“Brutus, beyond the setting of the sun, past the realms of Gaul, there lies an Island in the sea once occupied by giants. Now it is empty and ready for your folk… for your descendants it will be a second Troy. A race of Kings will be born there from your stock and the round circle of the whole earth will be subject unto them”.
In his seminal Chronicle, The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae), completed not later than 1138-9, Geoffrey of Monmouth (Galfridus Monemutensis) traced the history of Britain, “the best of islands” from the legendary Trojan Brutus, through the Roman invasions and occupation, starting with Julius Caesar, to the heroic age of Arthur and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. Geoffrey thus achieved his inspired ambition to furnish the Welsh and Brêtons with the Old British history they so desired.
These two peoples were originally one and the same and Geoffrey supplied them with a resounding ancestry from Aeneas’ great-grandson Brutus, “Duke of them that are left of Troy”. A spectacular pageant of history covers the reigns of ninety-nine Kings, starting with Brutus himself, who flourished eleven hundred years before Christ, and ending with Cadwaladr, who died in the seventh century AD. No one who reads the Historia can doubt the pride of Geoffrey in his British ancestry, but there is nothing in this that we would now call nationalism. Geoffrey was the King of England’s man and his political allegiance was to his Norman master; still his intention was to please everyone and in this he was successful.
Under William the Conqueror, the Normans had invaded Britain the Great and conquered that part of it held by the Saxons. Many Brêtons accompanied them, both during and after the Conquest, including Alan son of Flaald who was progenitor of the Stuart dynasty, which ended with James ll; William of Orange, son of Charles l’s eldest daughter, the first Princess Royal, Mary Stuart (Mary of Orange) ; his wife and cousin, Mary Stuart; and her sister, Anne The existence of traditions common to the British peoples had been first called to the attention of the literary world by William of Malmesbury (Gesta regum Anglorum) before Geoffrey and by the fine Norman-French poet Wace (Roman de Brut), followed by the equally good Anglo-Saxon poet Layamon (Brut), immediately afterwards. They gave the name Brut or Brutus to these works, but it is the story of Arthur which is central.
Layamon’s Brut was the first to be essentially English, in the same way that Beowulf is English, even though Arthur’s enemies were the Anglo-Saxon invaders. So the Elves tended the infant Arthur and two maidens took him on his journey to Argante in Avallon, from whence he will return. This was a common phenomenon with conquest; thus the Belgae took the names of the Iverni or Érainn and the Uluti or Ulaid in Ireland, where these had been aboriginal Cruthin Chriétien de Troyes wrote in Champagne during the third quarter of the twelfth century and his Erec and Enide is perhaps the oldest Arthurian romance in existence. To him we owe the romantic adventures of Arthur’s knights, Gawain, Yvain, Lancelot and Percival. But it was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia which achieved the success which was most instantaneous and lasting. Above all it was Geoffrey’s amplification of the story of Arthur which he made the very heart and core of his book and his audience from the twelfth century until our own has agreed completely with him.
There are those who see the origins of Arthur in Artuir, son of Áedán mac Gabráin, ruler of the Kingdom of Dalriada from 574 to about 608 AD. Artuir was killed in the Battle of the Miathi (Pictish “Mæatae”), along with his brother Echoid Find. To Columba of Movilla, his kinsman through the female line, we can attribute much of the greatness of Áedán, who was a great-grandson of Fergus Mór.
There are two other examples of the name of Arthur in the seventh century which have connections either with Ireland or the Irish Kingdoms. We have seen that about 620 – 625 an entry in the Annals of Tigernach records that Mongan, son of Fiachna Lurgan was struck with a stone by Artuir son of Bicuir the Briton and died. There also is the Arthur who was grandfather of the priest Feradach who signed a charter with Adamnán, author of the Vita Columbae (the Life of Columba), in 697. But like James O’Fee, I look to my favourite book on the subject “The Age of Arthur – A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650”, by John Morris as coming closest to his actual origins.
On Tuesday, 13th July, I travelled to London and had dinner in the House of Lords with Dr. Ian Paisley and the Baroness Eileen Paisley to celebrate his elevation as Lord Bannside P.C. We met the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales, Peter Hain, in the corridor. He asked if I was still looking after Dr. Paisley and I said that I was. After dinner we went to the Queen’s Robing Room, where our Sovereign prepares for the State opening of Parliament by donning the official robes and wearing the Imperial State Crown.
The decorative theme of the room is the Legend of King Arthur, which was considered by many Victorians as the source their nationhood. Five frescoes painted by William Dyce between 1848 and 1864 adorn the walls. They depict scenes from Arthurian legend, each representing a chivalric virtue, the largest being the admission of Sir Tristram to the Round Table, which illustrates the virtue of hospitality. On the wallpapered panels flanking the Chair of State hang oil paintings of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. A series of 18 bas-reliefs by Henry Hugh Armstead compliment the paintings and the frieze below the ceiling displays the attributed Coats of Arms of the Knights of the Round Table. The room exhibits all the glory of being British.
And what of the return of the King? Well, on Tuesday 6th May 1997, HRH The Prince of Wales KG KT GCB AK QSO ADC opened the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. I was Lord Mayor of the city at that time. Born on the evening of 14th November 1848 at Buckingham Palace, he was christened in the Music Room of the Palace on 15th December 1948 and given the names Charles Philip Arthur George. On 26th June 1958, at the closing ceremony of the Empire Games in Cardiff, The Queen announced that she intended to create her son Prince of Wales, and this was done on 26th July. In my welcoming speech at the Waterfront Hall, I said that he had a greater degree of ancient British descent than many previous Princes, being descended many times over from Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Wales (d. 1240) ,and back through the Kings of Gwynedd and Deheubarth to Cunedda, King of Gwynedd in the fifth century. But he was also descended from those ancient Kings of Ulster I have mentioned and as our Modern Arthur truly a once and future King.