I love learning about the various legends, myths, folklore and traditions of the British Isles.
No story has endured, or captured the imagination, as that of King Arthur. The image that holds today is the romanticised, medieval invention-the good King and his chivalrous knights of the round table, based in the fantastical court of Camelot.
I have read a few books about Arthur, and he seems to have been claimed by just about everybody-the Welsh,the English,the Scottish, even the Croatians. It reminds me of how you can read countless books about Jack the Ripper- every learned author goes over the same material and then pushes a different suspect as the final unmasking of the unidentified killer.
I have just finished reading another book on Arthur-Christopher Hibbert’s King Arthur. I agree with his conclusion, shared by many, that the legendary Arthur that we are acquainted with today is based upon a real, historical flesh and blood figure who lived here in Dark Age Britain.
A figure who, infuriatingly, is lost in the mists of time, camouflaged by legend. Hibbert relates the story of how, in the 1890’s, a group of antiquarians gathered upon South Cadbury Hill, site of a Neolithic fort that was still in use around the time of the original Roman occupation of Britain. They were looking for signs of a reoccupation of the fort in the late fifth or early sixth century, trying to establish a connection between South Cadbury Castle and the legend of Camelot. An old man approached them and anxiously asked them if they were there to take away the sleeping king from the hollow hill.
Time and legend serves to thwart the serious searcher, but there are a few tantalysing clues to be found.
What we do know is that Rome, being squeezed on all sides by Germanic tribes, recalled her legions one after another from Britain to help defend her borders. Suddenly the Romanized, tamed Britons were left to take care of their own defences. With Picts swarming down from the north, and Scotti marauding from Ireland in the west, the beleagured Brits were then faced in the the south and east with the pillaging and raiding of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. The Britons fell back onto old tribal loyalties and connections but were no match for the warring invaders.
In 446 they sent a desperate plea for help to Rome, addressed to Aetius, the Roman General in Gaul:
To Aetius, three times consul, the groans of the Britons; the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two forms of death, we are either massacred or drowned.
But the plea was in vain. They had to look to their own defences. As the Saxons gained more and more ground, Bede writes:
Public and private buildings were razed, priests were slain at the altar; bishops and people alike, regardless of rank, were destroyed with fire and sword, and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence.
Then came forward a tribal leader named Ambrosius who stood up to the invaders. Gildas, writes that other tribes flocked to him ‘as eagerly as bees when a storm is brewing.’ It seems under Ambrosius the Britons prevented the Saxons from taking the whole Kingdom, suffering defeats but also victories too. But what would happen once this strong leader was no more? Would the alliances and the defiance hold?
Now comes the first of one of the few historical references to Arthur. Nennius, writing in the ninth century about the time after Ambrosius’ death:
In those days the Saxons grew in numbers and prospered in Britain..Then Arthur the warrior and the kings of the Britons fought against the Saxons, but Arthur himself was the ‘dux bellorum’, the commander of battles. The first battle was on the mouth of the river which is called Glein. The second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth upon another river, which is called Dubglass, and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was upon the river which is called Bassas.
The seventh battle was in the wood of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was the battle by the castle of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried upon his shoulders an image of the Blessed Mary, the Eternal Virgin. And the heathen were turned to flight on that day, and great was the slaughter brought upon them through the virtue of the Blessed virgin, His Mother.
The ninth battle was fought in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of the river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought in the mountain which is called Agned. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon where in one day nine hundred and sixty men fell in one onslaught of Arthur’s. And no one laid them low but himself alone. And in all these battles he stood out as victor.
Some of the sites listed here are now lost to us, and others have been guessed at using ancient language and place names. This account suggests the various tribal kings were involved in the battles, but it was Arthur as Commander of Battles who led the attacks/defences.
In the book Hibbert suggests that Arthur led in the manner of Romans of old, leading a mobile, disciplined cavalry and an organised response to the more aggressive but (unorganized ) fighting style of the Saxons.
He also attempts to explain the confusing account of Arthur going into battle with an image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulder. This could be a mistranslation of an original text. The Welsh word for shoulder ysgwydd is almost identical to the word for shield ysgwyd. Carrying an image on his shield appears more plausible, and could account for the next reference to Arthur, from a list in Latin written in the tenth century, but taken from sources at least as early as those used by Nennius. The Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) mentions only Arthur’s last battle (of those named by Nennius) in the year 516:
The battle of Badon in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for three days and three nights on his shoulders, and the Britons were victorious.
Then, in 537:
The battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut were slain; and there was death in England.
There are two other hints of the existence of a real life Arthur, from before the examples given above. One is an indirect reference, in an epic poem written by the Welsh bard Aneurin, called Gododdin, written way back around 603. In it, describing a battle between the Saxon invaders and desperate Britons, when extolling the remarkable bravery of a British hero, he adds:
although he was no Arthur.
Another clue is the sudden popularity of the name Arthur in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. One hundred years before Anuerin wrote his poem, the name was virtually unknown on these shores. Think today of obsessive fans naming their sons Cantona, or Lennon, etc, after the heroes of modern times.
The romanticised, legendary telling of Arthur is a wonderful, captivating story- Merlin, the sword in the stone, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, the Grail Quest, the Knights of the Round Table, Guinevere and Lancelot, Arthur’s doomed fight with his traitorous son before being taken to Avalon, where he sleeps until his country needs him again.
But for me, this scarcely sighted Romano-Briton is a more fascinating figure. A figure who rallied and resisted the Saxon invaders, who won a decisive battle at Badon which effectively ended the Saxon threat for a generation.
A figure whose roots are lost in the mists of time and obscured by the shadows of the Dark Ages. But there are just a few glimpses to be had of the flesh and blood man who would one day become known to us as Arthur, our once and future king.