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5 December 2018updated 27 Mar 2023 5:26pm

Our once and future king

No indisputable evidence exists for a “real” King Arthur, but, fictional or not, Britain has always needed him.

By Rowan Williams

Does anyone now read the historical novels of Henry Treece? A minor poet associated with the postwar “New Apocalyptic” group, he produced in the 1950s and 1960s a steady stream of fiction for the adult and young adult market, set mostly in early Britain and in the Viking age. The books are characterised by vivid, simple and sometimes repetitive plotting, ample bloodshed, a well-judged mixture of the cynical and the romantic, and plenty of gloomy Celtic and Nordic atmospherics. Several of the novels feature an “historical” King Arthur – a sixth-century warlord, co-ordinating resistance to the invading Saxons. Treece portrays with some skill the ways in which such a figure might have manipulated vague memories of Roman power and cultural identity to shore up his dominance in a chaotic post-Roman Britain.

The picture Treece outlines (a picture that can be found in rather less highly coloured narratives by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Meriol Trevor) is in fact not too far away from what a substantial number of professional historians of the mid-20th century had come to take for granted. The withdrawal of Roman military presence from Britain in the first quarter of the fifth century must have left the native population at the mercy of rapidly increasing swarms of settlers from north-western Europe, who pushed across lowland Britain, sacking Roman settlements and killing a substantial proportion of the population. Archaeology seemed to support this picture: Roman towns had been ruined and abandoned, British hill settlements were reoccupied and refortified. There appeared to be a bit of a hiatus in “Saxon” settlement in the first half of the sixth century, however, and some historians saw this as the result of a concerted campaign of British resistance.

There was an obvious gap for an “Arthurian” figure to fill, a military leader with nationwide authority, leaving a legacy in popular memory strong enough ultimately to generate the familiar legends of a great British hero and king. We are on our way to the Round Table and the Holy Grail and all the other riches of the “Matter of Britain”, as the medieval authors called the jungle of legendary traditions that grew around the name of Arthur.

Unfortunately, this satisfying historical reconstruction had one fatal weakness: the earliest clear reference to an Arthur fighting the Saxons comes from 300 years after the alleged date of the events, in a chronicle that shows very little sign of having dependable earlier sources. What’s more, archaeology has moved on dramatically since the 1970s: sites that were once assumed to be Roman towns sacked by marauding barbarians can be much more convincingly interpreted as having been deserted well before the fourth century, as part of a general drift away from urban living. And the analysis of genetic patterns in the British population, along with evidence from burial sites and other important sources of information about daily life in the post-Roman period, suggests a very slow penetration of Britain by the Germanic settlers, and, in many areas, no substantial change of population at all: ruling elites might change – or simply change their cultural habits – but there was no wholesale genocidal replacement of one ethnic group by another.

All this leaves no room for an “Age of Arthur”, to borrow the title of one influential but very speculative book. Professor Nicholas Higham is a leading historian of the early Middle Ages who has devoted a great deal of scholarly labour over the years to dismantling the historical-King-Arthur industry. “Industry” is not an inappropriate word: dozens of books have appeared in the past half-century purporting to identify the “real” Arthur, and a couple of colourful and historically preposterous films have claimed to tell the true story behind the legend.

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Higham approaches all this with the not-quite-controlled impatience of a Shakespearean expert dealing with Baconians, or a theologian or medievalist dissecting The Da Vinci Code. Indeed, the parallels here are instructive. It is always possible to find some neglected bit of documentary or archaeological record that can be magnified into a long-sought solution to a supposed historical riddle. But so often this process displays a complete disregard for the ordinary laws of historical evidence. In this demi-monde of scholarship, it is easy enough to attract popular headlines; but this is no substitute for genuinely moving a subject forward.

The first few chapters of Higham’s book deal with the wilder reaches of Arthurian speculation. It is fairly likely that the name “Arthur”, not all that common in Celtic sources, derives from the Latin “Artorius” (though this itself may reflect an older Celtic form, “Artorigos” or “bear-king”). Scholars have known for decades about the memorial in Croatia to a blamelessly dull military bureaucrat named Artorius Castus, who seems to have served briefly in Britain, probably in the late second century; and (appropriately) heroic attempts have been made to argue that he must be the origin of the stories. Piquant as it is to think of the original Arthur as more like Captain Mainwaring than Conan the Barbarian, there is nothing substantial to support this idea. It is not clear even that Castus ever took part in any actual campaigning in Britain, and we are left with no explanation whatever of why an obscure administrator in the Roman army should have been remembered.

But the theory has opened up a further startling claim. Castus may have had in his command some auxiliary troops from what are now Hungary and Romania, “Sarmatians” in the terminology of the day; and there were at least some Sarmatians serving in Roman Britain at some point. Enthusiasts have identified a couple of elements in the Arthurian legends with folkloric themes from the ancient homelands of the Sarmatians. But once again, the connection is vanishingly thin; and the legendary elements are all from very late strands of the Arthurian tradition.

A valiant attempt to link Arthur with legends around the star Arcturus in Greek legendary texts is no more convincing; and neither is the extraordinary proposal that some of the narratives are related to Caucasian tales about a race of ancient supernatural tribespeople called the Narts (a chapter entitled “King Arthur and the Narts” sounds irresistibly like a lost competitor to Noggin the Nog).

More serious is the material that was once appealed to in order to justify the Henry Treece picture. But Higham relentlessly brings us back to the central obstinate fact that there is not a trace of contemporary corroboration. The only text that has any claim to be a contemporary record of ­British-Saxon conflict (an elaborate tirade from the mid-sixth century by a dyspeptic cleric called Gildas) names several British rulers and leaders of the period, but no one called Arthur. The ninth-century chronicle that first mentions Arthur was written, as Higham shows, with the aim of salvaging the reputation of the indigenous British at a time when a new dynasty in north Wales badly needed positive publicity; the often-cited passage listing Arthur’s great battles against the Saxons is probably a rather randomly assembled catalogue of military encounters spanning a century or more. It is simply meant as the portrait of a native military hero, whose story, Higham argues, is deliberately shaped as a pendant to the stories in the same chronicle about St Patrick as a great ecclesiastical hero of Britain.

Higham’s book features an interesting discussion of the factors that might have inclined mid-20th century historians to take this Arthurian pseudo-history more seriously than it deserved. Fighting off Germanic invaders was a resonant theme between 1940 and 1950, and the notion of a resilient indigenous British culture, independent of both Roman imperial and imported European identities, will have had some traction in Britain’s first post-imperial phase. But historically speaking, the “Age of Arthur” has had its day.

Does anything remain? Higham is determined to take no prisoners in his scepticism. But, as he somewhat grudgingly allows, the tradition doesn’t quite come from nowhere. There may well have been folk tales about a British hero named Arthur – a figure very like Fionn MacCumhaill in Irish legend, the leader of a band of heroes engaged in feuds and quests and supernatural conflicts, with no exact historical or geographical setting – and that these stories fused with vague records of a historical ruler remembered as a formidable fighter.

We know of such a figure, Artur Mac-Aedan, son of a king of the Irish settlers in western Scotland, who died in battle against the Picts in the late sixth century. His father was certainly remembered in Welsh tradition, and there seems to have been intermarriage between his family and the neighbouring British kingdoms in the Scottish Lowlands and the Borders. The family were close to St Columba (the saint is said to have foretold Artur’s death) and this may have helped to consolidate the later chronicle’s depiction of Arthur as a devout Christian. The dates are several decades later than our ninth-century chronicle implies – but its writer is notoriously bad at chronology.

A figure like this Artur, with a strong but local reputation, could without too much difficulty melt into the much older tradition of a mythical hero-king (the sort of personage who appears in the earliest Welsh sources, in which there is no trace at all of any campaigning against Saxons), as memories of the “Old North” – the British states that flourished for a time around Carlisle and Glasgow and Edinburgh – drifted south towards Wales between 600 and 800.

The truth is that the whole context of British-Saxon struggle needs rethinking, despite the melodramatic account of Saxon slaughter presented by Gildas. It suits his purpose to underline the brutality and aggression of the settlers so as to make it plain that the British are being punished by God for their evil-doing. On closer inspection, though, the narrative of a co-ordinated “invasion” begins to fade, as does the assumption of consistent ethnic conflict.

There are telling pieces of evidence to support the idea that, in the early stages of the Germanic settlements in lowland Britain, indigenous British groups and settlers from the eastern shores of the North Sea – the “English” – alternated between rivalry and co-operation. It is not wholly unlike the early stages of more modern patterns of settlement, where the first generation of colonialists, still insecure in a new and often menacing environment, were happier than their descendants to intermarry and make alliances (North America and South Africa in the early years of European intrusion come to mind). And it is sadly not surprising in this light that within a century or so of its foundation, almost certainly as a joint British-Saxon venture, the Kingdom of Wessex had instituted a form of apartheid-style discrimination against the indigenous British.

But the interesting point is that, in accounts of the Saxon settlement by foreign settlers and native British alike, myths of timeless, clearly defined racial division and conflict are being projected back on to much more confused and diverse social situations. The “historical” Arthur of the scholars and novelists of the last century is in fact the reflection of a particular style of nationalist storytelling; and the dismantling of this dramatic but misleading model by historians such as Higham enables us to see more clearly the racial and cultural fluidity of Britain in the century and a half after the end of direct Roman rule. Ethnic identities have a history; they do not drop from Heaven.

Curiously enough, Arthur was never just a hero for indigenous British ethnicity, as if the fluidity of the age in which he was supposed to have lived kept a larger space open for him. The “real” King Arthur is like the “real” King Lear – a figure that has been used to aid thought within a huge diversity of settings across the centuries. In the case of Arthur, this has ranged from thinking about Norman imperial ambitions in the 12th century to reflecting on the balance of military valour and courtly eros in the 13th and 14th centuries, or on the tensions between grace and fallen human nature in the Grail legends, or about the tragic collisions of public responsibility with private passion and loyalty in the unsurpassed narratives in the later books of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.

And this is more abidingly valuable than even the most ingenious reconstruction of the career of a sixth-century chieftain. It seems to have proved difficult to turn the Arthurian legacy simply into a matter of ethnic self-glorification (though the Tudors had a good try). By the end of the Middle Ages, it was a vehicle for depicting both the fragility of grand moral projects in political history (Camelot is doomed from the first because of hidden personal sins and errors) and the stubborn courage and fidelity that makes these projects worth celebrating, even when they are tied up with the stories of very flawed individuals.

It is not easy to hold on to a belief in the value of a morally ambitious political or social vision at the same time as recognising the human frailties involved and the need for forgiveness and the patience to start again. Political programmes painted in more primary colours – heroic leadership, ethnic glory and triumphant innocence – look more attractive to a substantial percentage of humanity, however lethal they prove themselves over and over again. It is because of all this that Arthur – “historical” or not – is a national hero worth having. 

Rowan Williams is the author of “Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons” (SPCK Publishing)

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special