King Arthur stands tall in British mythology as a medieval king of Camelot who led the Knights of the Round Table. But was this iconic figure based on a real person, and if so, did he follow Christianity or pagan religions?
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: While legends present King Arthur as a Christian knight, the historical evidence suggests the real figure behind the myth lived before Christianity took hold in Britain and would have practiced Celtic paganism.
In this extensive article, we’ll analyze the texts, archeology, and theories surrounding King Arthur to better understand whether the ‘once and future king’ could accurately be portrayed as a devout Christian.
Earliest Arthurian Legends Lack Christian Elements
The earliest Arthurian legends, which emerged in Wales and early England, notably lack Christian elements. These stories, often steeped in mythology and folklore, showcase a strong presence of pagan themes and beliefs.
The legends depict King Arthur as a heroic figure who fights against mythological creatures and supernatural forces, displaying a connection to pre-Christian traditions and beliefs.
Welsh and Early English Stories Contain Pagan Themes
Welsh and early English stories surrounding King Arthur are rife with pagan themes that reflect the ancient Celtic and Germanic cultures. In these tales, Arthur is portrayed as a warrior king who battles with giants, witches, and other fantastical creatures.
The emphasis on magic, nature worship, and the presence of deities such as the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay point to a strong pagan influence.
One popular tale, “Culhwch and Olwen,” showcases Arthur’s interactions with various mythical beings and his quest for the giant boar Twrch Trwyth. This story highlights the pagan elements entrenched in the early Arthurian legends.
No Mention of Christianity in Original Myths
Another notable aspect of the earliest Arthurian legends is the absence of any mention of Christianity. The original myths and stories surrounding King Arthur do not include any references to Christian beliefs, practices, or figures.
This suggests that the legends existed independently of Christianity and were not influenced by the religion.
It is important to note that while the legends themselves may not contain Christian elements, later adaptations and interpretations of the Arthurian tales, particularly during the medieval period, incorporated Christian themes and symbolism.
These adaptations sought to align the legendary figure of Arthur with Christian values and ideals, adding layers of religious significance to the stories.
Later Medieval Versions Depict Arthur as Christian Knight
In later medieval retellings of the King Arthur legend, Arthur is often portrayed as a devout Christian knight. These versions, which emerged in the 12th century and beyond, incorporated Christian ideals and themes into the Arthurian narrative.
12th Century Retellings Insert Christian Ideals
During the 12th century, a wave of Arthurian romances swept across Europe, popularizing the legend of King Arthur. These retellings, such as Chrétien de Troyes’ “Perceval, the Story of the Grail,” introduced Christian ideals into the Arthurian mythos.
The authors of these retellings, influenced by the prevailing Christian culture of the time, sought to align Arthur with Christian virtues. They portrayed him as a chivalrous knight who embodied the Christian values of courage, honor, and selflessness.
This transformation of Arthur into a Christian hero resonated with the religious sensibilities of the medieval audience.
One example of this Christian adaptation can be seen in Sir Gawain, one of Arthur’s most trusted knights. In the “Gawain and the Green Knight” poem, Gawain’s encounters with the Green Knight serve as a test of his Christian faith and moral integrity.
This emphasis on Gawain’s Christian virtues reflects the growing influence of Christianity on the Arthurian legend.
Holy Grail and Round Table Added
Another significant addition to the Arthurian legend during the later medieval period was the introduction of the Holy Grail and the Round Table. These elements further emphasized the Christian nature of Arthur’s story.
The Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper, became a central symbol of Arthurian mythology. It represented divine grace and redemption, and the quest for the Holy Grail became a spiritual journey for Arthur and his knights.
The inclusion of the Holy Grail in the Arthurian legend reinforced the Christian themes of faith, purity, and the search for spiritual enlightenment.
The Round Table, a symbol of equality and unity among Arthur’s knights, also took on a Christian significance. It was believed to have been modeled after the Last Supper, where Jesus and his disciples sat in a circular arrangement.
The Round Table represented Arthur’s commitment to justice, fairness, and the Christian ideal of fellowship.
These later medieval adaptations of the King Arthur legend cemented his image as a Christian knight and further endeared him to a Christian audience. The incorporation of Christian ideals, the Holy Grail, and the Round Table added depth and spiritual resonance to the Arthurian mythos, making it a timeless tale of faith, heroism, and the pursuit of righteousness.
Most Scholars Believe Historical Arthur Predated Christianity
When examining the faith of King Arthur, it is important to note that the legendary British ruler is believed by most scholars to have existed in the 5th or 6th century. This predates the widespread introduction of Christianity to Britain, as the religion did not become dominant until later centuries.
Therefore, it is unlikely that King Arthur himself was a Christian.
Likely Based on 5th-6th Century Warlord
The figure of King Arthur is believed to be based on a historical warlord who lived during the 5th or 6th century. While the exact details of this warlord’s life remain shrouded in legend and myth, many historians agree that King Arthur was likely a charismatic leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons.
His stories were later embellished and romanticized, leading to the creation of the legendary figure we know today.
It is important to distinguish between the historical King Arthur and the mythical character often depicted in literature and folklore. The historical King Arthur was likely a powerful warrior and leader, but the tales of his magical sword Excalibur and his quest for the Holy Grail were added later, influenced by Christian mythology.
Christianity Not Widespread in Britain Until Later
During the time period in which King Arthur is believed to have lived, Christianity was not yet widespread in Britain. The Roman Empire had introduced Christianity to the island, but it did not become the dominant religion until the 7th and 8th centuries.
Pagan beliefs and practices still held sway during King Arthur’s time, and it is more likely that he would have adhered to these traditional beliefs rather than the emerging Christian faith.
It is worth noting that the stories and legends of King Arthur did eventually become intertwined with Christianity. As Christianity spread throughout Britain, the figure of King Arthur was assimilated into Christian narratives, often portrayed as a defender of the faith.
This merging of pagan and Christian elements further blurs the line between the historical and mythical aspects of King Arthur’s character.
Archeological Evidence Shows Paganism Dominated Arthur’s Time
When examining the faith of the legendary British ruler, King Arthur, archeological evidence suggests that paganism was the dominant belief system during his time. This finding sheds light on the religious landscape of Sub-Roman Britain and challenges the popular notion that Arthur was a devout Christian.
Celtic Polytheism Popular in Sub-Roman Britain
During the period in which King Arthur is believed to have lived, Celtic polytheism was widely practiced throughout Sub-Roman Britain. The Celtic people worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses, including deities such as Lugh, Brigid, and Cernunnos.
These gods were associated with various aspects of nature, warfare, and fertility, reflecting the agricultural and warrior societies of the time.
Archeological excavations have unearthed numerous artifacts that provide evidence of the prevalence of Celtic polytheism. These artifacts include intricate jewelry adorned with Celtic symbols, ritual objects, and sacred sites dedicated to pagan worship.
The existence of these artifacts suggests that paganism played a significant role in the religious and cultural fabric of Arthur’s era.
No Supporting Evidence of Churches or Christian Artifacts
In contrast to the abundance of archaeological evidence supporting Celtic polytheism, there is a notable absence of artifacts related to Christianity during Arthur’s time. Despite the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, there is little to no record of churches or Christian artifacts in Sub-Roman Britain during the period associated with King Arthur.
This absence of Christian presence raises questions about the extent of Christianity’s influence in Arthurian Britain. While it is possible that Christianity was practiced by a minority, the lack of supporting evidence suggests that it did not hold significant sway over the overall religious beliefs and practices of the time.
Debate Continues Around Arthur’s Possible Christian Identity
The question of whether King Arthur, the legendary British ruler, was Christian remains a topic of intense debate among historians and scholars. While the evidence is sparse and often ambiguous, there are a minority of theories that argue for Arthur’s Christian identity.
On the other hand, other experts maintain that Arthur’s roots were firmly rooted in paganism.
A Minority of Theories Argue Arthur Was Christian
Some historians believe that King Arthur embraced Christianity and played a significant role in its spread throughout Britain. They point to Arthur’s association with the Knights of the Round Table, which they argue bears similarities to the Last Supper.
Additionally, they argue that the presence of Christian symbols and references in Arthurian legends, such as the Holy Grail, suggest a Christian influence in the Arthurian mythos.
Furthermore, proponents of the Christian Arthur theory highlight the influence of medieval Christian writers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, who portrayed Arthur as a Christian leader. These accounts describe Arthur’s interactions with religious figures, such as Saint Dubricius and Saint Gildas, further supporting the notion of his Christian faith.
However, it is important to note that these theories are not universally accepted. Critics argue that the Christian elements in Arthurian legends were added later by Christian writers as a means of appropriating the myth for their own religious purposes.
They contend that the original Arthurian stories were rooted in pre-Christian Celtic mythology and folklore.
Other Experts Maintain His Pagan Roots
Contrary to the Christian Arthur theory, many scholars argue that King Arthur’s identity was firmly rooted in paganism. They point to the ancient Celtic origins of the Arthurian legends, which predate the arrival of Christianity in Britain.
These scholars argue that Arthur was originally a pagan hero, embodying the ancient Celtic ideals of bravery and warriorship.
Additionally, the lack of explicit Christian references in early Arthurian texts supports the notion of a pagan Arthur. The earliest sources, such as the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae, make no mention of Arthur’s Christian faith.
Instead, they portray him as a powerful warrior and leader, closely connected to the natural world and the Celtic pantheon of gods and goddesses.
Ultimately, the question of King Arthur’s religious identity remains unresolved. The debate between those who argue for Arthur’s Christian faith and those who maintain his pagan roots highlights the complexity and ambiguity of historical interpretation.
It is likely that the true nature of Arthur’s faith will forever remain shrouded in the mists of time.
In summation, while later legends recast King Arthur as a Christian knight, historians widely agree the real figure who inspired the myth predated the spread of Christianity across Britain. Given the timeline and pagan setting, it is very unlikely that the historical Arthur or his prototype adhered to Christianity.
The transformation of pagan Arthur into a Christian icon illustrates how legends can evolve over time, acquiring new religious symbolism foreign to their original cultural context.