[I was commissioned to write an article for BBC HISTORY in connection with the new Guy Ritchie King Arthur film. This is what I gave them. I was quite pleased with it but they didn't 'think it was right' so there you go. Another attempt to get past the gate-keepers of public history thwarted... I post it here instead and hope it entertains at least.]
As an academic historian of the early middle ages, obviously, a great deal of my time is spent concealing the truth about the real King Arthur. Or so I am led to believe by the many books that claim to have unearthed the ‘secrets’ of the legendary ruler. The real Arthur has, in the last year or two alone, been discovered to have lived in two different areas of Scotland, and in the Yorkshire Pennines, Shropshire and Wales, as well as – most fascinatingly of all – being revealed to have been Jesus (albeit not the Biblical Jesus, but the real Jesus, who was a King of Edessa – confused yet?). Even this is to ignore the sadly as-yet unpublished discoveries, vouchsafed to me in an anonymous letter a couple of years ago, that there had really been three king Arthurs, one of whom was killed in Kentucky. When I wrote Worlds of Arthur I rashly described the argument that you could plot the movements of the historical Arthur from the distribution of pubs called The Black Horsemen as ‘the craziest’ Arthurian theory but it’s now clear that its originator was a mere tiro in the world of pseudo-historical lunacy.
‘Post-truth’ ‘alternative facts’ and a disregard for wicked so-called ‘experts’ are nothing new to academic historians. While Holocaust-deniers are the most serious, dangerous and downright wicked practitioners of the fake history genre, the mental gymnastics involved in their fabrication of alternative histories and the scale of the requisite truth-concealing conspiracy are as nothing compared to those of the people who want to claim that the entire second half of the first millennium was fabricated by the Emperor Otto III [the fact that it was Otto the Third always seemed to me to be a bit of a fly in the ointment for this theory]or that neither the Romans nor Charlemagne ever crossed the Rhine, or that Jesus grew up in Somerset … or even of those who wish to argue that King Arthur lived in Edinburgh and knew Beowulf (I am not making any of this up by the way, I promise you). Sadly, closer inspection sometimes also reveals the proponents of these pseudo-histories not to be harmless cranks but people with unpleasant nationalist and even islamophobic agendas.
Fortunately for me, the effort required to cover up the truth about Arthur is minimal. There is no truth about Arthur that anyone can reveal. That is not – let’s be clear – to say that there never was a real Arthur: simply that it’s impossible to know. The flaws of the surviving evidence are certainly insufficient to prove that there was no historical Arthur, that there was no ‘fire’ behind the ‘smoke’ of legend, but nor are our sources good enough to prove that a real Arthur existed either and therefore – logically – they can tell us nothing about that figure if he did exist. There might have been a prototype for the legendary Arthur; or there might not. And that is that. Anyone who claims to have proven the case either way, let alone who claims to have proved that Arthur lived in such and such-a-place at such-and-such a time and that his battles occurred at specific places, is trying in effect to pull the wool over your eyes, even if they have managed to convince themselves. The fact that the wildly different theories above (even the Arthur-Jesus one, though probably not the Kentucky Arthur thesis) all base their arguments upon exactly the same ‘evidence’ proves my point.
Only three sources from before (or in one case probably before) 1000 mention Arthur. They are the History of the Britons attributed in some manuscripts to one Nennius (composed in 829-30), the Welsh Annals of the late tenth century and the epic poem Y Gododdin written down some time before the twelfth century, although quite when is debatable; it could have been as early as the seventh century or it could have been much later though on balance probably still before 1000. That’s it. Three sources. Not only that, but it must be remembered that the so-called Dark Ages, while certainly very dark in Britain between c.400 and c.600 in terms of written accounts, are nowhere as dark as people might think. We have one vaguely historical account of this era, the On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by Gildas. Gildas is unfortunately undatable and unlocatable with any precision and his work was a sermon largely addressed to the British clergy. He did include an allusive account of recent history but it is very vague and highly stylised. Arthur makes no appearance there, but that is not decisive (for one thing, Gildas might have been writing before Arthur lived). There are, however, many, many other sources that originate in Britain between c.600 and 1066. Other than the three mentioned earlier, none of them has anything to say about Arthur, whether as a historical or a legendary figure. Furthermore, some of them, such as the tenth-century Welsh poem Armes Prydein (The Great Prophecy of Britain) are precisely the places where you might expect to find a reference to Arthur. Armes Prydein is all about the Welsh and their friends uniting to push the English back into the sea whence they came. Given how Arthur is deployed as the pan-Welsh anti-English ‘leader of battles’ in the History of the Britons, you’d think that this poem’s argument made it the ideal place for him to feature but he is entirely absent.
The silence about Arthur is deafening. Not only that; these documents contain the names of hundreds of people who lived in Britain between 600 and the eleventh century. After three Arthurs who occur in Welsh king-lists and who all seem to have lived around 600, not one of these people is called Arthur. All this suggests strongly, and I would say conclusively, that if there was a historical Arthur figure, or even if there was an Arthurian legend, he (or it) was hardly known in Britain before 1000. The people who knew about it were limited to Wales and possibly to a smallish circle even there. After all, the Welsh author of Armes Prydein seems not to have heard of him or, if he had, didn’t think he was worth using as an example or rallying cry.
The problem with the sources for British history between 410 and 597 – those that mention Arthur and those that don’t (Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, etc.) – is not that almost all were written centuries later. Writers wanting to believe their account have attempted to circumvent that problem by adducing ‘oral tradition’ or ‘lost sources’. Superficially these look like fair points. Certainly, there are many accounts of historical events which seem to be trustworthy despite their late date, because of these kinds of factor (most of the surviving accounts of Alexander the Great, for xample). Sadly for the romantics, the argument doesn’t work for early medieval Britain. It’s clear, for example, that Bede knew as little about this period as we do. Apart from where he obtained the names of some of his protagonists, such as Hengest, Horsa and Vortigern (which, let it be noted, he simply adds into the story he drew from Gildas), all the sources for his narrative are known; they still exist. Consequently, we can also unravel what he has done to their accounts, and why. We can suggest that, like Bede, sources like the History of the Britons drew upon stories, legends and traditions – oral and written – but it is impossible to know when they originated during the centuries between the late fifth century and the time of composition (some might indeed pre-date the ‘Arthurian’ period), or how reliable they are. Given that they seem pretty wild, legendary and – where they can be checked – usually erroneous, it is quite a reach to argue that they must be accurate contemporary records. It is impossible to identify any passages from lost sources that have been simply incorporated into, or fossilised within, later accounts. Put another way, if such accounts have been used, the author of the surviving work has woven them seamlessly into his account. It's therefore impossible to know what he may have done to them in the process.
This is clear with the most famous candidate for being a ‘fossilised’ ‘lost source’: The History of the Britons’ list of Arthur’s battles, once thought to represent an earlier heroic poem. Close study shows how the History’s author, whether Nennius or not, constructed the passage – in Latin – in an elaborate way and how it and (crucially) the surrounding passages about the origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms function as a hinge between his account of the south and his history of events in the north of Britain. The ‘battle-list’s’ references to icons and the cult of the Virgin Mary also make far more sense in an early ninth-century context than a sixth-century one. Wherever the author got his information from, the story of Arthur's battles that he gives us is his Latin composition of 829-30, and not a fossilised fragment of a sixth-century Welsh heroic poem. Arthur, it is also worth saying, was a legendary figure even by the date of this, his first definitely-datable appearance; the author of the History mentioned him twice in his list of ‘the wonders of Britain’.
That raises a crucial point. These authors did not write simply to preserve a value-neutral record. They had specific agendas. Gildas, our only contemporary author, was composing a sermon, as we have seen. Bede, writing in the 730s, painted a picture for contemporary kings and churchmen of an ideal past wherein his people, the English, seized the green and pleasant land of Britain from the sinful Britons, punished by God for their wicked backsliding. For him, if the English of his own day did not mend their own ways, they too would be punished similarly (when the Vikings turned up sixty years later his status as a prophet was only enhanced). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle constructed a demonstrably artificial account of the fifth and sixth centuries (and, in part at least, of the seventh, eighth and early ninth centuries too) to justify the dominance of Wessex and specifically of the House of King Alfred. The West Saxons’ conquest of the land from pre-existing British kings and their followers (most of whom were simple inventions) justified this; disputed portions of this land could not possibly, therefore, have ever belonged to the rival Mercian kingdom (although – clearly – they had). As the Chronicle continued into the age of Æthelstan and his successors, the West Saxon conquest of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and the establishment of a kingdom of All England with dominance over neighbouring Welsh and Scots, this narrative of the conquest of Britain became more pronounced: see, for example, the heroic Song of Brunanburh incorporated into most manuscripts of the Chronicle under 937.
That narrative mattered, albeit for opposite reasons, to the Welsh. The History of the Britons was written at a time of English (West Saxon and Mercian) military aggression into the Welsh kingdoms. Its argument was that exactly 400 years had passed between the crucifixion of Christ and the arrival of the Saxons, and exactly 400 years had now passed between the arrival of the Saxons and the present. Now was the time for the king of Gwynedd, Merfyn ‘the Freckled’, to lead his fellow kings to drive out the English, fighting like ‘Arthur the soldier’. And if Merfyn’s royal credentials were less than ideal (and they were), not to worry; so were Arthur’s. The next appearance of Arthur in Welsh historical sources underlines the point. The Welsh Annals were written at the time of the English kingdom’s apogee, with its tribute-taking from Welsh rulers and imposition upon them of humiliating rituals of submission. It was written at about the same time as Armes Prydein with its furious resentment of English arrogance – and as The Song of Brunanburh, which celebrated it.
Our historical narratives, then, make use of a shared, politically usable vision of the fifth- and sixth-century past, where one ‘people’ (the Anglo-Saxons/English) gradually conquered the land from another (the British/Welsh). This circumvents none of the problems of knowing whether Arthur existed but it just might provide a clue as to why, if he did exist, he seems to have been so thoroughly and – let’s repeat – irretrievably forgotten.
The idea that the fifth century saw the conquest of land from Romans by the invading barbarian tribes from whom later rulers claimed descent was common by the early eighth century when Bede, our earliest historian, wrote. Four years before Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History, an anonymous writer in the north of France composed the Book of the History of the Franks. He saw the establishment of Frankish rule in Gaul in similar terms to Bede’s image of the English take-over of lowland Britain: a steady conquest of land and the displacement of its inhabitants. This was, as in Britain, a ‘usable past’. Yet, because we have many contemporary sources for the fifth- and sixth-century history of mainland Europe, we know this image was wide of the mark. Far from the common image of barbarian invasion, the history of the last seventy years of the western Roman Empire was one of faction-fighting and civil war. Actual barbarian invasions were not especially common and rarely successful. Most wars were between regionally-based alliances of provincial Romans (especially aristocrats) and soldiers of barbarian descent (or who adopted their identity). All this faction-fighting was indecisive but it tore the western Empire apart until the different regional factions settled down into the various kingdoms more or less recognisable in medieval history.
‘Roman’ generals led ‘barbarian’ armies and vice versa and some of them very nearly disappeared from history altogether. In the late 470s or 480s a Roman general, Syagrius, competed with Clovis the Frank for the control of the Paris basin (an area the size of much of southern England) and its largely-Frankish army. Syagrius’ father, Aegidius, had, for eight years, apparently even called himself King of the Franks. Yet Syagrius would be unknown to anyone had Gregory of Tours, writing in the late 570s, not encountered him in a miracle story, probably in a now-lost life of Saint Remigius of Reims. It is clear from the origin-stories of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that there were, similarly, Romano-British elements in their early histories. A historical Arthur could – like Aegidius – have been a ‘Roman’ leader in command of a ‘barbarian’ army, or – like Syagrius – have competed for control of a realm that later became ‘barbarian’. He could have been part of a confusing whirl of factional politics, such as may be glimpsed in Gildas’ account (if we stop viewing that through the prism of Bede’s later reworking), fighting other Romans and other barbarians. Especially if such a figure, like Syagrius, left no dynasty, he would similarly serve little purpose in the histories needed by eighth-century kings. In that context, our (possible) Arthur was left with nowhere to go except legend and it is probably only by chance that a couple of fragments of his legend survived to be blown up, after the Norman Conquest, into the wonderful tales of the Once and Future King.