King Arthur is the figure at the heart of the Arthurian legends. He is said to be the son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine of Cornwall. Arthur is a near mythic figure in Celtic stories such as Culhwch and Olwen. In early Latin chronicles he is presented as a military leader, the dux bellorum. In later romance he is presented as a king and emperor.
The Enthroned Arthur, from Lancelot du Lac (French, early fourteenth century) raged since the Renaissance when Arthur’s historicity was vigorously defended, partly because the Tudor monarchs traced their lineage to Arthur and used that connection as a justification for their reign. Modern scholarship has generally assumed that there was some actual person at the heart of the legends, though not of course a king with a band of knights in shining armor–though O.J. Padel in “The Nature of Arthur” argues that “historical attributes of just the kind that we find attached to Arthur can be associated with a figure who was not historical to start with.”
Arthur was the chief warrior who battled the Germanic invaders of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. There is no conclusive evidence for or against Arthur’s historicity, but his influence on literature, art, music, and society from the Middle Ages to the present is doubtless. The main source for his adventures is Sir Thomas Malory’s (c. 1405 –1471) Le Morte d’Arthur a romance that influenced later poems like Morte d’Arthur by Sir Alfred Tennyson (1809 –1892) and The Once and Future King by T. H. White (1906 –1964).
Central to the myth, and gothic in its substance, is the downfall of Arthur’s kingdom because of Mordred’s , his nephew, treachery and his disillusionment after his wife Guinevere’s betrayal with Lancelot, his best knight and close friend.
The Arthurian Legend – where it all began
In 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth finally put down his quill after completing his great work, Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain).He must have been rather pleased with himself, because writing a book in those days, before computers and typewriters were even dreamt of, was a long and arduous task. There were few works of reference for him to draw upon and many of the stories contained in his manuscript were no doubt based on folk-lore and supposition, particularly when it came to the tales of the great legendary ruler, King Arthur.
Some Welsh and Breton tales and poems relating the story of Arthur are known to pre-date Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work, and in them Arthur appears either as a great warrior defending Britain from both human and supernatural enemies, or else as a magical figure of folklore. How much of Geoffrey’s Historia was adapted from such early sources, is unknown., but it is likely that the great story teller used his own fertile imagination to fill in the gaps.
Over the centuries that followed, Geoffrey’s epic work often served as the starting point for later stories. Geoffrey wrote of Arthur as the British King who defeated the Saxons before establishing an empire over Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Gaul. Geoffrey’s Historia names Arthur’s father as Uther Pendragon, and details his birthplace as Tintagel, in Cornwall. The wizard Merlin, Arthur’s wife Guinevere, and the sword Excalibur, all feature prominently, as do his final battle against the evil Mordred at Camlann and his last resting place in Avalon.
Later writers, such as the 12th-century French writer Chretien de Troyes added the knight, Sir Lancelot and the quest for the Holy Grail to the story, and thus began the genre of Arthurian romance that grew to include all the various Knights of the Round Table.
Tennyson’s Arthurian poem, ‘The Lady of Shalott’
After lingering in the back waters of history for long centuries, the legends of King Arthur saw a huge revival in popularity in Victorian England. Suddenly all things medieval were in vogue, and architects, designers, artists, and poets alike, all followed the fashion of the day.
The first hint of the new trend began when an edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was reprinted for the first time since 1634. The medieval Arthurian legends were of particular interest to poets, soon providing the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s “The Egyptian Maid” (1835), and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famed Arthurian poem, “The Lady of Shalott” published in 1832.
Tennyson’s poem became the source material for a whole generation of Victorian artists, not least those who had adopted the so-called Pre-Raphaelite style of painting made popular by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. The artist John William Waterhouse based several paintings on the poem, and the painting shown above illustrates this verse:
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the Moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.
Waterhouse’s picture shows the Lady of Shalott weaving a tapestry that has it’s inspiration in the reflections she can see in her mirror. Despite sitting by a window with a view over the fabled city of Camelot, she is forbidden to gaze upon it, and must instead view it in the looking glass. Just like the lady herself, we are not permitted to look at Camelot directly, though the towers and ramparts are clearly visible in the circular mirror beside her.
The Lily Maid of Astolat
Although never formally named as a Pre-Raphaelite artist, Sophie Gingembre Anderson employed a similarly naturalistic style and her choice of subject matter frequently echoed the Pre-Raphaelite’s ideas. French-born Sophie was largely self taught. Her family left France for the USA in 1848 and there she met and married British artist, William Anderson. The couple moved around a good deal, but finally settled in Cornwall, England.
Sophie Anderson’s painting of ‘The Lily Maid of Astolat’ has a similar theme to those of ‘The Lady of Shalott’. In fact Tennyson’s poem was based on a very ancient story, and a version of it exists as part of Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ (The Death of Arthur) which was first published by William Caxton in 1485. Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat, dies of unrequited love for Sir Lancelot and her father complies with her request that her body should be floated down the river to Camelot.
In Sophie Anderson’s painting we see Elaine laid out in a boat with her father, head bowed, behind her. The elaborately decorated drape that covers her is brightened by a shaft of sunlight. The picture tells a sad tale. By asking her father to send her to Camelot she is sending a message to Lancelot. She is saying ‘Look what you did. You broke my heart, and now I’m dead.’ If only someone had told her that there are plenty more stars in the sky.
Edward Burne-Jones was an ardent fan of Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthurian romance, ‘Morte D’Arthur’, and he is known to have been bought a copy by his friend, William Morris. The Arthurian Legends were a constant source of inspiration to the artist, and he frequently included references to the stories in his paintings. However, when Burne Jones was commissioned by Frederick Leyland to produce this picture, he chose to use the late medieval French ‘Romance of Merlin’ as his inspiration instead.
In this story the wizard Merlin is beguiled by Nimue, a Lady of the Lake. Nimue and Merlin go walking together in the forest of Broceliande, and as they walk Merlin becomes ensnared by his own desires. With great skill the femme-fatale enchants the infatuated wizard into a deep trance so that she can read from his book of spells. Burne-Jones shows Merlin slumped limp and powerless in the tangles of a hawthorn bush. His long limbs dangle helplessly. Meanwhile, Nimue, now in a position of power, has opened the spell book.
The head of Nimue, Medusa-like with her crown of snakes, was modelled by Maria Zambaco, a member of the Ionides family. Burne-Jones revealed in a letter to his friend, Helen Gaskell in 1893 that his feelings for Maria echoed Merlin’s infatuation with Nimue.
The Damsel of the Sanct Grael
After Christ’s Last Supper, the chalice that was used by the disciples disappeared into the mists of legend. Some identify the vessel as being the same bowl in which the last drops of Christ’s blood were collected by Joseph of Arimathea. Legend tells us that Joseph and his family left the Holy Land and travelled to England bringing the Holy Grail with them. The English town of Glastonbury is home to the ‘Glastonbury Thorn’ which is said to have grown from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff. The earliest known written reference to the Holy Grail beyond Biblical times is in The Story of the Holy Grail, written by Chrestien de Troyes between 1150 and 1190.
In de Troyes’ tale, the Holy Grail, or Sanct Grael is seen in the castle of The Fisher King, and it is brought to the Fisher King’s hall by a ‘fair and gentle, and well attired damsel’. Sir Thomas Malory later incorporated the quest for the Holy Grail into ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, and he describes the damsel of the Sanct Greal as being robed in white.
The painting above was Rossetti’s second version of The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, and the model is Alexa Wilding. Rossetti has ignored the description of the white robes, and instead given flame-haired Alexa a richly decorated gown of green, red and gold, with vine leaves in the foreground to symbolise the wine that is traditionally used to represent Christ’s blood at Holy Communion.
The enchantress, Morgan le Fay is also sometimes referred to as Morgaine, or Morgana le Fay. The Arthurian legends name her as being the older half-sister of King Arthur. Her mother was Igraine, and her father, Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. In some stories she is the enemy of King Arthur and his knights, whilst in other tales she is a healer, and is named as one of the three women who take King Arthur to Avalon at the end of his days.
Frederick Sandys in his painting of 1862-63, depicts Morgan leFay as a sorceress engaged in some magical ritual. She is wearing an apron decorated with symbols, and the skin of a leopard or similar animal is wrapped around her waist. The ground is strewn with fresh green grass and a spell book is open at her feet. There is a loom behind her which also symbolises the weaving of spells.
Queen Guinevere (La Belle Iseult)
Queen Guinevere was the wife of King Arthur. In the Arthurian legends, unfaithful Guinevere commits adultery with Sir Lancelot, one of Arthur’s knights. The picture above is entitled ‘La Belle Iseult’ and is inspired by the ancient tale of Tristram and Isolde. Modern day scholars believe that the characters of Guinevere and Lancelot may be based on Tristram and Isolde. Certainly both stories involve a well-loved and trusted knight who betrays his king with the king’s own wife. This is why the painting has one name, but is often called by another.
Jane Burden was 18 years old when she posed for William Morris’s picture of Tristram’s lover, Isolde. Oxford-born Jane was at the theatre with her sister Bessie when she was first approached by Rossetti and Burne-Jones to become an artist’s model. Initially she posed for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but his friend William Morris was smitten as soon as he laid eyes on her, and he soon asked her to model for him too.
What is interesting about this painting is that it is the only completed William Morris canvas known to exist. Looking at the painting, it is easy to see that Morris had quite a talent with a brush, but he was very insecure about his skills. Whilst working on the canvas he took up a pencil and wrote on the reverse, ‘I cannot paint you, but I love you.’ If you look carefully at the picture you can soon see the great care that Morris has paid to the densely patterned interior. It is easy to see how he became one of the foremost designers of the 19th century.
Jane Burden married William Morris the year after this painting was completed, and the couple had two daughters together. They remained married until William’s death in 1896, but it is known that Jane conducted a long-term affair with the poet Wilfrid Blunt, as well as enjoying a very intense and possibly adulterous relationship with Rossetti. It seems that Jane Burden had something in common with Guinevere!
Overthrowing the Rusty Knight
Based on a tale in Alfred,Lord Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’, the Overthrowing of the Rusty Knight’ is a dramatic work of art. The flame-haired maiden in the foreground is loosely tied to a tree, whilst a knight in shining armour, mounted on horseback brandishes his lance as if in victory. The mounted knight is on a bridge across a stream, and his opponent, dressed in rusty armour, lies sprawled in the stream below. At first glance it might seem as though the knight in shining armour is the hero, but in fact the real story is far more complicated.
Arthur Hughes has cunningly left the viewer on a cliff-hanger, just as modern day film and TV producers often do. The unseated knight is Prince Geraint, a knight of the Round Table. Kitted out in borrowed armour he is taking part in a joust to defend the honour of Queen Guinevere. If he wins he will also protect the honour of Earl Yniol’s daughter, Enid. Poor Enid is shown symbolically tied to a tree, and she gazes on in horror and despair, fearful that her father’s enemy, will soon dismount, and finish of Prince Geraint whilst he is at his most vulnerable.
If we could fast forward from this moment, we would see Prince Geraint clamber back to his feet, just in time to meet his opponent in bloody combat. Eventually the Prince is victorious, and he wins the hand of the fair maiden.
So twice they fought, and twice they breathed, and still
The dew of their great labour, and the blood
Of their strong bodies, flowing, drained their force.
But either’s force was matched till Yniol’s cry,
‘Remember that great insult done the Queen,’
Increased Geraint’s, who heaved his blade aloft,
And cracked the helmet through, and bit the bone,
And felled him, and set foot upon his breast,
And said, ‘Thy name?’ To whom the fallen man
Made answer, groaning, ‘Edyrn, son of Nudd!
The tale of Prince Geraint and Enid is a classic romance. It begins when Geraint joins Queen Guinevere as she watches King Arthur ride out to hunt. Whilst they are observing the huntsmen, an unknown knight and his servant go riding by. The queen calls over to the servant to enquire the name of his master, and is both refused and insulted in response. Being a galant knight of the Round Table, Sir Geraint cannot led this slur pass unchallenged, and he immediately fetches his horse. He rides all day in search of the impudent knave, but fails to track him down. Eventually, far from home, he seeks lodgings overnight in the home of Earl Yniol. Whilst there, the Prince is soon captivated by the beautiful daughter of the impoverished Earl. He also learns that Yniol’s wealth and property have been stolen by his nephew, who is the self-same knight that Geraint is seeking. The Prince immediately determines to meet his foe in a joust which is scheduled for the next day. Of course, having set out on his quest without armour, he is now obliged to borrow Yniol’s rusty suit. Luckily, the Prince is both skilfull and determined, and though the battle is hard-fought he emerges the victor, and wins Enid as his bride.
Brave Sir Galahad
Arthur Hughes once again drew inspiration from the Arthurian Legends when he painted this haunting image. Brave Sir Galahad, so bold and true, was the best and purest of King Arthur’s circle. It is only fitting therefore, that angels should meet him at his journey’s end. Clad in armour, and mounted on a beautiful white horse, Galahad is contemplating a bridge which looks remarkably similar to the one used in ‘The Overthrowing of the Rusty Knight’. Bridges are often used as symbols of the emotions, and also of crossing from one state into another.
Tennyson’s poem, ‘Sir Galahad’, has these lines:
.”O just and faithful knight of God!
Ride on! the prize is near.”
So pass I hostel, hall, and grange;
By bridge and ford, by park and pale,
All-arm’d I ride, whate’er betide,
Until I find the Holy Grail
According to legend, Bron, the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea, was entrusted with the safe-keeping of the Holy Grail after the death of Jesus. He and Joseph travelled to Britain, but at that point the trail goes cold. History (and legend) have yet to reveal what became of Bron and the Holy Grail.
Sir Galahad, the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot, is born as the result of a magical deception. His mother, Elaine, is the daughter of King Pelles. Desperate to bed the handsome Lancelot, Elaine employs a sorceress to help her appear in the likeness of Queen Guinevere to whom Lancelot is faithfully devoted. By the time the deception is discovered, Galahad has already been conceived.
Later, Galahad joins his father, Lancelot, in Arthur’s court, and like King Arthur before him, he succeeds in drawing a sword from a stone. Clearly he is marked out for great things, and as time goes on, he does not disappoint. Adventures and quests are like meat and drink to this bold and chivalrous young man, and eventually he settles on the ultimate adventure. The quest for the Holy Grail. Together with Sir Bors and Sir Perceval he soon sets off to find sacred vessel.
After many twists and turns, Sir Galahad does indeed find the Grail, only to lose his life on the journey home. Galahad’s death is witnessed by Sir Percival and Sir Bors, and the Grail once again passes from living knowledge.
The Last Sleep Of Arthur in Avalon
The picture shown above is just a small detail from Burne-Jones great Arthurian master-piece. The complete painting measures 279cm x 650cm, and was originally commissioned by Burne-Jones’ friend, George Howard, the 9th Earl of Carlisle for the library of Naworth Castle. It is currently owned by Museo de Arte de Ponce, in Puerto Rico.
After Arthur’s last battle at Camlann, where he falls victim to the sword of his nephew Mordred, Arthur is carried onto a barge that appears on the nearby lake, and three ladies, one of whom is his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, transport him to the Isle of Avalon. Before his strength finally fails him, Arthur casts his sword, Excalibur into the lake, where a hand appears from the waves to catch it as it falls.
Some versions of this tale say that Arthur, the Once and Future King, died on Avalon, and others tell that his wounds were healed, and that he is sleeping in a cave somewhere, to be awoken at the hour of England’s greatest need……..