Tuesday, 13 December 2011

An Arthurian Punch-up in Bodmin, Cornwall

The mighty King Arthur is a figure familiar to many, be it from television shows, Hollywood movies or story books. These show Arthur as a powerful medieval king surrounded by a band of heroic knights intent on doing chivalrous deeds of various kinds, usually for the benefit of winsomely beautiful ladies. This King Arthur is brought low by the treachery of his half sister Morgana and her son Mordred. It is a dramatic and heroic epic of vast scope and proportions.

These stories are all based on medieval poems and stories that pictured Arthur as being the epitome of the code of chivalry that was then fashionable among the warrior elite of Europe. He was said to rule over Britain from his court at Camelot and was supported by the Knights of the Round Table. It was all a fantasy conjured up by poets and writers seeking to create an imaginary backdrop against which to set their romances and songs. This Arthur was said to have lived at some point in the distant past, ruling over a lost paradise of knightly virtues. It is largely because these stories and the Arthur figure in them was so patently false that some scholars have sought to prove that Arthur himself never existed.

However, the medieval romancers chose Arthur’s court in which to set their stories because he was already widely famous as a powerful and noble ruler from days gone by. Direct evidence as to who Arthur had been and when he had lived was even then scarce, and now is even rarer, but it seems clear that if he lived at all it must have been in the poorly recorded Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The good people of Cornwall have their own distinctive take on the mystery of King Arthur. Nobody found this out more quickly, nor more dramatically, than nine French monks who came to Cornwall in the year 1113. The monks were on a fund-raising tour for the cathedral at Tours. They were carrying a collection of holy relics which they were charging people to see and touch. On their journeys through the southwest of England they had several times heard stories about Arthur and his exploits. When they arrived in Bodmin, the French monks exposed their relics in the parish church. Among those who came to see them was a local man with a crippled arm who was hoping to be cured.

As the crippled man approached the subject of Arthur came up. The man told the monks that Arthur was still alive. The monks laughed at him and assured him that Arthur was dead. The other locals took the side of the cripple and the discussion soon became a dispute that escalated into a fistfight. The local lord sent in his men to restore order, which they did with difficulty. The monks found it wise to move on.

It is clear from this incident both that the Bodmin locals felt strongly about Arthur and that they believed that he was still alive. What is not so often noticed is that the French monks were equally convinced that Arthur was a real person, only differing in their view that he was a ruler who had died many years previously. The incident is important as it predates the more elaborate medieval romances and so gives a clue as to the Arthur that the romancers reworked for their own purposes.

From MYSTERIOUS CORNWALL by Rupert Matthews

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