King Arthur and King Cornwall [Child 30]
DESCRIPTION: King Arthur, disguised, goes to King Cornwall's castle, where Cornwall boasts how he is better than Arthur.
EARLIEST DATE: before 1750 (Percy MS.)
KEYWORDS: royalty disguise bragging magic
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Child 30, "King Arthur and King Cornwall" (1 text)
OBB 18, "King Arthur and King Cornwall (A Fragment)" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Thomas Hahn, editor, _Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales_, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1995), pp. 419-436, "King Arthur and King Cornwall" (1 text)
DIgital Index of Middle English Verse #1043
cf. "King Arthur's Death" (subject: Percy Folio texts about King Arthur)
NOTES: Sadly, the only text of this piece is from the Percy Folio, and it defective at many points. Nor is there any real hope of recovering another copy; this is clearly a metrical romance, not a ballad. Unless it, like many of the romances (e.g. "King Orfeo") produced a ballad parallel, there is no reason to think this was ever in oral tradition. We don't have even an approximation of the original story, and must reconstruct first the tale, and then the history behind it, as best we can.
It isn't easy. If Arthur existed at all, he lived in one of the most ill-documented periods in history. We know that the Romans conquered southern Britain in the first century C.E. We know that the Roman administration ended in the early fifth century -- leaving a people probably somewhat Romanized (although still speaking Celtic languages) but with little ability to defend themselves. We know that the name "Arthur" is, or at least could be, Roman; Lucius ARTORIUS Castus led a legion in Britain during the Roman era (Brengle, p. 326; Brengle, p. 334, says this would become "Arthyr" in Welsh).
And we know that, by the fifth century, German-speaking invaders were arriving in England, and that they had driven the inhabitants back to Cornwall and Wales and the north of Britain by about the seventh century But we have almost no information about how these events came about.
Davies, p. 58, says that archaeological evidence indicates that conquests by the German invaders seem to have largely stopped between 500 and 550. If this is accurate, then perhaps something happened toward the beginning of that period to slow them down. (We need to be cautious, however; Morris, pp. 30-31, notes that the post-Roman Britons left almost nothing in the way of datable artifacts. Thus we can only date when Saxons artifacts first appear. Since many Saxon artifacts come from burials, their front line might be well in advance of their known artifacts.)
We have only one contemporary written source, the monk Gildas. He is in general very ill-informed; he doesn't even seem to have known that the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 (Morris, p. 36). Lacy, p. 234, is about as generous as is possible in declaring that Gildas "is a source of history but not primarily a historian." What value he has is mostly for events in his own lifetime -- and he is not very specific about when he lived! There are a few statements about his life from later chronicles (Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 217), but they were compiled some 500 years after his time and are unlikely to have any accurate data. And there is a good chance that his writing are corrupted; the earliest copy of his book, in British Library MS. Cotton Vitellius A.VI, is from the tenth century (Brown, p. 7), about four hundred years after he wrote.
Some time in the sixth century, Gildas wrote a bitter complaint about how the moral decline of the British (the book is actually sometimes called the "Liber querulus" or "Book of Complaints"; Jenkins, p. 22), which led to their suffering, and in the course of which he let slip -- almost it seems by accident -- some historical facts, including a very brief description of the siege of Mount Badon. Badon, it appears, was the single most important event in this hazy period, and we will come back to it.
Anderson, p. 42, declares that Gildas is "the earliest piece of Anglo-Latin prose to have any particular importance" -- but adds that it is a "dreary Latin chronicle whose importance is chiefly negative, in that it says nothing concerning King Arthur." It also contains numerous errors of fact, such as misdating Hadrian's wall by centuries. (Gildas admits to using "foreign sources," according to Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 219; they suggest that this is one reason for his inaccuracies. They also suggest that we may not have his complete history; what remains may be only some sort of epitome.)
To make matters worse, Gildas never tells us who was the British commander at Badon (CHEL1, p. 247); the one name he mentions around this time is Ambrosius (Alcock, p. 28), but there is no clear reason to connect Ambrosius with the battle, let alone assume he led the British forces. This would seem to be a blow to the hypothesis that Arthur commanded at Badon -- except that *no* British leaders are mentioned, so Gildas may be simply ignoring them as beneath his notice (CHEL1, p. 247).
We do find a mention of Arthur, seemingly as an already-legendary figure, in the Welsh epic Y Gododdin, which refers to one of its characters as "no Arthur." The epic is sometimes dated to the sixth century, but the Arthur reference may be an interpolation (LindahlEtAl:, p. 21).
The first serious attempt to put Gildas in historical context was made by the Venerable Bede. His account states that, in the fifth century, a British kinglet named Vortigern invited a few German mercenaries into his service to deal with local disturbances (Bede/LL I.15, p. 55). The visitors liked it so much that they went home and brought back a whole invading force (Bede/LL, I.15, p. 56). The date of this is debated -- Bede's estimate was was around 449, but German sources imply a date not far from when the Roman legion left in 410 (Morris, p. 40). The effect is not. The Britons -- who until a few decades earlier had relied upon Roman legions for security -- were soon routed and in retreat. Nowhere in this rather brief account does Bede mention Arthur.
There are two problems here. One is Bede's use of Gildas, and the other is Gildas himself.
Morris states, p. 39, that "Before 597, Bede is a secondary writer," and Alcock, p. 90, is convinced that Gildas is Bede's source. There are clear literary signs that Bede had Gildas before him. On the other hand, Bede adds details -- it appears to me that Bede had another source as well, even if it is only oral tradition. But Bede no more mentions Arthur than did Gildas.
This is not proof of anything ("absence of evidence is not evidence of absence"), but it is indicative. Garnett/Gosse, volume I, p. 35, declare that "Bede is little more than a compiler; his life of St. Cuthbert convicts him of gross credulity... [but he was] the first scholar of his day." He had access to the large libraries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, perhaps the best in Britain at the time. If he does not mention Arthur, it is a strong indication that Arthur was not known in Britain in his time. Similarly, if the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was begun at the instigation of Alfred the Great and became the standard source for English history from that time on, does not mention either Badon or Arthur, they cannot have been well-known in the late ninth and early tenth. (Skene, p. 51, thinks this is because Arthur was a northern character and the Chronicle concerned with the south, but the Chronicle used portions of Bede's northern material.)
To be sure, Gerald of Wales, writing in the twelfth century, had an explanation for why Gildas didn't mention Arthur: supposedly Arthur had killed Gildas's brother. (Gerald/Thorpe, p. 259). But he gives no source for this information, and there is absolutely nothing to support it. Gerald is, however, one of our earliest sources for the spread of the Arthurian legend, since it is he who reports on the exhumation of Arthur and Guinivere's alleged grave at Glastonbury (Gerald/Thorpe, pp. 280-288). He also offers the detail, not found elsewhere, that Guinivere was his *second* wife, and mentions that there were ten wounds on the body, all but one healed (Hole, p. 54).
But Gerald is a late source who gives us little that is useful except for his strange account of the excavation. And our other sources disagree with the account of the excavation on almost every point (Alcock, pp. 73-74). The whole thing may have been a fake anyway -- particularly since the grave marker called Arthur a king, which he almost certainly was not (Jenkins, p. 86).
(The whole Glastonbury thing may have been cooked up by none other than Henry II; supposedly a letter circulated at this time, purporting to be from Arthur, flattering Henry II but telling him to give up his control of Brittany; Owen, p. 39. Obviously if Arthur was dead, the letter was a fake. So the Glastonbury business was useful to Henry; Jenkins, p. 84. Glastonbury perhaps went along because they had suffered a disastrous fire some years earlier and needed to raise money; Jenkins, pp. 84-85. Henry also arranged for the Bretons to have a prince named Arthur: Henry's son Geoffrey's posthumous son Arthur was Duke of Brittany -- but Henry ruled the place; Jenkins, p. 84. Thus the Glastonbury excavation probably tells us nothing about Arthur himself, but a lot about Arthurian legends in the reign of Henry II -- clearly people in the twelfth century believed Arthur had been active in the Glastonbury area; Alcock, p. 75.)
(Ironically, if Henry II tried to play down Arthur, his great-grandson Edward I seems to have tried to use the Glastonbury relics to bolster his throne; LindahlEtAl, p. 22.)
Alcock, p. 100, implies another explanation why Gildas might suppress Arthur -- he suggests that Ambrosius was an orthodox Christian, while Vortigern followed the Pelagian heresy. If Arthur was also a Pelagian, Gildas might have ignored him. This is just barely on the ragged edge of possibility -- Pelagianism (for which see the notes to "Only Remembered") was a genuine heresy, but it never produced a schism. It was strong in Britain, which was the home of Pelagius -- but we have no sign that it continued to grow in the fifth century. And it had no separate rituals, so you couldn't tell if someone was Pelagian by looking at him. I mention this mostly to show how little detail we have about this period.
Can we trust Bede's interpretation of Gildas? The historicity of Vortigern is much debated -- Alcock, p. 103, notes that in the British dialects, the name means something like "High Chief," meaning that Vortigern may have been a title, not a personal name. In that case, there might be multiple Vortigerns. The whole story of the invitation of the Saxons might well be folklore. The fact that they arrived and quickly began to overrun southern Britain is, however, beyond question. (If they hadn't, this NOTE would not be written in the English language!)
Our other most noteworthy source is the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," which is the single most important record for pre-Norman England but which was started by Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. It is not contemporary with the Saxon conquest-- not by centuries -- but it was assembled by pulling together every source available. There are several manuscripts of the Chronicle, kept at different locations, and they include different material -- but the general story they give is the same.
According to the Chronicle, it was in 448 (Swanton, p. 12) or 449 (Swanton, p. 13) that Vortigern invited in the Saxons. In 455, their leaders Hengist and Horsa turned on Vortigern. Horsa was killed, and Aesc took his place (Swanton, p. 13). By 465, they were fighting the Welsh (Swanton, pp. 13, 14). Vortigern is mentioned only once in the Chronicle, Ambrosius not at all, and there is no reference to Badon.
The best guess is that the Chronicle's information is largely from Bede, and Bede's information, from Gildas, making the Chronicle a tertiary source. This is fairly important, because the date of the Saxon invasions affects what is possible. If the 449 date is correct, then Ambrosius and the hypothetical Arthur must have been nearly contemporary. But if we accept Morris's date for the Saxon invasion, then we have thirty or forty extra years to play with -- and Morris uses them to hypothesize that Arthur was Ambrosius's successor (Morris, p. 43). Badon was fought late in the fifth century, and stopped the Saxons until after 550.
Of course, this is pure reconstruction, with no documentary support. I would consider very litle to be certain, but would trust Gildas at least this far: The Britons found a savior of sorts in Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man of Roman descent, who finally organized them to fight the Saxons (Bede/LL, I.16, pp. 57). A victory he won at Mount Badon (Badon Hill in Bede/LL) gave the Britons a temporary respite (Bede/LL, I.16, pp. 58).
It was not until some three centuries after Gildas that Arthur enters the tale -- and in the form of a "missing link" as mysterious as Arthur himself. It is a writing attributed to one "Nennius," although we really know nothing about him (indeed, a few of the copies attribute it to Gildas, not Nennius; CHEL1, p. 71. He was apparently from North Wales, with birth name Nynniaw; CHEL1, p. 246). Nor is his work coherent; he says that he simply made "a heap" of the historical sources he found (Morris, p. 37), although he also claims some original work (CHEL1, p. 246).
To add to the problem, the work exists in several dozen copies, and some of these seem to have been modified by later hands (Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 375). CHEL1, p. 70, declares that we don't have any complete copies of "Nennius" -- and even if we did, it would be secondhand material. And, as with Gildas, the copies are late; the earliest extant manuscript, British Library MS Harley 3859, dates from around 1100 (Brown, p. 7).
It is suggested that "Nennius" finished his work in south Wales in or around 826 (Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn, p. ix). "Nennius" seems to have had a significant source for Northumbria not otherwise known, and some saints' legends and scraps, but it is hard to assess his Arthurian source. The best guess is that he rewrote and expanded the few scraps of old material from Gildas and Bede, and perhaps mixed in a little Welsh folklore (the first Welsh account of Arthur is found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, written probably in the period 1150-1200; Malory/Rhys, p. xii), to give a much fuller account. WaceLawman, p. xxii, outlines Nennius as follows (I've shortened their summary even further; there is a rather different outline on p. 70 of CHEL1)
1. Germanic invaders arrive under Hengist and Horsa
2. Conflict between Britons and Saxons. Saxons kill many Britons, often by treachery
3. Vortigern, who brought in the Saxons, died in flames (attacked not by the Saxons but by Ambrosius; Jenkins, p. 24).
4. Ambrosius becomes King of Britain
5. Arthur campaigns against the Saxons, fighting twelve battles ending with the Battle of Badon
Curiously, Arthur just appears in this account; as the translators of WaceLawman say, he has "no parents, no queen, no throne, no overseas conquests -- and no death." Almost a British Melchizedek. And Davies, p. 48, observes that "where it is possible to prove the correctness of Nennius's material [which isn't often], it is clear that his ignorance was monumental." Alcock, p. 34, observes that no source analysis has been done on the relevant sections of his work (and, frankly, I suspect it cannot succeed, given the state of the materials.) But at last we have a mention of Arthur as a leader who fought the Saxons to a halt.
It is noteworthy that Nennius's account says that Arthur "carried the image of the Holy Virgin Mary on his shoulders" (CHEL1, p. 246), i.e. presumably on his shield (the Welsh words are spelled the same way; Skene, pp. 54-55, CHEL1, p. 248n2). This is interesting because extreme Mariolatreia was a later phenomenon.
On the other hand, he is not called a king (Hole, p. 40).
For a translation of "Nennius," see Brengle, pp. 5-6. The list of Arthur's battles is from chapter 56.
Nennius has two other mentions of Arthur. one referring to his dog Cabal, the other to the tomb of his son Amr (Brengle, p. 326; the text of these references, from chapter 73 of Nennius, is given on p. 6). Neither reference has any real use or significance.
Is it possible that "Nennius" is correct? That there was an Arthur who fought off the Saxons? If Nennius's tale were all we had, we would probably say no. Except for one other early source which mentions Badon. It is very short but at least not wrapped in mystery.
This work is preserved in only a single manuscript, British Library Harleian 3859 (Alcock, p. 29, although he disliked the catalog number on the grounds that several manuscripts were bound within this cover; he prefers to call the one he cares about the "British Historical Miscellany." His explanation seems to be almost deliberately confused -- perhaps to conceal how very thin the evidence is.)
The source consists of two lines in an Easter Table -- a catalog of the yearly dates of Easter, to which a sentence or two is sometimes appended telling of events in a particular year. This particular Easter Table covers 533 years (Alcock, p. 39), but in a singularly incomplete form; it appears that it was being transcribed from an older document, and that it was never finished. For example, the numbers of the years were never filled in (it is reasonable to guess that they were to be written in another color). The dates of some of the events listed can be determined from other sources, and this allows us to establish an approximate chronology, with perhaps a year or two of error.
The Easter Table extends to about the year 955 (Alcock, p. 48; CHEL1, p. 248n1 says 954 or 955), presumably meaning it was assembled after that time, but it is assumed that it garnered materials from early chronicles. This table, incomplete as it is, contains two statements (in Latin). One, for the year 518 (Alcock) or 516 (CHEL1) says that Arthur in that year won the Battle of Badon carrying a cross on his shoulders. The other, for the year 539 (Alcock) or 537 (CHEL1) or perhaps 542 (Hole, p. 40, who also mentions the dates of 537 and 539), refers to the strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut (Modred?) died (Alcock, p. 45).
Interestingly, the Camlann conflict is called a "gueith" -- a Welsh rather than a Latin word (Alcock, p. 49; cf. Malory/Rhys, p. x). Badon was listed as a "bellum," the ordinary Latin word for battle. Alcock, pp. 49-50, doubts that this makes the Camlann entry an interpolation, although it looks suspicious to me.
More interesting is the fact pointed out on p 341 of Brengle, that the annal does not say that Arthur and Medraut were fighting each other, merely that they died at the same battle. The idea that Arthur and Mordred were in conflict cannot be shown to be older than Geoffret of Monmouth.
In any case, those two sources are *it*. The sum total of our references to Arthur before he appears as a legendary figure in Welsh myths. "Nennius," written three centuries after the fact, and the Easter Table, incompletely copied perhaps five centuries after the fact. Both credit Arthur with winning the Battle of Badon (which seems, based on Gildas, to have been historical, although Ambrosius may have been the general) and seem to imply a victory by Christian Britons against the Saxons. Nennius, to be sure, has much more to say, but there is no reason to trust it.
The Easter Table, it should be noted, never says that Medraut/Modred was Arthur's son. We do find in Nennius a statement that Arthur killed his son Anwr -- but also a statement that attempts to measure Anwr's grave never produces the same number twice (Jenkins, p. 35; this should give you a clue how much Nennius is worth).
(We might note that, although the story that Arthur fought Modred does show up in the Welsh stories of the Mabinogion, the relevant tale -- "The Dream of Rhonabwy" -- makes "Medrawd" the nephew, not the son, of Arthur; Mabinogion/Gantz, p. 181.)
Neither does the Easter table link Arthur and Ambrosius. Insofar as there is a link at all, it too comes from Nennius, who considered Ambrosius a young prophet (Jenkins, p. 53). The obvious supposition, since our various sources credit Arthur and Ambrosius with the same victories, is that Arthur and Ambrosius are names for the same shadowy person. William of Malmesbury, writing in the early twelfth century, would have us believe that Arthur was Ambrosius's assistant and, apparently, chief general -- while adding that most popular tales about him were false (Hole, p. 45). Malmesbury, according to Hole, p. 50, was the last historian to have access to valid tradition -- "the last writer who presents [Arthur], however slightly, as he must have been." (We might note that even Malmesbury said that Arthur's grave site was unknown, leading to the legend that he would return; Hole, p. 51). But Geoffrey of Monmouth combined Ambrosius with a Welsh seer named Merddin, and thus created Merlin Ambrosius, separate from Arthur (Jenkins, p. 53). And thus was a legend born.
Little can be said about the area of Arthur's activity. Alcock, p. 62, shows a list of possible locations for Nennius's 12 battles. He shows six locations for Badon, ranging from the south coast to the region between the Humber and the Wash. Camlann he shows near the future Scottish border, although elsewhere he seems to imply a Cornish location. Alcock, pp. 58-66, engages in a great deal of special pleading to argue that Nennius's account *might* be accurate -- but none of it proves that it *is* accurate. On pp. 72-73, he brings forth some Welsh evidence of uncertain date -- but which at best simply attests to a belief among people in the period before Nennius that Arthur existed.
So vague is all this that William of Malmesbury was already lamenting that legend has displaced genuine history! (LindahlEtAl, p. 21).
Alcock's conclusion on p. 89 is that "[W]e have discovered acceptable evidence that Arthur was a renowned British soldier, more probably a great commander than a King. His battles were fought principally in the first part of the sixth century AD or perhaps around the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries." Malory/Rhys, p. ix, backs this by suggesting that Arthur bore the title dux bellorum, the Roman commander of battles -- although this obviously requires that he be a Roman rather than a Celt. Ashley, p. 24, summarizes, "About 500 a chieftain named Arthur, converted by later chroniclers into the legendary King Arthur of the Round Table, won a resounding victory at Mount Badon, of which the location is unknown. Arthur may have been a cavalry leader and the battle may have been fought upon the Upper Thames. If this was so, it was the last contest fought in the afterglow of Roman Britain. Though resistance continued in western England and in Wales for many years, the battle of Mount Badon was the last considerable defeat inflicted upon the pervasive Anglo-Saxons."
I personally think the evidence insufficient to support even these conclusions, but we can take this as, perhaps, the maximum amount of actual historical data and proceed from there. Alcock spends many more pages sifting records for tiny clues that might give us additional information. Frankly, this strikes me as utterly pointless in studying Arthur (although very interesting for the history of Britain); none of it contributed to the later tales.
Whatever the truth about Arthur, his legend in the years after the Saxon conquest was certainly the property of the Welsh -- who were, after all, the survivors of the British people smashed by the Anglo-Saxon invaders. And yet, the great early bards do not mention him -- there is no mention of Arthur in Taliesin, Aneirin, or Llywarch Hen (CHEL1, p. 249. This even though Taliesin is actually listed once as a member of Arthur's court in the tale of Culhwych and Olwen; CHEL1, p. 255). Nor do the four branches of the Mabinogion proper mention him (CHEL1, p. 252).
On the other hand, Brengle, p. 327, says that he *is* found in Anierin: "There follows what may well be one of the most convincing pieces of evidence for a historical Arthur. The Welsh elegy Gododdodin, attributed to the late sixth century poet Anierin, has been pretty well proved to be genuine and to date, at least in its original form, from around 600. In lines 1241-2 of Ifor Williams's edition it is said of a certain hero that 'he glutted(?) black ravens on the rampart of the city, though he was not Arthur.'" In other words, by Anierin's time, Arthur already had a great reputation. To me, that seems more likely evidence of his early place in myth than history, but your mileage may vary.
We do find that some of the later tales informally called part of the Mabinogion are set in the court of Arthur -- although Arthur himself is rarely a major character, and the supporting cast is very different from the later legend; we have Gwenhwyvar (Guinevere) and Kei (Sir Kay), and Bedwyr perhaps became Sir Bedivere, but there is no Lancelot (a French name, of course, although Jenkins, p. 79, mentions Welsh Lluch Llauynnauc and Irish Lugh Lamhfada as possible sources), and Gawain, if he exists at all, is Gwalchmai (Mabinogion/Gantz, p. 30).
(We might add that Lancelot became popular enough that Chaucer mentions women's liking for him in the Nun's Priest's Tale: ll. 3212-3213, Chaucer/Benson, p. 258: "the book of Launcelot de Lake, That wommen holde in ful greet reverence;" cf. CHEL1, p. 270. Does the failure to mention Lancelot mean this tale predates Chaucer? I wouldn't bet on it.)
CHEL1, p. 256, suggests that the Arthur legend really grew up in Brittany, and that it was the Bretons who spread the idea to the French. But, on the evidence, the legend was mostly Celtic, and very incomplete, as late as 1100.
It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who changed that, with his Historia Britonum, The History of (the Kings of) Britain, published in parts starting around 1135. Geoffrey -- a cleric who seems to have spend very little time on clerical work (Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn, p. xv; Tyerman, p. 152) lived near the Welsh border, and was probably Welsh himself (although WaceLawman, p. xxiii, argues that he is Breton, which connects with the suggestion on p. viii on Malory/Rhys and in CHEL1 that some of the late tales are Breton). It has been suggested that he, or his father, was named Arthur, which might explain his interest in the legend (CHEL1, p. 257; this may derive from his statement, quoted on p. 154, that he was "Galfridus Arturus," rendered as "Geoffrey the Arthur man").
Geoffrey almost impishly warned serious historians to stay away from the material he would retail, claiming it was beyond their expertise (CHEL1, p. 257). He claimed to have a "British book" which he used as a basis for his work (Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn, xviii). It seems clear, however, that there was no such book (even Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn, p. xviii, admit that he doesn't seem to have taken this source "with tremendous seriousness"; Hole, p. 46, points out that no one else ever saw this book). What he really did was take the Welsh legends, plus a few brief Latin chronicles, and massively rewrite and expand them. It was Geoffrey, e.g., who created the story that Arthur was the child of Uther Pendragon on the wife of the Duke of Cornwall (Jenkins, p. 54). His was the first real step in creating the modern legend of King Arthur.
Even the introduction to Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn, p. xxiii, which is naturally inclined to be relatively charitable, admits, "We are to turn to the Historia, then, feeling that we are to read not a chronicle, but a romance of early British history... [by an author who] handled his material with interest and ingenuity. What he has done for Arthurian romance is absolutely clear. He raised a national hero, already the center of legend and myth, to the rank of an imperial monarch...."
Certainly much of what Geoffrey wrote sounds more like myth; Brengle, p. 340, mentions several tales somewhat similar to the story of Arthur's fathering by a man in the disguise of the wife's husband, of which the myth of Jupiter and Alcmene may be the best-known. The same page mentions that Uther, the name of Arthur's father, may be derived from Welsh "uthr," "terrible."
Tyerman, p. 152, while admitting that Geoffrey claimed a British source, declares flatly that "There is no evidence this was true."
CHEL1, p. 258, speculates that Geoffrey's fiction was designed to glorify all the various lands in the Angevin Empire of Henry II: "It... provide[d] a hero in whom Norman and Saxon, Welshman and Breton, could take common pride." The difficulty is that Geoffrey wrote before Henry II created that empire; there was no prospect at all that Brittany (e.g.) would come under English rule.
Geoffrey's cosmopolitan attitude might, however, explain why the further development of the legend took place mostly outside Britain. "[Geoffrey's] history was at once denounced by sober historians as 'a shameless lie,' and Geoffrey himself could not have believed very much of it. But it made interesting reading, and became incredibly popular -- CHEL1, p. 261, counts more than fifty copies just in the British Library and the Bodleian. (To put this in perspective, there are only about eighty copies known even of the Canterbury Tales, and my quick count puts 35 of those in the British Library and the Bodleian.) It was soon worked over into Welsh, English, and French" (Newcomer, p. 37). The French translation was Wace's (who also adapted and expanded freely), from perhaps around 1155-1160 (WaceLawman, p. xix; CHEL1, p. 264, notes that Layamon said it was dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine, which fits chronologically). It was Wace who gave us the Round Table (Jenkins, p. 66).
(Students of folk song will be interested to note that the Arthurian legends inform us about the origin of carols: "The first mention of a carole appears to be in the Anglo-Norman Wace's account, about 1155, of King Arthur's wedding. Here the women carolent and the men behourdent, 'jesting' while they watch the performance"; Chambers, p. 66.)
The next stages of the legend evolved mostly in France, where Chretien de Troyes produced the figure of Lancelot (Jenkins, p. 77, although she seems to think he had some history prior to Chretien; on p. 80, Jenkins makes it sound as if Chretien's big contribution was the love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere). This was followed by the "Vulgate Cycle" -- the anonymous romances also known as the "Prose Lancelot," consisting of "Lancelot," "The Quest of the Holy Grail," and "The Death of King Arthur" (VulgateDeath/Cable, p. 10). Finally Malory took the whole mess and worked it into the (almost) coherent tale that we hear today.
It is worth noting that relatively little of this development happened in England (after all, Arthur was a Celt fighting the invading Saxons; Layamon was first English-language author to really cover Arthur; Jenkins, p. 67). Of few English works on Arthur, very little was the direct result of tradition, and none of it (as best we can tell) influenced this song -- although CHEL1, pp. 265-266, notes how Layamon emphasized Arthur's magical abilities, which obviously form an important element of this tale. From the time of Geoffrey on, the story of Arthur was a tale of court bards, not of the folk.
We do note that the British tradition did develop somewhat differently from the French; in the Vulgate Cycle, it is Gawain who pushes Arthur into the disastrous war on Lancelot which lets Modred take over (VulgateDeath/Cable, p. 12), whereas in England at the time we still find Gawain as the almost-perfect hero of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and many other romances (CHEL1, p. 269; CHEL1, p. 271, even suggests that he was the original hero of the Grail legend); in the Green Knight, for instance, Lancelot is mentioned only casually (line 553).
Brooke's conclusion (pp. 191-192) is perhaps typical: "Arthur probably existed, and was a leader in the British revival and reconquest of some part of England about the year 500. But for centuries his legend grew slowly; and it was only in the twelfth century that he came to join Charlemagne and Alexander the Great as the supreme legendary monarch of European literature. His fame grew up, like so many of the legends which flourished in the twelfth century, in the Celtic lands. Its early history is quite obscure. But Arthur was made respectable very largely by the daring inventions of Geoffrey of Monmouth"
Most Englishmen apparently knew it was garbage. Gerald of Wales gave his opinion in a passage about a sick man allegedly tormented by demons (Gerald/Thorpe, p. 117-118): When a copy of the Gospel of John was placed on the sick man's lap, the demons fled -- but if "the gospel were afterward removed and... [Geoffrey's book] put there in its place, just to see what would happen, the demons would alight all over his body, and on the book, too, staying there longer than usual and being even more demanding." Somehow, this did not stop Geoffrey from being accepted and even amplified on the continent.
There is one interesting point about Geoffrey: He seems to base the final, fatal battle of Camlann in Cornwall (Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn, p. xxi. This is by contrast to the map on p. 62 of Alcock, which locates in near Hadrian's Wall). This is another hint at a conflict between Arthur and the "King of Cornwall." Layamon also places Camlann in Cornwall (Jenkins, p. 69).
It is also Geoffrey who linked the "Medraut" of the Easter Table with "Modred" the nephew of Arthur (Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn, p. xxiii); as Alcock notes on p. 99, the Easter Table "does not tell us where or why Camlann was fought. It tells us nothing about Medraut, and it is only in the light of later tradition that we identify Medraut with 'Modred' and assume that Arthur and Medraut fought on opposite sides."
So how did we get from this legend to "King Arthur and King Cornwall"? This involves further guesswork. We can of course assume that the composer of the song knew a fairly developed Arthur legend (although it is striking that he seems to base Arthur's kingdom in Brittany, not Britain; Hahn, p. 419) -- but what did he use as the basis for his plot? Obviously the fact that the poem is incomplete makes this hard to determine.
The motivating theme of the ballad is commonplace -- who has not heard "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" from the Grimm version of "Snow White."? And the theme of a king boasting of his greatness and then being brought low is familiar all the way back to the tale of Nebuchadnezzar's humbling in Daniel 4 (note the line in Daniel 4:30 -- "Isn't this great Babylon, which I have built by my great power as a royal residence and for my majestic glory"). Daniel's version dates back to c. 165 B.C.E., and there are earlier tales in other languages (which of course would not have been known to the author of this ballad). Plus Jesus more than once speaks of ways in which the over-proud were humbled.
I also think it interesting that the original source for the Arthur legends is Welsh mythology, and the "Tale of Culhwch and Olwen" in the Mabinogion involves Arthur's court in a set of prodigies somewhat similar to this. And "Culhwch and Olwen" is the part of the Mabinogion considered most free of French influence (Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn, p. xiii).
Most interesting is the fact, noted by Mabinogion/Gantz, p. 134, that the first part of "Culhwch" lists 39 incredible tasks assigned to Culhwch and his companions, with only about half fulfilled and the fulfillment of only two described in detail. Parry/Shipley, p. 1004, offers a possible explanation for this, stating that early Welsh prose tales did not have fixed form -- just a plot outline, with only the verse portions (if there were any) to be memorized verbatim. He believes "Culhwich" an example of a tale which has been only partially preserved -- an incomplete example of the form. If so, what else might have been in a "pure" form? (We have only two copies of "Culhwch," and one of those incomplete.) It could indeed have been a tale of boasts....
It is fairly clear that this song is not directly tied to the historical tradition started by Geoffrey of Monmouth, since that had Arthur conceived in Cornwall. While Geoffrey's account might hint at a conflict between Arthur's realm and the realm of Cornwall, Arthur could hardly be unaware of the Cornish realm. What's more,in Geoffrey's tale, Arthur was conceived by magic; it was not the Cornish who were enchanters.
Child, however, connects this with the legend of Charlemagne's Journey to Jerusalem. Similarly, Lacy, p. 316, says that the piece "bears comparison with the Old French Pelerinage de Charlemagne" -- but offers no details. Child has a description of the Pelerinage; I will summarize mine from Oinas just to give an independent source.
"The Pelerinage de Charlemagne (Charlemagne's Pilgrimage) is one of the most interesting early chansons de geste in the Cycle of the King. The poem, which is generally dated at the beginning of the twelfth century, survived only in one relatively late manuscript which has been lost since 1879. Fortunately, copies were made.... The work is relatively short (870 verses) and seems to be a parody of the epic genre. It is in alexandrines rather than the customary dectasyllables" (Oinas, p. 202).
Charlemagne is told by his wife that Hugo, ruler of Greece and Constantinople, is said to be more majestic than Charlemagne himself. Nettled by this, Charlemagne goes first to Jerusalem (where the patriarch gives him many strong relics). He then goes to Constantinople, where Hugo entertains him in an enchanted palace, When they go to bed after a feast, Charlemagne's men boast to one another of the incredible feats they can perform. A spy reveals their boasts to Hugo, who demands they fulfil their boasts. They manage to do so -- with supernatural help. Hugo then gives Charlemagne a crown, and the Franks believe Charlemagne wears it more fittingly than Hugo. Charlemagne goes home, and his wife asks forgiveness.
This is, of course, not historical. The Byzantine Emperors of this period were indeed wealthier and more civilized than the Franks, but none of them were named "Hugo" or anything like it. The Byzantine Emperors in the period after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor were Irene (797-802), Nicephoros I (802-811), Stauracius (811), Michael I (811-813), and Leo V (813-820) (ChambersDict, p. 146). It will surely be evident that this was an unsettled time in Byzantine history; it would have been difficult for any of these Emperors to host Charlemagne in style.
To be sure, Charlemagne's Pilgrimage could not have come after he became Emperor in 800 -- because the tale mentions Roland, and Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin. This means that the visit to the East must have taken place before 778, when Roland died at Roncesvalles.
But an early date poses a different problem -- because Charlemagne, while King of the Franks, was not in the period before Roncesvalles considered the equal of the Emperor of Byzantium -- who, after all, had supervision of the Holy Places, even if they were actually in Islamic hands. The Byzantine Emperor was an *emperor*; Charlemagne in 778 was the strongest king in western Christendom, but only a King, and only the second of his dynasty, and even possibly illegitimate (Thorpe, p. 4).
Of course, the bottom line is, the mention of Oliver proves that the "Pilgrimage" had to be written after the Song of Roland, so the chronology is probably beyond straightening out.
The simple fact is that Charlemagne did not make such a voyage to the east -- although he did have good relations with the Byzantines (Thorpe, pp 70-71). And he did go on several pilgrimages. It's just that they were pilgrimages to Rome, not the Holy Land.
Owen, p. 27, suggests that the "Pilgrimage" was in fact written in the late twelfth century, after the disastrous Second Crusade (which accomplished nothing except to kill a lot of Europeans and damage the Crusading kingdoms in the east). Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine -- who had less than harmonious relations -- had gone to the east in the 1140s, and came back ready to divorce. Owen coments, "The whole story is a burlesque, and I am not the first to see in it a possily wry comment on Louis's crusade and a dig at the king's marital insecurity...." This cannot be proved, but if true, it makes it reasonable that the story would be inaccurate -- it wasn't a story of Charlemagne, except by projection (using the Song of Roland as a base); little wonder if, three and a half centuries after the fact, it got some details wrong!
Of course, this might cause us to wonder if there might have been a still earlier Pilgrimage epic which inspired Charlemagne's Pilgrimage.
It should also be noted that there was interchange between Welsh and French romance in the period when the French were building the Arthurian legend. The Welsh, according to Parry/Shipley, p. 1005, had versions of "The Song of Roland" and "The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne," among others. But tales of Charlemagne -- and Roland and his betrayer Ganelon -- were widespread; Roland/Butler, p. xix, points out that Chaucer refers to a traitor as "a very Ganelon," and Dante mentions Roland's horn, and the Song of Roland itself was translated into German and Icelandic and Italian and beyond (Roland/Butler, p. xviii).
The boasting which brings Charlemagne and his companions so much trouble is certainly not particular to the Pilgrimage of Charlemagne; we find it also in the Song of Roland, and indeed the "gab" is apparently a characteristic of French tales (Roland/Terry, p. xix). Consider, too, Thor and Loki's contest with the giants in Norse myth.
Nor is the common element of the spy necessarily a link. The same trick is also found in the Tristan story (Beroul/Fedrick, p. 16). Indeed, Beroul's version of Tristan (the earliest version, from about 1150 according to CHEL1, p. 273) more nearly resembles "King Arthur and King Cornwall" than does the Charlemagne story -- in the latter, the spy is merely a spy, while in Beroul, the spy is a magic-working dwarf, like the Billy Blin' of "King Arthur." To be sure, the Tristan romance, despite its British setting, seems no more native to England than tales of Charlemagne -- but it was much more widely known than the tale of Charlemagne's Pilgrimage.
In terms of setting, "King Arthur and King Cornwall" again stands closer to the legends than the Charlemagne story. Cornwall, unlike Hugo of Byzantium, is a pagan -- and a user of magic, like the giants in the Thor myth.
Competition between Arthur's knights and those of Cornwall is also known -- even in Malory, book IX, chapter XXXVII, we find Arthur's knights jousting with those of King Mark of Cornwall (Malory/Rhys, p. 357). Of course this is a later graft from the Tristan legend (CHEL1, pp. 272-273), and no one jousted in the time of the real Arthur, but it shows that such tales did float about. CHEL1, p. 273, points out that Tristan first appears as "Drystan son ot Tallwych" in an early Welsh poem, where he is a relative and servant of March [=Mark] ab Meirchion. So the conflict between Mark of Cornwall and the Arthurian court has ancient roots.
There also seems to have been a Welsh tradition of Arthur being imprisoned, somewhere -- but a late tradition, which was grafted onto a Welsh triad seemingly after its composition (Lacey, p. 566).
In one sense, the song is logical: Cornwall was the last part of England proper to come under English dominance (with the curious side-note that, according to Mabinogion/Gantz, p. 177, Arthur's court seems to be based in Cornwall in several tales, including "Culhwch and Olwen.") Egbert, King of Wessex (died 839) is often credited with conquering Cornwall in 815 (OxfordCompanion, p. 338), but the area retained its own culture and some measure of independence; it did not become a Norman earldom until c. 1140 (OxfordCompanion, p. 247), then a dukedom from 1337, although frequently held by the crown from that time on. Thus a King Arthur who actually ruled what is now England would have had, other than the small kingdoms of Wales and Scotland, only one actual neighbor in England, and that would be Cornwall -- although there is no evidence that Cornwall ever had its own King.
Bottom line: "King Arthur and King Cornwall" is obviously derived from the same sorts of legends as "The Pilgrimage of Charlemagne" -- but until and unless we find more of the romance, I do not think we can assume direct literary dependence.
There does appear to be a different sort of dependence in that the hero of "King Arthur" is Sir Bredbeddle (Hahn, p. 420). Despite his improbable name, this fellow appears in another Arthurian romance, "The Greene Knight." This is the inferior version of the tale of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" found in the Percy Folio; Bredbeddle is the Green Knight of the tale. The fact that there are two tales in the Percy Folio involving him, and no mentions elsewhere, makes one wonder if someone didn't write a Bredbeddle cycle which survives only in the folio. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.8
- Alcock: Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, 1971 (I use the 1993 Penguin edition with a few minor changes)
- Anderson: George K. Anderson, Old and Middle English Literature from the Beginnings to 1485, being volume I of "A History of English Literature," 1950 (I use the 1966 Collier paperback edition)
- Ashley: Maurice Ashley, Great Britain to 1688, University of Michigan Press, 1961
- Bede/LL: The Venerable Bede, A History of the English Church and People, translated [from Latin] and with an Introduction by Leo Sherley-Price; revised by R. E. Latham, 1055, 1968 (I use the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition). Citations to this book are by both section in Bede and page number -- e.g. "I.16, p. 57" means book I, chapter 15 of Bede, which is on p. 57 of the Barnes & Noble edition.
- Beroul/Fedrick: Beroul, The Romance of Tristan, translated by Alan S. Fedrick, 1970 (I use the 1987 Penguin edition)
- Brengle: Richard L. Brengle, Arthur King of Britain: History, Chronicle, Romance & Criticism, Prentice-Hall, 1964
- Brooke: Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings, 1963 (I use the 1975 Fontana edition)
- Brown: Michelle P. Brown, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, University of Toronto Press, 1991
- Chambers: E. K. Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1945, 1947
- ChambersDict: [Bruce P. Lenman and Katharine Boyd, editors], Chambers Dictionary of World History, Chambers, 1993
- Chaucer/Benson: Larry D. Benson, general editor, The Riverside Chaucer, third edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1987 (based on F. N. Robinson, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which is considered to be the first and second editions of this work)
- CHEL1: Sir A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, Editors, The Cambridge History of English Literature, Volume I: From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, 1907 (I use the 1967 Cambridge edition)
- Davies: John Davies, A History of Wales, original Welsh version published 1990; I use the 1993 Penguin English edition
- Garnett/Gosse: Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, English Literature: An Illustrated Record four volumes, MacMillan, 1903-1904 (I used the 1935 edition published in two volumes)
- Geoffrey/Evans/Dunn: Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, translated (from Latin) by Sebastian Evansand revised by Charles W. Dunn, with an introduction (1911) by Lucy Allen Paton, Dutton, 1958
- Gerald/Thorpe: Gerald of Wales: The Journey Through Wales/The Description of Wales, translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin, 1978 (I use the 1987 edition)
- Hahn: Thomas Hahn, editor, Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, TEAMS (Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages), Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1995
- Hole: Christina Hole, English Folk Heroes: From King Arthur to Thomas a Becket, 1948? (I use the 1992? Dorset Press reprint)
- Jenkins: Elizabeth Jenkins, The Mystery of King Arthur, 1975 (I use the 1996 Barnes & Noble reprint)
- Kunitz/Haycraft: Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, Editors, British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary, H. W. Wilson, 1952 (I use the fourth printing of 1965)
- Lacy: Norris J. Lacy, Editor, The Arthurian Encyclopedia, 1986 (I use the 1987 Peter Bedrick paperback edition)
- LindahlEtAl: Carl Lindahl, John McNamara, and John Lindow, editors, Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, 2000 (I use the 2002 one-volume paperback edition)
- Mabinogion/Gantz: The Mabionogion, translated [from Welsh] by Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin, 1976
- Malory/Rhys: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, with an introduction by Sir John Rhys, in two volumes, 1906 (I use the 1978 Everyman two volume edition)
- Morris: John Morris: The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, 1973 (I use the 1996 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Newcomer: Alphonso Gerald Newcomer, English Literature, Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1905
- Oinas: Felix J. Oinas, editor, Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World's Great Folk Epics, Indiana University Press, 1978. The chapter on French epic, cited here, is by Gerard J. Brault
- Owen: D. D. R. Owen, Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen & Legend, Blackwell, 1993
- OxfordCompanion: John Cannon, editor, The Oxford Companion to British History, Oxford, 1997
- Parry/Shipley: John H. Parry, article on Welsh in Joseph T. Shipley, editor, Encyclopedia of Literature, Philosophical Library, 1946 [a collection of articles about the literatures of various languages of the world)
- Roland/Butler, The Song of Roland, translated by Isabel Butler, Houghton Mifflin, 1904 (I use the 1932 edition)
- Roland/Terry: The Song of Roland, translated by Patricia Terry with an introduction by Harold March, Library of Liberal Arts, MacMillan, 1965
- Skene: W. F. Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales, Edmonston and Douglas, 1868 (I use the Kessinger print-on-demand reprint, my copy being printed probably in 2010)
- Swanton: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated and edited by Michael Swanton, 1996 (I use the 1998 Routledge edition)
- Thorpe: Lewis Thorpe, translator: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne, 1969 (I use the 1976 Penguin edition). Of the two lives, Einhard's is by far the more important; he was a member of Charlemagne's court.
- Tyerman: Christopher Tyerman, Who's Who in Early Medieval England (1066-1272), (being the second volume in the Who's Who in British History series), Shepheard-Walwyn, 1996
- VulgateDeath/Cable - James Cable, translator, The Death of King Arthur (part of the anonymous Arthur romances known as the Vulgate Cycle), Penguin, 1971
- WaceLawman: Wace, Le Roman de Brut (excerpts) and Lawman (i.e. Layamon), Brut, (excerpts), translated and with an introduction by Judith Weiss and Rosamund Allen; collectively published as The Life of King Arthur, Everyman, 1997
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2017 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.