Why King Arthur is not an English myth — or even a Welsh one

I happened to be flicking through the Guardian’s TV Guide yesterday, and I came across a review of “Merlin”, the BBC series that started this year. I haven’t watched the programme and have no strong interest in doing so, although it’s probably quite good fun. But something at the end of the review got to me; it’s far from being the first time I’ve seen this, and it won’t be the last. But it does always get to me. What was it?

It was that the reviewer referred to the myth of Arthur and Merlin as “English”.

If this is how you see the myth too, then shame on you. To call it an English myth makes about as much sense as calling it a Scottish myth, and is more insulting.

Now, before you think this is just a rant on behalf of his being Welsh, I’m not entirely sure that the Welsh (in the sense that we use the word today) can claim him either. The first mention of the character is in Welsh literature, but it dates from a time when Welsh was spoken in large parts of what we now call England and Southern Scotland. That’s kind of the point. Arthur is depicted as a leader of the Britons: the more or less (more in the South East, less in the West and North) Romanised inhabitants of what are now Wales, England and Southern Scotland, and who spoke a Celtic language, the ancestor of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The Germanic tribes that Arthur fought against called these Britons “Wealas” (i.e. Welsh), which was a name they applied generally to Romanised foreigners. The Britons called the invaders “Saeson” (i.e. Saxons). The invaders themselves initially called themselves a variety of names, based on the tribes they belonged to (Angles, Saxons and Jutes, mainly). Soon they came to refer to their language, and themselves, as Englisc (i.e. English). And they eventually defeated the Britons in that part of Britain that we now name after them: England.

So Arthur and his people lost the battle, in most of Britain at least, and the fact that most of Britain now speaks English is a result of that defeat. This wave of Germanic invaders never succeeded in conquering that part of Britain that we now call Wales, although its leaders (along with those of Scotland) eventually paid fealty to the English king. It was only in 1282, two centuries after they conquered the English, that the Normans conquered the Welsh and annexed Wales (although full unity with England wasn’t achieved until the reign of a King of Welsh descent: Henry VIII).

But, as I said, I don’t want this post to be too much of a nationalist rant. Arthur was Welsh in the sense that that is what his enemies would have called him. But that doesn’t mean he was born in Wales, or even lived there. Even if the myth is based on a real person, that person might have been born outside Britain; he might very well have been born, and might have been based, somewhere in that area we now call England. But that doesn’t make him English. There was no England then, and if the word “English” meant anything, it was the name his enemies applied to themselves.

And nor can we really call the myth English either. It became popular, and was developed, in many places in Mediaeval Europe. When the Normans came to conquer England, they found it a useful propaganda tool. The myth of Arthur is about a noble British leader falling to pagan invaders. The Normans liked to depict themselves as saving a nobler Britain from debased English rule. And Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Norman living in Wales (and probably born there), did much work to develop the myth of Arthur and Merlin for such an audience. Our modern understanding of the myth owes much to him.

So to call the story of Arthur an English myth is ridiculous. Calling it Welsh seems less wrong (it appears first in Welsh, and Arthur would probably have been called Welsh in his lifetime), but it’s still not quite right. When we call something “Welsh” now, we imply that it belongs to Wales. But there was no Wales when Arthur was supposed to exist, just as there was no England. And the Britons who were defeated in what was to become England didn’t all flee to Wales or Brittany. Most English people today are probably descended from them, at least in part. The conquered mixed with the conquerers.

So let’s call him British. But shame on any Briton who thinks English means the same thing.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Why King Arthur is not an English myth — or even a Welsh one

  1. Or, I should add, that Welsh does either!A brief note is also worth adding on what “Welsh” was then. As I mention in the post, the language we call Welsh, along with Cornish and Breton, are descended from a Celtic language apparently once spoken throughout much of Britain: those parts we now know as Wales, England, and Southern Scotland. Pictish, spoken in bordering kingdoms of what is now Scotland, might have been closely related, but the evidence for Pictish is poor.There seems to be reasonable evidence that there was a relatively large dialectal divide between North and South Britain; Cornish is a descendant of the southern dialect of Brythonic, and Welsh is a descendant of the northern dialect; and Breton is rather closer to Cornish than to Welsh. Cumbric is the name applied to the Brythonic dialect/language spoken in Southern Scotland and northern England, which seems to have survived for at least a couple of centuries after the Battle of Hastings. The difference between dialect and language is a distinction almost not worth making; there is, in general, no principled way of doing so, and even if there were, the evidence here is scant. Cumbric and Welsh were apparently very similar at this time, but how similar is unclear. Perhaps they were like Spanish and Portuguese, or perhaps like American and British English. Probably more the latter. As the name “Cumbric” suggests, its speakers would have referred to it by much the same name as Welsh-speakers referred to their language. And the Germanic-speaking inhabitants would have called both something like Welsh, or presumably (as sentimental types refer to Welsh as Cymric now) as something like Cumbric. Until relatively recently, I recall my Welsh teacher telling me in school, some Welsh people called their language /kumbrɛːg/.And literature written in Cumbric was preserved, where it was preserved, in Wales. And this preservation doubtless influenced the linguistic forms we find it it.So was the Gododdin written in Welsh? The language is referred to now by scholars as Old Welsh/Hen Gymraeg, or perhaps as Late Brythonic. Maybe imagine it like this: 1000 years in the future, Britain doesn’t speak English, but America does, and refers to its language as English. Shakespeare somehow remains associated with England, but the relaionship has changed, and so has the American relationship with him.

  2. Gwyn Williams

    At the time of king Arthur all of Britain was made up of welsh tribes.we known this because all place names at this time are all welsh including place names in what is now Scotland. Glass cae which becomes Glasgow and in England we have dwr fa which means water way in welsh and later becomes Dover and Avon (afon) welsh for river. So yes king Arthur spoke old welsh how because everybody else did. except Cornwall

  3. Trystan

    Although if the legend is true he was born in Tintagel which means he would technically be a Cornish legend, however as you said there was no Cornwall exactly back then, the Cornish and the Welsh where the same tribe so you could count that as the same. but either way you are right it was no England back then and if Arthur was real and was here today he would not be King of it he will be trying to conquer it

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