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Oxford Castle: The birthplace of the Legends of King Arthur

King Arthur

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword receives its UK premiere in London’s Leicester Square this evening. But where did the legends of King Arthur really begin? Geoffrey of Monmouth is known to be the first to write down the legends of King Arthur and he did so right here at Oxford Castle!

Geoffrey is thought to have been born around the turn of the 12th century in Wales. In 1129, Geoffrey moved to Oxford where he was most probably a secular canon at the college of St. George in Oxford Castle. Evidence for this can be found in the fact that Geoffrey is listed as a witness on many charters of Robert D’Oilly – founder of the collegiate church of St. George – alongside Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford.

In its heyday, St. George’s was a flourishing establishment and an early centre for teaching in Oxford, supporting a small community of clergy and perhaps a handful of students, pre-dating the developing Oxford University by a century or so. Alongside his work in the church, Geoffrey compiled a number of books during the years he is thought to have been serving in Oxford Castle. One of these books tells the story of a character now known around the world…

Historia Regum Britanniae, better known as The History of the Kings of Britain contains the first known written reference to the Legends of King Arthur, outlining stories including Arthur, Guinevereand Lancelot, among many others. Written in 1136, it was regarded as an account of history until well into the 16th century when the Tudors challenged it. Geoffrey had always claimed that the book was translated from an “ancient book in the British language that told in orderly fashion the deeds of all the kings of Britain”, given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. It is possible that some of Geoffrey’s inspiration for the book did come from Walter but overall, the book is now considered by most to be a work of fiction. Other works by Geoffrey of Monmouth include the Prophetiae Merlini and the poem Vita Merlini; both include details of the life of Merlin, another highly recognisable character.

Helen Fulton, Professor of Medieval Literature at the University of York and an expert in Arthurian literature, has previously commented: “Geoffrey of Monmouth was a serving canon in St George’s Chapel on the site of what is now Oxford Castle Unlocked, and he would have been based there when he wrote his famous Latin chronicle, Historia Regum Britanniae, ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’, around 1136. It was Geoffrey who introduced the figures of King Arthur and Merlin to a wide medieval readership and paved the way for the enormous popularity of the Arthurian legends in later centuries, right up to modern times.”

The only remnants of the chapel now lie in the ancient chapel’s crypt, available to visitors to the site through a 50 minute guided tour at Oxford Castle Unlocked, taking in the Saxon stone-built St. George’s Tower before descending to the atmospheric crypt, where Geoffrey of Monmouth would have walked the footprint of the crypt whilst penning his notable tome.