THE HIS­TORY ES­SAY

BBC History Magazine - - King Arthur - Nick Higham is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester

The His­tory of the Bri­tons cel­e­brates Arthur’s prow­ess as a war­rior and na­tional leader. But there’s a prob­lem: the au­thor is de­scrib­ing bat­tles that sup­pos­edly oc­curred three cen­turies ear­lier paign against the Sax­ons at Badon. Here, The His­tory tells us, “there fell in one day 960 men from one charge [of] Arthur; and no one slew them ex­cept him alone, and in all bat­tles he was the vic­tor”.

It’s a stir­ring cel­e­bra­tion of Arthur’s prow­ess as a war­rior and leader. But there’s a prob­lem: the au­thor is de­scrib­ing bat­tles that sup­pos­edly oc­curred three cen­turies ear­lier – in fact, he was as far away from the ‘Age of Arthur’ as we are from the reign of Ge­orge I.

It goes without say­ing that oral tes­ti­mony can­not be re­lied upon across so long a pe­riod. So did our au­thor have at his dis­posal nearcon­tem­po­rary writ­ten ac­counts of Arthur’s cam­paigns? The an­swer is al­most cer­tainly not. True, the Bri­tish monk Gildas re­ferred to the clash at Badon in his own sixth-cen­tury his­tory of Britain – but he never even men­tioned Arthur. That’s hardly a ring­ing en­dorse­ment of The His­tory of the Bri­tons’s sta­tus as a repos­i­tory for gen­uine ev­i­dence for the Bri­tish Dark Ages.

It has been sug­gested that the names of the bat­tles de­scribed in The His­tory of the Bri­tons were taken from a poem writ­ten in Old Welsh (and hence nearer the events it de­scribes). Surely this would es­tab­lish a firm con­nec­tion be­tween the ninth-cen­tury chron­i­cle and Arthur’s fifth-cen­tury wars.

The fact that some of the bat­tle names rhyme – Dub­glas and Bas­sas; Celi­don and Guin­nion – ap­pear to sup­port the hy­poth­e­sis that they were taken from a poem. Even so, it re­quires an enor­mous leap of the imag­i­na­tion to con­clude that any such poem was penned by a well-in­formed near con­tem­po­rary of Arthur’s. Wars don’t tend to fea­ture rhyming bat­tle-names. What’s more, sev­eral of these names ap­pear to have been bor­rowed from ear­lier texts: Badon, as we’ve heard, was used by Gildas (though he de­scribed it as a siege, not a bat­tle), while Tri­bruit – the site of Arthur’s 10th bat­tle – is prob­a­bly Traeth Try­wruid, a bat­tle named in the Old Welsh poem Pa gur.

In short, The His­tory’s au­thor ap­pears to have cherry-picked a num­ber of no­table mil­i­tary cam­paigns from pre-ex­ist­ing texts and re­cy­cled them as Arthur’s.

Worse still for those who be­lieve that The His­tory of the Bri­tons pro­vides a win­dow on a his­tor­i­cal Arthur, the au­thor patently makes up both peo­ple and events in the dis­tant past. Read any num­ber of pas­sages in the text and you’ll find that he was fre­quently cav­a­lier in his de­scrip­tions of his­tor­i­cal events. Take his ac­count of Julius Cae­sar’s first ex­pe­di­tion to Britain. In his at­tempts to chron­i­cle the events of 55–54 BC, the au­thor bor­rows heav­ily from the fifth-cen­tury Span­ish/Ro­man writer Oro­sius, whose his­tory rested on ear­lier ac­counts right back to those writ­ten by Julius Cae­sar him­self. But the au­thor makes

The Welsh had been forced to ac­knowl­edge the supremacy of the West Saxon king Ecg­berht. The au­thor’s dis­may at this turn of events in­forms swathes of The His­tory of the Bri­tons

his own, en­tirely fic­tional changes, con­vert­ing the well-known Ro­man aris­to­crat Do­la­bella to the Bri­tish gen­eral fight­ing Cae­sar and con­fer­ring on the Bri­tish king author­ity over is­lands in the western Mediter­ranean. He even tells us that the Ro­mans landed in the Thames es­tu­ary, when they, in fact, came ashore on Kent’s east coast. He con­cludes his de­scrip­tion of the in­va­sion by telling us that “Julius re­turned without vic­tory, his sol­diers killed and his ships bro­ken”. It’s a heav­ily mas­saged, pro-Bri­tish rewrit­ing of the facts as he knew them. And it’s per­ti­nent to King Arthur. For, if the au­thor saw fit to twist the facts in his de­scrip­tions of Cae­sar’s cam­paigns, then surely he was ca­pa­ble of do­ing so in his ac­count of fifth-cen­tury Britain.

So, what was the au­thor of The His­tory of the Bri­tons seek­ing to gain from fal­si­fy­ing the past? Well, to be fair, he did not see him­self as a his­to­rian; he termed his work a ser­mon (“sermo”). And, like any good ser­mon, this one was pri­mar­ily about the present and near-fu­ture. His­tory is sub­or­di­nate, used to set out a par­tic­u­lar vi­sion of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween God, his Bri­tish peo­ple and their ‘for­eign’ en­e­mies (the Sax­ons). The His­tory is much bet­ter ap­proached as a re­flec­tion of ra­cial pol­i­tics and re­li­gious think­ing in its own day.

One ex­am­ple of this ser­mon­is­ing in ac­tion is the au­thor’s de­scrip­tion of the birth of Ro­man Britain. In AD 768, the Bri­tish church had given up its long strug­gle against Catholic prac­tices, and ac­cepted the Ro­man dat­ing of Easter. Welsh in­tel­lec­tu­als, our au­thor among them, were now en­gaged in rewrit­ing the past in a bid to es­tab­lish con­nec­tions be­tween the Bri­tons and Ro­mans, and to re­veal the Bri­tons as great war­riors, equal to the Ro­mans.

What we get, there­fore, is an ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­ac­cu­rate ac­count of Ro­man Britain. Au­gus­tus, we are told, was the only Ro­man em­peror to whom the Bri­tons paid taxes – de­spite Britain not be­ing a part of the empire dur­ing his reign. Ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, these pay­ments ceased in the time of Claudius – when they ac­tu­ally be­gan. The His­tory de­scribes the bap­tism of “Lu­cius, the Bri­tish king, with all the un­der-kings of the whole Bri­tish peo­ple”, fol­low­ing en­voys sent to the Ro­man em­per­ors and Pope Eucharis­tus. Again, this is pure fic­tion, based on a mis­take by the English his­to­rian Bede (for a start, Pope Eucharis­tus never ex­isted), but it chimes nicely with the ob­jec­tive of link­ing Bri­tish and Ro­man Chris­tian­ity from an early date.

The His­tory tells us that the mis­sion­ary Patrick was sent to Ire­land “by Ce­les­tine the Ro­man pope and an an­gel of God named Vic­tori­cus” (though the Ir­ish source the au­thor drew on also de­picts Vic­tori­cus as a man). It also claims that the con­ver­sion of the Northum­brian king Ed­win was the work not of the Ro­man bishop Pauli­nus (as Bede wrote) but a Bri­tish priest called Rhun. These sto­ries fit­ted the po­lit­i­cal agenda of ninth-cen­tury Wales very well but they are no more his­tor­i­cal for that.

Aside from the con­ver­gence of the Bri­tish and Ro­man churches, there was a se­cond is­sue that our au­thor was seek­ing to ad­dress – the Saxon takeover of so much of Britain. At the time of The His­tory’s writ­ing, the Welsh had been forced to ac­knowl­edge the supremacy of the West Saxon king Ecg­berht, who briefly es­tab­lished his su­pe­ri­or­ity over all Eng­land as well. Its au­thor’s dis­may at this turn of events in­forms swathes of The His­tory of the Bri­tons, once again re­sult­ing in pas­sages of text that are more po­lit­i­cal man­i­festo than re­li­able his­tory – and lead­ing to the cre­ation of Arthur.

The au­thor never men­tions the West Sax­ons, but he dis­par­aged three other An­glo-Saxon peo­ples: the Ken­tish, Mer­cians and Northum­bri­ans. Hengest and his brother Horsa, lead­ers of the first Sax­ons to ar­rive in Britain, are said to have de­scended from a god who was “not the God of gods, amen, the God of hosts but one of their idols who they wor­ship”. He thereby con­trasts Saxon pa­gan­ism with the early and ‘Ro­man’ con­ver­sion of the Bri­tons, and de­nounces the Sax­ons as treach­er­ous pa­gans.

Just as The His­tory de­cries the Sax­ons, it pro­motes Merfyn of Gwynedd as a po­ten­tial leader of Welsh re­sis­tance to their dom­i­nance. And it does so via ref­er­ences to Mael­gwyn, a sixth-cen­tury “great king among the Bri­tons”, and his pre­de­ces­sor as king, Cunedda, who, we’re told, ex­pelled the Ir­ish from Wales. It’s an im­plicit dec­la­ra­tion of sup­port for Gwynedd’s as­pi­ra­tions to su­pe­ri­or­ity through­out the Celtic west – and Merfyn’s de­signs on be­com­ing the Bri­tons’ se­nior king.

Once again, the au­thor is cre­at­ing a highly par­ti­san in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the past to look to the fu­ture – to­wards the time when God would re­lent and his Bri­tish peo­ple seize back what was justly theirs from the Sax­ons. If Cunedda could free Wales from the yoke of for­eign in­vaders, he is im­ply­ing, so could Merfyn.

All of these fac­tors – the pla­gia­rism, the fab­ri­ca­tions, the ser­mon­is­ing – have led me to the con­clu­sion that we should see The His­tory of the Bri­tons for what it is: one man’s cre­ative vi­sion of the Bri­tons’ past glo­ries. What it is not is a his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate ac­count of the Dark Ages. Arthur, one of its most prom­i­nent char­ac­ters, wasn’t a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure but a fic­tional char­ac­ter – a valiant, charis­matic free­dom fighter cre­ated by its au­thor to sup­port his cen­tral mes­sage. This mes­sage was that the Bri­tons had re­sisted in­vaders be­fore, each time win­ning their land back. The hope was that they would do so again, as soon as God re­stored his pro­tec­tion to his Bri­tish peo­ple.

Ge­of­frey of Mon­mouth’s 12th- cen­tury ac­count of King Arthur’s life gave us Guin­e­vere, Mer­lin and (above) the sword that would come to be known as Ex­cal­ibur. These em­bel­lish­ments helped turn Arthur into an in­ter­na­tional su­per­star

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