Arthur Part 1: As if some lesser God had made this World

© 2005 Jeff Lynch



When I am mindful of the times I am about write of, I think of the Monty Python sketch where a horsed king and one of his lords clinkingly rein up on a stubble field, to be met by a clump of peasants. One of the peasants shouts. ‘He’s a king!’, pointing at the horsed man. ‘How do you know he’s a king?’ asks another peasant. ‘Because he’s the only one of us who ‘asn’t got shit all over him,’ replies the peasant.

In the days when warrior leader Arthur of an old document took the field, there was not a lot to be cheery about either. Oh what days were they then? Well I am glad you asked that question, because thereby hangs an unmailed tale or two!

King Arthur has probably spilt more words than any other character real or unreal, with maybe the exception of a prophet or two. He is it seems, essential to England and necessary to all lovers of literature and history alike .So over the last decade or so, you will have probably caught up with the trend to historically place the Arthur figure much earlier in time than the old, imagined medieval times. You may have read books or even seen films, which have Arthur living somewhere in between the 5th to the 8thcenturies. Where did this impetus come from? Are there greater grounds now, say than there was two decades ago, for supposing Arthur to be an actual historical figure or not?

There is a confusing array of suggested evidences instanced for a ‘real’ Arthur. I have not time or space here, to look at most of the suggested evidence except a document known as ‘History of the Britons’ or ‘Historia Brittonum’. This document has been dated at 829/830 AD by one expert, and at 858 AD by a second expert. We have a ballpark figure at least! It seems that some historians attribute the total work to one Nennius and others have Nennius as writing the introduction only with the bulk remaining as written by unknown author or authors. I can have no opinion on this detail! Saxons came to England, probably in the year 447. At first they settled quietly but then soon added far greater numbers from their Germanic homelands and began to make inroads into the power structures of the native Britons. Soon all out war was a way of life in a savage and dark period of English history. It is postulated that Arthur was an Ancient Briton warrior, living in the post Roman era who fought and usually defeated Saxon troops on his home turf of England. Except that is, for the last battle. There is always a last battle.

Now when I come to slot in the various groupings of peoples who have inhabited the British Isles I realise that at least since primary school, I have been a little confused with the succession of these groupings. So here is the briefest summary to set myself at least aright and perhaps you as well. Leaving aside early man, the first to come to Britain were the European wide peoples of the Celts, who were very keen on horses, bridles, brooches poetic bards and barrows. They became what we usually call the Ancient Britons and were left pretty well alone until the time of Julius Caesar. There was a brief period when the Britons under Boudicca seemed to have the Romans seemed completely beaten, suffering huge losses at places as far apart as Colchester and Londinium. By 100 AD or 110AD however, the Romans had begun to spread their military control and their rule of law too. Then followed a very long period of Roman rule indeed. This rule basically was spread from Hadrian’s wall in the north to across all of Wales to the west. It was not until about 410 AD that for a complex set of reasons, Roman control was relinquished in Britain. A cool three centuries! After the collapse and withdrawal of he Romans, there was only a brief lull before a very dark storm indeed. Two Saxon brothers called Hengest and Horst came from over the channel to see a current chieftain Vortigen. Vortigen gave them permission to settle there and before long more Saxons arrived and a hundred years or so of bitter war, famine and disorganisation settled upon much of Britain. It was a true dark age! It is during this period, that some historical evidence leads us to look at an Arthur ‘warrior character’ who may or may not have been the major figure of the legend.

The Saxons, Angles and Jutes, managed to subdue the Britons left behind by the retreating Romans and another long period of up and down conditions resumed throughout the bulk of Britain with some notable Kings like Alfred the Great and Canute (Knut). I seem to remember that both these Kings were Danish and certainly there was a region known as Danelaw. Danelaw was the area which in the 11th and 12th centuries recognised as being eastern England between the Tees River in the north and the Thames in the north. This brings us to the next grouping, the Scandinavian Vikings or Wikings. These peoples had spread out of their northern European strongholds from the 9th to the 11th centuries to the North Sea islands, then parts of Scotland and Ireland and finally to England. They were simultaneously spreading in parts of the European mainland too. Another terrible period of complete and utter destruction followed and a period of relative peace reigned up until King Harold had to face the final wave of invasion, in the famous year, yes 1066.These were a Viking peoples, who had long settled in coastal France, to become called Normans. They had developed a complex set of class rules of Lords and vassals who were attached to their warlike Lords for life. They were to introduce this successful system after crossing the channel. The Normans won the famous battle at the seaside port area of Hastings and William took control of the land of the last line of English rulers.

Now I realise that we did not require all those cultural entrances and exits to grapple with Arthur, but my wife, whose grasp of certain parts of English history is profound also said, that she could not vouch for the comings and goings of British conquerors and so I figure it time well spent. We can slot back now to the interregnum after 410 AD and the leaving of the Roman legions and the subsequent arrival of the highly organised Saxon troops in England. What then does ‘The History of Britain’ say about Arthur? It states firstly that after Hengist the Saxon died, his son went from the northern part of Britain to Kent. There follow the fascinating detail:

Arthur was fighting against them in those days, with all the Kings of Britain. But he himself was the general of the wars
(Dux bellorum) and in all the wars he was the victor.
 
One of the manuscripts has a marginal notes stating that Arthur means ‘The Dreadful Bear’ or ‘The Iron Hammer’ It seems he seen as a professional and terrible soldier! There is a list of twelve battles listed in much detail. The final battle (the 12th) listed in this document, is the one most commented upon in history. It is the battle of Mount Badon. If you read Arthurian ‘real’ history you will keep coming upon this engagement. Here fell in one day the book says, 840 men in a charge lead by Arthur. It was in any case a great defeat for the Saxons. This of course is an illusory history of the war. The Saxons were to comprehensively subdue the Ancient Britons in time. Some writers have suggested that Arthur was successful because he was a horsed squadron and horses for the Saxons, may have been a little harder to come by than the natives. The Ancient Britons led by Arthur wore no chainmail, but leather battle jackets and once afoot usually fought in an advancing hedgehog fashion later perfect en masse, in the ‘Roman Tortoise’. I cannot be sure this Arthur was the one who became’ The Once and Future King’ at all. I require more evidence. Of course it would be natural for myth and legend to grow up around such a warrior such as the 5th century warrior called Arthur in this manuscript. That really is all that is said about ‘The Dreadful Bear in the tome and though there is again mention of Arthur characters in Welsh Poetry, there is in my opinion no further compelling evidence for Arthur than the Britonum records of this fierce warrior. It is bold enough, the Iron Hammer fifth century man, fighting what was ultimately a lost cause in the dark and troubled days of the collapse of Roman Britain. In closing, most readers will ask, but what about Camelot? This opens up a huge subject which I hope to examine at another time. I have been to, at least to three sites considered by some as Camelot sites. I still have not found Camelot. Well have you? Tennyson is probably the definitive Arthurian poet. Who can forget that other Arthurian figure, Rumpole of the Bailey quoting from Tennyson’s Ulysses? Here below, are the sparse lines, not from Ulysses, but ‘The Idylls of The King’, which flesh out just a little the title of this article. Perhaps you may think them peculiarly apt for the theme of the Arthur of British warrior-king fame, in embattled fifth century Britain. In my next sortie into Arthurian ‘history’, I will perhaps look at the speculations on the sites of this all too mortal city, this unknown searched for Camelot.

‘For why is there all around us here
As is some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would?
Lord Alfred Tennyson Idyll’s of the King. The Passing of Arthur.
 


 

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