Perhaps the biggest sacred cow in the UK is the legend of King Arthur. Even Jesus takes a back seat to King Arthur in places like Glastonbury. This made it the perfect subject for skewering from the innovative comedy troupe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Not only was King Arthur parodied, but also movies about King Arthur as well as the current government, religion, the French and BBC historical documentaries.
In the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), King Arthur is played by Graham Chapman — a tall, lean, blonde with an Oxford accent. He’s about as English an actor and comedian that you can find. His King Arthur also was Christian, had a problem saying “five” every time he meant to say “three” and was the national expert on swallows.
He Was Welsh
The first major difference is that King Arthur should have been played by the only Welsh member of Monty Python, Terry Jones. The Welsh are an incredibly proud people and traditionally have never got along well with the English. According to John Cleese, Terry Jones could be easily and predictably wound up about the “inferioroity” of the Welsh.
Historians believe that the first mention of a King Arthur figure was in Welsh oral traditional stories and poems. They were first written down sometime in the twelfth century in The Mabinogion and a poem named “The Goddodin”. These praise a great Welsh king named Arthur or Arturious.
Many legends have been based on real people. Just look at modern stories of Elvis sightings for proof. If Arthur was a real Welsh king, he would have been dark haired and swarthy in complexion, which was how many Welsh looked like at the time. Nigel Terry, the actor that played King Arthur in “Excalibur” (1980) was far more accurate — although nowhere near as funny as nor as memorable as Chapman.
Although Christianity had reached the British Isles by the 600s, the odds are low that a real Welsh King Arthur would have been Christian. It is much more likely that, if he had been a real person, he would have been a proper pagan. He would have believed in many gods, spirits, fairies, fortune-telling, astrology and sacred sex.
It was only after Christianization of England, Wales and Ireland that King Arthur suddenly became a champion for Christianity. Well, you couldn’t have your most beloved folk hero worshipping the wrong God, could you? The person most likely resposible for this was Geoffrey of Monmouth (died around 1155), who would pen “History of the Kings of Britton.”
In one sense, Chapman’s King Arthur may have been truer to life than any other Arthur portrayed on film. Chapman had a proud bearing, looked down his nose at inferiors and expected to be kowtowed to just because he was King of the Britons. He expected people to believe his word was law.
It is thought that back in the dark ages and even the Middle Ages that a man was only as good as his word. People were expected to never lie. Also, kings and the nobles were supposed to not only have a commanding presence, but act as if they expected to be obeyed. If someone acted as if they were king well enough, they were treated like one, just on the off chance that they were king. If a stranger didn’t treat the king well, they would be killed. At least, that was the idea the king wanted strangers to believe.
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)
“Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut)” (2009)
Britannia.com: “King Arthur in Early Welsh Literature: Excerpts From Various Poems and Verses.” http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/stanzas.html
“Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Briton.” Geoffrey of Monmouth. (Many publishers, originally written ca. 1136)