Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu

 

King Arthur of Britain

Arthurian material in Cardiff University's Special Collections

An exhibition curated by Dr Karen Pierce (INSRV) and Dr Juliette Wood (WELSH and LEARN)

 

 

The Grail

The grail is one of the most important and popular themes of Arthurian romance. It is first mentioned by name by the French writer, Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century. It soon became known as the Holy Grail and identified with the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. More recently writers have suggested that it was the sacred cauldron of Celtic myth or a sacred bloodline and have identified it with a colourful variety of relics.

 

Le morte Darthur:  the book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the round table, by Sir Thomas Malory, Knt. ; [edited by Alfred W. Pollard]. Illustrated by W. Russell Flint. (1910-1911) Vol. 4

 

Parzival: a knightly epic, by Wolfram von Eschenbach; for the first time translated into English verse from the original German; by Jessie L. Weston. (1894)

In the medieval German romance written by Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170-1220) the grail is a sacred stone that predicts the arrival of the grail knight, Parzival. Every Easter a dove descends with a Mass wafer in its beak to re-invigorate the grail which is protected by the Grail knights.

 

Sir Gawain at the Grail Castle, translated by Jessie L. Weston, with designs by Caroline Watts. (1903)

The American Arthurian scholar, Jessie Weston, is known for her theories about possible connections between the grail romances and ancient rituals. She was also a prolific editor and translator with a wide knowledge of European languages, and her translations of Arthurian romances enabled this material to reach a wider public. Caroline Watts illustrated a number of medieval works produced, like this one, with ordinary readers in mind.

 

The Mabinogion: from the Llyfr Coch o Hergest and other ancient Welsh manuscripts, with an English translation and notes by Lady Charlotte Guest. (1849) Vol. 1

This illustration by Samuel Williams (1788-1853) for Charlotte Guest's influential translation and analysis of the Mabinogion shows Peredur at the Castle of Wonders watching a mysterious procession in which two young men carry a bleeding lance and two maidens carry a head on a bloody platter.

 

Le morte Darthur: the book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the round table, by Sir Thomas Malory, Knt. ; [edited by Alfred W. Pollard]. Illustrated by W. Russell Flint. (1910-1911) Vol. 3

William Russell Flint (1880-1969) illustrates an incident from Book 8 Chapter 18 of Malory’s Morte Darthur in which Lancelot, hampered in his search for the Grail by his love for Guinevere, sleeps beneath a Celtic cross, while a sick knight is cured by a vision of the Holy Grail.  

  

Le morte Darthur:  the book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the round table, by Sir Thomas Malory, Knt. ; [edited by Alfred W. Pollard]. Illustrated by W. Russell Flint. (1910-1911) Vol. 4

The librarian and bibliographer, Alfred W. Pollard (1859-1944) modernised the spelling and punctuation of the William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde edition of Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur. Pollard’s version was re-printed numerous times from 1900 onwards. This edition has illustrations by William Russell Flint whose romantic style translates well into this image of the grail knight, Sir Bors, visiting the Castle of Maidens.

 

Y Greal Sanctaidd, by E. Tegla Davies; y darluniau gan W. Mitford Davies. (1922)

Edward Tegla Davies (1880-1967) was a Wesleyan minister and a prolific author of children’s books. The artist, Wilfred Mitford Davies (1895-1966), illustrated numerous Welsh language books for children. This book is a serious attempt to introduce the meaning of the Grail to young Welsh readers, not as fantasy or fiction, but as part of their history and culture.

 

The chalice of ecstasy: being a magical and qabalistic interpretation of the drama of Parzival, by Frater Achad. (1923)

This is one of the attempts to interpret the mystical or magical meaning of the grail. The book includes long passages quoted from the work of the magician, Aleister Crowley. The author, Frater Achad (aka Charles Stanfield Jones 1885-1950) was an associate of Crowley’s who worked in Canada.

Back to top

 

 

Arthurian women

Female characters became more prominent in Arthurian tradition as it absorbed the ideas of medieval courtly romance. As a result of the revival of interest in Arthurian literature,nineteenth-century writers became fascinated with these female characters, and they have become even more popular with contemporary artists and writers.

 

Morte d'Arthur:  a poem, by Alfred Lord Tennyson: as designed, written out and illuminated by Alberto Sangorski. (1912)

 

Le morte Darthur:  the book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the round table, by Sir Thomas Malory, Knt. ; [edited by Alfred W. Pollard]. Illustrated by W. Russell Flint. (1910-1911) Vol. 2

The story of Tristan and Isolde was originally independent, but it became absorbed into Arthurian romance. Here William Russell Flint, whose sensual style was well suited to depicting Arthurian women, depicts La Beal Isoud in a contemplative mood in Alfred W. Pollard’s modernised edition of Malory.   

 

Idylls of the king, by Alfred Lord Tennyson; illustrated in colour by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. (1911)

This is one of an original series of watercolour illustrations commissioned from the artist, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1945) to illustrate Tennyson’s Idylls of the King that subsequently appeared in this deluxe edition.

 

Morte d'Arthur:  a poem, by Alfred Lord Tennyson: as designed, written out and illuminated by Alberto Sangorski. (1912)

The Lady of the Lake is posed opposite a lovely mermaid. Alberto Sangorski (1862-1932) is responsible for both the calligraphy and the illumination in this beautiful edition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King produced for the book binding firm Sangorski and Sutcliffe. Sangorski’s younger brother, Francis, was one of the founding
 partners of this famous producer of luxury hand-worked books.  

 

Guinevere, by Alfred Tennyson; illustrated by Gustave Doré. (1868)

Gustave Doré (1832-1883) illustrates Guinevere’s dramatic flight to the nunnery at Almesbury where she spent the rest of her life after the destruction of Camelot.

 

Elaine, by Alfred Tennyson; illustrated by Gustave Doré. (1867)

One of Tennyson's most famous illustrators, Gustave Doré (1832-1883), captures the moment when Lancelot sees Elaine, the future mother of his son, Galahad.

Back to top

 

 

Arthur as King

The central figure of the Arthurian legend, the king himself, is perhaps the most elusive. He appears as child, aspirant to the throne, battle leader, betrayed husband, old man and national redeemer. The English knight, Sir Thomas Malory, recounted the adventures of King Arthur from birth to his mysterious end, and for many readers this is the Arthurian legend.  

 

The most ancient and famous history of the renowned prince Arthur King of Britaine [Morte d'Arthur], by Thomas Malory. (1634)

 

The most ancient and famous history of the renowned prince Arthur King of Britaine [Morte d'Arthur], by Thomas Malory. (1634)

The London printer, Williams Stansby (1572-1638) produced this edition of Malory’s work based on the earlier editions by Wynken de Worde and William Caxton. Stansby’s text appeared in 1634, just before the outbreak of the English Civil War. It remained the only available edition for nearly two hundred years until the revival of interest in Arthurian literature in the nineteenth century.

 

Le morte Darthur: the book of King Arthur and of his noble knights of the round table, by Sir Thomas Malory, Knt. ; [edited by Alfred W. Pollard, illustrated by W. Russell Flint]. (1910-1911)

Alfred W. Pollard, bibliographer and Keeper of Books at the British Museum, based his edition on that of the important medieval scholar, H. Oskar Sommers. This example of Edwardian medievalism shows Arthur as a mature man in an elaborate High Church setting.

 

The noble & joyous boke entytled Le Morte Darthur: notwythstondying it treateth of the byrth, lyf, and actes of the sayd Kyng Arthur: of his noble knyghtes of the Rounde table. Theyr
 mervayllous enquestes and adventures, thachyevyng of the sanc-greall and in the ende the dolorous deth: and departyng out of thys worlde of them al, Whiche boke was reduced in to Englysshe by the well dysposyd knyghte Syr Thomas Malory. (1933) Vol. 1

Wynkyn de Worde (d. 1534) succeeded William Caxton in the London printing world. He published the first illustrated version of Malory in 1498 with woodcuts by an unknown artist. The woodcut illustration to the title page of the 'fyrste boke' depicts the liaison between Uther and Igraine which led to the conception and birth of Arthur.

 

La mort d'Arthur:  the most ancient and famous history of the renowned Prince Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, by Sir Thomas Malory. (1816) 3 vols.

This three volume edition of Malory, edited by the antiquary, Joseph Haslewood, is one of two new editions that appeared in 1816, both based on Stansby’s edition of Caxton. The appearance of these editions heralded the revival of interest in the Arthurian story.  

 

Arthurian Memorabilia

Examples of Arthurian memorabilia date back as far as the Middle Ages, and their popularity mirrors that of the legend itself. This doll is an Arthurian version of the popular Action man figures of the 1960s. Pewter goblets with Arthurian scenes and a luxury china figure of Arthur were offered for sale in the 1990s. The humour of the comic strip and advert depends on the reader’s knowledge of Arthurian material, while the ballet and film adaptation of Arthurian novels reflect the contemporary take on the Arthur legend.

Back to top

 

 

Merlin

Arthur’s adviser and a famous magician in his own right, Merlin was based on a traditional Welsh bardic figure, Myrddin. Today, he is one of the best known and most popular characters in Arthurian tradition.

 

Selections from Idylls of the King [A completed set of 8 outlines for illumination, with verses selected from Idylls of the King published by Winsor and Newton and probably designed by Sir R.R. Holmes]. (1862)

 

Prophetia Anglicana:  Merlini Ambrosii Britanni... vaticinia & praedictiones. Unà cum septem libris explanationum in eandem prophetiam... ; opus nunc primum publici juris factum… à Galfredo Monumetensi Latinè conversae; Alani de Insulis. (1603)

A monkish looking Merlin adorns the title page of a 1603 edition of Merlin's Prophecies attributed to a medieval writer, Alanus de Insulis. Merlin’s prophecies took on a life of their own and continued to develop independently of the main Arthurian legend.

 

The life of Merlin, sirnamed Ambrosius:  his prophesies, and predictions interpreted, and their truth made good by our English annalls: being a chronographicall history of all the kings, and memorable passages of this kingdome, from Brute to the reigne of our royall soveraigne King Charles, [by Thomas Heywood]. (1641)

In Thomas Heywood’s edition of Merlin’s Prophecies, the sage is depicted as a hermit sitting under a tree rather than the powerful sorcerer of modern iconography. However he is still surrounded by images from his mythic history such as the two dragons whose epic fight provided Wales with its flag and with an enduring symbol of national identity.

 

The life of Merlin, surnamed Ambrosius:  his prophecies and predictions interpreted, and their truth made good by our English annals: being a chronographical history of all the kings and
 memorable passages of this kingdom, from Brute to the reign of King Charles. (1812)

This later edition of Merlin’s Prophecies from 1812 was printed at Carmarthen. By then the city was firmly associated with the figure of Merlin, and the place name was interpreted as Caer Myrddin’ or Merlin’s town.

 

Vivien, by Alfred Tennyson; illustrated by Gustave Doré. (1867)

This illustration by Gustave Doré for Tennyson's account of Merlin and Vivien shows Merlin as a powerful figure who creates a shield for a young knight, rather than the feeble old man dominated by a wily enchantress.

 

Selections from Idylls of the King [A completed set of 8 outlines for illumination, with verses selected from Idylls of the King published by Winsor and Newton and probably designed by Sir R.R. Holmes]. (1862)

These selections from Tennyson’s Idylls form a series of specially commissioned plates possibly exhibited at The Great Exhibition in London in 1851. This complex interplay of the characters Merlin and Vivian, Tennyson’s text, and the elaborate decoration around the margins is described as ‘the style of fourteenth-century manuscripts’. It reflects the revival of interest in all things medieval, such as illuminated manuscripts, which accompanied renewed interest in Arthurian literature. The drawings may be the work of Sir Richard Rivington Holmes (1835-1911), artist and Keeper of the Queen's Pictures.

 

Dwy gan o brophwydoliaethau Myrddin : a gymmerwyd allan o "Lyfr y daroganau". Hefyd, hanes, o'r modd y daeth Myrddin i fod yn adnabyddus i'r brenin Gwrtheyrn, mab-y'nghyfraith Hengyst (1810)

This Welsh translation of Merlin’s prophecies derives ultimately from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin work, Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). Merlin is taken before King Vortigirn (brenin Gwrtheyrn) to explain the mystery of the falling tower.

Back to top

 

 

Arthur's companions

The medieval code of chivalry was expressed through the Knights of the Round Table whether they were searching for the Holy Grail, fighting for King Arthur or seeking the love of a lady. The code of chivalry was reinterpreted in terms of nineteenth-century morality when these narratives were revived, and the knights continue to serve as models of behaviour up to the present day.

 

Syr Ysambrace, Kelmscott Press (1897)

 

The story of Tristan and Iseult, rendered into English from the German of Gottfried von Strassburg by Jessie L. Weston, with designs by Caroline Watts. (1902)  Vol. 2

The illustrator Caroline Watts contributed many designs to books whose aim was to make Arthurian literature more widely available. Here she illustrates Jessie Weston's English translation of Gottfried van Strassburg's version of the Tristan and Iseult story. This romance was the source of Wagner’s opera.

 

Syr Ysambrace, Kelmscott Press (1897)
Sire Degrevaunt, Kelmscott Press (1897)

The Kelmscott Press founded in 1891 by the pre-Raphaelite artist, William Morris, produced exquisitely illustrated books that evoked the beauty and luxury of medieval manuscripts and early printed books. These volumes tell the story of two knights from medieval romance.

Sir Isumbras was a proud knight whose adventures taught him humility. The illustration captures the moment when a magic bird delivers the message that Isumbras must begin his quest.

Sir Degrevaunt was devoted to the code of chivalry, but uninterested in love. The illustration captures the moment Degrevaunt sees his enemy’s daughter and falls in love.

 

The noble & joyous boke entytled Le Morte Darthur: notwythstondying it treateth of the byrth, lyf, and actes of the sayd Kyng Arthur: of his noble knyghtes of the Rounde table. Theyr mervayllous enquestes and adventures, thachyevyng of the sanc-greall and in the ende the dolorous deth: and departyng out of thys worlde of them al, Whiche boke was reduced in to Englysshe by the well dysposyd knyghte Syr Thomas Malory. (1933)  Vol. 2

Sir Lancelot as he was envisioned in the woodcut that appeared in the Wynkyn de Worde edition of Malory's Morte Darthur. This printed edition made the tales of King Arthur available to a more varied audience than the expensive and exclusive illustrated manuscripts. This copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1498 edition was prepared by A. S. Mott in 1933 and published by the Shakespeare Head Press.

 

Sir Galahad: a Christmas mystery, by William Morris. (1902)

Victorian writers continued to develop Arthurian traditions in new directions. The poem, Sir Galahad, a Christmas Mystery, originally published by Williams Morris in 1858, examines the inner thoughts and aspirations of the knight who ultimately found the Holy Grail.

 

The history of the renowned Prince Arthur:  King of Britain; with his life and death, and all his glorious battles... [by Thomas Malory]. (1816) 2 vols.

This is one of two new editions of Malory that appeared in 1816. This two-volume edition was edited by the Scottish man of letters Alexander Chalmers (1759-1834) with illustrations by the artist Thomas Uwins (1782-1857) who served as Queen Victoria’s Surveyor of Pictures and Keeper of the National Gallery.

Back to top

 

 

Arthur in the Welsh tradition

The importance of Arthurian material in the Welsh language suggests that there is a strong early British element in the legends. Interest in all things ‘Celtic’ has encouraged modern writers to turn to Welsh sources for inspiration.

 

The story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, compiled and arranged by J.T.K.; with illustrations by G.H. Thomas. (1862)

 

The Mabinogion: from the Llyfr Coch o Hergest and other ancient Welsh manuscripts, with an English translation and notes by Lady Charlotte Guest. (1849)  Vol. 2

Charlotte Guest included editions of the Welsh texts as well as English translations in her first edition of the Mabinogion. Gereint vab Erbin is one of three stories related to Arthurian romance. Guest’s translation provided Tennyson with a source for his poem about Gereint and Enid which appeared in Idylls of the King.

 

The story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, compiled and arranged by J.T.K.; with illustrations by G.H. Thomas. (1862)

The illustrator of this re-telling of Arthurian tales, George Housman Thomas (1824-1867) was much admired by Queen Victoria and painted a number of commissions for her. The episode in which Arthur defeats a giant has been part of Arthurian tradition since the days of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

 

Brita[n]nie utriusq[ue] regu[m] & pri[n]cipu[m] origo & gesta insignia,  ab Galfrido Monemutensi ex antiquissimis Britannici sermonis monumentis in latinu[m] sermone[m] traducta; & ab Ascensio cura & impe[n]dio magistri Iuonis Cauellati in lucem edita. (1508)

This edition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was printed in Paris. It reflects the importance of Geoffrey’s interpretations of Welsh tradition in the continuing popularity of the Arthurian legend.

 

Syr Perecyvelle of Gales, printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. (1895)

Perceval's mother took her only surviving son to the forests of Wales to prevent him becoming a knight. This Victorian interpretation was printed by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, but the source for this important figure from Arthurian romance may have been an Old Welsh hero.

 

Illustration of Arthur’s Stone (Maen Ceti), Glamorgan scrapbook, Salisbury archive

Arthur's Stone, Cefn Bryn, the Gower, is the site of a Neolithic burial tomb. According to legend, Arthur threw this large stone and it landed in this spot. The tradition reflects the reputation of Arthur as a giant and a folk hero, rather than a courtly medieval king.

 

Enid, by Alfred Tennyson: illustrated by Gustave Doré. (1868)

Gustave Doré depicts the long-suffering Enid, wife of Geraint in Idylls of the King. This story does not occur in Malory and Tennyson used Charlotte Guest's translation of this tale from the Mabinogion as a source.

 

The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. (1902)

A copy presented to T. Alwyn Lloyd on his departure from Liverpool – from friends, including Lascelles Abercrombie, one of the ‘Dymock poets’. The little volume demonstrates the popularity of the text itself, while the charming illustrations in the arts and craft style highlight the wide-range of visual interpretation.  

Back to top

 

 

Arthur and local archaeology

Many places lay claim to Arthur and his court, and the search for an historical source for the figure of Arthur is often reflected in the folklore attached to local archaeological sites.

 

Cymru, ed. by O. M. Edwards, Mehefin 1917, vol. 52

 

The Mabinogion: from the Llyfr Coch o Hergest and other ancient Welsh manuscripts, with an English translation and notes by Lady Charlotte Guest. (1849)

The story of the two brothers Lludd and Llefelys contains a version of the fight between two dragons, a tale which is often localized on Dinas Emrys. The story is an important symbol for contemporary Welsh identity and is commemorated on the Welsh flag.

 

Cymru, ed. by O. M. Edwards, Mehefin 1917, vol. 52

This illustration, published in the Welsh language literary magazine known affectionately as ‘Cymry coch’ links Welsh soldiers to Tudor, medieval and Roman warriors who fought for yr hen wlad and the Arthurian ideal.

 

‘Archaeological Notes and Queries: The Cup at Nanteos Cardiganshire’ Archaeologia Cambrensis 5 (1888) 5th ser. 170-71

Wales has its own version of the Holy Grail legend. The archaeologist George Worthington Smith drew this picture of an ordinary, but damaged, mazer bowl which was discovered in the ruins of Strata Florida in the nineteenth century.  It became known as the Nanteos Cup and, as the legend developed in the twentieth century, the damage was explained as pilgrims taking souvenir relics. Reports of miracles associated with the Nanteos Cup as the Holy Grail appear regularly in newspaper accounts.

 

Illustration of Strata Florida, Ceredigion scrapbook, Salisbury archive

This Cistercian abbey was founded in the twelfth century. It passed into the hands of the Stedman family and then to the Powells in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The medieval records do not record that it ever had the Holy Grail in its possession, nor that it was a daughter house of Glastonbury, but both these elements are now part of the Nanteos Cup legend.

 

Historic Caerleon: the Official Guide to the Urban District of Caerleon published by the Caerleon Urban District Council. (1955)

The amphitheatre at Caerleon was excavated under the direction of the archaeologist, V.E. Nash-Williams in 1926. Prior to that, the site of the amphitheatre was marked by a slight depression in the surface of the field known by the name Arthur’s Round Table. The identification of the amphitheatre with the Round Table seems to be relatively recent, although Tennyson certainly knew it. This copy also contains typescripts of an address given by Nash-Williams which reflect a slight tension between the site’s Roman and Arthurian associations.

Back to top