'But Arthur's Grave is Nowhere Seen': Twelfth-Century and Later Solutions to Arthur's Current Whereabouts


The belief that Arthur never truly died and will return is one of the best known aspects of his legend, and the focus of the present piece.  The key statement of this concept of Arthur is to be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1138), where it is asserted that, although Arthur 'was mortally wounded' at the battle of Camlann, he - unlike the other warriors who fell at that battle - did not die of his deadly injuries, but was instead carried off to the Isle of Avalon to be somehow miraculously cured.  This brief claim is further elaborated in Geoffrey's own Vita Merlini (c. 1151), where the Historia's implication that Arthur was at some point cured - and thus still lived and might one day return from Avalon to rule Britain - is made explicit when Telgesinus suggests to Merlinus that a ship be sent to bring Arthur back from Avalon (see Padel 1994: 11-12; Clarke 1973). 

However, this notion of Arthur's continued existence and future return was apparently not a purely literary motif.  For example, we learn from the Anglo-Norman poetic text The Description of England (1140s) that the Welsh can be heard talking about how they will, 'by means of Arthur' - that is, by means of Arthur's military prowess exercised on behalf of the Welsh after his return - expel the English and the Normans from Britain.  Similarly, both Peter of Blois (c. 1190) and Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1191) compare the Britones mockingly with the Jews, 'awaiting their messiah' (Arthur).  In the same way, William of Newburgh (1196-8) says how 'most of the Britons are thought to be so dull that even now they are said to be awaiting the coming of Arthur', and they will not hear that he is dead.  Furthermore, the belief appears to have been both wide-spread and long-lived: the Italian Boncampagno da Signa (c. 1200) refers to it in a letter; John Lydgate in his Fall of Princes (1431-8) noted the belief that Arthur 'shall resorte as lord and sovereyne Out of fayrye and regne in Breteyne'; and a late sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler related that Philip II swore at the time of his marriage to Mary Tudor in 1554 that he would resign the kingdom if Arthur should return (see Bullock-Davies 1980-2; Loomis 1959: 64-5; Padel 1994: 11). 

Although the earliest of the above references imply an active Brittonic oral tradition of Arthur's survival and future return, it will nevertheless be observed that they are all effectively 'post-Galfridian', and thus that their claims may reflect Geoffrey of Monmouth's concept of Arthur to some greater or lesser degree.  Furthermore, Arthur is curiously absent from the Old and Middle Welsh prophetic poetry - which refers to a variety of 'messianic' heroes of the Welsh, such as Cadwaladr, who will supposedly return to defeat their enemies - that might be used to counter this concern and offer direct confirmation of a widespread Welsh belief in Arthur's return for the specific purpose of expelling the English and the Normans (see Padel 2000: 61-3; Jones 1974: 183). However, this is not to say that we can consider the core concept of Arthur as unkillable to be ultimately the invention of Geoffrey: whilst there is no hint of a link between Arthur's return and the expulsion of the English in pre-Galfridian literature, both his deathlessness and potential return (for an unclear purpose) are referred to. Thus a belief in Arthur's continued life was sufficiently powerful in 1113 to almost cause a riot in Cornwall when it was contradicted by sceptical French canons: 'many men rushed into the church with arms' and, if local passions had not been calmed, 'it would certainly have come to the spilling of blood'.  Similarly, William of Malmesbury remarked in c. 1125 that 'Arthur's grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return'.  Indeed, the idea of Arthur's continued life - though not his return - seems to be recorded as early as the ninth century, with the Englynion y Beddau commenting on the impossibility of finding/achieving 'a grave for Arthur' (Coe and Young 1995: 47; Padel 1994: 10; Green 2007: 72-5, 196 - the latter includes a more detailed discussion of this concept of Arthur in Brittonic tradition). 

All told then, this is - in some form or another - an ancient and enduring aspect of the Arthurian legend.  The aim of the following piece is simply to provide a guide to the pressing question that inevitably must accompany any assertion of Arthur's continued vitality such as those noted above: if Arthur still lived, then where is he now? And if he is to return as some claimed, from whence will he be coming?    

The Isle of Avalon

When the concept of Arthur's survival and return extends beyond a simple statement of the existence of the belief, the explanation for his current absence takes a number of forms,the best known of which is that Arthur was biding his time on the Isle of Avalon, to return when his people needed him.  The earliest references to this Arthurian residence on the Isle of Avalon are found in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth.  In Historia Regum Britanniae XI.2 (c. 1138) he asserted that Arthur 'was mortally wounded' at Camlann, but was then 'carried off to the Isle of Avalon (insulam Auallonis), so that his wounds might be attended to'.  In this ambiguous statement we can probably see Geoffrey's attempt to reconcile tales in which Arthur died at Camlann (Arthur is 'mortally wounded') with the belief that Arthur still lived  (his wounds would be attended to in Geoffrey's Avalon), and thus satisfy all his possible audiences (Jarman 1983: 112; Padel 1994: 11-12). 

Further details of Arthur's destination are given by Geoffrey in his Vita Merlini, lines 908-40 (c. 1151).  In this text Geoffrey has two seers, Merlinus (Merlin, Myrddin) and Telgesinus (Taliesin), engaging in lengthy conversation.  Telgesinus reminds Merlinus, in his first speech, that they two, with their steersman Barinthus, conveyed the mortally wounded Arthur over the sea to be healed by Morgen at the blissful, ever-green 'Island of Apples, which is called the Fortunate Isle' (insula pomorum que fortunata vocatur). This Morgen was the chief of nine sisters who presided over the island kingdom, and she was possessed of magical powers, such as the ability to change shape, heal wounds and fly.  She put Arthur in her chamber on a golden bed, telling him that health could be returned to him, if only he stayed with her a long while and accepted her treatment.  Telgesinus then declares that a message should, in view of the oppression of the Britons, be sent to Arthur asking him to return, a suggestion Merlinus resists in favour of awaiting the return of Cadwaladr and Cynan (Cadualadrus and Conanus), the heroes of the tenth-century poem Armes Prydein (see Jarman 1983; Clarke 1973). 

The  Vita Merlini's 'Island of Apples' is undoubtedly the same place as the 'Island of Avalon' that Arthur is taken to in Geoffrey's Historia.  Although there has been some debate over the meaning of insulam Auallonis (rendered enys Auallach in the Welsh Brut), on the whole it seems clear that it should be seen as a Welsh common noun meaning 'a place (island) of apples/fruit-trees' rather than - as Loomis and others suggested on the basis on medieval speculation - reflecting the personal name Aballac, Avallach.  As such insula pomorum appears to be a literal translation of insulam Auallonis/Ynys Avallach (Bromwich 1978: 266-8; Bullock-Davies 1969: 133-4; Loomis 1959: 66). The origins of the name Avalon do, naturally, raise the question of whether the tale of Arthur's current location that Geoffrey relates was entirely his own invention.  Whilst Geoffrey undoubtedly drew upon classical models of 'Fortunate Isles' in his description of Avalon, in its fundamental characteristics - such as the abundant apple trees, the perpetual youth, and the unending fertility - Avalon presents all the features of the Celtic Otherworld islands found in early Irish literature, for example abhlach, the elysian island of the sea-god Manannan mac Lir (Bromwich 1978: 267, 461-2; Loomis 1959: 66).  Furthermore, Geoffrey's description of Avalon as an island ruled over by nine magical virgins is reminiscent of the stories told of the nine virgin enchantresses of the island of Sena, off the coast of Brittany - skilled in magic, medicine, divination and shape-shifting - recorded most fully by Pomponius Mela (c . 41-50 AD), and the nine maidens who reside in an overseas fortress and have in their charge the cauldron of the Chief of Annwfyn (the Otherworld) in the pre-Galfridian Welsh poem Preideu Annwfyn.  Finally, the ruler of Avalon is named as Morgen, a Welsh-name meaning 'sea-born', whom later writers indicate was considered by some at least to have been a goddess; note, for example, Giraldus Cambrensis description of Morganis as 'a certain imaginary goddess' and later references to her as Morgain le deesse, Morgne the goddes (Bromwich 1978: 461-2).

Given the above, it is difficult to believe that the Otherworldly 'Isle of Avalon' was the ultimate invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth, though certainly Avalon with its inhabitants becomes a literary place used for literary purposes in later texts - for example, Morgen becomes Arthur's sister, the mother of Yvain, and she takes on, in the romances, the aspect of a wicked enchantress.  Arthur's association with the Isle is more questionable, but it does not seem entirely implausible that it predates Geoffrey; indeed, the theme of a select few resting in the ever-fertile Isles of the Blessed is at least as old as ancient Greece.  In support of this, both Giraldus Cambrensis and Gervase of Tilbury attribute the belief that Arthur was still alive and being attended to by Morgen in Avalon to the 'vulgar traditions' (that is, folklore) of the Britones.  As such it may  be that we have, in the accounts given by Geoffrey, a reflection of a genuine pre-Galfridian 'vulgar tradition' which sought to explain Arthur's current absence through a claim that he was presently residing on a 'Celtic' Otherworld island.  Nevertheless, even if this is the case, the question of  how much of the detail of Geoffrey's version of events can be trusted is to be very much debated: thus the involvement of Merlinus and Telgesinus in the translation of Arthur is likely to be a Galfridian addition, as is probably the linking of Arthur's presence in Avalon with his injury at the battle of Camlann.  Indeed, as Budgey has pointed out, it could easily be that the Galfridian narrative of Arthur's sojourn in Avalon was Geoffrey's own imaginative re-working of an Arthurian raid on an overseas Otherworld, similar to those found in Preideu Annwfyn (see Budgey 1992: 394).

Finally, any discussion of Arthur and Avalon must make at least some mention of the famed burial and cross 'found' by the monks of Glastonbury in 1191.  The primary witness for this event is Giraldus Cambrensis' De Principis Instructione of c. 1193-9 and his Speculum Ecclesiae of c. 1216, but accounts are also to be had from Ralph of Coggeshall (c. 1225) and Adam of Domerham (1291), amongst others.  These accounts differ in several important aspects from one another, in particular the reasons why the excavations were conducted; the nature of the coffin and its contents; and the inscription on the lead cross (at least five different versions are known).  The only major points of agreement in the texts are to be had in the description of where the monks dug, and in the belief that the monks 'found' an inscribed lead cross with some graves which recorded that here was located the 'renowned King Arthur', buried 'in the Isle of Avalon' .  This episode has been much discussed but there now seems to be a general agreement that the story that the monks had uncovered Arthur's grave, with Glastonbury being Avalon, is a late twelfth-century fraud committed by the Glastonbury community, with the cross which attested these claims is now seen as a product of the twelfth century - not the tenth or eleventh century, as some have tried to claim - and its text is derivative of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (there was a copy of this at Glastonbury from c. 1170).  The fraud may have been perpetrated to attract pilgrims to help fund the rebuilding of the monastery, or for the benefit of the king of England - for whom it would seem to have had several possible advantages - or indeed for a combination of these two reasons (see on all of this Rahtz 1993; Carley 1999: 47-57).  Whatever the reason for the fraud, the 'discovery' of Arthur's supposed grave did nothing to dampen the widespread 'vulgar' belief that Arthur lived on and would return, though it did influence later medieval Arthurian literature.  As a whole then, the incident tells us little about popular traditions regarding Avalon or about Arthur's association with this Otherworldly 'Fortunate Isle', but it does demonstrates two things for us.  Firstly, that the belief that Arthur was still alive and would return was sufficiently well-known to make it worthwhile the Glastonbury community engineering such a fraud.  Secondly, that the belief in Arthur still being alive was powerful enough to survive this attempt to deny it by making the Otherworldly home of Arthur merely his grave at Glastonbury.

Whilst the Glastonbury monks attempted to make Avalon simply the final resting place of Arthur, literary accounts retained the notion that Arthur was still alive and Avalon was a elysian place where he was staying until it was time for him to return, though they too tried to give Avalon a worldly location.  Thus, for example, the author of the Flouriant et Florete (c. 1250) identified Avalon with Sicily, with the chief fortress of Morgan being Mongibello (Mount Etna), and this belief passed into Sicilian folklore, with the mirage phenomenon in the Straits of Messina being called the Fata Morgana in the fourteenth century.  The Mallorcan author Guillem Torroella, in his La Faula (1360-70), also still considered Arthur to be waiting in Avalon (again perhaps identified as Sicily), describing how he travelled to Avalon on the back of a whale and found Arthur and Morgen awaiting the 'messianic return'.  Jean d'Outremeuse similarly points to a Mediterranean locality for Avalon in Ly Myreur des Histors (written before 1400), relating how Ogier the Dane in the year 896 was shipwrecked on Avalon, which was nine days' sail from Cyprus.  Here Ogier fights with, amongst others, capalus (the Palug's Cat of pre-Galfridian Arthurian legend) and Arthur himself before Morghe (Morgen) conducts him to her palace, surrounded by fruit-trees and pools, and grants him, like Arthur, perpetual youth and immortality.  Jean's account drew on, at least partly, a fourteenth-century French poem about Ogier (Roman d'Ogier le Danois).  This however placed Avalon in the Far East near the Earthly Paradise, with a Danish redactor of this poem identifying Avalon with India, and eastern locations for Avalon are provided by other sources too.  For example, Le Batard de Bouillon (c. 1350) describes how Baudouin learns from the princes of Mecca that beyond the Red Sea lay the land of faerie where Arthur and Morgen dwelt (see Loomis 1959: 67-8; Lacy 1996: 25-6, 458).  Needless to say, all of these are purely literary imaginings and there is no reason to think that they reflect genuine Brittonic beliefs.

Arthur's Subterranean Kingdom

Whilst the Avalon tale is well known from medieval Arthurian literature, inspired a notable fraud, and just possibly may have its origins in genuine non-Galfridian folklore, in the recorded modern 'vulgar traditions' it very much took second-place to another account of Arthur's whereabouts as he waits to return, which made little impact on the medieval Arthurian romances: the legend that Arthur was biding his time in his magical subterranean kingdom/abode which could only be entered through a cavern in the side of a hill/mountain. 

One of the earliest certain references to this explanation of Arthur's present whereabouts can be found in Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperialia (c. 1211).  Gervase was familiar with the Galfridian account of Avalon and Morgen but he also notes, on the authority of natives, how a groom of the Bishop of Cantania, pursuing a runaway horse, entered the side of Mount Etna in Sicily via a narrow path and came upon a fair plain with all manner of delights.  Here he found Arthur lying on a couch in a marvellous palace, who, after telling him the story of his fight with Mordred and of his wounds that opened afresh each year, sent him away with presents to the bishop.  Gervase was in Sicily with the Norman King William around 1190 and his story dates from this period; although its origins are perplexing, they may perhaps lie in an undocumented transplantation of Breton folk-legends to Sicily as a result of the conquest of Sicily by the Normans and their Breton followers (Chambers 1927: 221-2; Loomis 1941: 297-9; Loomis 1958: 12-13).  In support of this position can be cited Étienne de Rouen's Draco Normannicus. Writing a little earlier than Gervase, in c. 1169, Étienne de Rouen confuses the tale of Arthur in Avalon with what would appear to have been a similar tale of Arthur's underground kingdom to that recounted by Gervase, whilst making a mock of the 'Breton Hope'.  In this text Arthur is said to have gone to Avalon to be with Morganis (Morgen, made here his sister), who then grants him earthly immortality as ruler of the lower hemisphere; from here, in Étienne's account, Arthur then returns to protect the Bretons from Henry II.  As Loomis long ago pointed out, the natural implication of such a ridiculing of the notion that Arthur was waiting in an antipodean kingdom is that the Bretons did actually believe such a story (Loomis 1941; Loomis 1959: 69).  Thus it appears that the tale that Arthur was alive in a subterranean kingdom from which he would return was established in Brittany, at least, from the mid twelfth century, and formed sufficient part of the 'Breton Hope' for it to be worth satirising.

Other references to this belief in Arthur's subterranean Otherworldly dwelling are to be had, for example, from the thirteenth-century compilation of poems Der Wartburgkrieg, where there is an allusion to Arthur dwelling in dem berge, where he lived in delight - supplied with abundant food and drink - with hundreds of his knights, and in the English poem A Dispute between a Christian and a Jew (c. 1375), which describes Arthur and his knights residing in a magnificent manor reached by a path under a hill (Loomis 1959: 69).  The most significant body of evidence comes from post-medieval folklore however.  In this Arthur is similarly found in an Otherworldly hollow hill/mountain, but in many of the tales he and his men are asleep - rather than awake and living in splendour - in their magical abode.  These legends are most frequent in Wales, and Chambers quotes the example of Craig-y-Dinas as typical: 

A Welshman is guided by an English cunning man/wizard to a hidden enchanted cavern leading deep underground.  In this passage hangs a bell which must not be touched for, if it is, the inhabitants of the subterranean chamber will awake and ask 'Is it day?'.  If this happens the answer must be given 'No, sleep thou on', as the inhabitants of this cavern are the still-living Arthur and thousands of his men, asleep in a circle, waiting until the bell is tolled for them to rise and lead the Cymry to victory.  Within the circle lay a heap of gold and a heap of silver and the Welshman is told by the magician that he can take from only one pile - this he does, but on his way out he accidentally strikes the bell, having to give the required answer in order to escape with his treasure.  He is warned that he must not squander what he has stolen from the magical dwelling of Arthur, but when it is all spent he pays a second visit to the cavern.  This time however he forgets to give the correct formula when he accidentally rings the bell and several knights awake, beat him, and send him forth a cripple.  For the rest of his days he is poor and could never again find the entrance (summarised from Chambers 1927: 222-3; Ashe 1996: 76). 

The story is similar elsewhere, though it varies in minor respects from place to place, for example, the bell may be replaced by a bugle, or the cave leading to Arthur's abode is discovered by a shepherd seeking his sheep.  On Snowdon Arthur's men lie in the cave but not Arthur himself; he fell at Camlann and is buried in a cairn (this obviously represents an attempt to reconcile the legend of Arthur still being alive with the folk-tale that he died at Camlann, which may have originated in this area: see Sims-Williams 1991: 51).

This concept of Arthur is also to be found in England and Scotland.  One early example is from South Cadbury hill, Somerset, which is probably first recorded by the Welsh antiquary Elis Gruffudd, who died in 1552.  He records two versions of the legend of Arthur magically sleeping inside a hill, one 'in the region of Gloucester' and one where Arthur is 'asleep in a cave under a hill near Glastonbury', which is probably South Cadbury - this belief persisted into the nineteenth century, when a party of antiquaries were asked on their visit to South Cadbury by an old man 'Have you come to take the king out?' (Padel 1991: 240; Loomis 1959: 69-70; other tales give the hollow Cadbury Castle iron or golden gates, see Chambers 1927: 185).  Other instances are to be had from Alderly Edge in Cheshire, the Eildon Hills in Scotland, St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, and Freeborough Hill in Yorkshire, for example (Simpson 1986; Loomis 1958: 14-15).  In the English and Scottish versions of the tale the intruder is sometimes tested and fails through confusion or panic.  Thus beneath the Castle of Sewingshields Arthur sleeps with his wife and court, waiting for a horn to be blown and a garter to be cut with a sword of stone.  A farmer follows, by accident, a crevice to find them and cuts the garter with the sword, whereupon Arthur awakes uttering the words:

O woe betide that evil day
On which this witless wight was born,
Who drew the sword - the garter cut,
But never blew the bugle horn.

He then falls back into his enchanted slumber.  Similarly at Richmond Castle in Yorkshire Potter Thompson, who finds Arthur's hidden subterranean waiting-place, fails to complete the ritual:

Potter Thompson, Potter Thompson, hadst thou blown the horn,
Thou hadst been the greatest man that ever was born. 
(Chambers 1927: 224-5)

While there are clear differences, the above tales are all clearly related and testify to a strong popular belief (found apparently in Brittany, Wales, England and southern Scotland) that the reason Arthur was not presently to be found was that he was waiting/sleeping in his magical subterranean kingdom/abode, the entrance to which was often elusive and could only be found on rare occasions.  It is worth noting that there is no possible Galfridian or romance source for this tale of Arthur's underground residence and, as discussed above, the earliest references point to it having its origins at least as early as the mid-twelfth century as part of the much-mocked Brittonic belief in Arthur's 'messianic return'.  As such, it seems not unreasonable to treat it as a genuine example of non-Galfridian Brittonic folklore, this being a development of the belief that Arthur could never be slain found in the Englynion y Beddau, despite the fact that it is not recorded from British or English folklore until after the medieval period. 

Ultimately this tale, like that of Arthur in Avalon, would seem to be one of Arthur's present absence being ascribed to the fact that he was currently residing, still alive - though sometimes asleep - in the Celtic Otherworld, from which he would at some point return.  Arthur's subterranean abode/kingdom is certainly of a magical/Otherworldly character in these tales, and it is clearly reminiscent of the Celtic tradition that located the Otherworld or Fairyland underground, with elusive caverns in the side of hills/mountains acting as the entrance to it (Rees & Rees 1961: 38-40, 45, 303-5; Ross 1995: 441; Loomis 1941; Loomis 1959: 71).  It is also associated with the common folk-motif of the hero asleep in an Otherworldly mountain, first recorded by Plutarch of an unnamed British deity asleep in a deep enchanted cavern in an island near Britain (Thompson 1955-8, numbers  A.571 and D.1960.2; Ashe 1996: 76, 77; Padel 1994: 30-1; Padel 1995: 110-11 ; Chambers 1927: 225-7, 230).  The main difference from the Avalon tale is simply one of the conception of the Otherworld that Arthur was currently residing in, and the fact that, in this less literary tale, the owner/ruler often appears to be Arthur himself, not the supposed-goddess Morgen.  It ought, incidentally, to be noted that the notion that the tale of a subterranean sleeper was only attached to genuinely historical figures, and therefore that this tale 'proves' that Arthur really existed (as proposed by Geoffrey Ashe), is a false one, as can be seen from its attachment to a British deity in Plutarch and to the Gaelic Fionn mac Cumhaill (Ashe 1995: 7-8; Padel 1994: 30-31; Padel 1995: 110-11).  In addition to the definite examples of the legend, there are several Ogof Arthur, 'Arthur's cave', known from Wales, which have no extant hollow hill/cave legend attached to them but which may be related.  Similarly, Hunt (1865: II.186) notes that in the mid-nineteenth century, Arthur's Caves were 'frequently to be met with' in western Cornwall, although he fails to elaborate any further on these.  

The Wild Hunt

At South Cadbury, Somerset, the legend of Arthur asleep in an underground 'Otherworld' is joined by another fascinating explanation of Arthur's current whereabouts, recorded here in the modern period: there is an old track near Cadbury Castle called 'Arthur's Hunting Causeway' and spectral riders and hunting-dogs can be heard rushing along it on rough winter nights, these being Arthur and his hounds - usually invisible except for glint of his horse's silver shoes - riding in the Wild Hunt (Palmer 1976: 83).  This 'Wild Hunt' is an widespread and ancient folk-belief found across Europe, which would seem to at least partly owe its origins to an explanation of the strange noises made by storms and high winds.  It is a phantom chase with a spectral/Otherworldly host (often said to be the souls of the dead), coursing through a forest or the air at night with bugles or horns blowing and accompanied by the cries of the hunting pack.  One of the earliest-recorded leaders of this Otherworldly hunt was Odin/Woden, the Germanic god, and the leadership of the hunt seems to have been originally part of the role of the Indo-European Männerbund-gods, Odin being the classic example of this type (Kershaw 2000, especially 20-40), although it was attached over the centuries to many personages, both mythical and historical, such as Charlemagne, the Devil, Herla (possibly Odin under another name), Arawn (King of Annwfyn, the Welsh Otherworld), and Gwyn ap Nudd. 

Given all of the above, the South Cadbury folklore is consequently suggestive of a concept of Arthur in which his present absence is explained as a result of his taking on the leadership of this mythical and spectral host.  Moreover, the South Cadbury tale is not the earliest reference to this role for Arthur: as with the reference to Arthur's subterranean faery kingdom, Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1211) provides one of the earliest accounts of this belief.  After finishing his Sicilian story he recounts that he has heard foresters from the woods of both Britain and Brittany tell of companies of knights who meet for hunting beneath the full moon, with hounds and a din of horns; when questioned they reveal themselves to be of 'Arthur's household' (Chambers 1927: 228).  This belief is also mentioned in the Didot Perceval (c. 1220-30), and the preacher Étienne de Bourbon in his Tractatus de diversis materiis praedicabilibus (c. 1250-60) says how on a moonlight night a woodcutter met the Wild Hunt - composed, says Étienne, of devils - near the Mont du Chat in Savoy (where, it should be noted, the Welsh folktale of Arthur and cath paluc became localised) and he was told that the hunting-party was of Arthur's household and his court was nearby.  The woodcutter then follows the party into Arthur's faery palace, filled with knights and ladies, dancing and feasting, and lays as directed with a beautiful lady, only to wake up the next morning on a bundle of faggots (Loomis 1958: 11).

There are numerous other references to Arthur's leadership of the Wild Hunt.  It is most interesting to note that in Brittany and western France the Wild Hunt is referred to as la Chasse Artu, references to this apparently going back to at least the twelfth century and continuing right through until the twentieth (Loomis 1959: 70;  Taylor 1921: 287-9).  These accounts assign various origins to the chase but the most usual is that, in order to join in a hunt, Arthur left the service of the mass at the moment of the elevation of the host and for this sacrilegious act he is condemned to chase forever.  A version from Fougčres (between Brittany and Maine) relates how Arthur on that occasion pursued the hare through the forest to the verge of an enormous cliff, from which the hare leaped; however, instead of falling it floats on before the chase, which followed and continues to pursue it, unsuccessfully, for eternity.  Another famous reference to the legend of Arthur and the Wild Hunt is to be had from the sixteenth-century Complaynt of Scotland.  In amongst a list of medieval romance-titles to be told for recreation we find:

Arthour knycht he raid on nycht
Viht gyltin spur and candil lycht

Bruce took this entry as indicative of a lost ballad based on the folk-tale of the Wild Hunt, though its text has also been compared to charms found in later folklore with the suggestion that it was nothing more than this (Bruce 1912: 192; Taylor 1921: 286-7).  A final interesting example of the legend comes in a letter from William Wordsworth to Allen Cunningham, dated November 23, 1823:

Do not say I ought to have been a Scotchman.  Tear me not from the country of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton; yet I own that since the days of childhood, when I became familiar with the phrase 'They are killing geese in Scotland, and sending the feathers to England' (which every one had ready when the snow began to fall), and when I used to hear in the time of a high wind, that

Arthur's bower has broken his band,
And he comes roaring up the land;
King o' Scots wi' a' his power
Cannot turn Arthur's bower,

I have been indebted to the North for more than I shall ever be able to acknowledge.

This clearly underlines the fact that the Wild Hunt would seem to have been originally an explanation for the strange noises made by storm-winds. The rhyme quoted by Wordsworth from his childhood also finds its way, in a slightly different form, into Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (p. 50):

Nutkin began again -

'Arthur O'Bower has broken his band,
He came roaring up the land!
The king of Scots with all his power,
Cannot turn Arthur of the Bower!'

Nutkin made a whirring noise to sound like the wind, and he took a running jump right onto the head of Old Brown!

Taken together, this all indicates that the concept of Arthur in which he is leader of the Wild Hunt was a strong and long-lived one.  Just how early it developed is impossible to say with certainty.  The French references to the Chasse Artu, which apparently begin in the twelfth century, presumably spread from Brittany to the other areas, and a Brittonic origin for the folklore is further indicated by Gervase of Tilbury's early thirteenth-century attribution of the belief to foresters from both Britain and Brittany (see Green 2007: 259).  Indeed, it has recently been suggested that Arthur's leadership of the Wild Hunt may go back to the earliest stratum of the legend.  Not only has Arthur's hunting of the giant supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth, which appears in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum and the eleventh-century Culhwch ac Olwen, been considered to be a form of the Wild Hunt (Westwood 1985: 275, 448; Green 2007: 237), but if Arthur was originally a Männerbund-god, as has recently been very tentatively suggested, then leadership of the hunt will have always been a role of his (Green 2007: 233-40).

Arthur the Bird

The above represents the final concept of Arthur in which he was still alive in a human form.  In addition to these explanations for his current absence, one further concept of Arthur's fate is especially strange in character.  This holds that Arthur still lives but that he has been transformed into a bird and roams the earth in this form. The first reference to this belief is found in Julian del Castillo's 1582 Spanish chronicle Historia de los Reyes Godos (Loomis 1958: 16-17).  This asserts that in England it was common talk (fama comun) that Arthur had been enchanted into the form of a crow and that many penalties were inflicted on anyone who killed one of these birds.  This belief is also famously referred to by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who actually mentions the belief three times in his Don Quixote (1605 & 1615) and his posthumously published Persiles y Sigismunda (1617).  The following is from Don Quixote I, ii, 5:

What! said Don Quixote, have you never read the annals and history of England, which treat of the famous exploits of Arthur, whom, at present, in our Castilian language, is called king Artus, and of whom, there is an ancient tradition, generally believed all over Great-Britain, that he did not die, but was, by the art of enchantment, metamorphosed into a raven: and, that the time will come, when he shall return, and recover his sceptre and throne.  For which reason, it cannot be proved, that from that period to this, any Englishman has killed a raven.  (Smollett 1755: 77)

The above was quoted by an eighteenth-century correspondent, Edgar MacCulloch, in Notes & Queries (First Series, VIII, p. 618), who added his own observations on this matter.  These were in turn quoted by Robert Hunt in his Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall (1865: II.308-9) with further remarks:

My reason for transcribing this passage [from Don Quixote] is to record the curious fact that the legend of King Arthur's existence in the form of a raven was still repeated as a piece of folk-lore in Cornwall about sixty years ago.  My father, who died about two years since, at the age of eighty, spent a few years of his youth in the neighbourhood of Penzance.  One day he was walking along Marazion Green with his fowling-piece on his shoulder, he saw a raven at a distance, and fired at it.  An old man who was near immediately rebuked him, telling him that he ought on no account to have shot at a raven, for that King Arthur was still alive in the form of that bird.  My father was much interested when I drew his attention to the passage which I have quoted above.

Perhaps some of your Cornish or Welsh correspondents may be able to say whether the legend is still known among the people of Cornwall or Wales.


I have been most desirous of discovering if any such legend as the above exists.  I have questioned people in every part of Cornwall in which King Arthur has been reported to have dwelt and fought, and especially have I inquired in the neighbourhood of Tintagel, which is reported to have been Arthur's stronghold.  Nowhere do I find the raven associated with him, but I have been told that bad luck will would follow the man who killed a Chough, for Arthur was transformed into one of these birds.


The tradition relative to King Arthur and his transformation  into a raven, is fixed very decidedly on the Cornish Chough, from the colour of its beak and talons.  The-

'Talons and beak all red with blood!'

are said to mark the violent end to which this celebrated chieftain came.

Hunt's comments with regards to the attachment of the legend to the Cornish Chough - a red-legged and red-billed crow - are confirmed by other sources, and in Welsh bran Arthur ('Arthur crow') is an alternative name for the Chough (otherwise known as bran goesgoch , 'red-legged crow'); Chambers further notes of the bird that Arthur is said to have been transformed into that a 'recent enquirer was told by a Delabole quarryman that it was a nath or puffin.' (Chambers, 1927: 229).

This strange concept of an undying Arthur would seem to be a relatively late explanation of Arthur's current whereabouts in popular tradition (it clearly belongs to this), given that the concept is unrecorded before the sixteenth-century, though the fact that without the chance record of this belief by Julian del Castillo and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra we would have no evidence of it until the eighteenth or nineteenth century suggests that a more ancient origin is not impossible.  The disagreement between the sources over the type of bird that Arthur was turned into is interesting: the legend has been attached to the raven, the crow, the Chough, and the puffin.  All but the puffin, which is only once associated with the legend, are corvids and thus the disagreement must at least partly represent a confusion between large black birds of the crow family.  With regards to the raven, this is a bird strongly associated with myth and legend and it is probably significant in the present context that, in Wales and the West Country, it was held to be a royal bird, and in Somerset men tipped their hats to it as it flew by.

Whilst the belief that Arthur survives as a corvid is not recorded in the medieval period, certain aspects of the early Arthurian legend may help elucidate it.  Firstly, Arthur himself is associated with the raven or crow in medieval Welsh literature (for example in Y Gododdin).  Secondly, his family seem to have been, in early Brittonic tradition, shape-shifters.  For example, his father Uthyr Pendragon would seem to have been a renowned enchanter and shape-shifter, with Triad 28 indicating that Uthyr taught his skills to Menw son of Teirgwaedd, who is one of Arthur's men in the eleventh-century Culhwch ac Olwen and in this text transforms himself into a bird (see Green 2007: 146; Bromwich 1978: Triad 28 and pp. 520-3).  Similarly Arthur's nephew, Eliwlod m. Madawg m. Uthr, is transformed post-humously into an eagle in the non-Galfridian (c. 1150?) Ymddiddan Arthur a'r Eryr (which displays knowledge of Cornwall), in which form he now lives and talks to Arthur.  Whilst such references cannot prove that the idea of Arthur being transformed into a bird was part of medieval Brittonic folklore, they do provide a context in which such a situation would be plausible.

Arthur in the Stars

The last concept of Arthur's current whereabouts considered here explains that his present absence is due to the fact that he has been bodily removed from the earth and placed in the sky, specifically in the constellation of Boötes.  The only explicit reference to this occurs in John Lydgate’s Fall of Princes (1430s), where after the battle of Camlann Arthur is transported to Arthuris constellacioun , ‘Arthur’s constellation’ (Boötes), where he resides still in a magnificent crystalline palace:

Wher he sit crownid in the heuenly mansioun
Amyd the paleis of stonis cristallyne,
Told among Cristen first of ţe worthi nyne.
(Dwyer 1978: 159)

Although this story is found nowhere else, that there was indeed some sort of close relationship between Arthur and this constellation in the medieval period is strongly indicated by the fact that Arcturus, the name of a star in the constellation of Boötes, was a genuine medieval form of Arthur's name, used apparently independently by Ailred of Rievaulx (Speculum Charitatis, c. 1141) and Geoffrey of Monmouth (Vita Merlini, c . 1151) amongst others (Bromwich 1978: 544-5).  In this light it is worth considering whether this concept of Arthur's survival might have been more widespread than the available evidence indicates.  Certainly, as has been discussed elsewhere, a link between Arcturus and Arthur has the potential to be very ancient indeed, and such a situation may additionally help explain some very puzzling concepts of Arthur that existed in the medieval period (Green 2007: 188, 191-4, 243; Anderson 2004; Green forthcoming).


The above perhaps demonstrates something of the richness and vitality of the legends surrounding Arthur's survival.  By the twelfth century the concept of Arthur in which he could not be killed - as found in the Englynion y Beddau - had developed into one of his return, and had furthermore begun to take on certain specific forms in its attempts to explain away Arthur's current very-obvious absence.  According to some,Arthur was waiting on an island or subterranean Otherworld, of which he is sometimes lord.  Other explanations, some later than others, held that he presently led an Otherworldly hunt through the air; had been transformed into a crow, raven or Chough; was residing in the stars like the classical heroes of old; or was even currently resting in an underwater Otherworld (the last is referred to only by Godfrey of Viterbo in c. 1190 - see Loomis 1959: 70-1, cf. Westwood 1985: 287).  One has to ask how many more such concepts once existed, whether literary or folkloric?  It is sobering to reflect how fragile our knowledge of some of the above actually is.


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