Early Latin versions of the Legend of King Arthur

Early Latin versions of the Legend of King Arthur

Chantry Westwell traces the ninth-century origins of the Legend of King Arthur and explores the growth of the bestselling tale in medieval England and France.

Historia Brittonum

The earliest written account of King Arthur as a historical figure is the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons), a history of the British people. The history was assembled from a variety of sources in 829 or 830, by a cleric sometimes known as Nennius, probably under the patronage of the king of Gwynedd (r. 825–844).

In the text, Arthur is variously described as a war lord (dux bellorum), as a Christian soldier who carries either an image of the virgin or Christ’s cross, and as a legendary figure associated with miraculous events. For example, the account relates that a stone in Wales that bears the footprint of Arthur’s dog always returns to the same place if moved. The oldest surviving copy of this history is found in a miscellany of late antique and early medieval texts in Latin (now British Library, Harley MS 3859), including works on astronomy (accompanied by diagrams), military strategy, architecture and theology.

12th-century miscellany of Latin texts

Harley MS 3859, f. 187r

The account of the battles of Arthur in the earliest surviving copy of the Historia Brittonum from the early 12th century (British Library, Harley MS 3859, f. 187r)

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In a later copy from Western France, a different version of the Nennius text (BnF, Latin 5232) is located between Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) and a letter by another historian, Henry of Huntingdon (b. c. 1088, d. c. 1157). The letter about the kings of England contains a paragraph about Arthur. The book also includes fragments of works by Robert de Torigny, abbot of Mont Saint-Michel (d. 1186).

French collection of historical works

Latin 5232, f. 66v

The text on the right-hand column of this page recounts the deeds of Arthur, in a late 12th-century copy of the Historia Brittonum (BnF, Latin 5232, f. 66v)

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The Latin Chronicles of William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth

Both William of Malmesbury (b. c. 1090, d. c. 1142) and Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154/55) were Anglo-Norman clerics who wrote historical chronicles in Latin in the first half of the 12th century. William’s account, Gesta Regum Anglorum (The Deeds of the English Kings), written in c. 1125, begins with the Anglo-Saxon invasions in 449 and tells of Arthur’s single-handed defeat of 900 invaders.

Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), was completed between 1123 and 1139. This work, together with his Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin) gives the first detailed account of Arthur’s education by Merlin, the sword in the stone, his death on Salisbury plain and his final resting place at Avalon.

William of Malmesbury, a Benedictine monk at Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire, England, believed that Arthur was a historical figure, but recognised that his reputation had been embellished. For him, Arthur was

the hero of many wild tales among the Britons even in our own day, but assuredly deserves to be the subject of reliable history rather than of false and dreaming fable

Hic est Artur de quo Britonum nugae hodieque delirant, dingus plane quem non fallaces somniarent fabulae sed veraces predicarent historiae.., translation by Mynors (1998).

William of Malmesbury

Four main variants of William’s text have been identified, and one version contains some additions that are believed to have been made by the author himself. Two manuscripts copied between 1175 and 1225, both from important English monastic libraries, contain these additions. One, now in the British Library, was in the cathedral priory of St Andrew in Rochester in the late 12th or early 13th century and was probably copied there (British Library, Harley MS 261). It contains another historical work by William of Malmesbury, the Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops). The name, ‘Alexander Precentor’ is written on the first page of the Gesta next to the ownership inscription of Rochester priory. A precentor was a monk who usually fulfilled the duties of choir master, archivist and librarian, taking care of the community’s books which he kept in chests.

Rochester copy of William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the Kings of the English

Harley MS 261, f. 4r

Prologue and opening paragraphs of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum (British Library, Harley MS 261, f. 4r)

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Another copy of the same text is in a book from Saint Albans abbey, decorated with exquisite small initials containing a dragon, a lion and other creatures (BnF, Latin 6047).

Illuminated copy of William of Malmesbury’s Deeds of the Kings of the English

Latin 6047, f. 93v

An initial containing a bird, by the Simon master, in a copy of the Gesta Regum Anglorum from St Alban’s abbey (BnF, Latin 6047, f. 93v)

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Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth, or Galfridus Artur Monemutensis as he calls himself in the prologue to his Historia, was probably educated in Paris and became bishop of St Asaph in north Wales at the end of his life. He claims to have translated his semi-legendary chronicle from an old British book that he received from a certain Walter, archdeacon of Oxford.

Geoffrey’s account begins with the tale of Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, who travelled to an island named Albion at the end of the Trojan War, defeating a host of giants, and renaming the island after himself (‘Britain’).

Geoffrey describes the deeds of the last glorious British kings, Uther Pendragon and Arthur; his account ends in the seventh century with the death of Cadwallader, the retreat of his remaining followers to Wales and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon settlements across Britain. This work establishes Arthur’s historical and literary reputation as a powerful Christian monarch who embodies the qualities of generosity and culture and whose court provides a point of departure for knights on chivalric exploits.

One of the earliest surviving pictures of King Arthur is an ink drawing in a manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia from Normandy, believed to have been copied at Mont Saint-Michel in the mid-12th century (BnF, Latin 8501A). Arthur is shown as a venerable and dignified monarch in long robes. He points to the paragraph in the text where he is first introduced as a youth of 15 ‘of great promise and generosity’ who succeeds to the throne after the death of his father, Uther Pendragon. The young warrior-king then immediately assembles an army and goes off to fight against the Saxons.

Illustrated copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

Latin 8501A, f. 108v

Portrait of Arthur as a venerable monarch at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae from Mont Saint-Michel (BnF, Latin 8501A, f. 108v)

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Before the battle to relieve the siege of Bath, Arthur’s full knightly regalia is described in detail:

Arthur himself donned a hauberk [a coat of mail or tunic] worth of a mighty king, placed on his head a helmet engraved with the image of a dragon and shouldered his shield called Pridwen on which was depicted Mary....he also buckled on Caliburnus (Excalibur), an excellent blade forged on the isle of Avalon, and graced his hand with a spear called Ron.

Ipse vero arturus, lorica tanto rege digne indutus,auream galeam simulacro draconis insculptam capiti adaptat, humeris quoque suis clipeum vocabulo Pridwen in quo imago sanctae Mariae…inpicta…Accinctus etiam Caliburno gladio optimo et in insula Avallonis fabricato’, translated by Wright (1998)

The book also contains a selection of historical works, including a life of Alexander the Great, and is believed to have been made between 1154 and 1188, under the abbacy of Robert de Torigny of Mont Saint-Michel, who had a particular interest in historical writings. We know that in 1139, de Torigny, during his time at Bec Abbey, showed a copy of the Historia to Henry of Huntingdon, who had recently completed his own chronicle, the Historia Anglorum (The History of the English).

In a late 12th-century English copy of the Historia, now BnF, Latin 6040, a title, ‘Artur[us] Reg[um] Nobilissim[us]’ (Arthur, most noble of kings) was added at the top of the page on which the account of Arthur’s reign begins. On a later page, where his coronation is described in detail, a marginal note, ‘coronat[i]o arturi’ (the coronation of Arthur) has been added to indicate where the important episode begins.  Geoffrey relates that the coronation took place at Whitsun in Caerleon in the presence of the nobility and royalty of Britain and Europe and the prowess of Arthur’s court:

surpassed other kingdoms in its wealth, dress and sophistication…So the ladies were chaste and better women, whilst the knights conducted themselves more virtuously for the sake of their love

quod copia divitiarum, luxu ornamentorum, facetiae incolarum cetera regna exellebat…..Efficiebantur ergo castae et meliores et milites pro amore illarum probiores’, translation by Wright (1998).

English copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

Latin 6040, f. 45r

Marginal note, coronat[i]o arturi, marking the passage on Arthur’s coronation in the Historia Regum Britanniae (BnF, Latin 6040 f. 45r)

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A medieval bestseller

Geoffrey’s Historia has been described as one of the bestsellers of the Middle Ages. Over 200 manuscripts survive, about a third of them written before the end of the 12th century. There are 37 manuscripts in the British Library and 28 in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, of which six early copies have been digitised in The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project (for the list see Crick’s Summary Catalogue).

One of these, written in Northern France, testifies to the long-lasting popularity of the Historia on the Continent (British Library, Arundel MS 10). It was owned by Cambrai Cathedral during the 14th century and remained in France until at least 1530, when notes about the death of Charles the Bold (b. 1433, d. 1477), Duke of Burgundy, were added on a flyleaf. The book was later part of the collection of the Earl of Arundel (d. 1646), who amassed the first major British art collection, including paintings, sculpture and manuscripts.

No two manuscripts ever contain identical texts, as they are hand-copied and so human error and intervention are always a factor. Even well-known works like Geoffrey’s Historia have many variations in different manuscripts.

This northern French copy contains an interesting anomaly. Inserted between the opening chapters, consisting of the Prologue and the Description of England, and the beginning of Book 1 of the Historia proper, and copied at the same time, is an excerpt from a totally unrelated text. It is a sentence from St Augustine’s Exposition on the Psalms, with an accompanying commentary on heresy. There is no indication why it is there, so scholars have speculated that it may have been inadvertently copied from another manuscript of the Historia where a blank page between the two sections had been used for miscellaneous notes.

Continental copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain

Arundel MS 10, f. 2r

A Romanesque initial in gold with pale blue and red decoration, at the beginning of the prologue of the Historia Regum Britanniae (British Library, Arundel MS 10, f. 2r)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The early Latin chronicles containing the deeds of King Arthur and his court had wide appeal on both sides of the Channel, and it was not long before the Arthurian material was being translated and embellished by poets like Wace and Chrétien de Troyes. These translations were some of the earliest literary works in French, and beautifully illustrated versions were produced from the 13th century onwards.

The complex, expanding cycle of tales was adapted into all the major European languages, one of the best-known versions being Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, compiled in the 15th century.

The stories of the chivalric exploits of the Knights of the Round Table, the forbidden love of Lancelot and Guinevere, the magic of Merlin and the cloud-capped towers of Camelot that had their origins in the early Latin Historia, continue to entertain and inspire new audiences.

Further reading

Francois Avril in La légende du roi Arthur, ed. by Thierry Delcourt (Paris: Bibiothèque nationale de France, 2009), no 10, p. 82 [exhibition catalogue].

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, ed. by Michael D. Reeve, trans. by Neil Wright (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007)

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings vol. I, ed. and trans. by R. A. B Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998).

Julia C. Crick, The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth, 4 vols (Cambridge: Brewer, 1985-91), III, A Summary Catalogue of the Manuscripts (1989).

Rodney M. Thomson, Manuscripts from St Albans Abbey 1066-1235 (Woodbridge: Brewer, 1982).

  • Chantry Westwell
  • Chantry Westwell completed her undergraduate studies in modern languages at the University of Cape Town, followed by postgraduate studies in Linguistics at Ohio State University and in Medieval Studies, specialising in Old French and Old English, at University College London. She has a particular interest in Anglo-Norman and romance manuscripts and works as a volunteer cataloguer of medieval manuscripts at the British Library. She is originally from Zimbabwe.