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British legends notes

King Arthur

New Arrivals. As the Roman hold on Britain got progressively weaker and the Roman Empire tottered on into a creaky old age, England was subject to a fresh influx of settlers from the area of modern Germany. These settlers, tribes of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians, may have first come to England as mercenaries in the Roman army. In the wake of the Roman withdrawal British leaders, perhaps under a powerful overking, Vortigern, hired these mercenaries for protection. Mercenaries can be helpful as long as they are paid, but when the money ran out the Germans rose in rebellion.

The Anglo-Saxons. These Germanic tribes are the "Anglo-Saxons" to whom we owe much of our tradition, language, and physical heritage. They poured in upon the Romanized Celts of England much as the Normans would do to them in later times, pushing the inhabitants of the island back into the hills of Wales and Cornwall, creating pockets of Celtic culture and language.

At first the British inhabitants fell back to the heights of the old Iron Age hill forts. There is evidence that many forts were reoccupied in the late 5th century. Gradually, however, even this struggle proved in vain, and the Germanic invaders settled throughout much of south, east, and northeast England.

The Roman warrior. It is during this push for settlement that the next and greatest British hero was born, the legendary King Arthur. Was King Arthur real? Not in the sense of the wonderful medieval romances popularized by Thomas Malory. There were no knights in shining armour searching for the Holy Grail in Arthur's company. In all likelihood there was no Round Table or Sword in the Stone. What there was instead was a very brave warrior, who may not even have been named Arthur, leading the remnants of romanised British resistance against a steady onslaught of foreign pagan invaders.

Conflicting claims. In researching this material I found definitively that Arthur was Welsh, Celtic, or Breton. That he fought the Saxons in the north, in the south, or in Wales, around the year 450, or 500, or 525. That he was and wasn't a king, who was or wasn't named Arthur. That he was a figure of imagination and a real person.

The real Arthur (maybe). It seems that there was a war leader, whose name we do not know, who defeated the Saxons, checking their advance temporarily. In later years people remembered this leader with longing; "Oh, if we only had ... to lead us now". Eventually the name Arthur adhered to this folk memory, and his list of accomplishments grew. Arthur is in many ways greater because we do not know the truth.

The real Arthur may have been a man named Ambrosius Aurelianus, or perhaps his war leader, who defeated the Saxons in a major battle we know as Mount Badon, (which may possibly be South Cadbury, in Somerset) halting their advance for as long as forty years. In the end, however, the superior might and numbers of the Saxons and their allies were too much for the islanders, and Arthur's efforts became little more than a historical footnote. A terrifically romantic and exciting footnote though, for Arthur and his deeds were woven like a silk thread into the fabric of myth and legend in which Celtic storytellers delight.

Legends of Glastonbury

There are two main streams of legend that surround Glastonbury, though they twine around each other to some degree. The two streams revolve around the romantic figures of Joseph of Arimathea and King Arthur.

Joseph of Arimathea
Joseph was the Biblical figure who took Jesus' body after the crucifixion. According to some legends he was actually Jesus' uncle, and had visited Britain years before with Jesus in the pursuit of his interests in the tin trade. It appears that there actually was a strong Jewish presence in the west of England at that time, and many of the tin miners may have been Jewish settlers.

At any rate, when Jesus died, Joseph thought it prudent to flee Palestine, and he came to Britain with a company of followers. He brought with him the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Some versions of the legend have it that the Grail contained two drops of blood captured from Jesus' side when he was wounded on the cross.

When Joseph came to Britain he was granted land at Glastonbury by the local king. When he arrived at Glastonbury, Joseph stuck his thorn staff in the earth, whereupon it rooted and burst into bloom. A cutting from that first tree was planted in the grounds of the later Glastonbury Abbey, where it continued to bloom every year therafter at Christmas time. There is still a thorn tree in the Abbey grounds, of a variety native to the Holy Lands, and it does indeed bloom around Christmas time.

Joseph was said to have established the first church in England at Glastonbury, and archaeological records show that there may well have been an extremely early Christian church here. What happened to the Holy Grail? Some legends have it that Joseph buried the Grail at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, whereupon a spring of blood gushed forth from the ground. There is a well at the base of the Tor, Chalice Well, and the water that issues from it does indeed have a reddish tinge to it, from the iron content of the water.

Other legends have it that the Holy Grail was interred with Joseph when he died, in a secret grave. The search for the mysterious Grail emerges again and again in the tales of Glastonbury. Further legends tell that the church founded by Joseph continued for many years. Eventually it became a monastery, and one of the first abbots was the future St Patrick, who was born in the West Country.

King Arthur and Glastonbury

The association of Arthur and Glastonbury goes back at least to the early Middle Ages. In the late 12th century the monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had found the grave of Arthur and Guinivere, his queen. According to the monks, an excavation found a stone inscribed "Here lies Arthur, king." Below the stone they found the bones of a large man, and the smaller skeleton of a woman. The monks reburied the bones in the grounds of the abbey, where they were a very handy draw for pilgrims. The site of the grave can be seen today in the abbey grounds.

Glastonbury Tor, the enigmatic conical hill that rises above Glastonbury, has been linked with the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was buried after his death. This isn't as farfetched as it may sound, for a millennium ago the water level was much higher, and the tor would indeed have been an island. Avalon was also called "the isle of glass" which does suggest similarities to the name "Glastonbury". The Holy Grail, the object of Arthur's questing, is said to be buried beneath Glastonbury Tor, and has also been linked to Chalice Well at the base of the Tor.

One final myth of Arthur at Glastonbury: the landscape around Glastonbury is said to have been moulded and shaped so that the features (such as roads, churches, and burial mounds) create a zodiac calendar full of Arthurian symbology. Like so many of the Arthurian myths, so much is open to interpretation and your own predisposition to believe or disbelieve.

London’s Camelot - by Michael J Young

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the first English writer to be awarded an hereditary title for his work. Author of many poems of great beauty and deep thought, an early supporter of women’s rights and grown from humble beginnings, as one of eleven children of a clergyman, he became Britain’s greatest poet of the second half of the 19th century. He was appointed in 1850, by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, as Poet Laureate, a position he held until his death 42 years later.

This is the man whose writings launched the modern myth movement that surrounds the legendary 5th/6th century King Arthur, his court at Camelot, Guinevere, Merlin the Magician, Sir Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table, and the quest for the Holy Grail - to mention just a few aspects - that are at the heart of today’s worldwide Arthurian industry. The study of the Arthurian legends brings together scholars, academics, romantics, realists, writers, educationalists, New-Agers, publishers, researchers and many others, in a whirlpool of theories, symbols, disputed facts, speculation, conjecture, individual interpretation and on-going investigation.

Tennyson’s epic story about King Arthur and Camelot was the beautifully written Idylls of the King.

The first of these 12 Arthurian poems was published in 1859. Tennyson’s poetic development of the legends that sprang from the Celtic origins of Camelot - believed by some to have been located at Caerleon-on-Usk, in what is now South Wales, or as proposed by Sir Thomas Malory, in his 15th century literary work"Le Morte d’Arthur", in Winchester, Hampshire - was not well received by some mid-19th century critics. But the Idylls proved enormously popular with the public and have been the source of great interest and study ever since.

It’s not surprising that many mythical connections with the Arthurian legends are encountered throughout southern Britain. These range from the 12th century identification of Glastonbury, near Wells, in Somerset, as Avalon, the burial place of King Arthur, through to a claimed location for London’s Camelot on the northern edge of rural Trent Park, by Enfield Chase - a thousand years ago the hunting territory of the Kings of England - and close to the present North London border of the Enfield and Barnet boroughs.

It is interesting to note that one of the locally recorded 17th century references to the location traces its ownership back to the family of medieval knight Sir Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, stories of whom abound in the area and whose ghost has been seen to appear in the neighbourhood on several occasions over past centuries.

In 1190 when the monks of Glastonbury claimed to have discovered the bodies of both King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, they produced as proof of the bodies’ identification a leaden cross inscribed "Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of Avalon." Many years later, in the18th century, this cross disappeared.

The December 17th, 1981 edition of the Enfield Advertiser newspaper carried a report that an inscribed lead cross, bearing the name of King Arthur and described as "possibly a long lost amulet from the tomb of King Arthur", had been found in the grounds of Forty Hall, Enfield, just three miles from Camlet Moat. The discovery went on to receive major media attention from the Press and television in Britain and internationally. The cross was never recovered. Was it the original Glastonbury cross, or a hoax? If it were genuine, where was it when missing for 300 years? These and other questions remain unanswered.

About the author
Michael James Young is a London, England-based writer/photographer with a special interest in travel, leisure, and recreation- tel. 020 8449 8263 / fax 020 8440 8315) - email: - Feb 22 2001

Article © 2001 Michael J. Young

Robin Hood

The "facts ", at least one romantic version of them, are these. In the time of Richard the Lionhearted a minor noble of Nottinghamshire, one Robin of Loxley, was outlawed for poaching deer. Now at that time the deer in a a royal forest belonged to the king, and killing one of the king's deer was therefore treason, and punishable by death.

So Robin took to the greenwood of Sherwood Forest, making a living by stealing from rich travellers and distributing the loot among the poor of the area. In the process he gained a band of followers and a spouse, Maid Marian. Despite the best efforts of the evil Sherrif of Nottingham he avoided capture until the return of King Richard from the Crusades brought about a full pardon and the restoration of Robin's lands. In other versions he dies at the hands of a kinswoman, the abbess of Kirklees Priory.

Someone, or maybe several someones, named Robin Hood existed at different times. Court records of the York Assizes refer to a "Robert Hod", who was a fugitive in 1226. In the following year the court documents referred to the same man as "Robinhud". By 1300 at least 8 people were called Robinhood, and at least 5 of those were fugitives from the law. In 1266 the Sherrif of Nottingham, William de Grey, was in active conflict with outlaws in Sherwood Forest. It seems most likely that a number of different outlaws built upon the reputation of a fugitive in the forest, and over time, the legend grew.

One thing to note about the early legends is that Robin Hood was not an aristocrat, as he was later portrayed, but a simple yeoman driven to a life of crime by the harsh rule of the law of the rich. As such, it is easy to see how his story soon became a favourite folk tale among the poor.

There is, in the grounds of Kirklees Priory, a old grave stone, marking the final resting place of one "Robard Hude". Proof that part of the tale may be true? It would be nice to think so.

For a thorough examination of the Robin Hood legend, spend some time at these fascinating web sites:

Robin Hood Ltd
Robin Hood -- Bold Outlaw of Barnsdale and Sherwood
The Robin Hood Project

The Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is not one myth but a collection of stories gleaned from the traditions of Welsh bards and storytellers over many centuries. They were passed from one bard to another until anonymously collated in the 12th century. Later versions were written down in the White Book of Rhydderch (now in the Welsh National Library) and the Red Book of Hergest (now preserved at Oxford University). Even then they remained largely unknown outside (and even inside) Wales until Lady Charlotte Guest translated them in 1849.

The Mabonogi (the name means alternately "a story for children" or "a bard's tale" depending on whose translation you prefer) are comprised of 4 branches, entitled "Pwyll", "Branwen", Manawydan", and "Math". Aside from these four branches there are another 8 individual tales in the British and French style. Taken together, these tales of heroes and stirring deeds depict a Celtic vision of enchantment and romance that moves effortlessly between the physical landscape of Wales and the Celtic underworld.

In some of the later stories King Arthur appears, though certainly not in the guise of the chivalrous knight known to modern readers. He is a giant, whose deeds involve ridding Wales of witches, monsters and other giants with aid of - no, not twelve knights, but his own band of hags, witches, and monsters.

Here are some short summaries of several popular tales of the Mabinogion.

"Olwen of the White Track"

Olwen was the daughter of Hawthorn, king of the race of giants. She was so beautiful that any who beheld her were filled with love. Wherever this maiden stepped, four white trefoils grew, which is reflected in her name - Olwen meaning "she of the White Track".

The hero Eilhwch decides that he will find and wed this beautiful maiden, despite the warning that no one ever returned from such a quest alive. In order to win his love, Eilhwch is set a series of heroic (read impossible) tasks by Olwen's father. [Note the similarity to the Hercules myth - that hero was also set twelve seemingly impossible tasks to perform, which he proceeded to do].

"Pwyll and Rhiannon"

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, took a fancy one day to sit on a mound at Narberth (North Pembrokeshire) which was said to presage strange adventures. Sure enough, he soon saw a lady dressed all in gold approaching upon a white horse. He sent his servants to fetch her, but no matter how fast they rode, she somehow managed to keep the same distance ahead of them.

Pwyll decided to pursue her himself, but again, no matter how fast he rode, he was unable to catch up to her. Finally, he called out to her, telling her that he loved her. Instantly she stopped, declaring with some humour that "it were better for the horse" that he called out sooner. The Lady Rhiannon said that her family was forcing her to marry someone against her wishes, but now she would have Pwyll or no-one. Sure enough, after many more adventures they were wed.

Branwen and the Invasion of Ireland

Bran, the King of Britain had a sister named Branwen, said to be the fairest lady in the world. Bran desired an alliance between Britain and Ireland, so he arranged a marriage between Branwen and the King of that country. The wedding, held at Aberffraw (in Anglesey), turned into a disaster when Branwen's brother insulted the Irish.

The Irish held their peace, but when they had treturned to Ireland, took revenge upon Branwen. The new bride managed to send a plea for help to her brother with the aid of a starling. The British took arms and invaded Ireland, and in the battle that followed almost all the warriors on both sides were killed. Branwen lamented in her grief, "Two islands have been destroyed because of me", and with that she died.

A note: Bran's castle is reputed to be at Harlech (not the much later Harlech Castle), or at Dinas Bran Castle, near Llangollen.

Maxen Wledig, Emperor of Rome

Maxen Wledig had a dream in which he beheld a beautiful maiden who sat upon a golden throne. When he awoke he sent his servants out far and wide, and eventually they found the maiden in Britain. The emperor hurried off to Caernarfon to woo and win the maiden for his wife. While he was absent from Rome his enemies siezed the throne. Maxen Wledig was able to regain power and defeat his foes with the help of his new wife and her friends.

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L'un de mes sketch préféré de Mr. Bigard