King Arthur

King Arthur

by Nick Higham


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King Arthur by Nick Higham

Why is King Arthur a giant? Because his story has had such strong influences on our understanding of the history of Europe and the English-speaking world. Because the debate about Arthur as a historical figure has been central to understanding the fall of Roman Britain and the formation of England for much of the last 1,300 years. Because Arthur is one of the best-known kings in world history, whose reign was viewed as a golden age, an epoch in which to centre tales of right and wrong, of faith and faithlessness, and of courage and falseness, the moral and spiritual values of which continue to resonate today not least among those who dismiss Arthur as a late literary construct. Because an understanding of Arthur and all the different things he has meant to scores of generations up to the present is fundamental to our understanding of our own past, our understanding of ourselves and the ways in which we can benefit from history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750959216
Publisher: History Press Limited, The
Publication date: 07/01/2016
Series: pocket GIANTS Series
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

NICK HIGHAM is Emeritus Professor and F.S.A., a specialist in the history, archaeology and landscape history of Britain in the early Middle Ages. He grew up in Kent, studied at Manchester where he then worked until retiring in 2011, and now lives in Cheshire where he continues to work on a variety of projects related to history and archaeology. He has studied, lectured and taught about King Arthur since the 1970s. Recent writings include King Arthur: Myth-making and History (Routledge, 2002), The Anglo-Saxon World (with Martin Ryan, Yale U. P., 2013).

Read an Excerpt

King Arthur: Pocket Giants

By Nick Higham

The History Press

Copyright © 2015 Nick Higham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6352-7


The Greatness of Arthur

'Camelot–Camelot,' said I to myself. 'I don't seem to remember hearing of it before. Name of the asylum, likely'.

Mark Twain, 1889

A recently published ranking of the most significant people in history gives the top three spots to Jesus, Napoleon and Muhammad. Checking these against web hits early in 2014 produced 48 million for Christ, 44 million for Muhammad but only 6 million for Napoleon. Popularity in these terms can indicate many different things, of course, but type in 'King Arthur' and over 45 million internet sites are listed. Clearly, few figures from the past excite more interest. And this is not unique to the online world, for the number of books in which Arthur's name appears in the title is similarly exceptional. Also, unlike such notables as Adolf Hitler (number seven in the above rankings), Arthur is generally remembered positively, as a good ruler who led his people wisely and presided over a golden age. As 'the once and future king' who will come again to rescue his people, Arthur even parallels Jesus as a saviour; many 'Arthurian' tales contain a spiritual and pastoral message. He is often portrayed as protective of the weak and hard on wrongdoers. Tales of Arthur are both edifying and uplifting. They form part of the universal struggle between 'good' and 'evil'.

But who we think Arthur was, and what he represents, has shifted repeatedly across the centuries, moving backwards and forwards between myth, legend and history. Throughout the Middle Ages he was a subject for ecclesiastical authors as much as courtly writers, folk tales alongside popular romances. His story wove together old themes with new exploits and comrades, as different writers told his tale for different reasons to different audiences. In this sense there are a multitude of Arthurs, coalescing and dividing repeatedly over time.

How old is Arthur's story? Some locate its origins in Ancient Greece or the Near East. Others look to the Roman Empire as its epicentre, even from as far away as the Black Sea. In the Christian era, however, he is generally located primarily in Britain and most people today think of Arthur as rooted in British (i.e. Welsh, Cornish and Breton) folklore and storytelling. The victorious and ostentatiously Christian warrior fighting against pagan barbarian invaders first emerges in the History of the Britons, written in Wales in the early ninth century. It is here that the Arthur of the medieval storytellers was born – though he was not yet a king, simply a great warrior. Kingship was conferred in Welsh literature dating possibly from the tenth century and more certainly from the eleventh and twelfth, though it is difficult to tell how long oral stories featuring Arthur as a king had been circulating by this point.

This Celtic Arthur had no appeal for Anglo-Saxon authors, representing as he did their opponents for the control of Britain. The Norman Conquest, however, brought about a dramatic shake- up of cultural values, downgrading the 'Saxons' or English, who had previously dominated the story of Britain, in favour of their earlier opponents. There are signs of a new interest in Arthur soon after: he appears, for example, looking very like a mounted Norman knight of the day, on vaulting in the cathedral in Modena (north Italy) built between about 1090 and 1120, with the inscription Artus de Bretani above. But Arthur's fame was really kick-started in the mid-1130s by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote a very different history to the one enshrined, for example, in Bede's works or in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Geoffrey developed an idea first found in the History of the Britons that the Britons were descendants of the Trojans, and he contrived a pseudo-history centred on their activities in Britain. He followed their fortunes there for a millennium or more. King Arthur was central to Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain, a great overlord, the conqueror of other kings and their peoples in the British Isles and across much of the Western world.

Geoffrey's work was very poor history, but it was a huge bestseller by the standards of the day. Arthur's story mushroomed across Europe as a result, reaching even as far afield as the Holy Land. A mass of literature developed, particularly in France and Germany, spreading outwards into virtually every European language. Glastonbury Abbey quickly claimed his grave; Richard the Lionheart gave what was supposedly Arthur's sword to one of his German allies on crusade in the 1190s.

As a late twelfth-century French writer put it, at about the time when the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem was coming to an end and when refugees from the Frankish East were to be found everywhere in Europe: 'Whither has not flying fame spread and familiarised the name of Arthur the Briton, even as far as the empire of Christendom extends? Who, I say, does not speak of Arthur the Briton, since he is almost better known to the peoples of Asia than to the Britons?'

In stories centred on the Holy Grail, Arthur's knights were drawn into a quest for the cup from the Last Supper, supposedly used to catch the last drops of blood from Christ's wounds on the cross. Like the 'True Cross', the Grail was a holy relic made miraculous by physical contact with Christ and imbued with meaning and power. Such connections wove a heady mix of religious mysticism into Arthurian tales. Meanwhile tales of Arthur's court were used for the development of ideals about chivalry, warfare and Christian high kingship. Arthur may have belonged in the distant past, but it was a past to which medieval leaders were expected to pay attention. Many were enthusiasts for Arthurian literature, pageantry and song, tournaments and jousts. Ideas about womanhood, nobility and the conduct of warfare shaped Arthurian tales, which were constantly recycled, refashioned and renewed.

Arthur's fame was magnetic and politically valuable. Yorkist and Tudor kings alike claimed him as an ancestor, Henry VII named his eldest son Arthur, and the legendary king's story was reworked by Edmund Spenser for the court of Elizabeth I. Appeals to Arthur's memory added strength to an otherwise weak Tudor claim to the crown, at the same time affirming relations between God and man, king and commoner, the ideal and the everyday. Even when sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sceptics dismissed him from history, legends of an Arthurian golden age were of such potency and cultural value that they retained both popularity and credibility among a wider public. There was a decline in interest during the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but Arthur's popularity revived in the nineteenth. Most Victorian historians expressed themselves highly dubious of an Arthur of history, but the Poet Laureate, Lord Tennyson, adapted Arthur for a new age, and the Pre-Raphaelites painted vast canvases featuring scenes drawn from these same stories. Arthurian values were central to notions of gentlemanly behaviour in Britain from the late eighteenth century through to the 1914–18 war, and a vehicle through which to promote standards of behaviour commensurate with rule of a world empire.

Academic interest in Arthur was rekindled from the 1920s onwards. Two great wars with Germany undermined Victorian and Edwardian enthusiasm for an Anglo-Saxon past, and the ensuing loss of empire likewise encouraged Britons to re-examine their history and to question many of its central themes. There began a popular shift away from an 'English' historical narrative towards a more insular, or 'British', one in which Arthur played a larger role. The years after 1945 witnessed an exuberant upsurge in interest. Excavation of South Cadbury hill fort in Somerset, known locally since the sixteenth century as Camelot, began in the late 1960s, providing dramatic new evidence of a defended settlement of early post-Roman date. Numerous Arthur-related histories began to appear, beginning with works by two leading scholars, the archaeologist Leslie Alcock, who had led the dig at South Cadbury, and the Roman historian John Morris. Both rewrote the history of Dark Age Britain, centring it on Celtic or sub-Roman 'British' culture as opposed to that of the 'Germanic' Anglo-Saxons. At the core of each account was a great king who held together the old Roman rule for a generation and threw back the invading Saxons by force of arms. Arthur returned to our histories in a blaze of glory, which has never since quite died away.

Across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Arthur has also featured widely in novels, musicals and plays, on television and in film. When the Monty Python team turned their attention to movie-making, they started with Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), since adapted as the comedy musical Spamalot, which opened on Broadway in 2005. There have been over fifty feature films based on Arthurian stories since the first in 1904. Every schoolchild knows his name, and most could add other details: Arthur ruled at Camelot, for example; his wife was Guinevere; his sword was Excalibur; he drew the sword from the stone and led the knights of the Round Table. Even the names of some of his knights – Galahad, Gawain, Lancelot, Kay – are widely remembered. Arthurian terms have entered our everyday vocabulary: today we still pursue the 'Holy Grail', and hold 'round table' discussions.

Once you start looking, Arthur is everywhere. In the UK, Camelot runs the National Lottery. In the US the same name is associated with the Kennedy White House – based on the President's penchant for the musical Camelot, first performed in 1960 then made into a film in 1964, shortly after his assassination in November 1963. The Queen's robing room at the Houses of Parliament was decorated with Arthurian carvings by William Dyce in Victoria's reign. Seventy-four locomotives of the so-called 'King Arthur class' were built in the UK between 1919 and 1926. Today the steam locomotives King Arthur, Merlin, Excalibur and Pendragon power the narrow-gauge Rudyard Lake Steam Railway in Staffordshire; Mordred is the petrol loco. King Arthur Flour is a US company established in 1790 and still flourishing; Excalibur is a simulation games publisher. Arthur even gives his name to part of a mathematical theorem: Talbot's Theorem of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

King Arthur's giant presence in our culture is assured. There is, however, something distinctive and different about him. For, while we are in a position to offer a life story, with dates, for almost all the other figures featured in the Pocket GIANTS series, and to discuss their impact on their world, we can have no confidence in any particular outline of Arthur's life, his family connections or his deeds. We do not know precisely where he lived or when. Indeed, there is doubt as to whether or not a real 'King Arthur' lived at all. There may have been numerous different Arthurs whose stories have been woven together. Or perhaps the whole 'King Arthur' phenomenon is no more than storytelling, allowing the generation and regeneration of tales by a succession of commentators, each developing, reinforcing but changing a common legend. There is a danger that we are writing about a character who is essentially fictional.

Such doubts about the very existence of King Arthur make this short book very different to one on, say, Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar. Instead of telling his life story and analysing his place in history, we must explore where, when and why various different King Arthurs emerged. The focus of this book is therefore not only on a single individual, but also on the various authors who wrote about him. It explores the purposes he served in their reimaginings of the past, and the values enshrined in the stories which repeatedly drew writers and audiences back to him.

There are many books about the 'historical' Arthur. Most have serious weaknesses. Their authors use evidence which is at best ambiguous, at worst ineligible. They often write without the skills of the historian, the linguist and the archaeologist which are necessary for a balanced interpretation. They pile hypothesis upon hypothesis to build a veritable house of cards. There seems to be a virtually insatiable readership for such material (which is a significant phenomenon in itself). But in a pocket-sized book like this, there is no space to examine these accounts individually, and collectively they are best set aside as unhelpful or, at least, unhistorical.

This still leaves us with our central questions. Who was King Arthur? Can we establish enough about him to consider him historical? Or should we think of him as a character of myth or legend? I propose to follow the trail chronologically, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of several very different theories. We will begin our journey in antiquity and end in the present. Along the way I hope what we do and do not know about Arthur becomes clearer.


Arthur in Antiquity

The themes in question originated in an area remote from the Mediterranean and arrived in northern Britain almost three centuries before the legendary Arthur rode over the British countryside with his knights. These legends were then imprinted by specific historical events that occurred in Late Antiquity, the major participants in which were the dramatically displaced tribes of Sarmatians and Alans who found themselves settled in Britain and Gaul.

C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, 200011

The quest for King Arthur extends far beyond the shores of Britain and goes back long before the Dark Ages. It begins with his name. In the 1920s, the American scholar Kemp Malone suggested a link with inscriptions found in Roman Dalmatia (now Croatia) which summarise the career of a certain Lucius Artorius Castus. The anthropologist C. Scott Littleton and, more recently, Linda Malcor have taken Kemp's suggestion much further. They highlight similarities between Arthurian stories and folk tales from the region of Ossetia in the mountains of the Caucasus, arguing that these tales were originally brought to the West in the Roman period by Sarmatian and Alan cavalry, ancestors of the modern Ossetians. If this 'Dalmatian' Artorius led Sarmatians to victory in Britain, as Littleton and Malcor suggest, could it be that Arthur was originally Roman and the Knights of the Round Table Sarmatians?

Before we turn our attention to Artorius, though, there is an even earlier possibility to explore: that Arthur originated in Ancient Greece. Here our starting point is a bright star by the name of Arcturus in the constellation of Boötes. In Greek Arcturus means 'Bear-ward', reflecting the star's proximity to Ursa Major and Minor (the Great Bear and Little Bear). Greek mythology offers several figures with 'Arthur' type names, the most prominent being Arkas, legendary king of the Arcadians.

Professor Graham Anderson, a specialist in ancient kingship legends, has highlighted parallels between Greek and later Arthurian stories. For example, one tale concerning Arkas mentions the foundation of the city of Trapezous – the name means 'table', which, he suggests, echoes Arthur's Round Table. Another portrays the star Arcturus as a cart-driver carrying a club – a kalaurops or kalabrops. Could this, he wonders, be the distant origin of Arthur's sword, Excalibur?

These are seductive possibilities but the evidence, on close inspection, is fragile. In Greek, the city-name Trapezous ends in '-zeus', the name of the god who was Arkas's reputed father. That accounts for its inclusion in this story. A city supposedly named for a dining table which was overturned by an irate Zeus has no particular connection with Arthur's Round Table, either in form or function. Excalibur derives originally from the Old Welsh Caledfwlch, meaning something like 'harsh-gap', which was then Latinised as Caliburnus, and later adapted into French as Excalibur. There is no reason to think that the Greek kalaurops/kalabrops in a much earlier text is likely to have influenced this.

Ancient Greek arktos and Welsh arth both mean 'bear', but this is not so surprising. These are Indo-European languages with many such parallels. Greek was never widely used in Roman Britain and virtually unknown in the post-Roman period among the Britons. While scenes from Greek mythology are not uncommon on villa mosaics in Roman Britain, they probably derive for the most part from standardised pattern books, so are not good evidence for a deep understanding of the subject. There is no evidence that early Greek texts circulated widely in Britain, where even the Greek alphabet was rarely used (generally on imported artefacts) and known only to a few during the Roman period. The Greek connection should be set aside, therefore, as improbable at best and certainly unproven.

Let us therefore turn to the Lucius Artorius Castus commemorated by inscriptions found at Podstrana in Croatia. In the late second century, he served as governor of the province of Liburnia, where he was eventually buried. He had a successful military career, serving as a centurion in Syria, Judea, modern Hungary and Dacia, and then as provost of the Imperial Roman fleet stationed in what is now the Bay of Naples. Thereafter he was prefect of the Sixth Legion, at York, but it is his final military command that has been central to attempts to identify him as the original 'Arthur of Britain'. Unfortunately, the main inscription has split in two and some of the letters have been lost. The critical section reads:




Excerpted from King Arthur: Pocket Giants by Nick Higham. Copyright © 2015 Nick Higham. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 6

1 The Greatness of Arthur 7

2 Arthur in Antiquity 17

3 The Fall of Roman Britain 27

4 Migration and Settlement 37

5 The Earliest Arthurs 47

6 The History of the Britons 59

7 The Welsh Annals 69

8 Geoffrey of Monmouth 77

9 Medieval Arthurs 85

10 The Fall and Rise of Arthur 95

11 Arthur Today-and Tomorrow 113

Notes 121

Further Reading 126

Web Links 127

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