(© 2001 Csikósné Marton Lívia. All rights reserved.)

King Arthur – the name echoes loudly down the centuries,
conjuring up rich images of mystery and power, chivalry
and romance. But did he exist at all? Is he a mixture of
several historical figures? What is the origin of those
wonderful stories of the Round Table, of Excalibur and
the Holy Grail...? Did Arthur really make conquests from
Iceland to the Alps? We shall never really know – but we
can examine the facts of the legends in search of the shadow
of Arthur ‘looming large behind every record of his time,
yet never clearly seen’ (Morris, The Age of Arthur)

King Arthur and Attila, the Hun: two charismatic figures of the 5th century... But were there any connections between them? Did they know each other? Did they meet or at least hear about each other? These questions are difficult to answer. All the more so since there is no primary evidence of reign, or even existence of Arthur. We have only a few secondary sources like De Excidio Britanniae, or one single sentence in the Historia Brittonum (saying “Arthur battled together with the kings of the British but he was a strategist himself”) or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which itself drew upon an oral tradition.

A guide booklet (Pitkin) about King Arthur says: How did this legend arise? Where did it start? Arthur’s reputed career is spread over an impossibly long period. As a real person, he was probably active in the later decades of the 5th century. But the memory of him grew so potent among the Britons’ descendants that their story-tellers credited him with the deeds of other men, perhaps the same name, or the exploits of younger followers, organised and inspired by him, and continuing the struggle after his death, may have been attributed in later legend to him personally.

(Let me comment on this statement: the same could be said for any legendary hero irrespective of whether or not they had actually lived.)

Unlike Arthur, there is no doubt that Attila was an historic figure. (He features in a number of Hungarian, German, French, Italian and American dissertations, novels, dramas and operas.) From 430 AD, Attila ruled an area that was probably in today’s Great Plains of Hungary, with his younger brother, Buda, and from 445 alone. He died in 453. There is a myth that his life was taken by his new wife, but it is as more probable that a stroke killed him on his wedding night.

The Huns were a nomadic people from the steppes of Asia who made their first appearance in Europe around 370 AD, invading areas as far as the Rhine, conquering the Germanic tribes, and overrunning Pannonia and Slovenia. This is the time when the tide of barbarian attacks began to lap against the shores of the British Isles. (Might some of the Huns or even Attila himself have crossed the Channel? Trustworthy continental records tell of a British leader who took an army across the channel in 468-70. It could have happened in the opposite direction...)

Recent research suggests that Attila strove for the creation of a united Europe and occasionally cooperated with generals of the Roman Empire. He was unable to conquer Gaul (part of France) as he was stopped by the Roman general Aetius in 451. He also planned to take Rome, but it is said that he was met halfway by the Pope, who begged him to turn back (What he said to persuade this ruthless king to change his mind can only be a matter for conjecture. Rome was spared. Attila’s court is known to have include Christian priests and Greek and Roman clerks from Byzantium were active, and St Jerome mentions the fact that the Huns sang psalms. (The idea of Christianity has a great role in the stories about the quest for the Holy Grail.)

Attila’s immense and well-organized empire seems to have been kept together by the sheer force of his personality. Shortly after his death his tremendous empire, which may have reached from China to France, collapsed. Attila’s sons (of which he is said to have many, everywhere in the world) quarrelled over the estate; and one of them, known in Hungarian myths as Csaba (or Yrnik), returned to the steppes around the northern shoreline of the Black Sea. This is the story behind the idea that the Hungarians are related to the Huns and were actually reconquering Attila’s heritage when they occupied the present territory of Hungary. Up to the 19th century, Hungarian chroniclers used to recount Hungarian history starting with Attila.

Among Hungarians, the legend of the Sword of God is one of the best known. Attila was foretold by a seer that one day he would get the Sword of God and with the help of its magic power he would be the Lord of the World. Some years later, a shepherd boy, following a bleeding and limping calf, saw a sword pointing upward growing out of the soil. He pulled it out and took it to Attila. Attila believed it was the Sword of God and came to regard it as a symbol of his power. Flagellum Dei – the Scourge of God – was the name given to Attila himself by the peoples fearing him and his Huns.

It is a story recognisably ssimilar to that of the magic sword in the legends of King Arthur: the famous Excalibur... But there are other surprising parallels between the two accounts.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon (although the name “Uther” could be based on a misunderstanding, and the word “Pendragon” probably means ‘Foremost Leader’ or the ‘Head of the Dragon’). Uther presented himself as the brother of Ambrosius - whose name is mentioned by Gildas -, and who, plausibly, was a leader or a prince. When he died, Uther became the King of Britain. At the same time Attila ruled his empire together with his brother, called Buda. Buda reigned the eastern part, his residence was in a town called Sicambria or Ambrosia, which he later named ‘Buda’ after himself (now part of the Hungarian capital city, Budapest). But he wanted total power, the reason that Attila killed him in 445 and he became the only king of the Huns. An interesting fact that not far from Tintagel there is a town called Bude Legends say that Arthur was conceived in Tintagel castle, the illegitimate child of Ygerna and Uther. We know little else about Uther, but his son, Arthur figures in many stories: the Quest for the Holy Grail, the Knights of the Round Table including one with the surprising name of Sir Bors – Bors is an ancient Hungarian name, and a legend mentions a hero called Bors (though he lived some hundred years later), after whom a county is named in Hungary (Borsod).

Arthur’s death and his resting place remains a mystery. Maybe it is for this reason that his death has inspired so many poets, writers or painters. Here’s one of the best-known ones, by Edward Burne-Jones:

The last sleep of Arthur in Avalon.jpgThe last sleep of Arthur in Avalon

An interesting feature of this work is the crown on the ground to the left of the central kneeling figure. Here we see what look surprisingly like the Hungarian Holy Crown (ascribed with magic powers). So why did Burne-Jones include this in his picture of Arthur? There is no record of him ever having visited Hungary or seeing the Holy Crown.

The history of the Holy Crown can be traced back to ancient times. Csomor Lajos, the Hungarian goldsmith and an expert on the Crown, believes that it was made in a Caucasian Christian Hun goldsmith’s workshop sometime between 322 (apparition of martyr St Demetrius) and 795 (carrying off the Avarian treasure). According to his research, its enamel pictures give proof of its 4th century origin. Other sources say that in the 6th century it belonged to the Hun King Gordas. So it could be Attila’s crown in the 5th century – and legends say the same: the kings of the House of Árpád of Hungary inherited the Holy crown from Attila. A Polish chronicle describes that the Pope offered a crown to Attila on the condition that he withdraw from Rome... And if that were the case, the likelihoods that one of his sons would have inherited it.

Holy Crown.jpgHoly Crown

Unfortunately, we don’t know where Attila’s resting place is. Legends has it that he was buried in a three-layered coffin: one made of iron, one made of silver and one made of gold) on the bed of a river (thought to be the Tisza). It is said that the river was dammed for the burial, and the slaves who buried him were then killed to prevent them locating the place. The water was then allowed to come back over his grave, and the place has never been seen from that time to this. Again there are strong resonances with the story of Arthur.

(And where did Arthur get his magic sword from? Merlin took him to a lonely lake, where a hand holding a magnificent sword broke the surface of the water...Was it Excalibur? Or the Sword of God? Who knows?...)