Matter of Britain

The Matter of Britain is the body of medieval literature and legendary material associated with Great Britain, and sometimes Brittany, and the legendary kings and heroes associated with it, particularly King Arthur. It was one of the three great literary cycles recalled repeatedly in medieval literature, together with the Matter of France, which concerned the legends of Charlemagne, and the Matter of Rome, which included material derived from or inspired by classical mythology.


The three "Matters" were first described in the 12th century by French poet Jean Bodel, whose epic Chanson de Saisnes contains the line:

Ne sont que III matières à nul homme atandant,
De France et de Bretaigne, et de Rome la grant.

There are but 3 matters that no man should be without,
That of France, of Britain, and of great Rome.

The name distinguishes and relates the Matter of Britain from the mythological themes taken from classical antiquity, the "Matter of Rome", and the tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and their wars with the Moors and Saracens, which constituted the "Matter of France". Arthur is the chief subject of the Matter of Britain, though other lesser-known legendary history of Great Britain and Brittany is also covered, including the stories of Brutus of Britain, King Cole, King Lear, and Gogmagog. (See Legendary kings of the British.)

Themes and subjects

Legendary history of Britain

It could be said that the legendary history of Britain was created in part to form a body of patriotic myth for the country. Several agendas thus can be seen in this body of literature.

The Historia Britonum, the earliest known source of the story of Brutus of Britain, may have been devised to create a distinguished genealogy for a number of Welsh princes in the 9th century. Traditionally attributed to Nennius, its actual compiler is unknown; it exists in several recensions. This tale went on to achieve greater currency because its inventor linked Brutus to the diaspora of heroes that followed the Trojan War, and thus provided raw material which later mythographers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, Michael Drayton, and John Milton could draw upon, linking the settlement of Britain to the heroic age of Greek literature, for their several and diverse literary purposes. As such, this material could be used for patriotic mythmaking just as Virgil linked the mythical founding of Rome to the Trojan War in The Æneid. Geoffrey of Monmouth also introduced the fanciful claim that the Trinovantes, reported by Tacitus as dwelling in the area of London, had a name he interpreted as Troi-novant, "New Troy".

More speculative claims link Welsh mythology with several of the rulers and incidents compiled by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniæ. It has been suggested, for instance, that Leir of Britain, who later became Shakespeare's King Lear, was originally the Welsh sea-god Llŷr (see also the Irish sea-god Lir). Various Celtic deities have been identified with characters from Arthurian literature as well: Morgan le Fay was often thought to have originally been the Welsh goddess Modron (cf. the Irish goddess Mórrígan). Many of these identifications come from the speculative comparative religion of the late 19th century, and have been questioned in more recent years.

William Shakespeare was interested in the legendary history of Britain, and was familiar with some of its more obscure byways. Shakespeare's plays contain several tales relating to these legendary kings, such as King Lear and Cymbeline. It has been suggested that Shakespeare's Welsh schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins introduced him to this material, and perhaps directed him to read Geoffrey of Monmouth. These tales also figure in Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which also appears in Shakespeare's sources for Macbeth.

Other early authors also drew from the early Arthurian and pseudo-historical sources of the Matter of Britain. The Scots, for instance, formulated a mythical history in the Picts and the Dál Riata royal lines. While they do eventually become factual lines, unlike those of Geoffrey, their origins are vague and often incorporate both aspects of mythical British history and mythical Irish history. The story of Gabhran especially incorporates elements of both those histories.

Arthurian cycle

The Arthurian literary cycle is the best known part of the Matter of Britain. It has succeeded largely because it tells two interlocking stories that have intrigued many later authors. One concerns Camelot, usually envisioned as a doomed utopia of chivalric virtue, undone by the fatal flaws of Arthur and Sir Lancelot. The other concerns the quests of the various knights to achieve the Holy Grail; some succeed (Galahad, Percival), and others fail (Lancelot).

The medieval tale of Arthur and his knights is full of Christian themes; those themes involve the destruction of human plans for virtue by the moral failures of their characters, and the quest for an important Christian relic. Finally, the relationships between the characters invited treatment in the tradition of courtly love, such as Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Iseult. In more recent years, the trend has been to attempt to link the tales of King Arthur and his knights with Celtic mythology, usually in highly romanticized, early 20th century reconstructed versions.

The work of Jessie L. Weston, in particular From Ritual to Romance, traced Arthurian imagery through Christianity to roots in early nature worship and vegetation rites, though this interpretation is no longer fashionable.

Additionally, it is possible to read the Arthurian literature in general, and that concerned with the Grail tradition in particular, as an allegory of human development and spiritual growth (a theme explored by mythologist Joseph Campbell amongst others).

Characters and subjects

Legendary kings and founders

Arthur and his entourage

Knights of the Round Table

Main article: Round Table

Other important figures

Noteworthy authors


Author Century Œuvres
Chrétien de Troyes12thErec and Enide, Cligès, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, Perceval, the Story of the Grail
Geoffrey Chaucer14thThe Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey of Monmouth12thHistoria Regum Britanniae
Gottfried von Strassburg13thTristan
Hartmann von Aue12thErec .. Ywain
Thomas Malory15thLe Morte d'Arthur
Marie de France12thThe Lais of Marie de France: Lai de Yonec, Lai de Frêne, Lai de Lanval (...)
Nennius9thHistoria Brittonum
Robert de Boron12thEstoire dou Graal
Taliesin6thBook of Taliesin
Thomas of Britain12thTristan and Iseult
Wace12thRoman de Brut, Roman de Rou
Wolfram von Eschenbach12thParzival
Raoul de Houdenc12thMéraugis de Portlesguez
Païen de Maisières13thLa Demoiselle à la Mule (also called La Mule sans Frein)
Rustichello da Pisa13thRoman de Roi Artus, Gyron le courtois, Meliadus de Leonnoys (Meliadus)
Ulrich von Zatzikhoven13thLanzelet


Œuvres Century
L'Âtre Périlleux (on Gawain)13th century
Blandin de Cornouaille14th century
Le Chevalier à l'Épée
Le Chevalier au Papegau
La Demoiselle à la Mule12th century
Gliglois (hero who enters the service of Gawain)
Life of Caradoc
The Lancelot-Grail Cycle13th century
The Mabinogion (medieval Welsh)
The Post-Vulgate Cycle13th century
Les Merveilles de Rigomer (Lancelot, Gawain and 58 knights)13th century
Perlesvaus ou le Haut Livre du Graal13th century
Le Roman de Jaufré
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight14th century
Prose Tristan
Stanzaic Morte Arthur14th century
Alliterative Morte Arthur14th–15th century


See also


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