THE HISTORY ESSAY
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