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Ten ways to rethink ‘Arthur’s Britain’

Guy Halsall, author of Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, illuminates the reality behind the façade of myths and legends concerning King Arthur. He outlines here ten ways which will challenge what you thought you knew about the legendary King Arthur and the world in which he was supposed to have lived.

1.            Stop looking for ‘King Arthur’.  There is no conclusive evidence that he ever existed and none at all that would allow us to say anything reliable about him if he did. He might have lived … or he might not. That’s all there is to say and, unless some entirely new piece of evidence is discovered (unlikely), that is all there will ever be to say on the topic (and don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise). There are far more interesting things to think about in Britain between 400 and 600.  Get over it!

2.            Forget the characters, artefacts, and places of legend.  If there’s hardly any evidence to support Arthur’s existence, there is even less for Guinevere, Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table, for Excalibur or Camelot. While the evidence we have suggests that some people (not many) knew of an Arthur figure, legendary or historical, in the first millennium, the other people, places and things of the legends were all invented after 1000.

Glastonbury Tor: Often supposed to be the Isle of Avalon from Arthurian legend (via iStockPhoto)

3.              Abandon the written sources.  Sadly almost no reliable written evidence exists for a political narrative history of Britain between c.410 and c.597. Gildas’ On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (written c.475-c.550) tells many things about the church, mentalities and some politics of his day, but little in detail – and we don’t know where or when he was writing. The Life of Germanus of Auxerre tells us a little about the bishop’s visit to the island in 429 and (maybe) again in the 440s, but not much. That apart, every datable source for political history is late (from at least 200 years after Arthur’s supposed lifetime around 500!) and written for the political agendas of its own day.

4.            It’s not just about the South — get some context!  What happened in Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall will only make sense if viewed in a broader context, one that not only takes into account the north of Britain but the whole of western Europe in the fifth and sixth century. (See point 5.)

The Pictish fort at Dundurn at the head of Strathearn, © Guy Halsall 2013; all rights reserved.

5.            ‘Arthur’ was not the defender of the Romans.  Whatever happened as the late Roman diocese of Britanniae (The Britains) became a series of kingdoms, English and Welsh, it did not involve the destruction of Roman Britain by barbarian invaders. Roman civilisation in Britain collapsed in the crisis of the Empire around 400, long before any ‘Saxons’ took over. Any ‘proto-Arthur’ was not fighting to defend Roman civilisation; that had long gone. Fifth- and sixth-century change in Britain only makes sense when you take a view that crosses the artificial boundary between ‘Roman archaeology’ and ‘early Anglo-Saxon’ (or sub-Roman, or early historic in other areas).

6.            ‘Arthur’ did not fight against the Saxon invasion.  The details of the written sources have long since been dismissed by serious scholars but the framework they provided remains. That framework sees Arthur and/or the Britons fighting a defensive war against invading ‘Saxons’, gradually pushing them to the west. But that is an image that suited particular moments of eighth- to tenth-century politics and the histories that were written then. Nowhere in the fifth- and sixth-century West did politics play out simply in terms of conquering barbarians fighting defending Roman provincials. Without the dubious written sources (point 2) there is no evidence that Britain was any different.

A defence against the Saxons? Or a fortified depot safeguarding Roman Britain’s crucial links with the rest of the Empire? The mighty walls of the ‘Saxon Shore’ fort at Richborough (Kent), © Guy Halsall 2013, all rights reserved.

7.            Britain wasn’t united — fifth-century factions.  Fifth-century politics everywhere else in western Europe were about faction-fighting. Regional alliances of Roman aristocrats and barbarian soldiers fought other Romano-barbarian factions for control. This pattern looks quite like that of Anglo-Welsh alliances that we can see when we first get reliable political historical evidence in the earlier seventh century. The political map was probably complex and ever-changing. A ‘Proto-Arthur’, therefore, could have been a ‘Briton’ whose troops were ‘Saxons’, or whose kingdom ‘became’ Saxon. People like that existed. If he was it’s not surprising he was left with nowhere to go but legend.

8.            Stop looking for Saxons or Britons.  Archaeological evidence should not be discussed as relating to Saxons or Britons. Such identities were political. They were multi-layered, they could be adopted or abandoned in certain circumstances and they didn’t only — or perhaps even primarily — relate to the places where someone or their family originated. Therefore specific types of finds, buildings or burials are unlikely to tell you the geographical or biological origins of a site’s occupants or users and, if they do, that will not necessarily tell you what their ethnic identity was. In any case, the archaeology maps very badly onto the old idea of a simple east-to-west advance across the landscape by English (Anglo-Saxon) settlement and kingdoms.

9.            There were no ‘knights’.  Any Arthur proto-type didn’t win his wars because of his use of heavy cavalry. There’s no evidence for fifth-/sixth-century ‘Arthurian’ heavy cavalry. Most if not all war-leaders at the time led warriors who had horses, who sometimes fought mounted and sometimes on foot.

10.          Start thinking in terms of a mess.  Forget the neat lines on the map, the orderly ‘front-line’ of traditional views. Think of a kaleidoscope. A mess is maybe less romantic but more interesting and exciting.

Guy Halsall has taught at the universities of London and York, where he has been a professor of history since 2006. He has published widely on a broad range of subjects and his most recent book Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages explores King Arthur, the myths, the legends, the history — and what we can ever really know about him.

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6 Responses to “Ten ways to rethink ‘Arthur’s Britain’”
  1. Nikita says:

    What happened to the theory that Arthur is to a large extent based on Atilla the Hun (Etzel of Nibelungenlied)?

  2. The Enemy says:

    Of course some of these arguments apply to the (non-)existence of Jesus.

  3. Terry says:

    Of course it’s all a myth but, I still have a hard time letting go of Tintagel. So, was it merely a Roman outpost?

  4. I welcome most of these points, especially those which seek to remind us that the evidence for an Arthur of the south is almost non-existent. But there are literary sources which are too often neglected or sidelined because they don’t fit the “orthodox” picture of a southern Arthur. Little by little, I believe we’re demolishing the “Arthur-was-a-prototype-Englishman” argument, and about time too! Once we lift the restrictions on which texts we’re allowed to consider germane, everything then points to an Arthur in the north.

  5. [...] Did the real King Arthur have knights or a round table? Nope. Ten ways to rethink King Arthur. [...]

  6. Guy says:

    No it doesn’t.

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