Cei: The Sir Kay of Arthurian History

There are many characters in the medieval stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. But only a few may be based on a historical person. Cei, who becomes Sir Kay in the Arthurian Romances, may be one of them. Cei plays an important role in The Arthurian Age.

The Kay We Know

Most people know Sir Kay as the son of Sir Ector, foster-brother to Arthur, and one of his closest friends . The Romances, perhaps drawing on more ancient folklore, almost invariably portray Kay as hot-tempered, arrogant, bullying and boastful. Yet, he is also Arthur’s most loyal knight and one of the most skilled in battle.

In the Romances, Merlin takes the infant Arthur from Uther and Igraine and convinces Sir Ector and his wife to raise Arthur as their own. Arthur is a year or two younger than Kay and acts as Kay’s squire at Kay’s first tournament as a knight. When Kay’s sword is forgotten at home, Arthur goes to the churchyard and pulls the “Sword in the Stone” from the stone and gives it to Kay so that he won’t be unarmed in the tournament.

Cei Sir Kay in Arthurian History
Niall O’Brien as Sir Kay, beside Arthur in Boorman’s Excalibur

Kay, at first, tried to claim that he pulled the sword from the stone himself, but Ector gets the truth from him and tells Arthur that Uther is his real father, and that Arthur is the rightful King of Britain. When Arthur becomes king, he agrees to Ector’s request to make Cei his seneschal. This was the steward or head administrator of the king’s household, a position of great honor and responsibility.

Despite Kay’s skill in battle, he is normally portrayed as failing in quests and tournaments. Some say it’s because his duties as seneschal interfered with his ability to train. In one story, he laments to Lancelot that his managerial and accounting duties are what have made him so unpleasant. Another Romance suggests it comes from his being nursed by a commoner rather than a noblewoman when Arthur was nursed by Kay’s mother instead. By medieval logic, that would have made perfect sense. Whatever the reason, he is not often a main character in any of the Romances, instead acting as a foil to the other characters. For instance, his boorishness is often contrasted with Gawain’s courtesy.

It is only in a later Romance (a sweet story for Kay) that he is said to have a wife, Andrivete of Northumbria. However, early Welsh legend credits him with a son, Garanwyn, and daughter, Celemon.

The earliest complete story of Arthur, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, names Kay “Caius”, an authentic Romano-Celtic name and predecessor to the later Welsh “Cei” (pronounced ‘Kay’) that I use in my books. Geoffrey does not mention anything of Cei being Arthur’s foster-brother, but does call him Arthur’s seneschal and portrays him as noble and a skilled leader and warrior.

The Kay We Should Know

To learn more of the original Cei, we need to go to even earlier stories, such as Culhwch and Olwen and other stories from the Mabinogion. Cei’s family is said to be from Caer Goch in Pembrokeshire, south-western Wales. This area was settled and ruled by the Irish, and Cei may have been of Irish descent. The Welsh call his father Cynyr Ceinfarfog (Fork-Beard).

Ector and Kay from Disney’s Sword in the Stone

Before Cei was born, Cynyr prophesied that his son’s heart would be eternally cold, that he would be able to withstand fire and water like no other, and that he would be exceptionally stubborn. The Welsh attribute Cai with the ability to grow as tall as the tallest tree in the forest, to radiate intense heat from his hands, to go without sleep for nine days, and to hold his breath under water for nine days. Any wound from Cei’s sword could not be healed.

A fragment of an early poem called Who is the Gatekeeper? describes Arthur telling another king’s porter about his and his companions’ exploits. He refers to “Cei the Fair” as:

Prince of the plunder, the unrelenting warrior to his enemy;
Heavy was he in his vengeance; Terrible was his fighting.
When he would drink from a horn, he would drink as much as four;
When into battle he came, he slew as would a hundred.
Unless God should accomplish it, Cei’s death would be unattainable.
On the top of Ystarfingun, Cei slew nine witches.
Worthy Cei went to Ynys Mon to destroy lions.
Little protection did his shield offer against Palug’s Cat.

One reason Cei is thought to be based on a historical person, is that he appears early in the legends as one of Arthur’s two best friends, along with Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere). There are many tales that involve Cei, from fighting giants, to convincing Arthur to treat a woman with courtesy. Because of his flaws, he is one of the more interesting characters. His appearances in The Retreat to Avalon were short, though impactful. You will see much more of Cei in Three Wicked Revelations.

As I’ve said before, I base my historical fiction novels of Arthur on the earlier Welsh legends rather than the later Romances. This is partly because the stories of Arthur come from the Britons, the ancestors of the Welsh and Cornish. But also because the true story of Arthur is about the fascinating struggle of the Britons against the invading Anglo-Saxons who would found England and eventually claim Arthur the Briton as their own.

Cei’s death is one instance where I found a plausible scenario in both traditions. The early Welsh legends say who killed Cei, but not why or where. Geoffrey of Monmouth and most of the Romances have Cei dying in battle in France, but not by the person who the Welsh accuse.

Spoiler ahead!

To explain Cei’s death as portrayed in my book, I’ll need to talk about the events leading up to it. It’s an intense, pivotal moment in the story and for the characters involved. So if you have not already read the book and don’t want to ruin this part, you’ll want to stop here. Thanks for coming by and, as always, I love to get comments and questions.

Well, ok. Let’s go!

According to the early Welsh poem, Culhwch and Olwen, Cei is slain by Gwyddawg son of Menestyr, a member of Arthur’s own court! Arthur avenges Cei by killing Gwyddawg and his brothers. Who is Gwyddawg and why did he kill Cei? This ancient poem does not say.

Why would such a shocking fratricide go unexplained? This poem is one of the very few that survives from a time much closer to Arthur’s and the audience was likely very familiar with all of the characters mentioned, so the reference to Cei’s death was just a reminder of another well-known story.

So where did Cei die? Geoffrey of Monmouth and the later Romances almost all say it happened in France, or Gaul as it would have been known in Cei’s time. However, they typically attribute his death to fighting against the Romans, which we know can’t be historically accurate. The Arthurian Age series is based on famed historian Geoffrey Ashe’s research, which suggests that Arthurian legends come mostly from historical events such as the battle between Euric, king of the Visigoths in Gaul and Riothamus (Highest King) of the Britons. This battle occurred near present-day Deols, France, about the year 470.

So, I think it’s reasonable to locate Cei’s death somewhere in Gaul, and tie it to a battle that, centuries later, would be mis-remembered as a fight against the Romans. Yet, these are all the clues we have. Even assuming Cei died in Gaul, we can’t be sure of the place or circumstances. Based on our limited clues and a logical chain of events, my story shows Cei being killed at the battle near Deols.

Cei Sir Kay of Arthurian History
Sir Kay Breaketh His Sword at Tournament by Arthur Pyle

Now the big question. Why would Gwyddawg kill a fellow member of Arthur’s court? Most people take the first literal possibility: Gwyddawg was a traitor. That would certainly explain Arthur’s response in killing him and his brothers. But war is chaos, and there is another option that doesn’t require treachery: friendly fire.

If you’ve read The Retreat to Avalon, you’ll recall that Cei was in charge of guarding a river crossing on Arthur’s right flank under heavy fighting. Gwyddawg was captain of Cei’s personal bodyguard- the elite warriors whose duty was to protect their lord or die avenging him. Because warlords were expected to lead from the front, vengeance must have been a common pursuit.

War is messy. During a cavalry charge, Cei’s horse falls and he is thrown in front of Gwyddawg’s horse. Cei is trampled to death. When Arthur learns of the death of his best friend, he snaps and blames Gwyddawg. But Arthur recovers before it goes too far and is remorseful for his treatment of Gwyddawg. This was a very moving part of the story for me to write.

So how do I square the story with Arthur killing Gwyddawg and his brothers? To start, remember the code of dark age warriors, something the Romans called the ‘Comitatus’. It demanded that warriors avenge their leader’s death or die trying. I can easily imagine Gwyddawg and his “brothers” (the rest of Cei’s bodyguard), deciding that they would regain their honor not only in dying in battle to avenge Cei, but to protect Arthur’s flank during the dangerous withdrawal process.

It would be very out-of-character for a leader like Arthur to kill Gwyddawg and his brothers for Cei’s accidental death. But it it would be very in-character for Arthur to hold himself accountable for Gwyddawg’s death in such circumstances. In time, when people forgot the details of the battle, it might only be remembered that Gwyddawg died following Arthur’s outburst of rage.

All of this is speculation, and coming up with a plausible story is what I find so exciting. Many of today’s legends come from barely remembered history. I hope my interpretation of Arthurian history and legend is compelling. Thanks for coming by!

The Arthurian Age Book 1

5 thoughts on “Cei: The Sir Kay of Arthurian History”

  1. Hi Sean, are your books set with specific dates in mind, or do you keep it intentionally vague? I’m asking because I would have thought Gaul would be Francia by the time of Cei’s death, though I realise the names and dates around this time are somewhat of a moveable feast.

    • Hi, Owen. Yes, I am using a pretty specific timeline for the series, and I list years on certain chapters to help. It pretty much hinges around a few specific dates that are fairly well established (as much as dates from that long ago may be). First, the Battle of Deols, which historian Geoffrey Ashe’s research suggested is the historical basis behind certain Arthurian legends, such as Arthur’s “conquering” of Europe, the name and idea of Avalon, and other stories. That battle occurred around 470 AD, give or take a year. Other relatively firm dates include the Battle of Mt. Badon, which occurs after the Battle of Deols, and features in book 2, The Strife of Camlann. Gaul was the name of France through the 5th century, at least until the time when Clovis started the takeover of Gaul, around 486, but the name “Gaul” or Latin “Gallia” stuck around until at least Charlemagne’s time.
      Thanks for the great question! Please keep them coming.

      • Thanks for the reply, Sean. Yes that makes sense, the name isn’t going to change overnight, especially over the water. I have made a map for a project I’m working on, set around 500AD and I was deliberating over what to call the area. I think I will go with ‘Frankish Gaul’. I’ve not got my hands on a copy but I’ve always been interested in reading ‘Idylls of the Queen’ as it puts Cei in the role of detective, attempting to clear Guenevere (sic) for the murder of Sir ‘Patrice’. I enjoy your site very much and was aware of your books – I am not a fan of e-readers and your paper novels are £20 here in the UK, which is the reason I have not yet taken the plunge. I think perhaps it is time to pry open my wallet.

      • That is very kind, Owen. Thank you! I hope you find it a worthwhile expense. I’d love to hear what you think. The back of each book includes an extensive glossary and list of characters and locations.

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