243. Brut (The Arthurian section) by Layamon, c. 1190-1215?

Layamon’s Brut is an epic length poem, over 16,000 lines, covering the history of Britain since its founding by Brutus, descendant of the Trojan Aeneas; echoing and using as one of its sources Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. I settled for reading only the part about King Arthur, which magnifies the romantic and chivalrous side a little more, but still concentrates on the battles and wars.

Every mention of Arthur attests to his nobility, and at the start he proves himself  a great British leader and hero by defeating and driving the Saxons marauders (invited by Vortigern as mercenaries) from Britain. However, without seeing the irony, the legend then has him setting forth with his armies to make war on every neighbouring country, demanding tribute and hostages, and to be their supreme lord. Ireland, Iceland, Orkney, Jutland, Norway, and Denmark all submit to his attacks and threats. This may be a way of defying the history of real historic attacks by these peoples, particularly the Norse and Danes.

France holds out against Arthur for some time. The ebb and flow of success and defeat is described between the forces before King Frolle unwisely offers to fight Arthur in single combat to settle the issue.

Later, Arthur is locked in conflict with Roman Emperor Lucius, both intending to expand their empires still further, when Arthur gets the message that his nephew Modred, who he left in charge back home, has seized the throne and seduced Queen Guinevere in the process. Arthur and his armies return to reclaim the land, and basically everyone dies, although Arthur is carried off wounded and dying to the Isle of Avalon where he is to stay, to arise when Britain needs him most.

Again, as in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s telling, Merlin is only present for the initial part of the legend, where he disguises King Uther Pendragon in the likeness of the Duke of Cornwall so he can have his way upon that mistreated noble’s wife and sire the babe who will become Arthur.

A little more detail is provided about the famous Round Table which was proposed as a way to prevent knights in King Arthur’s court from feeling jealous over their relative positions and nearness to the King which was leading to fighting and feuds. Apparently the table could seat 1,600 warriors in a  sitting – would NOT like to be waiting on that table on a busy night!

My copy was Layamon’s Arthur, edited and translated by W R J Barron and S C Weinberg, Longman Press, 1989, with the Middle English text on the left and modern English translation on the right. I did not spend much time deciphering the Middle English.

Personal rating:  6/10

In the years 1200-1210:

  • Beginning of the Incan Empire, c1200
  • King John I of England marries Isabella of Angouleme who is already bethrohed to Hugh of Lusignan, 1200, provoking the Anglo-French War 1202. Philippe II of France captures Normandy (1204), Anjou, Maine, Touraine and most of Poitou (1206)
  • Fourth Crusade begins 1202, ending with Crusaders storming and sacking Constantinople, 1204.
  • Mongol leader Temujin proclaimed Genghis Khan (Very Mighty King), 1206
  • John I refuses to recognise Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, leading to the papal interdict of England, 1208.
  • Cambridge University founded, 1209

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978

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