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When and how did Arthur become “High King of Britain”?


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Not in the game, in reality.  

The idea that Arthur was “High King of Britain” is very widespread.  (Google it.)  And obviously, the idea that Arthur was a king, but that there were other lesser kings who owed allegiance to him is a very old one.  

But that’s a little different from describing that by using “High King” as a title.  The “High King of Ireland” was a thing; so was the “High King of Scotland.”  But in English, from what I can tell, while it’s perfectly normal to describe someone as a “high king” (it goes back at least to Beowulf), that’s not a title denoting a king who is set over other kings — it’s a way of saying that a particular king was a great king. 

(Obviously, “Bretwalda” was a thing, but that’s not the same as using the specific phrase “High King.”  In the Mabinogion, for what it’s worth, Arthur is once described as the chief of British kings, but in other places, the way that the collection prefers to conceive of Arthur’s position is as “emperor.”)

So what I’m getting at is that I think that “Arthur, High King of Britain” is a recent invention.   Happy to be corrected on the point!  But if it is recent, how far does it go back, who came up with it, and what was the context?  

I’ve been able to push it back as far as Howard Pyle in (I believe) 1903.  And if it starts with him, that would be interesting, because it would mean that a pervasive aspect of the story of Arthur as it is understood nowadays was the consequence of an American retelling.  Which would be worth exploring.

I’m curious in part because, as I say above, “High King” (Ard Rí) is a real feature of medieval Irish, and if this does go back to the 19th century or the very beginning of the 20th, then it’s fascinating that it would happen in the context of the popularization of real or dodgy bits of Irish legendary and historical items in the Gaelic Revival, which would seem to be the most likely place from which the idea was borrowed.

But does anyone know more about this?

Edited by Voord 99
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I think you hit the nail on the head with Howard Pyle, who was an American. In 1903.

 

In other words, a man from a country that at the time had an incredibly Celtophilic undercurrent in its culture. Americans had (and still have to a lesser degree) an obsession with Irish and Scottish culture due to British oppression of the Irish and numerous politicians and businessmen of early days of the US having Scottish ancestry. By Pyle's time, while Arthur was still usually treated as the quintessential High Middle Ages monarch, it was also becoming common knowledge that he originated from the Welsh (Cian of the Chariots, considered the first true "Dark Ages" take on the story, had come out in the 1880s) and Wales, Ireland, same difference, right?

 

Obviously, in actuality Welsh and Irish culture are very different and there's no record of the Welsh using a title like High King - the figures who you'd think would qualify, Arthur included, are titled King of the Britons.

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12 hours ago, Voord 99 said:

And obviously, the idea that Arthur was a king, but that there were other lesser kings who owed allegiance to him is a very old one.  

In all sources I know of, many kings are sworn to king Arthur. So, he is already, de facto, a king of kings. Calling him High King is just a way to formalize that.

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If Howard Pyle was the one responsible for Arthur being called "High King of Britain", that stands out all the more, given that we customarily associate the "High King" title with the more "historical" take on Arthur (a post-Romano-British leader fighting Saxons), which Pyle left out of his retelling entirely; his version was a straight "mythical medieval king" with not a hint of fifth/sixth century events.

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Yeah, it was probably from Pyle or someone writing in similar circumstances in the "modern age." You likely won't see it, for instance, in Welsh or Breton sources, since their highest title was always "King of the Britons." Culhwch and Olwen also calls him "Chief of the Lords of this Island," and the Welsh triads seem to use the phrase "Arthur's court" and "the isle of Britain" interchangeably, which is honestly a more impressive flex than calling yourself "high king" as far as I'm concerned.

Other sources in Britain usually kept that title or something similar (Geoffrey uses "King of Britannia," for example), or else called him an emperor, assuming they ever specified his title at all, which most likely didn't because at a certain point you just assume people know who you're talking about when you say "King Arthur." And of course there were some that called him "King of England," usually writers who didn't know or didn't care that such a title would be wildly anachronistic.

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3 hours ago, Leingod said:

And of course there were some that called him "King of England," usually writers who didn't know or didn't care that such a title would be wildly anachronistic.

There's another drawback to describing Arthur as "King of England" besides the anachronism; "England" and "Britain" are not synonymous.  England is just part of the island; Britain is the whole island.   Calling Arthur just "King of England" ignores the prominent "Arthurian presence" in Wales and southern Scotland.

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Of course, historically, part of what was at stake in Arthur as “King of England” was England’s claims to dominance over the rest of the island.  I’ve mentioned before one of my favorite bits of Arthuriana, which is the Scottish authors who argued that, as Gawain was Anna’s son, he was the rightful heir to the throne, so in fact it was the “Scotsman” who should have been king, and Arthur was a usurper (whose achievements had been greatly exaggerated by the English).

One thing to note about this is that the “of Britain” part in “High King of Britain” is also a subtle modern shift (assuming that it is modern).  From Geoffrey on, there’s plenty of emphasis on Arthur as a king who has the allegiance of other kings, but those kings aren’t all in Britain, and while there is some ambivalence about the conquests on the continent, at no point, I think, is it suggested that Arthur’s conquest of Ireland is problematic.  Which is unsurprising, given the context in which the narrative of Arthur’s reign took shape.

I’ll mention that Pyle uses it only once, but his is still the earliest use that I have discovered.*  It’s part of his adaptation of the bit in Malory where Lot and the rest refuse to accept the “beardless boy” Arthur as king.

Thanks especially to jmberry1s for pointing out the likely pan-Celticism and especially the details about American Celtophilia, about which I know nothing.

*Actually, there is at least one romance source that does call Arthur “High King,” but there’s a reason — it’s the Irish Eachtra an Mhadra Mhaoil,  which not terribly surprisingly uses Irish terminology when talking about Arthur.  And he’s not High King of Britain — he’s the High King of the World, and the significance of that is very vague.  (In fact, I don’t think the work ever identifies Arthur as British, although I’d have to reread it to be sure.). This would not be where the use of the title by Pyle comes from, I think, as I don’t think it was translated before 1908, and it does not seem to have enjoyed very wide distribution, especially outside Ireland. 

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1 hour ago, Call Me Deacon Blues said:

I can't really weigh too much in on this, except that if I remember correctly, the oldest reference to Arthur we've found so far was an inscription on a stone or something, and called him "The warrior Arthur." Which makes me wonder if him even being a king at all was ever historical

Probably not. Early references call him stuff like "Dux Bellorum" i.e. "leader of battles," implying he was a war-leader rather than a king.

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5 hours ago, Call Me Deacon Blues said:

I can't really weigh too much in on this, except that if I remember correctly, the oldest reference to Arthur we've found so far was an inscription on a stone or something, and called him "The warrior Arthur." Which makes me wonder if him even being a king at all was ever historical

Oldest written source is the Historia Brittonum, in which Arthur is portrayed thus:

Quote

(Historia; section 50)

50. St. Germanus, after his death, returned into his own country. At that time, the Saxons greatly increased in Britain, both in strength and numbers. And Octa, after the death of his father Hengist, came from the sinistral part of the island to the kingdom of Kent, and from him have proceeded all the kings of that province, to the present period. 

Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at te City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.

SDLeary

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I think that what Call Me Deacon Blues is probably thinking of is another reference to Arthur in the Historia Brittonum:

 Est aliud miraculum in regione quae vocatur Ercing. habetur ibi sepulcrum iuxta fontem, qui cognominatur Licat Amr,* et viri nomen, qui sepultus est in tumulo, sic vocabatur Amr:* filius Arthuri militis erat et ipse occidit eum ibidem et sepelivit. 

“There is another wonder in a region that is called Ercing.  There is located there a tomb beside a spring that is named Licat Amr and that was the name of the man who was buried in the mound, Amr.  He was the son of Arthur the soldier (Arthuri militis) and he himself killed him in the same place and buried him.”

This is in some ways more revealing than the earlier HB reference, because it’s in passing**.  

Y Gododdin’s reference to Arthur, which perhaps goes back to about this time (I believe that it is considered likely that the reference to Arthur is no earlier than the 9th or 10th century, as it is only in one version of the poem, but that it may well go back that far) also suggests that initially, the legendary Arthur was a warrior-figure.  I believe it’s widely accepted by people who work on this stuff that this is the earliest Arthur that we can really identify, a legendary warrior about whom people told stories in 9th century Wales, who was apparently not a king in his earliest version.

*The text that I am using (not a very good one) actually has Anir, not Amr, which apparently is a variant reading — it would certainly be a very easy change for a copyist to make by accident.  I’ve changed it to Amr to correspond with what people prefer in discussions of this passage.

**There is another reference to “Arthur the soldier (miles)” in the same section, but I don’t have access to that — for some reason it’s not in the Latin text to which I have access (probably because it’s not in all manuscripts).  You can find translations online readily enough.

Edited by Voord 99
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I was actually referring to something I read about and now can't freaking find... but it was like a stone inscription saying something to the effect of "the warrior Arthur stood here." Something like that? I remember reading an article that said it predated any actual texts we had. Could be wrong, I love Arthuriana but I'm not too up on my ancient texts

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5 minutes ago, Call Me Deacon Blues said:

I was actually referring to something I read about and now can't freaking find... but it was like a stone inscription saying something to the effect of "the warrior Arthur stood here." Something like that? I remember reading an article that said it predated any actual texts we had. Could be wrong, I love Arthuriana but I'm not too up on my ancient texts

You're most likely thinking of the Artognou Stone:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artognou_stone

Its Arthurian connections have, unsurprisingly, been hotly debated.

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I’ve been able to push “High King” back before Pyle into the 19th century.

-One possibility is that while I am moderately confident — still very happy to be corrected on the point by someone whose Old and Middle English are better than mine — that “high king” in English meant a “great/elevated/noble (etc.) king,” it might have been read differently in the 19th century.  There’s one suggestive passage in Layamon, where the king of Iceland submits to Arthur and says that Arthur will be his “high king.”

- More tangibly, though, there is something that I found in, of all places, an 1873 commentary on the Roman poet Juvenal (by Pearson and Strong).  This is worth quoting:

Quote

Arviragus — not mentioned elsewhere except in the legend of St Joseph of Arimathea.  A plausible Celtic etymology has been found for the word, which might be formed from Ardriagh, High King; it is also supposed that Arthur is another form of the same title.

Rarely has a use of the passive voice been so annoying.  Cite, you bastards!  But It appears that someone by 1873 had tried to connect “Arthur” etymologically to the Irish title of High (Ard) King, and I suspect that this long-forgotten and fanciful theory is the origin of this idea that has so thoroughly cemented itself into the modern Arthur.

 

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