King Arthur in the Lives of the Saints

A surprising portrait of Arthur emerges from the lives of saints

St Catwg in stained Glass, from St Martin's parish church, Caerphilly. (WikiMedia Commons)
St Catwg in stained Glass, from St Martin's parish church, Caerphilly. (WikiMedia Commons) (photo: Screenshot)

The literature of King Arthur is like a vast planet pulling history, lore, legend, fiction, poetry, folktale, art, and even faith into its orbit. The The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, a catalog of all things Arthur, is roughly the size of a phonebook, and until you’ve dug past the first layer—Malory, Tennyson, Chretien de Troyes, Prince Valiant, Hollywood—you don’t begin to grasp just how huge this ever-evolving, loosely connected body of work really is. Within it, in a small forgotten corner, is the place where Arthur meets the Catholic saints.

If a genuine historical figure is at the core of the Arthur legend, that man was likely a warlord or chieftain living in Britain around 500 AD. The traces of him in literature make for an absolutely fascinating detective story, and everyone seems to have a theory of how the scraps of story and history evolved and fit together.

Arthur isn’t mentioned by name until Historia Brittonum (820) by the monk Nennius. This in turn was based on the early 6th century On the Ruin of and Conquest of Britain (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae) by St. Gildas, which mentions some of the actions attributed to Arthur but not his name. He really only emerges as the figure we know in the 1130s, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae), which contains a blend of fact and fiction. Around the time of Geoffrey, Arthur begins appearing in saints’ lives.

Nine different hagiographies show us a figure quite different from the one depicted in legend. The Lives (known as Vitae) of the Welsh saints are as obscure as their subjects. Written in the 11th and 12th century long after the deaths of their subjects, their value as historical documents is nugatory, but their insight into medieval piety and attitudes about the past at the time they were written is valuable. There is a common strand binding five of these Lives: the monastery of Llancarfan, founded Glamorgan by St. Cadoc. This hive of hagiographic activity was basically a Vita factory. Biographies from Llancarfan include those of Ss. Gildas, Cadoc, Illtud, Carannog, and Padern, all of which mention King Arthur, often in a less than flattering light.

Arthur Brings Together a Saint’s Parents

Let’s look at one of the more entertaining Vitae: The Life of St. Cadoc (Vita Cadoci), written in the 11th century by Lifris at Llancarfan. We’re told that Arthur, Kaye (“Cai”), and Bedevere (“Bedwyr”) are dicing when they see a knight and a lady being pursued by King Brychan and his forces. Arthur at first lusts after the woman, but after he’s reminded of his knightly ideals, he intervenes to help save the couple. They turn out to be King Gwynllyw and the daughter of King Brychan, who have fled in order to be married, and with the help of Arthur, they are able to be married and produce the future saint, Cadoc (6th century).

Later in the Life of St. Cadoc, Arthur is chasing a warrior named Long Hand, who had killed three of his knights. Long Hand is given sanctuary by Cadoc, and for seven years Arthur rages against the situation but refuses to violate sanctuary. Cadoc attempts to negotiate a solution, and gets the parties to agree to a payment in cattle for the lives of the three knights.

Arthur, however, is still feeling prickly, and demands that the cattle be red in front and white in back. Cadoc prays for a miracle, and the cattle are changed, thus ending the standoff. Once Arthur gets them back to their stables, however, the cattle turn into bunches of ferns, and only change back once Arthur apologizes.

St. Gildas (c. 500-572) is relevant to Arthurian lore as both a writer and a subject. His history of the Saxon invasions is the first mention of the Battle of Badon, a victory later attributed to Arthur. Arthur isn’t named the writer of a later Life of Gildas has a ready explanation for this. Gildas had a brother named Hueil mab Caw, a popular brigand who may have carried off one of Arthur’s lovers, and also spotted Arthur sneaking around in drag in order to visit a woman. Arthur caught Hueil and had his head cut off, and the stone where the execution was performed—called Maen Huail—can be seen today outside the Barclays Bank in Ruthin.

This incident left a bitter feeling in St. Gildas, who subsequently removed all mentions to Arthur’s name from his book. In fact, such elaborate explanations for Gildas’s failure to mention Arthur aren’t necessary. His book isn’t a conventional history but an account of real causes of the Saxon invasion: the sins of the people. It’s a theological and polemical work rather than history as we know it.

St. Cadoc also tells a story about St. Gildas helping Arthur retrieve Guinevere (“Gwenhwyfer”) from King Melvas of the “Summer Country.” He makes peace between the two, who give lands to the abbott of Glastonbury in gratitude. Accounting for land grants is another common motif in hagiographies.

There Be Dragons

There’s a colorful story in The Life of St. Carannog (Vita sancti Carantoci) about Arthur and the saint’s portable altar. Carannog had thrown the altar into the sea to learn which way God wanted him to go, then couldn’t find it. He runs into Arthur while the King is hunting a dragon, and asks if he’d seen his altar. Arthur had found it, and wanted to use it for a table, only to discover that anything he placed on it flew right off. He promises to return the altar in exchange for Carannog’s help with the dragon. The saint prays and then uses his stole as a leash to lead the now-gentle dragon, then frees it on the promise that it will do no more harm.

The Life of St. Padarn (Vita Paterni), also from Llancarfan, tells of Arthur being “pierced with the zeal of avarice” when he sees the tunic of the saint. He demands it, only to rebuffed when the saint says it’s only fit for a cleric. When Arthur returns to rage some more, the saint has the ground swallow him up to the chin until he cools off.

Read enough saint lives of the middle ages and you find repeating motifs and even tales because the facts of some lives were lost to history. A dragon like Carannog’s occurs again in the life of Efflam. The demand for pious literature was large, and the historicity of a story was sometimes considered secondary to its religious message. In the case of Arthur, he assumes the role of a stock character: the Recalcitrant King. He often does something that needs to be corrected by the saint, with an accompanying moral point.

The sudden upsurge in appearances of Arthur in the 12th century is no mystery at all. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History was the “best-seller” of its age, with over 200 surviving manuscripts. (There are only 83 for The Canterbury Tales.) It popularized Merlin and his prophetic powers, the stories of Uther and Arthur, and the tale of King Lear. Some medieval hagiography is almost a kind of Christian fan-fiction, and the inclusion of a well-known figure like Arthur was like having Harry Potter appear in your Doctor Who story. It also served to reorient secular literature by bringing its heroes down to earth in sacred literature.

Is there any way Arthur could have actually interacted with the saints as depicted? Most of the dates just don’t match up, even if Arthur was real, was a king, and was active in the areas of Wales where the saints lived. And hunted dragons. That seems unlikely.