King Arthur is undoubtedly one of the most enduringly popular heroes to come out of the medieval era, and he has meant many things to many people for hundreds of years.
Over time, the mythology of Arthur grew as new stories were added to the existing ones and his fame spread throughout Britain and beyond. As a result of his popularity through the ages, King Arthur has come to represent various political causes as a symbolic figurehead, earning him a reputation as “champion of causes”.
From medieval Welsh rebels to 20th century anti-Nazi campaigners, the British peoples have rallied behind Arthur’s war banner since a time before the idea of “Britain” ever existed. But was Arthur more than just a hero to these people? Britain has had countless heroes throughout its history, but is Arthur’s enduring, overwhelming popularity a sign that he has become something more? Something like a Messiah?
The Early Mythology
It is impossible to know when the earliest tales of King Arthur were first told. The mythology of “Arthur” in its primordial form seems to have begun soon after the Roman occupation of Britain – his name is mentioned in the heroic poetry of the Welsh bards Taliesin and Aneirin, as well as the mysterious “Ambrosius Aurelianus” spoken of in Gildas’s famous work On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain .
However there is earlier evidence that tales about Arthur were passed down orally in the Celtic languages before being written down, and so it is possible they had already been circulating for some time by the 5th century.
With Gildas’s writing though, the legend of Arthur was first written down in Latin, and thus became part of the Romano-British literary caucus. In his work, Gildas gives us the first impression of the heroic figure which would come to define how Arthur was represented in later texts:
“A remnant, to whom wretched citizens flock from different places on every side … take up arms and challenge their victors to battle under Ambrosius Aurelianus. He was a man of unassuming character, who, alone of the Roman race chanced to survive in the shock of such a storm.”
After the cruel Saxons decimated the British and took their land from them, the survivors rallied behind their champion and fought to reclaim their lands, culminating in victory at the Battle of Badon Hill.
This idealized image of the defender and savior of the British people against the evil greed of the conquering Saxons gathered momentum in the Middle Ages, as other authors took up the tradition and the name Ambrosius became Arthur.
The 9th century eclectic history known as the Historia Brittonum paints the “magnanimous” Arthur as leader of all the kings of Britain and their armed forces, famously listing the twelve battles against the Saxons in which he was chosen to be their commander. It is in the Historia Brittonum that Arthur begins to take on a persona of something more than an ordinary hero, and supernatural qualities begin to emerge in his character:
“The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the Hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance.”
No singular warrior, no matter his competence, could pull off such a feat, but the accounts of Arthur’s miraculous skills appear again in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century History of the Kings of Britain . Geoffrey describes how Arthur led the Britons into battle against the Saxon army:
“as he called on God, he killed any man he touched with a single blow and pressed forward until with Caliburnus [Excalibur] alone he had laid low four hundred and seventy men.”
Such superhuman strength and skill renders Arthur more than an ordinary hero, more mythology than man, but supernatural qualities alone do not transform Arthur into a Messianic figure. It is in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth that other Messianic qualities begin to appear in Arthur.
The Chosen Man of God
Many of the medieval tales written about Arthur, or characters such as Ambrosius Aurelianus who we presume equate to Arthur, describe his association with God and attribute his successes in battle to divine assistance.
This was not an unusual thing for medieval authors to do however, as it was widely believed that the events of the world were controlled by divine providence, and thus victory in battle would only be achieved if God willed it. It was also common for medieval heroes to be described as an agent of the Lord or fighting in the Lord’s name, because devotion to God was considered part of being a good warrior.