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postheadericon Who did King Arthur Have a Child With?

Prince embracing princess

The child most frequently associated with King Arthur is his wicked son–nephew, Mordred, by his half sister, Morgause. Usually, the affair is arranged by his half sister Morgan le Fay without Arthur’s knowledge. In some versions of the tale, Morgause is also ignorant of her relationship to Arthur until after the deed is done. In some versions, Morgan le Fay herself is the one who deliberately becomes pregnant with Arthur’s child.

Usually, her motives are to gain a claim to the throne for her child, or to create a worthy opponent to overthrow Arthur. Mordred is usually raised in secret and taught to hate Arthur by Morgause and Morgan le Fay. Morgause and Morgan le Fay are usually Arthur’s half sisters by his mother Ygraine and her first husband, Duke Gorlois of Cornwall, who was killed by Arthur’s father, Uther, in order to marry their mother. In some instances of the legend, Morgan le Fay’s actions are done out of revenge for what was done to their father.

In medieval literature, the illegitimate child with a claim to the throne would have been recognized as a genuine threat to Arthur’s kingship. Mordred usually ends up taking Guinevere as his wife and attempting to take Arthur’s kingdom, before the two men kill each other on the battlefield.

Mordred is first mentioned in the Annales Cambriae, in which it simply states for the year 537, “The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.” Who Medraut was, and whether he fought with, or against Arthur, is unknown. But when Geoffrey of Monmouth took up the legend in 1136, he named Mordred as Arthur’s nephew, who, with Guinevere, attempts to betray him and seize his kingdom. By the thirteenth century, Mordred is named as Arthur’s son–nephew by incest.

Sir Thomas Malory, in his Le Morte d’Arthur, widely considered to be one of the most authoritative sources on the Arthurian Legend, names another son for Arthur, Borr, by a noblewoman named Lionors. Borr is a nobleman in his own right, and a Knight of the Round Table.

Earlier Welsh sources include tales of other sons for Arthur, who were also killed. The Historia Brittonum states that Arthur had a son named Amr, whom he killed and buried, though it does not state the reason for the conflict. According to this source, Amr’s tomb was special, in that its length changed each time it was measured. The twelfth–century Culhwch and Olwen similarly states that Arthur had a son named Gwydre, who was killed by the boar Twrch Trwyth.

Historians acknowledge that Geoffrey and other writers had access to sources now lost to us when composing their renditions of the Arthurian Legend. It is possible that a tradition existed of Arthur’s son being killed, possibly by Arthur himself, or by a wild boar. It is noteworthy, also, that Arthur is referred to as the “Boar of Cornwall” in Merlin’s prophecies. When later writers picked up the tale of Mordred, they may have conflated his story with a pre–existing tradition of Arthur having killed his own son.

postheadericon Where was King Arthur Born?


According to tradition, King Arthur was born in Tintagel Castle, in Southwestern Britain. This story comes to us from Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in 1136 A.D.

Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, who was the rightful king of Britain, lusted after Ygraine, wedded to Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall. Uther pursued her relentlessly, to the outrage of her husband. A bitter war broke out between the two men. While he went to war to defend his wife, Duke Gorlois locked Ygraine up in his castle at Tintagel for safety. In desperation, Uther turned to the wizard Merlin for help. Merlin used his secret arts to transform Uther into the likeness of the Duke. Now fully disguised, Uther was able to enter Tintagel Castle and impregnate Ygraine. Afterwards, his forces killed the Duke and took Tintagel. This was where Ygraine would have stayed, and where baby Arthur would have been born nine months later.

Prior to Geoffrey’s recording of this tale in the twelfth century, Arthur was referred to frequently as a war hero, but no other record exists of his birth. The tale may have been invented by Geoffrey in order to give a magical birth to a king of great importance. About the time Geoffrey’s work was published, a new castle was built on the site of Tintagel. Remains of it still stand on the location today, and modern excavations have uncovered the remains of an earlier, Celtic monastery.

The remains of Tintagel Castle are located on a peninsula connected to the mainland only by a narrow valley. Along the peninsula, steep cliffs fall sharply to the sea. As one enters through the valley, a large, earthen bank almost completely bars passage to the main body of the peninsula. Opposite is a massive mound of rock which has been artificially cut, leaving only a narrow, ten-foot passage for entry. Excavations have found that a palisade once stood atop the earthen bank, with a man-made ditch in front.

Tintagel in Geoffrey’s time would have been a highly-defensible position for any ruler who occupied it. The recent rebuilding which had been taking place in Geoffrey’s time, coupled with the region’s historical significance, may have been what inspired Geoffrey to choose it as the setting for Arthur’s birth. The difficulty of gaining access to the castle would  have reflected Duke Gorlois’ deep desire to protect his wife in the most difficult of locations to penetrate; similarly, Uther Pendragon’s feat in gaining entry to the castle and gaining Ygraine would have represented his deep desire for her. Ygraine, in essence, was an impregnable woman locked away in an impregnable fortress, which only Uther’s determination was able to overcome.

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postheadericon The Gaulish Connection

Photo: David Goodwin, used with permission.

Photo: David Goodwin, used with permission.

The traditional search for an historical Arthur begins with the Welsh sources, because those are the earliest records to mention him. But Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to popularize Arthur’s legend beyond Wales and Cornwall, and the first to paint an image of his court that would set the stage for the legends of a grand kingdom that would follow. To this end, some researchers have taken the approach of exploring Monmouth’s work to see what clues can be gleaned from his story. Monmouth was notorious for distorting facts in his History, but it is also accepted among historians that he was drawing on a handful of genuine sources when composing his work. Thus, the challenge is to discern what elements of his tale were based on fact, and what elements were made up.

Geoffrey Ashe is a prominent historian who has done so much work in the field of Arthurian history, that in 2012 he received an honor from the Queen of England for it. One point that Ashe has picked up on is the fact that Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded Arthur as marching on Rome near the end of his life, but then returning to Britain to defend his kingdom from the usurper, Mordred. In fact, there is a king of the Britons who is on record as having lived during the time typically ascribed to Arthur’s reign, and this king did march on Rome, but not as an invader. Throughout the fifth century, Rome suffered a series of invasions from Visigoths, and in 468 it called out to its allies in Britain for aid. The king Riothamus brought twelve thousand of his troops to march on the invaders, but was routed by the Visigoths before he reached Rome. When a good portion of his army was wiped out, he retreated in the direction of Burgundy, and disappears from the historical record.

“Riothamus” is a Latinization of an Old Brittonic name. When we convert it back to its most likely original form, we get a word that closely resembles “high king” in Old Brittonic – the same title ascribed to Arthur in the legends.

The notion of Riothamus having been the basis of King Arthur’s legends is not new; it was first introduced by the historian Sharon Turner in 1799, but was picked up again by Geoffrey Ashe in the 1980s. Ashe also points to a Chronicle of Anjou, which has survived to us from medieval times. It retells King Arthur’s story, but calls his betrayer “Morvandus.” Arvandus was the name of a Roman prefect in Gaul who sent the Visigoths a warning of the approaching Britons, and was later convicted of treason for it in Rome. Based on this, Ashe believes that “Morvandus” may be a conjunction of “Mordred,” Arthur’s traditional betrayer in Geoffrey of Monmouth, with “Arvandus,” the betrayer of Riothamus. It is possible that a tradition survived into the medieval ages which confirmed that the two men were one and the same. If a medieval scribe had access to sources which recorded Riothamus’ real betrayer, but also did not want to contradict the well-accepted account by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the two names could have become conflated. What’s more, Riothamus’ retreat would have taken him in the direction of a region of Gaul known as Avallon, where there is believed to have been a Roman fort in which he would have been able to find refuge.

But we cannot definitively say that Arthur was Riothamus. There is no indication that Riothamus was ever called “Arthur,” and he disappears from history too early to have been involved in the Battle of Badon, the battle typically recorded in the sources as having been the decisive victory of Arthur’s which drove back the Saxons. There is also no indication that he fought any of the twelve battles in Nennius ‘ battle list.

One explanation for the difference in the names is that either “Arthur” or “Riothamus” could have been titles given to this man to denote respect. We know from the historical record that there was a man named Arthur who fought with Roman cavalry in Britain. Luciius Artorius Castus was a late second-century Roman commander stationed in Britain. In his life, he also brought troops from Britain to Rome. We also know from the sources that someone named Arthur was remembered as a great war leader: the Welsh poem Y Gododdin is the first text to mention him when it praises a warrior’s prowess, but admits that “he was not Arthur.” Poets in Roman and Celtic Britain frequently sung sonnets to their lords, and it was not uncommon for them to compare their lords to other great men of the past. A fifth-century bard could have honored Riothamus by comparing him to Lucious Artorius Castus. The comparison could have become popular and been picked up by society, so that he was frequently referred to as “Arthur” in Britain, but “Riothamus” in Rome and on the Continent. Most knowledge from this time was transmitted orally before it was ever put to paper. As knowledge existed of two leaders of Britain who marched towards Rome, the two men could have become conflated over time, and similarly, later victories by some surviving contingent of Riothamus’ men could have been ascribed to him.

But this is only a theory, and the fact that Riothamus brought troops to Rome may not mean anything. Geoffrey of Monmouth was notorious for distorting history in order to craft his story. It could only be the case that he took the story of Riothamus’ march on Rome and assigned it to Arthur. He did the same thing with Merlin: the story of his birth is taken from an earlier account about a boy named Ambrosius.

The truth is that we do not know for sure any more than what was first written on the matter by Sharon Turner in 1799:

Either this Riothamus was Arthur, or it was from his expedition that Geoffrey, or the Breton bards, took the idea of Arthur’s battles in Gaul.

postheadericon Is the Story of King Arthur Real?


The story of King Arthur is not a true story. It was shaped by a myriad of different storytellers, each of whom wove their own contributions into the legend over the course of a thousand years. While various attempts have been made at pinpointing an historical figure on whom the legends were based, even if such a figure did exist, the legends ascribed to him would not really have occurred.

However, what is not in dispute is the reality of the “Arthurian Fact.” That is, the earliest material to reference an Arthur records that he fought a number of battles driving off the Saxon invaders from Britain during the late fifth century. Archaeological evidence confirms that there was a decline in Saxon settlements during this time and an expansion of the British population, and several reputable documents from this time, including ones which do not mention Arthur, record that the Britons gained a strong foothold over their invaders during this time. Whether this was the result of a single person’s military ability is unknown, but it is mostly undisputed that the Britons gained a significant foothold during the time Arthur is recorded to have lived.

For centuries, Arthur was remembered by the Welsh for the events that were ascribed to him. Over the years, different writers picked up the tale, adding their own stories to the mix. Among other things, King Arthur was given a magical birth, a powerful wizard to shape him into a mighty king, a mighty sword bestowed upon him by a water nymph, and a tragic half death with the promise of his one-day return. His warriors, too, were given gallant adventures of their own, quests on which they sought out great treasure and encountered beautiful damsels possessing items of magic. People during the Middle Ages came to view Arthur’s legends more as we view fables today: not as recordings of history, but as stories meant to entertain and to teach a moral principle. As more storytellers retold the legend, Arthur came to be associated with jousting and holding a royal court – activities which did not exist in fifth-century Britain.

Throughout the ages, King Arthur has represented a remembrance of a golden age of Britain, the symbol of a people struggling to find hope in the face of extreme hopelessness. The endurance of his legend exemplifies the truth in the saying, the pen is mightier than the sword: it is in the strength of his legend that the strength of the people of fifth-century Britain lives on.

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postheadericon Who Put the Sword in the Stone?

Medieval Woman Holding Sword

Merlin put the sword in the stone, in order to ensure the proper King ruled Britain. After Arthur’s father, Uther, died, the nobles of Britain began disputing the right of succession. To ease their fears, Merlin erected a great sword stuck inside an anvil set atop a stone. By his magic, only the rightful ruler of Britain could wrest it from the stone. Meanwhile, baby Arthur was taken into safekeeping and raised by a loyal ally of the King’s.

When Arthur was fifteen, his stepfather, Sir Ector, and elder stepbrother, Kay, travelled to London to attend a tournament to determine the next king of England. When Arthur forgot Kay’s sword, he ran back to the inn where they were staying to retrieve it. But the inn was locked up and no one was around to let him in. Seeing the forgotten sword stuck inside the stone in a nearby churchyard, he pulled it out and brought it to Kay. When Kay was asked where he got the sword, at first, he tried to take credit for pulling it from the stone. But his father made him tell where he really got it from, and the nobles brought him and Arthur to put the sword back into the stone to see which one of them could pull it out. First, Kay tried to wrest it from the stone, but he could not. Then, Arthur tried, and the sword came loose.

This episode comes from Sir Thomas Malory, largely considered to be the most authoritative source on the Arthurian Legend. But it can be traced further back to the twelfth-century poet Robert de Boron. Whether de Boron invented the tale, or was drawing from older sources himself, is unknown. But he is the earliest writer in the surviving record to mention it. Some writers have suggested that de Boron may have meant to indicate that Arthur had wrested his sword from an invading Saxon: the Latin word for stone is only one letter off from the word “Saxon.” Others suggest he may have been drawing on older Nordic traditions in which a king was chosen by noblemen surrounding a stone centerpiece.

But these writers may forget that de Boron was writing in a time during which the Christian Church was gaining increasing strength in Britain, and older Celtic folktales, traditionally stronger in Britain than in other parts of Europe, were becoming increasingly Christianized. It is telling that the poem in which he depicts the Sword in the Stone episode, Merlin, is the same one in which Merlin’s father is rewritten as a demon trying to bring about the Antichrist, as opposed to the incubus demon of older sources – a traditionally Celtic creature, described by Geoffrey of Monmouth as having “partly the nature of men and partly that of angels.” And in de Boron, Arthur pulls the sword as a sign of dedication to justice and to the Christian faith, an element of the story left out by later writers.

The truth may well be that Robert de Boron put the sword in the stone in order to reaffirm his Christian faith.

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postheadericon WANTED: Hero for the Village of Camelot

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