The Alliterative Morte Arthure offers the legend of King Arthur in alliterative verse, a form that is unusual, although not unique within the genre. The work presents a military Arthur who is uncompromising in his approach to battle, whilst retaining his traditional sense of fairness and honour. The Alliterative Morte Arthure reworked earlier Arthurian tropes and narrative and also influenced later works, notably Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur (1470).
The Alliterative Morte Arthure survives in a single manuscript, Lincoln Cathedral Library MS. 91, also known as the Thornton or Lincoln Thornton Manuscript. The manuscript dates to around 1440, but the text is earlier, from the second half of the fourteenth century. The Alliterative Morte Arthure is one of a selection of texts from what has been termed the “Alliterative Revival”, along with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne and is characterised by its form -- as Larry D. Benson notes,
each line falls into two half-lines which are united by alliteration - the identity (or near identity) of the initial sound of stressed syllables. In the first half-line most often two, but sometimes three, words will alliterate. In the second half-line usually only one word will alliterate. (1986, p. xxxi)
The Thornton manuscript is thought to have been copied by Robert Thornton of Yorkshire and contains a wide range of works from a variety of genres including religious and medical works, although the Alliterative Morte Arthure is located in a section with other romances.
The narrative of the Alliterative Morte Arthure covers the period at the end of Arthur’s reign. The scene is set by recounting a list of the countries that Arthur has conquered and giving a clear indication of the broad scope of his realm. Arthur’s court gathers for Christmas and New Year when their celebrations are interrupted by senators from the Roman Emperor Lucius, who asks Arthur to account for his actions in relation to the Roman Empire’s claim on Arthur’s kingdom, and asks for tribute. Arthur’s own anger at this demand and a consultation with his knights lead him to reject this suggestion and consider his own ancestry in terms of right, in particular through his link to Constantine who was, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, a Roman emperor and king of Britain. Arthur’s knights pledge support for a campaign to reclaim the empire and Arthur sends the messengers back to Lucius. Arthur and Lucius assemble their allies to prepare for the coming conflicts and Arthur leaves Mordred to take care of the kingdom.
While travelling to face Lucius, Arthur dreams of a fight between a dragon and a bear; his philosophers interpret the dragon as representing Arthur, whilst the bear might represent a tyrant or a giant and the dream indicates Arthur’s victory. When they land in Normandy, Arthur is informed that a giant from Genoa is devouring people in the region and has abducted the Duchess of Brittany. Arthur follows the giant to St. Michael’s Mount where he encounters an old woman who informs him of the details of the Duchess’ rape and murder and warns Arthur of the giant’s fearsome reputation, claiming that he wears a garment fashioned from the beards of kings to demonstrate his dominance. Arthur defeats the giant and commands that the treasure the giant had accumulated be used to benefit the people and a church and convent be built at the site.
After this victory, Arthur is informed that Lucius has arrived in Burgundy and is causing devastation; Arthur sends a small group of knights to warn Lucius about his behaviour and, after a heated exchange of words, Sir Gawain attacks and kills Lucius’ uncle and the group ride off, killing a number of those that pursue them. Many more of Lucius’ followers are killed by British troops who ambush these pursuers, but the Romans rally more troops and force a retreat. The battle continues with losses on both sides; Sir Boice is captured and subsequently rescued, Senator Peter is captured and Gawain and Sir Idrus fitz Ewain are particularly noted for their prowess.
Sir Cador and other knights are sent to take Senator Peter to Paris, but Lucius sends his own knights to waylay them. Sir Cador’s kinsman, Sir Beril, is killed by the King of Libya which prompts more ferocious fighting from both sides and the King of Libya’s death at Cador’s hand. Cador’s knights win the day and get to Paris before returning to Arthur to convey their success, but also the loss of many knights. Lucius resolves to face Arthur, but Arthur has planned for this and enacts a strategic withdrawal followed by the placement of his troops around the enemy. The battle ensues, with death and destruction on both sides; Sir Kay is killed along with a number of other knights, but Arthur succeeds in killing Lucius. Arthur sends the remaining senators back to Rome with the news of his conquest and a warning about challenging him again.
Arthur continues his conquests in Europe by travelling to Metz and laying siege to the city. Arthur observes that the French are weakening and sends a party to hunt for food for his knights. Gawain encounters a strange knight and they fight, during which Gawain is wounded. The knight offers to heal him, revealing his identity as Priamus as well as giving details of his illustrious ancestry; he warns Gawain of nearby enemies and they return to Gawain’s friends where he heals their wounds. Sir Florent, Sir Floridas and others go to face the enemy troops and, despite being outnumbered, they are successful. Arthur prepares his attack on the city, but the Duchess of Metz pleads with him and the city is surrendered with Arthur’s instruction to leave the inhabitants unharmed. Arthur makes arrangements for the lands to be governed and then travels onwards into Lombardy and arrives at Como and captures it. The Lord of Milan, having heard of Arthur’s conquests, sends gifts and assurance of his allegiance, so Arthur moves on to Tuscany, wreaking destruction. The Pope also sends word of his pledged allegiance and an offer to crown Arthur in Rome, while Arthur states his intention to continue with his conquests.
When Arthur sleeps that night, he dreams of being in a dangerous wood and fleeing to a beautiful meadow. A richly-dressed lady descends from the clouds with a wheel in her hands that has kings on the edges; six of these kings have been dethroned, each of whom bemoans his lot to Arthur while two kings attempt to ascend the wheel. The lady welcomes Arthur and places him in the throne, giving him royal attire, a sword and offers him fruit from an orchard and wine from a well. At midday her attitude changes and the wheel spins crushing Arthur. A sage tells Arthur that the dream indicates his forthcoming downfall, and that the six kings that he saw fall were Alexander, Hector of Troy, Julius Caesar, Judas Maccabee, Joshua and David, while the two ascending kings were Charles (i.e. Charlemagne) and Godfrey. Arthur is included in this list of nine noble rulers and assured of his ongoing fame. The use of the wheel of Fortune in Arthur’s dream, a feature of medieval literature stemming from Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, is notable here for its combination with the nine worthies and its strategic implementation at the pinnacle of Arthur’s military success (cf. Janssen (1994) on the notion of Fortuna belli in this poem). In Malory’s reworking of the narrative in the Morte Darthur, Arthur’s success against Lucius and the events with Mordred are separated, and the wheel of Fortune imagery is attached to Arthur’s downfall and transformed in use as part of a broader warning from the ghost of Gawain about the dangers of facing Mordred in battle.
Sir Cradok arrives that day with news that Mordred has divided the kingdom amongst foreigners and immoral men and crowned himself king. He has also married Guinevere, who is expecting his child. Arthur wakes his men and breaks the news to them, declaring his intention to seek his revenge on Mordred; he leaves representatives to continue to manage his affairs in the lands that he has conquered, and embarks to reclaim his kingdom. Although Arthur is triumphant in facing his enemies at sea, including Mordred’s allies, the Danes and Spaniards, when they get to shore Gawain’s party are completely overwhelmed by numbers and Gawain is killed by Mordred. Mordred mourns his death and is reminded of his time as part of the fellowship of knights. He goes to Cornwall and sends word to Guinevere to go with the children to Ireland, but Guinevere goes to Caerleon to a nunnery. Arthur’s discovery of Gawain’s body leads him to swear to avenge his death. Despite advice to consolidate his numbers and wait for reinforcements, Arthur follows Mordred to Cornwall and attacks. Arthur recognises Mordred in battle despite an attempt at disguise and realises that Mordred is using his sword, Clarent, taken from a vault that only Guinevere knew about. Arthur fights Mordred and receives a fatal wound, but also kills Mordred; Mordred’s army are defeated, but many of Arthur’s knights have been killed in the battle. Arthur goes to the Isle of Avalon and receives medical attention, but cannot be cured; he therefore names Constantine as his successor and instructs that Mordred’s children be killed, although he wishes Guinevere well. His body is taken to Glastonbury and buried.
In additional to exploration of the work in relation to its form and part in the alliterative revival (Jefferson and Putter, 2005; Vaughan, 1979), critical responses to the Alliterative Morte Arthure have explored the work in relation to the development of the stories of Arthur. While direct sources of the Alliterative Morte Arthure are unknown, the content clearly draws on the chronicle tradition and other works, for instance Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, Wace’s Roman de Brut and Layamon’s Brut (Armstrong, 2008; Finlayson, 1962; Krishna, 1976). The work is also explored as one of Thomas Malory’s sources for the Morte Darthur, although Malory’s version makes several alterations to the alliterative version, especially in the reworking of the ending as Malory’s Arthur is triumphant in his conquests and returns as a hero to his kingdom, dissociating the events of the Alliterative Morte Arthure with Arthur’s death and instead recasting this episode as part of Arthur’s rise to power (Norris, 2012). The Alliterative Morte Arthure can also be compared to the Stanzaic Morte Arthur as a contrast in focus and style of approach to a similar subject matter. Benson (1986), for instance, describes the Alliterative Morte Arthure’s use of the chronicle tradition, in contrast to the Stanzaic Morte Arthur which is more romantic in focus.
There have also been considerations of the political implications of Arthur’s depiction and actions (DeMarco, 2005; Keiser, 1974). Critical attention has also focused on Arthur’s prophetic dreams within the work and the manner in which this has also been used elsewhere in the Arthurian tradition, including Malory’s Morte Darthur, especially in the use of Fortuna (Janssen, 1994; Turville-Petre, 2018) and the Nine Worthies (Hamel, 1980). Arthur’s battle with the giant and the importance of this episode to the presentation of Arthur and the narrative significance of this episode has also received much debate (Heng, 2003; Pipkin, 2017; Rudnytzky Schray, 2004; Turville-Petre, 2018). The key relationships of Arthur with Mordred and Guinevere (Adler, 2015) and the theme of empire and conquest with the text (Nievergelt, 2010) have also been the subject of critical discussion.
The text can be found in single editions in Morte Arthure, or The Death of Arthur, EETS o.s. 8, ed. Edmund Brock (Oxford, 1871) and Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition ed. Mary Hamel, Gareland (New York and London, 1984). It is also in a comparative edition with the Stanzaic Morte Arthur in King Arthur’s death: the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure ed. Larry D. Benson, University of Exeter Press (Exeter, 1986) and a modern English translation in The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A New Verse Translation ed. Valerie Krishna, University Press of America (Washington, D.C., 1983).
Armstrong, Dorsey. “Rewriting the Chronicle Tradition: The
Alliterative Morte Arthure and Arthur’s Sword of Peace.”
Parergon 25.1 (2008): 81-101.
DeMarco, Patricia. “An Arthur for the Ricardian Age: Crown, Nobility, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” Speculum 80.2 (2005): 464-493.
Finlayson, John. “Two Minor Sources for the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” Notes and Queries 9.4 (1962): 132-133.
Hamel, Mary. “The Dream of a King: The Alliterative "Morte Arthure" and Dante.” The Chaucer Review 14.4 (1980): 298-312.
Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Janssen, Anke. “The Dream of the Wheel of Fortune.” In Karl Heinz Göller, ed. The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Reassessment of the Poem. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1994, pp. 140-52.
Jefferson, Judith A. and Putter, Ad. “Alliterative Patterning in the Morte Arthure.” Studies in Philology 102.4 (2005): 415-433.
Keiser, George. R. “Narrative Structure in the Alliterative Morte Arthure 26-720.” The Chaucer Review 9.2 (1974): 130-144.
Krishna, Valerie, ed. The Alliterative Morte Arthure. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1983.
Nievergelt, Marco. “Conquest, Crusade and Pilgrimage: The Alliterative Morte Arthure in its Late Ricardian Crusading Context.” Arthuriana 20.2 (2010): 89-116.
Norris, Ralph. Malory’s Library. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Pipkin, Christopher Lee. “Monster Relics: The Giant, the Archangel, and Mont-Saint-Michel in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” Arthuriana 27.1 (2017): 95-113.
Rudnytzky Schray, Kateryna A. “The Plot in Miniature: Arthur’s Battle on Mont St. Michel in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” Studies in Philology 101.1 (2004): 1-19.
Tolhurst, Fiona and Whetter, K.S. “Memories of War: Retracting the Interpretive Tradition of the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” Arthuriana 29.1 (2019), forthcoming in spring 2019.
Turville-Petre, Thorlac. Description and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018.
Vaughan, M.F. “Consecutive Alliteration, Strophic Patterns, and the Composition of the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” Modern Philology 77.1 (1979): 1-9.
Citation: Enstone, Zoë. "Alliterative Morte Arthure". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 11 January 2019 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=38803, accessed 09 December 2023.]