Saturday, July 16, 2011

King Arthur: Knight of the Round Table or Knight Templar ?

For centuries, tales of King Arthur and his glorious Knights of the Round Table have been passed down from generation to generation. Every young boy knows of how a wizard named Merlin appeared to Uther Pendragon, handing him a young child named Arthur; and later Arthur pulled his sword, Excalibur, from a stone and became King of England. Yet as historians recently began scouring history books for answers, King Arthur and his famous wizard companion, Merlin, have been a topic of interesting debate. It's quite obvious that some portions of Arthurian legends have been exaggerated, but was King Arthur real, and did the Knights Templar play a twisted role in this famous tale?

King Arthur and Merlin were first written about in 1135 in a book called History of the Kings of Britain, written by an ancient monk, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey's tale describes a real historical king named Vortigern, who set out to build a massive and impenetrable tower in Wales. To the king's demise, the tower collapsed every time he built it. Vortigern turned to the wise oracles of Britain who told him the tower would only stand if he sprinkled the blood of a fatherless boy on the foundation stones. Not to be deterred by petty murder, the king set out to find such a boy.

King Vortigern traveled about his kingdom until he stumbled upon two young lads in the midst of a quarrel. One of the boys was ridiculing the other for not having a father. The king grabbed the young Merlin and rode off to find the boy's mother. Merlin's mother informed the king that she had been seduced by a mysterious man that disappeared soon after the encounter. The king cruelly told Merlin’s mother that Merlin was to be sacrificed for the glory of his great tower.

Merlin was a special boy and he had a gift of foresights. So when King Vortigern threatened death, Merlin channeled his inner seer's gift of prophecy and insight. Merlin kindly told Vortigern of a vision he had about the king’s sinking tower. According to the vision, the reason Vortigern’s tower kept sinking was because it was being built on a pool of water. He told the King there was a swamp under the land and if he dug the land beneath the tower, he would find this swamp and in the swamp he would also find two serpents. 

Vortigern had his men dig the land beneath the proposed tower and found such a pool of water and in the swamp he found the two serpents. The King chose to keep Merlin around and the young prophet proved his worth over the years, spewing forth prophecies that helped Vortigern win battles and conquer new lands.

Finally, Merlin had a vision of King Vortigern’s death. Merlin told Merlin one day he would be burned alive in his impregnable tower. Years later a young king named Aurelius Ambrosius, invaded Britain and burnt the tower to the ground with Vortigern inside.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of Britain, Aurelius didn't remain king for long, as he was poisoned. After his death, his brother Uther Pendragon became king. While king, Uther Pendragon declared peace with the Scots and invited all the nobles of Scotland to his palace for a celebration.

That night Uther Pendragon fell in love with the wife of a powerful lord of Scotland. He became entranced with Igerna, the husband of Duke Gorlois. Whence the attraction became known to the Duke, he snatched his wife and rode back to Scotland.

Uther Pendragon brought forth his armies and followed Duke Gorlois, for he wanted nothing more than to be with Igerna. Once in Scotland, Pendragon was humbled by the duke's impregnable tower. At his wits end, Uther Pendragon called forth the magician that had been loyal to the kings of Britain. Merlin devised a plan to sneak Uther Pendragon into the tower and he used his powers to make Uther appear identical to Duke Gorlois. With the duke’s look’s, Uther was allowed into the tower, where he slept with Igerna.

Meanwhile, Uther’s clever general’s found their way into the tower and killed Duke Gorlois. Satisfied with the outcome, Uther Pendragon took Igerna back to England to be his wife where she bore him a child. Uther remained the King of Britain for fifteen years until he also was poisoned, and his son Arthur took the crown at a young age.

This is the tale of King Arthur and Merlin as Geoffrey of Monmouth first told it. There were no knights of the round table, no sword in the stone, and no holy grail. However, with any successful tale, more starving writers would put their twist on it and there would be many more versions to come. The only difference is that Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote this version as a non fictional account of the history of Britain. Was there truth behind his account of King Arthur?
Will the real King Arthur please stand up?

Historians tell us that most likely the story doesn't even take place in medieval times, but around 470 A.D. It seems Arthur wasn't a king but a general of the Roman army that was left behind in Britain after the Romans conquered a portion of the island. The Romans had taken most of their armies back to defend Rome in a time of need, but they left small outposts to keep a presence in their newly acquired lands.

The Romans had conquered the southern part of the British Island, but the Scots from the north were hardly subdued and at the same time the Saxons began invading from the Netherlands. The native Britons were calling out to the Romans for help, but the Romans were all but tied up in Gaul. 

Eventually a Briton named Vortigern, rose up and declared himself king. Vortigern then allied himself with the invading Saxons to fight against the Scots. It was a shaky alliance and eventually Vortigern ran out of funds. The Saxons turned their back in Vortigern and decided to conquer Britain for themselves.

After Vortigern died, a Roman soldier named Aurelius Ambrosius rallied the Britons and began a series of campaigns against the Saxons. The war would last several decades and after Ambrosius died; his brother Uther Pendragon led the Britons. Uther was successful, but he too was killed making the way for another up and coming Roman General named Artorius, whom historians believe is the basis for the King Arthur.

Arthur all but stopped the Saxon invasion over the course of twelve battles. Geoffrey of Monmouth writes the last battle was the battle to be remembered, the Battle of Bandon in 518 A.D. After defeating the Saxons, Arthur spent the next several years trying to keep his newly created kingdom together. His allies were fighting amongst themselves and assassination was always on his mind.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Arthur was finally killed in the battle of Camlann. After the battle, Arthur' body was carried off to the Isle of Avalon. His body was hidden away from the Saxons, but the rumors began that Arthur wasn't really dead and would return to help Britain in her time of need.
Did King Arthur pull Excalibur from a stone to become King of England?

This is highly unlikely, but what is likely is that King Arthur pulled his sword from a Saxon after a battle and his skill as a warrior led him to become ruler of the Britons. In Latin, stone is translated as "saxo" which is very close to "Saxon". Since Arthur was fighting the Saxons it seems very likely that this was a translation error in the story. Further, Geoffrey of Monmouth calls King Arthur’s sword Caliburn, not Excalibur. This is a combination of two Celtic words, river and burn, which is most likely referring to the river Cale in which the sword was forged.

Was the Isle of Avalon real?

King Henry II of England became a huge fan of King Arthur after Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the initial stories.  He became so infatuated he led his own investigations into the validity of the Arthurian tales. King Henry II was a well traveled man and on one such adventure, he came across a Welsh bard that told him the town of Glastonbury was Avalon Isle of the Arthurian legend and King Arthur was buried at the Church there between two pyramids. At one time the town of Glastonbury was completely surrounded by the English Channel.

Henry had been close with the Bishop of Glastonbury as the Abbott supported him to become King. The Abbot kindly declined the King's request to search for the body of Arthur in the church. The Abbey was already rich and famous with Christian pilgrims. It was rumored that Joseph of Arimathea was buried there as well. Joseph of Arimathea was the man that Christ gave the grail they used during the last supper. The story goes that after Christ's death, Joseph brought the grail to England.

So the king waited patiently and finally the story took an interesting twist. The Abbey of Glastonbury caught fire in May of 1184 and burnt to the ground. Everything was destroyed but the image of Our Lady of Glastonbury. Many saw this as a sign from God and one monk requested to be buried on the grounds between two crosses.  The two crosses were erected on marble pillars that could be described as pyramids.

The monks of the Abbey found a reason to dig up the burial site that could possibly house King Arthur or Joseph of Arimathea of the bible. After digging seven feet they hit a stone slab. They pried the slab open and on the underside was the inscription of a cross with a Latin engraving. The inscription read: “Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.”

According to legend, the monks decided to keep digging and they burrowed down sixteen feet when they finally struck wood. They unearthed a large coffin and inside were two skeletons. The male skeleton had holes in his head from heavy blows and the smaller female skeleton still had wisps of blond hair. Could this have been King Arthur and Lady Guinevere? Most of Briton seemed to think so.

Most historians accuse the monks of Glastonbury of making the whole story up but there are two points that shouldn't be overlooked. First in 1963, the site was re-excavated and the excavation showed that the earth had been dug up as far as sixteen feet down. Second, if the Abbey of Glastonbury was said to also hold the body of St. Joseph, why wouldn't they have faked finding his body also. It would have given more credibility to the Abbey.