People have admired chivalrous conduct for thousands of years, long before we invented a word for it. It does not confine itself to mounted warriors wearing armor and confronting a determined enemy. Chivalry was a code employed by a culture of warriors, which extends to the notion of good men skilled in warfare willing to place their lives and fortunes “on the line” in defense of innocents, in defense of the realm, in defense of religious beliefs. The code was already in writing by the time of Charlemagne and is chronicled in La Chanson de Roland, which tells of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D. Historians have restored the code, which appears in summary form below:
- To fear God and maintain His church (community)
- To serve the liege lord in valor and faith
- To protect the weak and defenseless
- To give succor to widows and orphans
- To refrain from the wanton giving of offense
- To live by honor and for glory
- To despise pecuniary reward
- To fight for the welfare of all
- To obey those placed in authority
- To guard the honor of fellows
- To eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit
- To keep faith
- At all times, speak only truth
- To persevere to the end in any enterprise once begun
- To respect and honor women
- Never refuse a challenge from an equal
- Never turn one’s back upon a foe
Of these eighteen tenets, 12 relate to chivalrous behavior, as opposed to combat. For people like me, they remain relevant and elemental in the behavior of true ladies and gentlemen and closely align themselves with the New Testament’s I Corinthians, 13.
If I speak in the tongues of men or angels but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all that I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others; It is not self-seeking, nor easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies they will cease. Where there are tongues, they will be stilled. Where there is knowledge, this too will pass away. For we know in part, and we prophecy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I spoke as a child; I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I put away the things of childhood. For now, we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but we will see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three alone remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
During the early and late Middle Ages, the code of chivalry was incorporated into rites of knighthood, standards of behavior expected of those who served the interests of others, more than their own interests. They also included strict rules of etiquette and behavior. The codes were so exemplary that poets, lyricists, and writers incorporated them into their tales. Since most people were illiterate, wandering minstrels communicated these ideals throughout the land. In the post-Roman period of England (c. 500 A.D.) Arthurian myths strengthened notions of personal fortitude and courage in the face of adversity, of honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.
I believe these two things: (1) King Arthur was not a myth; (2) No organization in the world today better emulates the chivalrous code than the United States Marine Corps. This is what I believe, but I do not exclude any other of western civilization’s stalwart military or public service organizations. I only intend my statement to emphasize the frequency of such laudatory qualities within the brotherhood of the US Marine Corps.
The stories from antiquity, mythical or otherwise, serve as teaching moments. There may not have been a greater general in all antiquity than Julius Caesar, but he was a flawed man (professionally and personally) whose mistakes were devastating to Rome and its people. King Arthur too was an illustrious leader, a man whose human frailty led to his demise and that of his Camelotian kingdom. Not too many years ago, the American people spoke of the Kennedy White House as Camelot, but revealed history tells us that Jack Kennedy and his lovely bride were troubled people whose personal behaviors destroyed them, their legacy, which deeply troubled their citizen-admirers’.
The bane of humankind is our moral frailty.
Historians have claimed that the Arthurian stories were legend or myth because there are no written records to validate them. Nor is there any physical evidence that he ever lived —until recently. British archeologists believe that they have uncovered the burial tomb of a man named Arthur that dates back in time to around 500 A. D. Perhaps King Arthur was a myth, but I doubt it. King Arthur is the warrior from antiquity that no one ever forgot. His existence may not be as well documented as that of Jesus of Nazareth, but the evidence that does exist is enough to convince me that such a man did exist —but more to the point, his is a story that can help us discover who we are, and how we might use the lessons of time to improve ourselves; how we might better serve our families, our communities, and our nation.
Many tales were written about King Arthur and his knights of the round table, most of which were romantic constructs that incorporated supernatural or mythical beings, which were clearly imaginative inventions. Three hundred years earlier, however, Nennius records Arthur as a historic figure in Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), an account unfettered by flights of fancy. The Britons, of course, were tribal Celts who occupied all of Britain before being pushed into Wales by the Romans, Angles, and Saxons. Arthur was one of the last Britons to make a successful stand against the Anglo-Saxon invasions, a conflict that continued through the rise and progeny of King Alfred the Great (847-99). If Nennius correctly records the events of the time, given that present-day England was divided by squabbling tribes in the post-Roman period, then Arthur would not have adorned himself in shining armor. He would wear the attire of a Celtic chieftain, which most likely incorporated the clothing and armor of late-Roman style. There would have been no great castles, but something more on the order of wooden stockades incorporated with then-existing Roman fortifications/settlements.
Historic facts about this period of Romano-British England are more fascinating than the fanciful tales because history is more plausible. Monk Nennius never told us where Arthur was born, but he did list his battles —notably his last battle at Badon, which occurred near Aquae Sulis (present-day Bath). The significance of the battle was that the Britons prevailed over the Anglo-Saxon horde, pushing them back to the British Saxon Shore. We know this from the Anglo-Saxon’s own records of the time, and from archaeological evidence. That the Britons had a powerful, unifying leader, seems undeniable.
Was there such a place as Camelot? Yes-and no. Colchester, England is the site of the earliest Roman settlement, although evidence suggests that the settlement existed before the arrival of Romans in 55 B.C. It was then called Camulodunon, which also appears on coins minted by the chieftain Tasciovanus between 20-10 B.C. It would be easy to make this association, but Colchester is far removed from Aquae Sulis and there is yet another possibility.
In the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there is a 7th-century work titled The Song of Llywarch the Old. It contains one of the oldest references to King Arthur, composed of a series of poems attributed to a poet named Llywarch, who praises the exploits of a chieftain named Cynddylan, who died fighting the Anglo Saxons in 658 A.D. Cynddylan, according to Llywarch, was the direct descendant of Arthur, which implies that Arthur once ruled the kingdom that Cynddylan ruled. It was the kingdom of present-day Powys, Wales, which at the time covered the area described above, in the south and west-central England and east-central Wales. The Anglo-Saxons eventually defeated the Britons, pushing them into the Welsh mountains where a modern-day county still retains the old kingdom’s name. The Romans called this area Viroconium.
When Rome abandoned Britain in 410 A.D., most of their settlements were abandoned and Britain fell into the so-called Dark Ages. Romans and their mixed-blood descendants, however, continued to occupy Viroconium. It had been the fourth largest town in Romano-Britain after Londonium(London), Lindum Colonia (Lincoln), and Eboracum (York). While the Anglo-Saxons quickly overran the largest cities (above), Viroconium was far distant from the invasive Germans and remained free and evolved into the Briton’s most important city in the early Dark Ages. These ruins still exist with archeological evidence that the town went through a process of reconstruction around 500 A.D. We know the town today as Wroxeter, which is 25 miles northwest of Worcester, my lovely bride’s hometown. Ancient manuscripts tell us that Arthur ruled over the Briton’s most important city —which would have been Viroconium.
Still, Arthur is not a Welsh name. The ruler of Viroconium around the time of Arthur was named Owain Ddantgwyn (pronounced Owen Thant-gwyn), which sounds nothing like Arthur. During the early Middle Ages, British warriors were given honorary titles of real or mythological animals thought to represent their prowess in battle. One of these was the Welsh word “Arth,” meaning Bear. In Viroconium around 500 A.D., its ruler Owain Ddantgwyn was known as the Bear, hence, Arth. Scholars today connect the Welsh word for bear with the Latin word for bear, Ursus, which then became, in later years, Arthur, a king, and a person who actually did exist.
The tales of King Arthur are entertaining, but the history of the real warrior is more fascinating. Our admiration for such a fellow continues because, among other things, he helped create the code of honor that serves as our guide for achieving and maintaining nobility.
Knights in the sense of the Middle Ages never existed in the United States, of course —Americans eschewed the notion of kings or of men born into families of nobles. Instead, we Americans believe that every person can obtain nobility by acting nobly. The Knight’s Code of Honor that I borrowed (above) is a nifty tool for helping us achieve nobility —as a guide for the way we live our lives.
As for knights —we do have them, but we call them by another name. Their standards are high, their tolerance for failure is low, they do remarkably brave things almost on a daily basis while never seeking recognition. They are guardians of the weak, they succor the suffering, and live according to a unique code of honor. These knights demand fairness, serve justice, always persevere, and they keep the faith. In fact, it is their motto: Semper Fidelis. We call these modern-day knights United States Marines.
“Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for a friend.”
Remarkably, much about the US Marines is modeled on the warrior that no one forgot. Personally, given who I am, I hope no one ever does forget.
- Anderson, G. King Arthur in Antiquity. London: Roufledge (2004)
- Phillips, G. The Lost Tomb of King Arthur. Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016
- Dumville, D. N. Sub-Roman Britain: History and legend. 1977
 Our observation that chivalrous codes did exist does not suggest that every individual who took such oaths always observed them. Every person has strengths as well as weaknesses; some of us have destructive character flaws. In ancient society, and today, there are plenty of scurrilous fellows who took oaths for only one purpose, to advance themselves, and then violated them on a more-or-less on-going basis.
 Read: The Lost Tomb of King Arthur, by Graham Phillips, Rochester: Bear & Company, 2016.
 Nennius was a Welsh monk of the 9th century. Nennius, who lived in Brecknockshire, present-day Powys, was a student of the bishop Elfodd of Bangor, who convinced ecclesiastics of his day to accept the Continental dating of Easter. Much of Nennius’ effort was based on earlier works, notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, which was written by Gildas between 500-579 A. D.
 Popular writers suggest that Arthur Pendragon was descended from a Welsh and Romano-British line, which given the history of Rome’s presence in Britain, and the areas in which they settled (Aquae Sulis (Somerset)-West Mercia (Wroxeter/Worcestershire)), the suggestion is credible.