(As well as updating older post as I develop the ebook, I am also going create some new blogs out of the additional material that’s going into it. Here’s the first).
The question about what religion King Arthur followed depends on which King Arthur we’re referring to? King Arthur of the Medieval Romances is most definitely Christian as is the one of the Historia Britonnum.; the mythical one appears to have been a Christian and a possible historic one of the Late-5th century would most likely be a Christian, but this would also be dependent on which part of Britain he was from.
In Culhwch ac Olwen, (possibly 11th century) where Arthur has many ‘pagan’ friends, such as Gwyn ap Nudd (of the Otherworld) and the god Mabon, he or Cai mention “Heaven” at least three times. Whether these mentions were part of the original story or were added later we may never know, but, if they did want to make Arthur like the one of the Historia Britonnum (H.B.) of the Early-9th century, they did very little to do so. Had they wanted to change him to a Christian hero against the Otherworld they could have gone much further. Of course, it is thought there were many more Arthurian tales around in the 9th to 11th centuries and some of these could have made more of his Christianity.
There is much debate about what religion Arthur might have been – mainly in the lay community – and many are determined to make him either a pagan or devout and exemplar Christian. We’ve no idea exactly what he might have believed in (although we know what they made him in the H.B), because we don’t know where exactly he might have been from, or when. There is a very high probability that he’d be a Christian if he’d been from south of Hadrian’s Wall as it had been the official religion since 381 and the Council of Constantinople, when orthodoxy was imposed and any heretics (whether pagan or other Christian sects, such as Pelagianism) were not tolerated after that … not that this stopped some British from practicing Pelagianism, possibly up to the Mid-5th century. Things may also have changed in some regions once the empire had lost its hold over Britannia and the church lost some of its enforcement powers.
Christianity itself had been tolerated and not persecuted since the emperor Constantine the Great made it so in 313. (See: Freeman, AD 381, 2008). Three British bishops had been present at the Council of Arles in 314. (Eborius, bishop of York, Restitutus, bishop of London, Adelfius, bishop of Lincoln).
“The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.” (De Demonstratione Evangellii, Lib. 111).
Possibly the first British saint, Alban, was martyred around 250AD, perhaps even earlier, and there are the legends regarding King Lucius (c.156) being Christian and St. Cadval (c.170) possibly being from Britain. Even if these legends aren’t true there had been Christians on the island for a long time. Britain also produced St. Patrick in the 5th century and, in the next century, a whole host of other British and Welsh saints. But the church was a very different organisation then. Any ‘churches’ were in the declining remaining cities, whilst other priests (presbyter) and bishops (sacerdos) could have been attached to royal courts with some being itinerant.
So, as you can see, Christianity had been present in Britain for at least two hundred years in one form or another before any possible Late-5th century Arthur came along. It had been the official religion for almost one hundred years. Gildas, in his Early-6th century De Excidio Britanniae, makes no reference to British pagans (of the elite) and he would be the first to do so had it been present, in his part of the oldl diocese at least. No pagan shrines, apart from Anglo-Saxons ones, have been found for this period. However, there’s every possibility that some, probably peasants, went ‘underground’ with any ‘old beliefs’. Perhaps this is what encouraged some of them to go over to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture in the east of the island.
The level of Christianity must have changed in the lifetime of a possible historical Arthur. If he lived between c.475 and c.525 he must have witnessed its spread and, possibly, the nature of its influence and power. If he resided north of the Wall in what is now northern England and southern Scotland he may have seen its introduction and the way it changed the various societies there as they were influenced both from their southern neighbours and from monastic sites like Whitehorn (Candida Casa - the ‘White (or ‘Shining’) House’) founded by Saint Ninian in what is now southwest Scotland. This site is thought to have been there since the Late-4th century.
Many saints of the period, in what became Wales, either started life as or were warriors kings or princes. Even the much chastised Maglocunus (Mailcun/Maelgwn/Malgun) of Gwynedd by the 6th century cleric Gildas gave up his monarchy for a while and became a monk. However, monasticism wasn’t as large a movement as it became in Medieval times.
The British Christians did seem to cause problem for the Roman church now and again, firstly with the anti-elite, no-original-sin Pelagius (Early-5th century) and then with Gaulish Bishops complaining that two British priests were actually preaching to woman! But it would be wrong to think there was a very different, unified ‘Celtic’ church; it was still a relatively conservative ‘Catholic’ Christianity, but with difference. To quote Patrick Wormald:
“One of the common misconceptions is that there was a ‘Roman Church’ to which the ‘Celtic’ was nationally opposed.”
(‘Bede and the ‘Church of the English’, The Times of Bede, Edited by Stephen Baxter, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006, p. 207.)
They respected the pope as much as their continental brethren, and we are also reminded by Wormald that there were many differences even between the Irish and British churches. Most scholars prefer the term ‘Insular Christianity to ‘Celtic’ Christianity.
This doesn’t mean that a historical 5th century Arthur wouldn’t have believed in pagan elements and traditions, just as many culture, even today, mix them; he just may not have ‘worshipped’ them or, if he did, he’d stay quiet about it. Throwing swords into water was one such tradition, and we know that this was done well into the Middle Ages. (Prior, Britain A,D. p.216) There are, of course, many pagan overtones to both the early and later Arthurian stories, from magical boars to Avalon and swords in stones. Even Christianity couldn’t bury these long held beliefs … and besides, they made a great story!
Thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments, thoughts and corrections,