The fact is that there is no contemporary or near-contemporary evidence for Arthur playing any decisive part in these events at all. No figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the historian’s time.
J N L Myres, 1986
other instances can you think of, anywhere on the globe, in any time period,
where a literate people simply failed to record their own history?
Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries is, it seems, unique. Here, the sequence of ‘one damned thing after another’ goes unrecorded for almost two hundred years. This gaping hole in our past is now termed the Dark Ages. The professional historians who study the period seem to have no doubts about who is responsible for this lamentable state of affairs: the blame must rest with the British themselves.
The era is bordered by two dominions. In the first decade of the fifth century Roman Britain came to an end. By 410 AD the Roman Empire, weakened by internal pressures and under threat from invading barbarian tribes, lost control of Britannia, her most northerly province. By the last decade of the sixth century the bulk of that province, the fertile lowlands of the south east, was in the hands of Britain’s own barbarian invaders, the Germanic peoples who became the English. Their dominion was acknowledged by the head of the western Roman Church, Pope Gregory the Great, who sent missionaries to convert them to the religion of the Empire. His emissary, St. Augustine of Canterbury, landed on Thanet, off the Kent coast, in 597 AD. In between these dates, in the Dark Ages, Britain was ruled by the natives.
By 410 AD Britain had experienced almost four centuries of Roman rule, and the native elite, at any rate, were literate. They were also Christian, and Christianity is a book-based religion. The new faith did not leave with the Romans. We know from Pope Gregory’s own letters that the British Church was still in existence when Augustine arrived. The natives did not forget how to write. They left inscriptions carved on stone. Indeed, they even left a few documents. But the Dark Age British left to posterity no account of their political and military affairs, no record of the sequence of events that unfolded in the two centuries of their dominion. Today’s Dark Age historians find themselves faced with an absence of evidence for this crucial period of transition. There is no reputable historical data from which to construct a coherent narrative of how Roman Britain turned into Anglo-Saxon England, of how the British dominion was reduced to the western margins of the island. What we have, instead, is a legend.
The gap in our history is where the British of an earlier era positioned their greatest hero, King Arthur. His tale is familiar to most of us: With its magic and enchantment, the wizard Merlin, the mysterious Holy Grail and the tragic love story of Lancelot and Guinevere, it has been told and retold for over eight hundred years and still finds an audience with each retelling. But behind this figure there is an earlier Arthur, a British political messiah, the defender of his people from alien invaders. He, likewise, was brought down by treachery, but his tragedy was not personal and romantic, it was political and military, and it engulfed the whole island.
The Dark Age Britons passed no written record down to today’s historians, but their descendants treasured their own account of ‘what happened next’, after the Roman Empire ended in Britain and the British were left to rule their own lands. In time the creation of England confined the independent British to the western territories of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, but here they upheld, throughout the middle ages, a version of history in which they were the rightful rulers of the whole island. It was their land before the Romans came. After Rome’s departure treacherous pagan Saxons arrived, originally invited in as allies and mercenary soldiers who turned savagely on their hosts and took over their country. But they were driven back. Under Arthur’s leadership the natives resisted, and gained the victory. Britain was restored to British rule. Tragically, civil war and renewed invasion undid Arthur’s achievement; the pagan Saxons eventually prevailed. Yet hope remained. Arthur would return to lead his people again, for Arthur had not died. His earthly career ended, in the earliest extant account, exactly as in the later stories: “Arthur himself, our renowned king, was mortally wounded and was carried off to the island of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to.” So says Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his infamous, twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain.
According to Geoffrey, Arthur fell at Camlann in 542 AD. His History of the Kings of Britain was written in 1138 AD. So the earliest extant account of Arthur’s reign was written six centuries after his own era. Even in his own day Geoffrey was accused of fabricating. But he did not invent Arthur’s military career as the victorious leader of the Christian British against the invading pagan Saxons. Arthur was already recorded in that role by the ninth century. And he did not invent the belief in our ‘once and future king’. By Geoffrey’s time, as the written record testifies, the entire British people, the Welsh, the Cornish and the Bretons, believed passionately that Arthur would return and restore their dominion over the whole island: one twelfth-century chronicler, aghast at their audacity, records, “Openly they go about saying that in the end they will have all, by means of Arthur they will have it back... They will call it Britain again.“ And Geoffrey didn’t invent the Dark Age British restoration that pushed back the first Saxon advance. That event is presented as a fact in one of the very few Dark Age documents we possess, Gildas’ The Ruin of Britain. The date of this sermon is disputed, but most hold it to be mid-sixth century. The writer is quite clear that, in his own day, the treacherous pagan Saxons who once drenched the island in blood have ceased to be a threat. He tells of a war between natives and incomers which was resolved in the natives’ favour a generation previously. If Gildas is to be believed, then at some point in the late fifth or early sixth century there was a British victory, followed by decades of British rule. So was there a real King Arthur?
The question has been the subject of vitriolic controversy from Geoffrey’s day down to our own. For a time it did seem that the heat had gone out of the debate. Beginning in the late nineteenth century a consensus developed among professional historians which allowed that the pre-Galfridian Arthurian tradition really was rooted in historical fact, and that the Britons really did remember something of their own history. There was, after all, no getting away from Gildas, contemporary witness to a sixth-century British restoration. And the victorious British forces must have had a leader. Even the name was unexceptionable: Artorius was a Roman family name and there are inscriptions suggesting a member of that family served in the Roman army in second-century Britain. A likely character could, it seemed, be constructed from the surviving evidence. Of course he could be nothing like the Golden Age king of legend. The real Arthur would have to have been a man of his era, and that, historians knew, was a dark age. But a Romano-British general, struggling to defend Roman civilization against the encroaching barbarians in a lost outpost of the Empire, would seem to fit the circumstances. For most of the twentieth century, most historians accepted that there must have been such a man behind the myth of Arthur. But this view was decisively overthrown in the late 1970s, just when Thatcherism overthrew the post-war consensus in British politics.
The question ‘Was there a real King Arthur?’, though still of intense interest to the general public, is now one which no professional historian can even ask. The academic consensus which has held sway for the past thirty years has ruled it out of court, on the grounds that the early British texts which name Arthur have no more relevance to the study of the British Dark Ages than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fabulous book. Academic study of Arthur is now restricted to his legend, and the period where his own people located his earthly career is unknown and unknowable, its political history forever unwritten because no contemporary record exists. Like the man said, these aren’t called the Dark Ages for nothing.
It is my contention that this darkness is not a result of the record’s inadequacies, it is a construct of the Dark Age historians themselves. It is a consequence of their political and racial bias, whether conscious or unconscious; of their refusal to understand the surviving texts on their own terms; and of their strange willingness to accept a two hundred year gap in the record without any real explanation as to how it came about. Most of all it results from their antipathy to the Arthur of history and to his earliest known biographer. If Geoffrey of Monmouth had not been dismissed as a fabricator, but treated with the respect due to one of the greatest propagandists ever known, Dark Age historians could have avoided wasting quite so much of their precious time.
The political history of Britain can indeed be written, if only in outline. As the ideal materials for writing such a history do not exist, we must make use of what we have. We must draw out the evidence of all the available sources, the contemporary and the derivative, the insular and the continental, the historical and the legendary, the respectable and the thoroughly disreputable. What emerges is a clear and comprehensible picture of independent Britain; of the forces which lead to its creation and its destruction; and of Arthur’s role in this critical period of our history.
We must begin somewhere, so let’s start where Arthur himself, according to our most disreputable source, had his beginnings. Tintagel, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story, is where our once and future king was conceived.
Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009
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