Arthur – King of the Britons. The stuff of legend, or as a local historian Michael Thomson suggests, a Romano-British warrior whose stomping ground was Hadrian’s Wall?
THE prize was the rich, fertile land south of the old Roman Wall.
Foot soldiers, carrying square shields decorated with Celtic patterns, made their way slowly across the boggy ground, hidden by the blanket of morning mist. A band of skilled horsemen, armed with long spears, scouted ahead, catching occasional glimpses through the gloom of the Wall’s crumbling watchtowers.
Some believed the Wall was still haunted by the Romans – the enemies their ancestors had fought in the past – and in that cold, damp morning, it wasn’t difficult for even the most hardened warrior to let his imagination get the better of him.
But there waiting for these raiders was no ghost. Hidden in the mist was something far more terrifying – a huge figure clad in old Roman armour, the severed heads of his victims hanging down the sides of his horse.
As he charged with his war band into the flanks of the Pictish invaders, this ruthless killer brought a horror that was not spectral, but very real – death in its most brutal form. Death after fearsome hand to hand-to-hand combat with metal-edged weapons. A slaughter which turned the ground red.
But the bloodshed also brought peace and prosperity – many years of it – and although no-one knows the name of this vengeful warrior, history has given him one… Arthur.
A work of fiction best suited to a novel, or a regular occurrence along Hadrian’s Wall in the late 5th century?
Enter local historian Michael Thomson who believes the latter, reminding us before we go any further to forget everything we’ve heard about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. That was just a load of nonsense made up much later.
Arthur hailed from the land of Hadrian’s Wall, not Cornwall, or Wales, says Michael. It’s just that the stories about him were preserved in the West because these areas were never fully incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon lands, which eventually became England.
But come on. Let’s get real. Wasn’t Arthur just made up to embody the idea of a great leader fighting for good against evil? Not so says Michael, who argues that Arthur was a Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons sometime in the late 5th century – a campaign which culminated in his great victory at Mount Badon in 495. And before that, he was defending Britain in the North against the Scots, Irish and the Picts.
It was here, in modern day Northumberland and Cumbria where he cut his teeth – amongst other things – and that’s where the evidence points to as being his home. Talking of teeth, one of the possible names for Arthur was Owen Ddentwig which means bent tooth. Arthur sounds better though, because a possible translation is ‘bear king’ and there’s no doubt that he had a big bushy beard.
Michael describes this ancient British hero as “the real glamour guy of the period.” And the reason he’s been confined to the myths and legends section in the library, along with goblins and elves, is because he was written out of English history. There’s a straightforward reason for this. He’d given the Saxons a damn good thrashing and was therefore someone to be forgotten about when the English started writing their own version of events.
“He was a British war leader fighting against the Anglo-Saxon invasion,” said Michael. “He did really well, so when they eventually succeed, they write him out from the start. It is only when we get into the 1960s and the hippy boom that Arthur gets revisited and lifted out of the world of fairies and pixies.
“Around 495 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has an enormous gap. It’s a real stick your head in the sand moment for the English because they have really been whipped by the British. So Arthur has been doing his big career stuff in the 480s and 490s. Some of his stories are preserved in the West Country and Wales because the English did not properly conquer Devon and Cornwall – they just collected a few taxes.”
So what evidence is there that Arthur came from the area around Hadrian’s Wall and not, as every Cornishman knows, from Tintagel? “The majority of people living in North Wales who preserved the bits of the story came from around here,” explained Michael. “People literally marched from the area of the Tyne to North Wales to help the Welsh fight off the invading Irish tribes. This aggressive tribe, the Votadini, living North of the Tyne, got to Wales and settled and they became known as the Goddodin.
“Then, as the Anglo-Saxons swept across, these Arthur stories became something to cling on to. As a result, a lot of Arthur stories are preserved in North Welsh poetry. The same principle allows those stories to exist in South Wales, Devon and Cornwall. These become preserved islands of Arthurian mythology.
“So imagine an English historian writing about this period. These guys are still snobbish about Wales, the West Country and the North. Arthur has had an academic black mark against his name for a long time. Even when modern scholars start to write about him they get shot down in flames.”
There is some written evidence though, courtesy of the rantings of the British cleric Gildas, who was born about the time of the battle of Mount Badon. He describes how bad the various sub-kings of Britain were and although his writings are more of a diatribe than a historically accurate document, he does refer with grudging respect to one man who defeated the Saxons.
“Gildas wrote that he was born in the great battle that brought a generation of peace and since the great warrior has gone, everything will be overrun again,” said Michael. “It is confirming that there is this period of peace.”
Frustratingly, Gildas doesn’t name this leader. Probably because the person in question had, at an earlier date, killed the cleric’s brothers. “Gildas comes from the Clyde and although he is living around Gloucester, his family comes from the area of conflict that Arthur was part of,” said Michael. “So as a young man, Arthur has probably killed Gildas’s brothers.”
Arthur was born into a world after the Romans pulled out of Britain in 410. But, Michael argues that the influence of Roman occupation lasted much longer, with the Romano-British rulers creating their own ‘emperors’ and sending them with British armies to fight in what historians refer to as the Gallic Empire – an area which included modern-day France, Germany and Spain.
“Britain becomes this real hothouse of creating its own emperors,” said Michael. “Constantine is one of them and he is the big success. The Roman world does not snuff out in 410. Arthur has been brought up in the powerhouse that has fuelled the Gallic Empire for a century or more with its ups and downs.”
There are more references to Arthur in Welsh poems and some of the later Medieval stories which describe Arthur’s first great battles as being against the Picts, before he tackled the Anglo-Saxons.
“This part of the country was subject to continued waves of raids from the Picts, the Irish and from the people of the European seaboard who eventually get known as Anglo-Saxons, Jutes and Friesians,” said Michael. “By 365 you have a barbarian conspiracy – it’s literally synchronise watches and Britain is overrun. This includes the Irish. There are two tribes in Northern Ireland who are really important; the Attoci who invade North-West Scotland and their twin tribe, the Scotti – the Scots – who invade South-West Scotland. They find the Clyde is a really good place to settle and Dumbarton Rock becomes their capital city.
“So you have got all this pressure from all around. Meanwhile, the Romano-British create another emperor and send him off with a British army, leaving the way for another wave of invaders to come. What it means is the area around Hadrian’s Wall is the training ground for great warriors. They are born and brought up with it. Britain becomes like a game board where any player turns up with some pieces and dice. That is what Arthur puts a stop to.
“Arthur probably comes from a warrior aristocracy. First and foremost he is got to be able to kill, otherwise people will not have any respect for him. He has got to have a lot of severed heads tied to his horse. And he has to have a lot of charisma, because that is what a good war band leader needs.”
Arthur copied the successful military strategies of the Romans, said Michael, by building up a string of defences from Bamburgh to Carlisle, possibly re-using old Roman forts, like that at Trimontium near Melrose which would have been a northern outpost.
“My personal feeling is that he was born and brought up at Birdoswald or Carlisle,” he said. “He is remarkably successful because everything goes quiet for so long. It suggests there is a long period of peace and the archaeological record shows the same. He starts off fighting off the Picts, Irish and Scots and then gets promoted to ‘field marshal’ for the southern government and that gets him in contact with the Saxons which culminates with a huge victory at Mount Badon, which is probably in Somerset.”
Michael paints a picture of Arthur as the type of chap you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley, rather than some effete fellow posturing about in shining armour who lets his woman go off with someone called Lancelot. The real Arthur would probably have chopped Guinevere’s head off in Henry VIIIth style.
“Evidence shows they were tall so this guy is probably big, tall and musclely,” said Michael. “He’s a warrior brought up from the age of five running around with a wooden sword hitting things. He’s going to be big and so will his mates. Scrap the knights in shining armour – that’s 14th century. He’s more Hell’s Angels with some Roman bits thrown in.”
He’s going to be big and so will his mates. Scrap the knights in shining armour – that’s 14th century. He’s more Hell’s Angels with some Roman bits thrown in.
But what about Merlin? Was there really a wizard strutting around Hadrian’s Wall firing lightning bolts at anyone who threatened Albion’s green and pleasant lands? “The thing that confuses things for academics is that Arthur hangs around with a magician,” said Michael. “But if you had a time machine and went back to a court back then, they all had what they called magicians. They are, in fact, the advisers, people who can read, write, do maths and have a lot of experience. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had magicians in their courts. It’s only relatively recently that we get rid of them.”
So there was no magic, just people who’d gone to school and learnt the three Rs. Meanwhile, we’ve got the 12th century writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth to blame for stories of Camelot and Excalibur and other myths about Arthur. Like all good writers, Geoffrey never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
“His style is a schoolboy with attention deficit disorder,” explained Michael. “He starts something, but does not finish or he misinterprets things completely. He comes up with the first instance of the word Camelot and names Arthur’s weapons. His sword is called Caliburn which later becomes Excalibur.”
Camelot, says Michael, might refer to several places Arthur based himself, rather than one location. The granaries at the Roman fort at Birdoswald were later turned into one of the first Romano-British halls in the country – Camelot Mark I as Michael calls it – built before Arthur was born. Cadbury Castle (an Iron Age hillfort in Somerset) could have been a southern base – Camelot Mark III perhaps.
So what happened to Arthur after his great victory at Mount Badon? Michael has a theory based on a fragment of an ancient Welsh poem. Arthur was never called a king, but was given the title Dux Bellorum which means duke of battles, but the poem refers to him as ‘emperor’.
“Imagine that you’ve just beaten the biggest Saxon army anyone has ever seen and you’re marching back with your victorious army along the Ridgeway with the peasants all cheering you,” said Michael. “Regardless of what he wants, he has held together a multi-national army with different rituals and superstitions for a decade or more. He has become a one of the best diplomats you will ever find. So once Badon was won, the myth has taken control and an accidental coup occurs – he is elected emperor.”
Of course the tribal leaders who employed him in the first place to beat off the Saxons, wouldn’t have been too pleased with this and Arthur would have built up many resentful enemies.
“You see this pattern happen throughout history, like Julius Caesar,” said Michael. “He has a decade as emperor where he is at the mercy of being his own legend. There are no more large scale raids, but there’s plenty of bickering among the British leaders. But for most people, they can get on with tending their crops and raising their families.”
Perhaps Arthur had his throat cut one night by a jealous rival, but the story goes that he lost his life at the Battle of Camlan, fighting fellow Britons who had turned against him. He died in the same way as he lived… by the sword.
We may not have heard the last of him though, because legend says Arthur and his men are sleeping in the vaults beneath Sewingshields Castle, which once stood a stone’s throw from Hadrian’s Wall. Beside him lie a horn, a sheathed sword and a garter. When the country needs his help again, he must be woken, by drawing the sword, cutting the garter and blowing the horn.
The story goes that in the 19th century, a local farmer was sitting amongst the castle ruins knitting, when he dropped his ball of wool. Searching for it amidst the weeds and nettles that covered the overgrown ruin, he stumbled upon a secret passage, infested with bats, lizards and toads.
At the end of the passage, you know who was waiting with his knights and hounds and the farmer removed the sword from its scabbard and cut the garter. But when he saw Arthur open his eyes, he lost his nerve and fled.
The king managed to stay awake long enough to say:
“O, woe betide that evil day
On which this witless wight was born,
Who drew the sword the garter cut
But never blew the bugle horn.”
The story has a ring of Geoffrey of Monmouth about it, but you never know…