find someone who is identical to King Arthur in so many respects, that it would be impossible or at least improbable, for it to be purely coincidence.

I believe that historical figure to be Artur or Arturius, the son of Aidan, and a real 6th century figure. He may never have been a king, he certainly was a warrior, and could quite easily have been the ‘Dux Bellorum’ or Battle Leader of the united forces of the Scots and Britons, who were definitely allies at this period, in the wars in the North against the Saxons/Angles of Bernicia and the Picts, by virtue of the fact that his father Aidan was the most powerful King in the North.

Judge for yourself. Artur son of Aidan is identical to the Arthur of Legend in the following respects:

He has the correct name, Artur or Arturius, the 6th century version of the name Arthur.
He was the son of a most powerful king.
He was a christian (a valid point, when half the country was still pagan).
He lived at the correct period. (6th century.)
He was a contemporary and ally of the Northern King Urien, who was a real historical figure and who is mentioned in the legends as an ally of Arthur.
He was an ally of the Kings of the Britons in the wars in the North against the Saxons/Angles and the Picts.
He died in battle against the Picts. (Remember in legend Arthur’s last battle was against Modred, whose mother was the wife of Lot, king of the Picts.)
Artur or Arturius had a sister or half sister called Morgan, as did King Arthur of legend. (Evidence which I was fortunate to find in the 8th cent. ‘Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee’.)
Against this Arthur, who is identical in so many respects to the Arthur of the Legends, that I cannot believe it could possibly just be coincidence, is the Arthur of Cornwall, Wales and the West Country of England, where no reliable, historical evidence has ever been found.

Why you may ask, after reading the evidence, has Arturius not been accepted as the inspiration for the Legend of King Arthur? Perhaps the answer lies in the simple fact that he was guilty of the unforgivable – being born a Scot, and therefore not Welsh or Cornish.

David F. Carroll

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Glastonbury Abbey

The Special Nature of Glastonbury
by John Michell

There are many mysteries at Glastonbury, but they are all rooted in one great mystery: how is it that this small place, isolated among the Somerset marshes, plays such a leading part in the spiritual history of Britain ? Other religious centres, Canterbury, Westminster, Winchester have had their periods of glory, but the fame of Glastonbury is unique and has endured longer than that of any other English sanctuary. In medieval Christendom the site of the first English church, at the west end of Glastonbury Abbey, was called the ‘holiest earth of England’, and its precincts were sanctified as a model of earthly paradise, where the souls of the dead found their easiest passage to heaven.
This reputation did not begin with Christianity but evidently derived from very early times indeed. The evidence of this is in Glastonbury’s landscape and the remarkable legends that have settled upon it. Moreover, from time immemorial Glastonbury and the lands around it enjoyed special priveleges in law, appropriate to a most venerable sanctuary. As in the case of Delphi, where a federal assembly of twelve tribes upheld the rights of Apollo in his sacred territories, the area known as the Twelve Hides of Glaston was subject only to divine law and was administered by priestly rulers. No king, judge or bishop from beyond the Twelve Hides had any authority there. These rights were confirmed in successive charters by British, Saxon and Norman kings, including the pagan Caedwalla, king of Wessex in the seventh century. Every king attempted to ‘entrench’ these rights, binding his successors to them for all times to come.

The traditional origin of Glastonbury’s privileges is that a pagan ruler, King Arviragus in the first century A.D., bestowed twelve hides or 1440 acres of land upon twelve early Christian missionaries, led by St. Joseph of Arimathea. Like many traditions of the early Church, this probably reflected an earlier foundation legend from the time when Glastonbury was a Druid sanctuary. No traces have been found of any buildings from that period, but the great pre-historic earthwork, known as Ponter’s Ball, which runs across high ground about two miles east of Glastonbury, is thought to have marked one of the boundaries of the sacred precinct. It is likely therefore, that Glastonbury’s special status as a heavenly sanctuary, beyond the ordinary laws of the land, was acknowledged long before the introduction of Christianity.

Behind all the religious history lies the real reason for the special character of the place. The sanctity of Glastonbury is not a matter of human convention, nor did it arise from any historical event. It was decreed directly by nature. That conclusion is made obvious to anyone who visits Glastonbury, especially around dawn or evening when the mystical quality of the light over its landscape is particularly intense. As one enters the Glastonbury landscape, over the hills which surround its lowlands, one’s perception of natural light and colour subtly changes. Around the towering cone of Glastonbury Tor is a countryside which gives the impression of being somehow different from any other. It can seem wistful, nostalgic, other-worldly, even intimidating, but it is never quite ordinary. Those who recognise the spirit of celtic culture can find it there, in the limpid greenery of its hills and meadows and secluded among its moorland tracks and waterways, edged with willows and summer garlands of honeysuckle and wild roses. Seeing this, one ceases to wonder why the place has been compared to paradise, why so many mystics and holy men throughout history have been drawn to it and why its medieval abbey was able to boast the finest collection of saintly bones and relics in England.

When Henry VIII in 1539 laid sacrilegious hands upon Glastonbury Abbey and its Twelve Hides, hanged its abbot on the Tor, sent his dismembered body for piecemeal exhibition about the country, violated the sanctuary and turned it to profane use, he broke a long- lasting religious tradition which had survived all England’s enemies and invaders. Yet he was as powerless as King Canute over the forces of nature, and those forces, as we have seen, were the cause of Glastonbury’s sanctity in the first place. They are still as ever active. Though Glastonbury is no longer an important centre of priestly religion, the spirit which first made it so is constantly urging towards a renaissance. History marks out Glastonbury as the place where the forms of every new religion and way of thought are first manifested in England. New forms and thoughts are discernible there today. There are hints of old prophecies being fulfilled, of ancient mysteries revealed, as the Piscean age gives way to Aquarius. For those who are interested in such things, in the spiritual reality behind the material facade of history, the mystery of Glastonbury is of high topical interest.

Excerpted from “New Light on the Ancient Mystery of Glastonbury” by John Michell ( Gothic Image, 1990) with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

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Knights of the Round Table

The Round Table – first mentioned by Wace in his “Roman de Brut” – was not only a physical table, but the highest Order of Chivalry at the Court of King Arthur. Its members were supposedly the cream of the British military who followed a strict code of honour and service. Sir Thomas Malory outlines this as:

To never do outrage nor murder

Always to flee treason

To by no means be cruel but to give mercy unto him who asks for mercy

To always do ladies, gentlewomen and widows succor

To never force ladies, gentlewomen or widows

Not to take up battles in wrongful quarrels for love or worldly goods

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