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The Crimson Chalice (1976)

Novel (179 pages, 81,280 words)

UK first edition 1976
UK first edition
Trilogy paperback
Penguin trilogy

The Book

It starts with this note:

At the time of this story—roughly 450 AD—any effective Roman presence in Britain had long gone. The shadow of the Dark Ages—which were to last nearly three hundred years—had already fallen across the country. The Saxon mercenaries, hired originally to fight against the Pictish invasions from the North, were now breaking out of the lands granted to them in the East. Constantly reinforced by more of their kind they were beginning to sweep westwards across the country, massacring and pillaging, to make it their own.

... and ends with this postscript:

In this book, the first of a trilogy, I have made no attempt to follow the lines of the accepted Arthurian legend, largely because I do not think it bears much relation to truth. What the truth was, nobody knows. That there was a truth is indisputable. King Arthur and the pursuit of the Holy Grail are unshakably part of our national heritage.
Although there are no incontrovertible facts about King Arthur, the renown of his life and deeds in the Dark Ages was lodged for over six hundred years in folk memory. And folk, being what they are, invariably alter and embroider a good story. William of Malmesbury, Geoffrey of Monmouth and then Sir Thomas Malory were landed with the result. Lesser as well as better writers have followed them. Acknowledging that I come in the first of these two categories, I feel no shame in entering the lists poorly armed but securely mounted on a horse I have ridden for years called Imagination.

In the main story Gratia, known as Tia, a Romano-British girl escaping from the looting and burning of her home in Anderida (Pevensey), comes across the body of Baradoc strung up on a tree and left to die by his treacherous cousin. She cuts him down and revives him. Baradoc with his three trained dogs and a raven, helps her to reach her uncle's house at Aquae Sulis (Bath). En route they steal a horse from a black corsair called Corvo, and defend a priest from three vagrants who attack his shrine. The priest gives them a chalice to look after, saying it had once held the vinegar given to Christ on the cross.

Tia reaches her uncle's house, but it is soon raided by Welshmen, and she escapes being taken as a slave only because Baradoc can talk to the Welsh leader in his own language and declares they are betrothed. They make their way towards his own tribe in Cornwall, take a boat from a devious marsh ferryman who has tried to cheat them, and find themselves marooned on Lundy Island, where their boat is mysteriously stolen. Over the winter Baradoc tries to build a new boat and Tia finds she is pregnant. Baradoc meets the island's reclusive inhabitant, whose name is Merlin. While trying out the boat Baradoc drifts out to sea and is captured by the corsair Corvo. Meanwhile Merlin helps in the delivery of Tia's baby son.

Publishing History

This is the first part of a trilogy of novels re-telling the story of Arthur. It was published by Heinemann in 1976 at £3.10. There was a Companion Book Club edition in 1977. The second part, The Circle of the Gods, appeared in 1977 and the third, The Immortal Wound, in 1978. A paperback comprising all three books was published by Penguin in 1980.

The first book includes a map showing places with Latin and modern names. The second and third books include a listing of personal, tribal and place names.

Alan Lupack's encyclopedic Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend (OUP: 2005) has this to say:

British novelist Victor Canning’s three Arthurian novels—The Crimson Chalice (1976), The Circle of the Gods (1977), and The Immortal Wound (1978)—were combined as The Crimson Chalice (1980) to tell the story of Arturo (Arthur) from his youth to his death. The title derives from a small chalice once owned by the uncle of Arturo’s mother and passed on to her and then to Arturo himself, a chalice that at one point has a crimson glow and seems to have healing properties. In the first half of the 1978 The Crimson Chalice, Canning provides an enfance for Arthur. As he notes in his foreword, he feels no need to conform to the traditional story of Arthur ‘largely because I do not think it bears much relation to the truth. What the truth was, nobody knows.’ He gives an account of Arturo’s parents, here not Uther and Igraine but Baradoc, the son of a Celtic chieftain, and Gratia, called Tia, the daughter of Romano-British parents. Canning recounts Arturo’s birth and the assistance given to his parents by Merlin, the separation of the parents when Baradoc is captured and forced into service by a plunderer, and their eventual reunion. Arturo gathers a band of followers and wins a series of battles, which bring him the title of dux bellorum. In his victory at Badon, Arturo’s father dies, as does Gawain; and Arturo himself is wounded but recovers. Later Mordreth, banished ‘for trying to lay hands in drunken lust on the lady Gwennifer’, returns with ten followers and, in a fight with Arturo and six of his warriors, reopens the wound Arturo received at Badon. Arturo dies without any enmity between him and his wife.

The book has the dedication "To my wife, Diana, with love". Diana was Canning's second wife. She died just before the book was published.

Here more than anywhere else Canning indulges his enthusiasm for descriptions of countryside and animal and bird life. The style is readable and the story full of tension as well as colour.


Here are some pictures of the Roman Villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, which may have been in Canning's mind as he described the Villa Etruria of Tia's uncle (pages 107-110).

Approach to Chedworth Well

They had come to it by the road which ran west to the small port of Abonae near the mouth of the river, reaching it in the late afternoon, the lowering sun striping its red tiles with black ridge shadows while the breeze rippled the branches of a row of mixed limes and poplars that flanked the slopes on either side of the building. Part of the bank had been cut away and the villa had been built into it.

In the centre of the courtyard was a spring-fed well, encircled with a carved stone parapet and roofed with an ornamental canopy from which hung a large bronze bucket.

Chestnut tree Roman banquet

A little beyond it giving shade to the yard grew a tall sweet chestnut tree, a tree, Baradoc knew, which the Romans had brought to his country in their early days. When corn was short the old legionaries had milled the chestnut fruits to add to their scanty cornflour issue.

For the first time in his life—for not even in his old master’s house had this happened to him—Baradoc ate in Roman fashion, reclining on one of the three sloping couches set around the low table and waited on by the steward. Although Truvius showed little hunger, shifting often, too, in discomfort from his rheumatism on his couch, he and Tia did full justice to the stuffed olives and preserved plovers’ eggs, the cold lobster—which had been brought upriver from Abonae—and the young broad beans and carrots, followed by slices of grilled venison, their appetite lasting right through to the dessert of dried figs and walnuts. Throughout the meal the steward had hovered round, refilling their wine glasses, bringing fresh napkins and water bowls for them to clean their hands, and watching always over the comfort of Truvius, ready to help him turn, prompt with a fresh cushion to ease his stiff body.