We are following Gerald’s 1188 journey through Wales in the company of Archbishop Baldwin, and last week we left the party at Caerleon. As they looked at the Roman ruins they must have been reminded of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. It had been a massive success and introduced King Arthur to an international audience. Geoffrey claimed that Arthur ruled from Caerleon and the highest peak of the Brecon Beacons was named Caer Arthur (Arthur’s fortress) in his honour. Today this peak is known as Pen-y-Fan.
For his part, Gerald accepted there was a King Arthur, but realised that very little was known about him, so most of the stories were legend rather than history. The Welsh claimed that the sixth century churchman Gildas had thrown all his writings about Arthur into the sea.
One of the key legends about Arthur was that he would someday return and lead the Welsh in recovering their rule over the whole of Britain. This was supported by political prophecies of the famous Merlin (Myrddin). According to Gerald there were two Merlins. Merlin Ambrosius was found at Carmarthen as a child, and gave his name to the place – the Welsh name is Caerfyrddin (Caer + Myrddin). Merlin Sylvester lived in Arthur’s time and went mad in a Scottish forest for some unknown reason.
Both Merlins prophesied about the future of the Britons, and Gerald believed some of the prophecies had already come true, so they were authentic. He found an old Welsh book of Merlin Sylvester’s prophecies at Nefyn during his journey through Wales and had some of the prophecies translated into Latin. The prophecies were very popular and many Welsh believed they were about to come true in Gerald’s time, and all the foreign occupiers would be driven out and the Britons would be restored to power once again. He did not believe this, however, because shortly after 1188 he was present at a dramatic discovery at Glastonbury when the monks discovered the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere buried in an oak deep in the cemetery. Arthur would not be returning to lead them to victory because he was dead.
[adapted from an article by Huw Pryce in A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly]
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz