An Oxford Castle story

The history of the British Isles is packed with great characters stories of kings and queens that could fill an infinite amount of books, but it seems that the one king who could top them all never existed. I’m talking about the legendary King Arthur.

This mythological king was “active” during the 5th and 6th centuries when the Saxon invasions occurred and he “led” the local Britons in defence against them. For hundreds of years, the stories were handed down from generation to generation, but they could have easily have disappeared down the ages (like countless other stories). Luckily for us, thanks to the effort of one man at Oxford Castle, every few years we can expect another film or TV programme to keep the legend of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot and all the other great characters, alive and renewed.

In 1074, Robert D’Oyly built a church inside the grounds of Oxford Castle. According to legends, he had a dream in which he saw the Virgin Mary looking at him and pointing with her finger down. The message was clear, and the Norman Baron woke up fearful that his soul had been condemned to spend eternity in hell. He decided to make peace with God by building one of the first churches in England inside his castle. St George’s Church also became one of the first educational institutes in Oxford, and it attracted a scholar named Geoffrey of Monmouth.

What you might not is that Geoffrey wrote about Arthur not as a mythological character but as a historical one. The tricky scholar claimed he only  translated to Latin an ancient document that was written in old English which stated the names and  stories of the old kings of England, so from the 12th to the 16th century, his writings were considered  “history”, and we know that some of the English kings like Edward I’st were obsessed with Arthur and that they tried to conduct some of their action based on Geoffrey’s writing.

Geoffrey’s writings were titled Historia Regum Britanniae. They already included many of the characters we know, and they also included new details that were not known before, like Arthur’s quest to find the Holy Grail. One of the major changes Geoffrey made was related to the most famous piece of weaponry in history. In older versions of the Arthurian tales, his sword was called Caledfwlch, meaning fast lightening (in Welsh), but Geoffrey changed its name to Caliburn, and that named evolved later into Excalibur. Since Historia Regum Britanniae was written in Latin, the legends were spread, and evolve all around Europe.

By the way, Arthur was not the only king Geoffrey immortalized in his “historic” project, He mentioned another king named Leir.  Only in the 16th century, did scholars start to question Geoffrey’s sources and they started to consider his writing as a myth, but if you visit Hatfield house on the eastern side of the town of Hatfield, Hertfordshire you can see in one of the rooms a 16th-century scroll that states the family tee of Queen Elizabeth the first, and guess what? according to that scroll, Elizabeth was a direct descendant of both kings from Geoffrey’s book, King Arthur and King Leir.

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