Medieval manuscripts blog

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19 May 2017

King Arthur: not just a man of the sword?

Warning: this blogpost contains spoilers for all versions of the King Arthur Legend, medieval and modern

A popular hero of our blog, King Arthur, is once again in the news with this week's UK release of Guy Ritchie’s new film, King Arthur, Legend of the Sword. In yet another variation on the legend, the young Arthur in the film is a gangster in the back streets of Londinium, who is unaware of his royal lineage until he draws the sword Excalibur from the stone. He fights to conquer his inner demons, avenge his parents’ murder by defeating the tyrant Vortigern and win back his rightful crown. This all sounds rather violent, and violence is certainly a key element in the Arthurian tales. But there is so much more to the various legends of our favourite hero-king. 

Of course, medieval stories about Arthur featured lots of fighting. Medieval manuscripts often depicted Arthur battling demons and giants, as well as heathen kings.

Arthur and the black beast, from L'estoire de Merlin,  Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 209v

Drawing of King Arthur finding a giant roasting a pig, from Wace, Roman de Brut, England, c. 1325–1350, Egerton MS 3028, f. 49r

Miniature of King Arthur and three knights slaying the heathen kings England, from The Fall of Princes, South-East England (?Bury St Edmunds), Harley MS 1766, f. 218r

Sometimes Arthur and his followers fought to rescue a maiden.

A miniature of Arthur slaying the 'swine-eating' Spanish giant on the island of Mont St Michel, and rescuing Helena, niece of Hoel of Brittany, from Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, volume 1, Royal MS 15 E IV  f. 156r

And sometimes they acted in self-defence.

King Arthur and knights are attacked, from Guiron le Courtois, Southern Italy, (Naples?), between 1352 and 1362, Add MS 12228, f. 126v

But often it seems he and his knights just enjoyed a good battle.

A battle, from La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 125r

There are, however, differences between the modern film and common medieval stories about Arthur. Although the film focuses on Arthur’s youth, it does not include a character called 'Merlin', in contrast to medieval legends about Arthur's early life.

Merlin at Arthur's baptism, from Le Livre de Merlin, Northern France  (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117,  f. 66r

This version of the sword in the stone incident is a bit different, too. For a start, it does not feature David Beckham!

Arthur removes the sword from the stone and is blessed by Archbishop Brice, from Le Livre de Merlin, France, N. (Arras), 1310, Add MS 38117, f. 73v

And in this version of the story, it is Merlin and two dragons who confront Vortigern, not Arthur.

Detail of Merlin showing Vortigern two dragons, in L'estoire de Merlin, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316, Add MS 10292, f. 84v

There are many more stories about Arthur, and not all the incidents emphasize violence. This manuscript of the Chronicles of England features an image of Arthur’s coronation.

The coronation of King Arthur, from the Anciennes et nouvelles chroniques d'Angleterre, Netherlands, S. (Bruges); after 1471, before 1483, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 141v

Once crowned, King Arthur is busy with many varied activities according to the legend, not all of them involving bloody battles.

King Arthur blowing a horn while hunting with Urien and Accalon, from the Suite de Merlin, Add MS 38117, f. 193r

Arthur dictating to a scribe, from Le Morte Artu, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f.  140r

Arthur on the wheel of fortune, from Le Mort Artu, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316,  Add MS 10294, f. 89r

He seems to end up in prison quite often, although there tends to be a damsel to look after him on these occasions.

Arthur in prison, from Lancelot du Lac, France, N. (Saint-Omer or Tournai), c. 1316,  Add MS 10293, f. 144v

And he also enjoys many a great banquet with Lancelot, Guinevere and his courtiers.

Arthur and Guinevere at a banquet, while Lancelot kneels before them, requesting permission to leave the court, La Queste del Saint Graal, Northern France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), Royal MS 14 E III, f.  89r

Royal 20 D IV f. 1
Arthur engaged in conversation with his barons, while Lancelot and Guinevere are whispering together, and on the right, the king and queen presiding over a banquet, from Lancelot du Lac, Southern England (Pleshey Castle), c. 1360–1380, Royal MS 20 D IV, f. 1r

Finally (SPOILER ALERT), in medieval versions there is no happy ending.  Arthur is killed at the Battle of Salisbury Plain and his noble vision of the Round Table is destroyed.


The death of Arthur, from Boccaccio, Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1479–c.1480; Royal MS 14 E V, f. 439v

But the legend lives on …. on the British Library website. You can find a virtual exhibition of some of our Arthurian manuscripts here.

Of our large collection of Arthurian manuscripts, some are fully digitised online on Digitised Manuscripts:

Add MS 5474: Le Roman de Tristan en prose

Add MS 10292/Add MS 10293/Add MS 10294: The entire Prose Lancelot-Grail cycle

Add MS 12228: Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 23929: Le Roman de Tristan en prose

Add MS 23930: Guiron le Courtois

Add MS 32125: Wace, Roman de Brut; the Anglo-Norman Description of England; Estoire del Saint Graal; Robert de Boron, prose Merlin

Add MS 38117: Robert de Boron, Joseph d'Arimathie, Le Livre de Merlin, Suite de Merlin ('the Huth Manuscript')

Add MS 59678: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur

Egerton MS 3028: Wace, Roman de Brut and other texts

Harley MS 4419: Lancelot du Lac

Lansdowne MS 757: Lancelot-Grail

Royal MS 14 E III: Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, Morte Artu

Royal MS 20 A II: Peter of Langtoft's Chronicle, the Lament of Edward II, fragments of Arthurian romances

Royal MS 20 D IV: Lancelot du Lac

Prose Brut Chonicles

Royal MS 12 C XII: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts

Royal MS 20 A III: Prose Brut Chronicle and other texts

Prophecies of Merlin

Add MS 25014: An excerpt from the prologue of the Prophecies of Merlin and other texts

Add MS 25434: Prophecies of Merlin

Arundel MS 66: Astrological compilation including Prophecies of Merlin

Harley MS 1629: Prophecies of Merlin

Harley MS 3908: Prophecies of Merlin and other texts

And others are partially digitised in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, with downloadable and searchable images, including:

Add MS 17443

Egerton MS 2515

Lansdowne MS 757

Royal 14 E V 

Royal MS 19 B VII

Royal MS 19 C XII

Royal MS 19 C XIII

Royal MS 20 B VII

Royal MS 20 D III

Chantry Westwell

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Excalibur is not the sword in the stone.

"Although the film focuses on Arthur’s youth, it does not include a character called 'Merlin', in contrast to medieval legends about Arthur's early life."

While Merlin is not linked to Arthur's infancy in KALOTS he is mentioned a few times in the movie and shown while forging Excalibur.

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