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Article Published October 4, 1999
Was Charlemagne Really The True King Arthur?
By: Xenia Stanford Biography & Archived Articles
Many accomplishments credited to King Arthur of England were either borrowed from the pre-existing habits of the tribes of Gaul or did not happen until centuries after his lifetime. Although a real King Arthur is believed to have lived in the British Isles and died in 537 AD, not many documents or histories were written at the time and none that proved he had knights, a round table or even an unfaithful wife named Guinevere.
On the other hand there were many chroniclers writing during Charlemagne's reign from 742-814 AD whose works have survived to prove this king's deeds. In fact Charlemagne himself wrote letters and kept records that show such Arthurian traditions as chivalry, knighthood, courtly love and religious quests, such as for the Holy Grail, arose during Charlemagne's reign and thus were anachronistic to the real King Arthur's days.
THE ORDER OF THE ROUND TABLE
First upon examining the practices that Arthur could have known about and used, we find the famous Round Table. Seating equals at round or circular tables was a practice found among the Celtic tribes that inhabited Gaul prior to the Roman conquest around 58 BC. The Romans described these practices as common among the "barbarians". The Gallic tribal chiefs gathered their main or fiercest warriors around a circular table during celebratory feasts or war strategy meetings.
Thus Arthur could have known of this practice from his distant Celtic cousins but the concept of a round table in King Arthur's court did not arise in literature until long after the days of Charlemagne. It was the Norman poet Wa in Roman de Brut or "Romance (story) of Brutus" in 1155 that first mentioned the round table in his version of the legend of Arthur. English writer Layamon in the early 13th century expanded Wa's idea of a round table symbolizing equality in King Arthur's Court.
Shortly after French poet Robert de Boron expanded the symbolism surrounding the table but attributed the building of this table not to Arthur but his father King Uther Pendragon. Two centuries later, Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d'Arthur (1485) draws heavily on Boron's version but introduced the currently accepted Arthurian concept of the "Order of the Round Table".
The circular table at Winchester Castle displayed as "King Arthur's Round Table" has been dated as built during the 15th century, probably following Mallory's account. Thus, even though Arthur could have known about the idea of the round table, there is little evidence one actually existed in ancient Camelot.
On the other hand, Charlemagne was known as the ruler to devise the county system with counts as heads of the regional divisions to administer secular affairs and bishops as the ecclesiastical equal to govern church matters in each county. Although there is no evidence he had a round table at his court in Aachen, twice a year he brought together all the counts and bishops to meet with him. There they all had equal input into decision-making, apparently a historical first, though Charlemagne remained the final arbiter.
THE SWORD EXCALIBUR
Also Excalibur, if it existed, was probably a sword from Francia. Long before Merovingian ruler Clovis I drove out the Romans in 486 AD, the Gauls were renown throughout Europe for their craftsmanship in sword making. Their swords were extraordinary in artistic design, strength, resiliency and sharpness. The saying was the swords of the Franks were sharp enough to cut through stone. Thus we can see the similarity to the legend surrounding Arthur's sword.
The sword making in England at this time was much inferior. However, Arthur certainly could have owned a Gallic sword as goods traveled between the continent and the British Isles even during those early centuries. Again we find no documentation in literature or writing during his time or for centuries after his death to say he had any special sword. It was Layamon (circa late 1200s) who created the legend of Excalibur, a sword magically imbedded in a stone to be draw forth by the one true future king.
However, before Layamon, tales of the military exploits of Charlemagne were being told and retold, some by the scribe and chronicler, Einhard, and others by poets. The most famous poem arising to romanticize Charlemagne's 778 campaigns against the Saracens in Spain was Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland).
In this legend, based partly on the facts found in the history written by Einhard who was alive during the time, Roland (from Hroudlandus where h is silent) was the nephew of Charlemagne and a brave knight. He had a magic horn called Oliphant, which only he could sound, and a sword called Durandel said to be so powerful it could cleave the Pyrenees mountain range in two in a single blow. Today this sword supposedly is preserved at Rocamadour, France.
While no actual sword matching the description of Excalibur has ever been found and actually did not appear until after the legend surrounding Durandel, the sword and scabbard of Charlemagne can be found in the Louvre. Although it has been carefully restored many times, there are ancient materials still to be found that are believed to have been in the original.
This sword, which Charlemagne called Joyeuse (also Fusberta Joyosa), was one of only three swords the expert cutler Galas (or Gallas) made in his lifetime and took three years to craft. Charlemagne apparently used it on the battlefield to dub the first and most heroic knights. When he died and was buried at Saint-Denis monastery, the monks carefully guarded his sword, scabbard, spurs and many other items from their late king. The sword has been used from that time up to and including the coronation Napoleon as a part of the ceremony for crowning French monarchs.
(For a picture of Charlemagne's sword, see vrlab.fa.pitt.edu/medart/menufrance/sdenis/treasure/FelePl4/PlateIV-r2.html
KNIGHTHOOD AND CHIVALRY
Though King Arthur could have had such a table and sword even if they did not appear in stories until after Charlemagne's time, there are many anachronisms found in the tales of Arthur. The main one is the reference to knights and their code of conduct called chivalry. Although there were warriors who rode on horseback long before Charlemagne's time, knighthood and the chivalric code were not invented until and by the Great King Charles.
Prior to Charlemagne's rule maintenance of a cavalry was too expensive for this to be an extensive method used by the armies in continental Europe and the British Isles. Infantry were by far and large the most common fighting contingents.
However, the Vikings, Magyars and Muslims who began invading Western Europe during the 9th century were expert warriors and experienced horsemen. Foot soldiers alone could not vanquish these mounted hordes. To increase the number of horsemen in his own forces Charlemagne initiated a system where loyal warriors were granted lands by which they could obtain an income to provide themselves with horses, equipment and cavalry training. Either the grants were directly from the king or from other estate holders, such as dukes and other nobles. Each noble eventually supported at least one such mounted warrior for the defence of his castle and the kingdom.
These mounted soldiers were now in the league of nobles who were previously the only acknowledged landowners. To ensure these men who may or may not have been noble by birth had social distinction, the king gave them the title Sieur, which in English became Sire or Sir.
These deeds attributed by fiction to King Arthur show no origin in history before Charlemagne. Prior to that time land was mostly obtained by wresting it from the control of neighbours or rivals and those who obtained titles of distinction as well as titles to land were descendants of these men. Also often monarchs would divide land among relatives or favoured supporters. However, the practice of granting lands to loyal and distinguished warriors was not an established way of life until Charlemagne used it as a means of building a mounted army.
The knights were originally called chevaliers for horsemen or mounted soldiers and the code of conduct expected of them arose from this French name. The behaviour expected of the chevaliers toward their liege evolved into a code of ethics, which established how they were to serve their superior or senior (seigneur in Old French), how they were to act in court, how they were to treat ladies, and what religious duties were expected of them. This system, which arose from Charlemagne's time, was about three centuries too late for Arthur to have had knights much less ones with chivalrous conduct.
It was actually not until long after Charlemagne's time that a Welsh story collection called The Mabinogion was written (circa 1100) in which knights, such as Kay, Bedivere and Gawain, and Queen Guinevere were introduced into the Arthurian legends. Much later Boron and Malory introduced the surviving details of the order of knights with their codes of equality, loyalty and chivalry.
COURTLY LOVE AND ARTHUR'S BETRAYAL
The concept of courtly love arose out of Charlemagne's system of knighthood and the chivalric code. In courtly love a knight pledges himself to a lady, such as the Queen, fights for her, does brave deeds in her name, wears her colours or scarf in battles and steadfastly holds a mainly unrequited love for her. However, if the love was consummated even though the lady was not free to love another, the boundaries of good behaviour were crossed. The knight had to pay for his indiscretions by fighting or jousting to preserve or restore his lady's honour. If he succeeded both lady and knight were presumed innocent. If he failed, then all would know the code had been broken.
We can see the tale of Queen Guinevere and her knight Lancelot in this courtly love. Not only is this portion of the tale of Camelot at least three centuries prior to the actual origin of the concept of courtly love, Lancelot did not exist in this love triangle until the late 12th century.
The idea of courtly love and the betrayal of Arthur by his Queen first appeared in the stories around 1139 in the Historia Regum Britanniae written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey was the first to introduce Merlin, the infidelity of Guinevere and the rebellion by Arthur's nephew Mordred.
However, it was French poet Chrétien de Troyes writing toward the end of the 12th century who took Geoffrey's version and added that the betrayal was by Arthur's foremost knight, whom this poet named Lancelot. Although later English writers continued to add features and new characters, the French poetry of Chrétien de Troyes still prevails as the basic plot with its theme of courtly love.
QUEST FOR THE HOLY GRAIL AND KNIGHTS TEMPLAR
Chrétien not only introduced Sir Lancelot as Guinevere's lover and turned it into a tale of courtly love; he was the first to mention a search for Holy Grail. The account of the quest is very reminiscent of the Crusades, which again was anachronistic to Arthur's day.
Some versions also credit the searchers for the Holy Grail as belonging to the Knights Templar. However, it was not until the Crusades that several religious military orders of Christian knights arose. One of these was the Poor Knights of Christ started in 1119 by a French nobleman Hugh de Payens and eight of his companions. Since they occupied a house near the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem they were soon called Knights Templar, often shortened to Templars.
This too was an anachronism for Charlemagne as the first Crusade began in 1095 and Charlemagne died in 814. However, in a letter to his wife Fastrada, Charlemagne describes a holy war fought between his Christian Frank forces and the Muslim Avars. Charlemagne did not call his expedition a Crusade as the term only arose during the first campaign urged by Pope Urban II against the Muslims who had taken over Jerusalem, a holy Christian site. However, the religious significance was noted in Charlemagne's letter as he describes ousting the Avars from Christian sites and then ordering the troops to pray and fast for three days after the conquest.
There is no evidence that Arthur or his mythical knights embarked on any religious expeditions until the account of the French poets Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron in the 12th and 13th centuries. Troyes introduced the Quest and Boron first conceived the idea that Merlin convinced Arthur's father, King Uther Pendragon, to have a round table built to commemorate the Last Supper. In Boron's version too we first find mention of a special seat called the "siege perilous" intended for the knight who was to embark on the quest for the Holy Grail. Thus the Christian symbolism was not part of the tales of Arthur until writers had the benefit of the history of Charlemagne and the even later Crusades as the background for their versions of the legend.
WAS THE GOOD KING ARTHUR REALLY THE GREAT KING CHARLES?
In truth there probably was a real King Arthur who lived and died sometime during the 6th century. His deeds were no doubt passed on by word of mouth until a half-century later when the first written account arose in the Welsh poem Y Gododdin. Later Welsh histories and stories were written in the 9th and 10th centuries based on the growing embellishments of the tales passed down from the Celts.
However, most of what is credited to Arthur arose three to five centuries after his existence. As we have seen, the concepts of the Holy Grail, knighthood and chivalry were not extant during Arthur's time but were attributed to him posthumously by much later writers who had the benefit of traditions first founded by Charlemagne and later expanded during the intervening several centuries.
The way of life, supposedly lived by Arthur and his contemporaries, was definitely medieval or feudal. However, it began only when Charlemagne interlinked the Roman feudal and seigniorial practices into a unique form of government and created knighthood. Although some historians consider Arthur's time to be the beginning of the Middle Ages, the distinct type of society created by Charlemagne and which we now call simply feudalism was far different from anything created by the Romans or seen earlier in history.
No references prior to Charlemagne's reign support that this society was common in England, much less elsewhere, prior to his lifetime. In fact, it was not common practice in the British Isles until the Norman called William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 AD, long after even Charlemagne's death.
If there is any doubt that the medieval system arose from anyone else, we have the records kept during Charlemagne's time, particularly Annales Regni Francorum, and from the history of his life, Vita Karoli (Life of Charles) written by his scribe Einhard (died 836 AD) a decade after the death of the Great Charles. It is there we can see the true creator. The legends of Arthur were written looking back many centuries to a time when none of his supposed chroniclers lived. Thus many things attributed to Arthur were actually drawn from the real life and works of the great king of Francia whom we know as Charlemagne. Rather than believing the English King Arthur the Good was responsible for these noble deeds and great innovations, we should be praising King Charles the Great.
Due to reader's suggestion, I will try to alternate the continuation of the French history with more modern research methods required for the North American French, e.g. those from Quebec.
More Quebec/French Research Resources