Sources on the passing of Arthur

Completed 18 April 2004.
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© Text Copyright 2004 Michael Wild

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The druidesses of the Isle of Sena as described by Lewis Spence

The mysterious cauldron is alluded to by Taliesin as having been instituted by nine maidens who "warmed it with their breath", Davies2 believes them to have been Gwyllion or, "fairies", prophetic damsels who bore a resemblance to the nine muses of classical lore. They are mentioned by Taliesin as preparing their cauldron in a "quadrangular caer" or sanctuary in "the island of the strong door". This seem to refer to the island of Seon mentioned in the same poem and which must be one and the same with the Sena or Ile de Sein, not far from Brest, mentioned by Pomponius Mela1 as the "abode of priestesses holy in perpetual virginity, and nine in number. they are" he proceeds called Galliceniæ, and are thought to be endowed with singular powers. By their charms they are able to raise the winds and seas, tto turn themselves into what animals they will, to cure wounds and diseases incuable by others, to know and predict the future." In a word they were Druidesses, as modern authorities have admitted. Once a year they unroofed their temple, and if, in the task of rethatching it, one of them stumbled, sshe was immediately torn to pieces by the others.
Strabo likewise mentions these priestesses of Sena as devotees of "Bacchus", possessed by "Dionysus". this is, of course, merely another way of saying that these women were hierophants of a Keltic deity whose rites and mysteries resembled those of Bacchus, the orgiastic celerations which preceded the deity's gifts of inspiration and prophecy,

2British Druids P. 223
1Davies, British Druids, III, P. 317

Spence, L., The Mysteries of Britain: secret rites and traditions of ancient Britain, Senate: London, 1994, P. 82-3.

Arthur's passing in Geoffrey of Monmouth

Writing about 1136, Geoffrey has the roots of Arthur's final battle in the usurpation of the crown by his nephew Mordred, who is living adulterously with a willing Guinevere. Arthur abandons his continental campaign against the Roman empire and lands, with an army comprised of British troops, at Richborough. Here he succeeds, after a great struggle, in routing Mordred's troops and forcing their flight. Among Arthur's casualties is one who is close to him, his nephew Gawain. On hearing of this defeat of Mordred, Guinevere flees from York to the 'City of the Legions', where she becomes a nun in the church of Julius the Martyr.

Mordred retreats to Winchester, where he is besieged by Arthur. However Mordred issues forth from the protection offered by the city and is defeated in a bloody battle. Mordred now flees by sea to Cornwall and Arthur pursues him. They meet a final time in battle on the River Camblam (River Camel?). After a fierce fight that decimates both armies, Mordred is killed in a charge against the division that surrounds him and Arthur is severely wounded: -

Arthur himself, our renowned King, was mortally wounded and was carried off to the Isle of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to. He handed the crown of Britain over to his cousin Constantine, the son of Cador Duke of Cornwall: this in the year 542 after our Lords's incarnation

Geoffey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin 1983 (1966), P. 262.

Arthur and Morgan from the Life of Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth

'The Isle of Apples, which is also called the Blessed, has gained this name from its nature, since it produces all things spontaneously. It needs no farmers to till its soil: its only cultivation is that provided by nature. Untended, it bears rich crops, grapes and, in its woods, apples born of precious seed. Its soil freely produces everything like grass. The people on it live for a hundred years or more. Nine sisters rule there by right of birth over those who come to them from our lands. Their leader is more skilled at healing and more beautiful than her sisters. She is called Morgan, and has learned the properties each plant has to cure sick bodies. She also has the power of changing her shape, and of flying through the air on strange wings like Daedalus. She can be at Brest, Chartres or Pavia whenever she wishes, or glide from the sky onto our shores. She is also said to be learned in mathematics according to her sisters, Moronoe, Moroe, Gliorn, Glitonea, Gliten, Tythonoe, Tythen and Tithen, famed above all for playing the lyre.
'After the battle of Camlan we took the wounded Arthur to their island, led by Barinthus who was familiar with the sea and stars. With our ship under his direction, we arrived there with our leader and Morgan received us with due honour. She placed the king on golden coverlets in her bedchamber and herself exposed his wound with her noble hand. After examining it for a long while, she said that he might eventually recover his health, if he remained with her for a long time and was willing to submit to her care. So we joyfully entrusted the king to her and returned with a following wind in our sails.'

Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Life of Merlin, translated by Neil Wright, in Myths and Legends of the British Isles, edited by Richard Barber, the Bodyell Press, 1999, pp. 134-5.

Arthur's passing in Wace and Layamon

Geoffrey of Monmouth's followers, Wace and Layamon, follow Geoffrey fairly closely, though they have him landing in Britain at Romney rather than Richborough. Both note the doubt concerning Arthur's end: did he die or does he live on in Avalon? Layamon introduces the motif, which is familiar to the readers of Malory of Arthur being taken away by 'wondrously formed' women in a boat that has no visible means of propulsion, both of which indicate the otherworldly origin of the boat and its occupants. Layamon also has Arthur being under the care of queen 'Argante' (a name obviously derived from Morgan) who he describes as being 'elfin': in other words an inhabitant of a fairy otherworld.

...Arthur himself was wounded in his body to the death. He caused him to be borne to Avalon for the searching of his hurts. He is yet in Avalon, awaited of the Britons; for as they say and dem he will return from whence he went and live again. Master Wace, the writer of this book, cannot add more to this matter of his end than is spoken be Merlin the prophet. Merlin said of Arthur__if I read aright__that his end should be hidden in doubtfulness. The prophet spoke truly. Men have ever doubted, and__asI am persuaded__wil lever doubt whether he liveth or is dead. Arthur bade that he should be carried to Avalon in this hope in the year 542 of the incarnation. The sorer sorrow that he was a childless man. To Constantine, Cador's son, Earl of Cornwall, and his near kin, Arthur commited the realm, commanding him to hold it as king until he returned to his own. The earl took the land in his keeping. he held it as bidden, but nevertheless Arthur came never again.

Arthurian Chronicle, trans. by Eugene Mason, Dent/Everyman, 1962 (1912), pp. 113-4.

Arthur was wounded wonderously much. there came to him a lad, who was of his kindred; he was Cador's son, the Earl of Cornwall; Constantine the lad hight, he was dear to the king. Arthur looked on him, where he lay on the ground, and said these words with a sorrowfu heart: "Constantine, thou art welcome; thou wert Cador's son. I give thee here my kingdom, and defend thou my Britons ever in thy life, and maintain them all the laws that have stood in my days, aqnd all the good laws that in Uther's days stood. And I will fare to Avalun, to the fairest of maidens, to Argante the queen, an elf most fair, and she shall make my wounds all sound; make me all whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will come again to my kingdom, and dwell with the Britons with mickle joy."
Even with the words there approached from the sea that was a short boat, floating with the waves;and two women therein, wondrously formed; and they took Arthur anon, and bare him quickly, and laid him down softly, and forth they gan depart.
Then was accomplished that Merlin whilom said, tha mickle care should be of Arthur's departure. The Britons believe yet that he is alive, and dwelleth in Avalun with the fairest of all elves: and the Britons ever yet expect when Arthur shall return. Was never the man born, of ever any lady chosen, that knowesth of the sooth, to say more of Arthur. But whilom was a sage hight Merlin; he said with words__his sayings were sooth__that an Arthur should yet come to help the English.

Arthurian Chronicle, trans. by Eugene Mason, Dent/Everyman, 1962 (1912), P. 264.

Arthur's death in a variant of Geoffrey of Monmouth

This interesting variant of Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Arthur's death is both more extensive and more perplexing than it's original. It was, according to Richard Barber (Legends of Arthur, Boydell, 2001, P. 11) written some one hundred years after Geoffrey composed his book and was probably intended to flesh out the sparse and uninteresting account of Arthur's death that was given there.

In the final battle, in which Mordred was killed, Arthur was wounded and while his wounds were not life threatening, they did give cause for concern. On the battle field, on his own orders, Arthur was disarmed. There then appears 'a certain handsome youth, tall in stature whose appearance proclaimed his immense strength, suddenly appeared on horseback.' He bears in his right hand a shaft of elm. 'This shaft was stiff, not twisted or knotted but straight, and shaprpened to a point in the manner of a lance; yet it was sharper for inflicting injury than than any lance, since it had been fired to make it hard, and its hardness and been tempered with equal care by plunging it in water. It had been daubed with adder's venom so that, if the person who cast it lacked strength, this would be compensated for by it's poison.' This 'bold youth' rides up to Arthur and uses his elm shaft to give him a wound more severe than all his others. As the youth escapes Arthur flings a spear at him which kills him.

Arthur now says that he has not much longer to live, to the distress of those around him. However his health does improve and he orders that he be taken to Gwynedd, where, in the beautiful Isle of Avalon, he expects to find 'peace and ease the pain of his wounds'. Unfortunately the physicians of the island are unable to cure his wounds and Arthur knows himself to be close to death. After making his confession and giving the kingship of Britain to Constantine, son of Duke Cador, Arthur receives the divine sacraments. He then dies, stretched out upon his hair shirt, in the manner of one doing penance for his sins.

After Arthur's death, his body is embalmed in balsam and myrrh and is taken, as he had commanded, to a little chapel dedicated 'to the honour of the Holy Mother of God, the perpetual Virgin Mary'. This chapel has a curious feature, for its door is so narrow that people can only squeeze in sideways and consequently Arthur's substantial corpse has to be left outside on it's bier. Then occurs the burial service, accompanied by a frightening storm: -

The inhabitant of this chapel was a certain hermit who enjoyed who enjoyed the serenity of this most peaceful dwelling, remote from the squalor of the market-place. The senior bishops (the archbishop of London, bishop Urien of Bangor and bishop Urbegen of Glamorgan) entered; the holy services were performed for the soul of the king; and we are told that the dead man's body remained outside. While the bishops performed the last rites, the sky thundered, the earth quaked, storms poured down relentlessly from on high, lightning flashed, and the winds blew from each quarter in turn. After the briefest interval, a mist descended which absorbed the brightness of the lightning, and surrounded the attendants of the royal corpse with such darkness that they saw nothing, even though their eyes were wide open. This mist continued uninterrupted from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon, and the air resounded continually with the crash of thunder. Finally, when the mist dispersed and the air cleared, they could dind no trace of the royal corpse. The king had been transported to an abode especially prepared for him; and they looked upon a bier deprived of its burden. They were perplexed by the disappearance of the king's body, and could not agree on the truth of what had happened. So an argument rose among them: 'Where did this mighty power come from? Through what violence was he carried off?
Even today, the shadow of uncertainty remains as to where King Arthur was to find his place of rest. Some people say that he is still alive, sound and well, since he was carried off without their knowledge. Others contrdict this bold conjecture, affirming without the slightest scruple of doubt that he paid the debt of death, for when the mist had been dispersed and visibility had returned, a sealed tomb appeared to the gaze of those present. It seemed to be solidly closed and of one piece, so that it appeared to be one single stone, whole and solid, rather than fashioned with the mortar and craft of the builded, piece by piece. They believe that the King is enclosed in its recesses, since it was discovered already sealed and closed, and there is still no small disagreement among them.

Legends of Arthur, edited by Richard Barber, Boydell, 2001, pp. 50-1.

Arthur's passing in Robert de Boron

Robert de Boron introduces some variations to the story originally told by Geoffrey of Monmouth. After Mordred's defeat before Winchester, he flees to Ireland. He crosses this country and finds refuge with a Saxon king who rules an island there. Arthur pursues Mordred to Ireland, where Modred is defeated and killed, alongside the Saxon king who gave him refuge. Arthur himself is mortally wounded by a lance-thrust through the chest. He tells his adherents that he will go to have his wounds tended by his sister Morgan in Avalon and asks them to wait for him. He does not return, but has been seen and heard hunting with his hounds: perhaps an allusion to King Arthur as a leader of the Wild Hunt.

And King Arthur was mortally wounded, struck through the chest with a lance. They gathered about Arthur, grieving bitterly, but he said to them: 'Stop this grieving, for I shall not die. I shall be carried to Avalon, where my wounds will be tended by my sister Morgan.'
And so Arthur was borne to Avalon, telling his people to wait for him, for he would return.
The Britons made their way back to Carduel, and waited more than forty years before they named a new king, for they were daily expecting Arthur to reappear. And I tell you, some people have seen him since out hunting in the forests, and have heard his hounds with him; so that others have long lived in the hope that he would return.

Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea - Merlin - Perceval: The Trilogy of Arthurian Romances attributed to ROBERT DE BORON, trasnslated by Nigel Bryant, D. S. Brewer, 2001, P. 171

Arthur's death in the Vulgate Cycle

Now comes a sea change in the accounts of the death of Arthur, with that part of the Vulgate Cycle known as La Mort Le Roi Artu (a translation of this by James Cable and entitled The Death of King Arthur has been published by Penguin) and probably written between 1230-35. This is the account that we recognise from Malory. For Mordred is Arthur's son, Guinevere does not marry him and the plangent scene of the throwing of Excalibur into the lake is introduced. In Arthur's absence on his campaign against Lancelot, Mordred, who was appointed as regent by Arthur, takes the crown and seeks to marry Guinevere by force. Besieged in the Tower of London, Guinevere flees to an abbey of nuns founded by her ancestors, where she wishes to end her days as her mother, the Queen of Tarmelide, did.

Meanwhile Arthur has landed at Dover, where he meets no opposition and where Gawain dies from wounds received during Arthur's continental campaign against Lancelot. Arthur advances to Salisbury Plain, where he meets Mordred in battle. Against the numerically superior army of Mordred, Arthur fights a bloody battle. Arthur attacks Mordred, to avenge the beheading of Sagramour in the battle, and Mordred advances to meet his father's attack. Arthur pierces Mordred through with his lance, which leaves such a gaping wound that sunlight can be seen through it. Knowing his end is come, Mordred attacks Arthur's helmet with his sword and cuts away a piece of Arthur's skull. Both men fall and lie beside each other: Mordred dead and Arthur mortally wounded.

Lucan the Butler and Girflet, the only remaining members of Arthur's force left alive, take their horses with Arthur and ride to the sea. Coming to the Black Chapel, Arthur spends the night in prayer. The following morning, when Lucan the Butler pities Arthur's distress, Arthur takes him in his arms and crushes him to death. Distressed at causing Lucan's death, Arthur orders Girflet to saddle their horses and they ride down to the sea. Here Arthur instructs Girflet to take Excalibur and to throw it into a lake that he will find upon a nearby hill. Girflet pretends to throw Excalibur into the lake twice, but fails to fool Arthur. On the third occaision, he throws Excalibur in the lake, where it is caught and flourished by a hand that appears from the lake, which then takes Excalibur into the body of the lake. Satisfied, from his account of what he saw, that Girflet has thrown Excalibur into the lake, Arthur now orders the protesting Girflet to leave him. He tells Girflet that he will never see him again, but he refuses to reveal where he will be going. Girflet rides away in heavy rain, that began when he left Arthur, and shelters under a tree. From here he sees a boat filled with women coming across the sea. When it reaches Arthur, the leader of the women disembarks from it holding the hand of Arthur's sister, Morgan the Fay. Arthur now enters the boat with his horse and arms and it sails away. Girflet now returns to the Black Chapel to see if Lucan has been buried. Here he finds, not only the tomb of Lucan, but also that of King Arthur, who he learns from the hermit in charge of the chapel was brought there by some ladies who he did not know.

Arthur's death in Malory

Broadly based on the Vulgate account, Malory's le Morte d'Arthur nonetheless includes some variants. Arthur's landing at Dover is opposed by Mordred and only after a hard fight, in which Gawain receives his death wound, does Arthur win ashore. Next follows a second battle, nearby on Barham Downs, in which Arthur is victorious. Mordred retreats to Salisbury Plain. Here, Arthur and Mordred hold a peace conference, but, mistrustful of each other, they warn their respective armies to attack if any sign of treachery is seen. It is now that the unfortunate incident where an adder stings the foot of a knight, who draws his sword to kill the snake. This drawing of a sword is interpreted as an act of treachery and battle is commenced.

After both armies have been decimated, Arthur sees Mordred standing among the dead of his army. Arthur attacks Mordred with his spear and Mordred responds with his sword. Arthur thrusts the spear through Mordred's body, who, knowing that he has received a mortal wound, thrusts his body up the shaft of Arthur's spear and strikes the King on the side of his head, piercing his helmet and his skull. Both now fall down beside each other; Mordred dead and Arthur in a faint. Sir Lucan the Butler and Sir Bedivere, the only two of Arthur's knights left alive, now take Arthur to a chapel by the seaside. Arthur orders Sir Lucan the Butler to go and see what the noise is from the late battlefield. Lucan returns with the news that the noise is made by pillagers killing wounded knights and despoiling their corpses and advises that he and Bedivere must take Arthur to a town. Arthur agrees and is lifted by Lucan and Bedivere, but the effort is to much for Lucan, a part of his intestines fall out of a wound and he falls dead.

Arthur tells Bedivere that he knows that his end is coming and enjoins him to throw Excalibur into a nerby 'water'. Bedivere does this on the third occasion and Arthur orders him to take him to the 'water side'. Here a barge comes and Arthur orders Bedivere to put him aboard.

Alas, said the king, help me hence, for I dread me I have tarried over long. Then Sir Bedivere took the king upon his back, and so went with him to that water side. And when they were there at the waterside, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them was a queen, and they all had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur. Now put me into the barge, said the king. And so he did softly; and there received him three queens of great mourning; and so they set him down, and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And then that queen said, Ah, dear brother, why have you tarried so long from me? alas this wound on your head hath caught overmuch cold. And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere beheld all those ladies go away from him. then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur what shall become of me, now that ye go from me and leave me all alone among mine enemies?. Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayest, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear no more of me pray for my soul. But ever the queen and ladies wept and shrieked that it was a pity to hear.

....but thus was he lead away in a ship wherein were three queens; that one was King Arthur's sister, Queen Morgan le Fay; the other was the Queen of Northgalis; the third was the Queen of the Waste lands. also there was Nimue, the chief lady of the lake,...

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, Dent 1964 (1906), Book XXI, chaps. v & vi.

Sir Bedivere comes to a chapel bside Glastonbury where he finds the tomb of a knight whose body a group of ladies brought to chapel. Bedivere recognises this to be the tomb of King Arthur and stays at the chapel to serve its hermit. Yet, Malory is cautious as to whether the body in the tomb was that of Arthur and notes.

YET some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I willnot say it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life. But many men say that ther is written upon his tomb this verse: Hic jacet Arthurus Rex, quondam Rex, Rex que futurus.

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, Dent 1964 (1906), Book XXI, chap. vii.

A Welsh tradition from Sir John Rhys

The next story to be mentioned belongs to the same Snowdonian neighbourhood and brings us back to Arthur and his men. For a writer who has already been quoted from the Brython for 1861, p. 331, makes Arthur and his following set out from Dinas Emrys and cross Hafod y Borth mountain for a place above the upper reach of Cwmllan called Tregalan where they found their antagonists. From Tregalan the latter were pushed up the bwlch or pass, towards Cwm Dyli; but when the vqanguard of the army with Arthur leading had reached the top of the pass, the enemy discharged a shower of arrows at them. there Arthur fell, and his body was buried in the pass so that no enemy might march that way so long as Arthur's dust rested there. That he says, is the story, and there to this day remains in the pass, he asserts, the heap of stones called Carnedd Arthur, 'Arthur's Cairn': the pass is called Bwlch y Saethau, 'the Pass of the Arrows.' then Ogof Llanciau Eryri is the subject of the following story given at P. 371 of the same volume:__After Arthur's death on Bwlch y Saethau, his men ascended to the ridge of the Llywedd snd descended thence into a vast cave called Ogof Llanciau Eryri, 'the young Men of Snowdonia's cave,' which is in the precipitous cliff on the left;hand side near the top of Llyn Llydaw. This is in Cwm Dyli, and there in that cave those warriors are said to be still sleeping in their armour and awaiting the second coming of Arthur to restore the crown of Britain to the Kymry.

Sir John Rhys, Celtic Folklore, Wildwood House: London, 1980 (1901), vol. 2, P. 473.

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