In 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth completed, Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). There were few works of reference for him to draw upon and many of the stories contained in his manuscript were no doubt based on folk-lore and supposition, particularly when it came to the tales of the great legendary ruler, King Arthur.
Over the centuries that followed, Geoffrey’s epic work often served as the starting point for later stories. Geoffrey wrote of Arthur as the British King who defeated the Saxons before establishing an empire over Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Gaul.
The legends of King Arthur saw a huge revival in popularity in Victorian England. It began when an edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was reprinted for the first time since 1634. The medieval Arthurian legends were of particular interest to poets, soon providing the inspiration for Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Arthurian poem, The Lady of Shalott published in 1832.
Tennyson’s poem became the source material for many of the Pre-Raphaelite artists including William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John William Waterhouse.
Another inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites was the enchantress, Morgan le Fay. She is the half sister of Arthur and is depicted in some stories as his enemy, whilst in other tales she is a healer, and is named as one of the three women who take King Arthur to Avalon at the end of his days.
Frederick Sandys in his painting of 1862-63, depicts Morgan le Fay as a sorceress engaged in some magical ritual.
After Arthur’s last battle at Camlann, where he falls victim to the sword of his nephew Mordred, Arthur is carried onto a barge that appears on the nearby lake, and three ladies, one of whom is his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, transport him to the Isle of Avalon. Before his strength finally fails him, Arthur casts his sword, Excalibur into the lake, where a hand appears from the waves to catch it as it falls.