The Age of Arthur


When we come down to the Dark Ages, we enter the Age of Arthur.

But surely, you will say, you don’t mean King Arthur of the Round table, and all that jazz? Well, yes and no, or rather no and yes.  For the Arthurian legends reflect quite remarkably the spirit and ethos of barbarism.

The Arthurian legends really began in the Middle Ages in the 12th century when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a History of the Kings of Britain that is mostly fiction in which he invented or adapted the story of King Arthur.  Although a number of his contemporaries immediately rejected it as history, nevertheless it was hugely successful, and throughout much of the Middle Ages it was taken as history. But it was Geoffrey who really put Arthur on the map as a great hero, who fought off the Saxons.

However the Arthurian legends really took off with the French poet Chrétien de Troyes  who added the love interest of  Guinevere and Lancelot  together with the Holy Grail. King Arthur finally reached his peak in the Morte d’Arthur written by Thomas Malory in the 15th century, which was one of the first books to be printed by Caxton and thus became immensely influential.  Geoffrey’s account was largely taken as history throughout much of the Middle Ages (Shakespeare’s kings Lear and Cymbeline both come from Geoffrey) and it was not until the 15th century that it was effectively debunked by Polydor Virgil .

John_William_Waterhouse_The_Lady_of_Shalott wiki

Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, as visualized by John William Waterhouse. Her tapestry is hanging over the side of the boat.

But it was taken up by Tennyson who added the Lady of Shalott in 1832 and whose Idylls of the King in 1859 sold 10,000 copies in the first week of publication. And then Mark Twain, and Hollywood, and Camelot took over…

But if King Arthur of the legend is essentially an invention of the twelfth century, is there any reality in the earlier Arthur as indeed Geoffrey of Monmouth claims?  The history of Britain in the sixth century as put together with the archaeology does just provide a suitable slot.

In the fifth century, the Germanic tribes invaded.  Often indeed they were invited in as mercenaries but soon they took opver and dominated the natives. The whole of eastern England from Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, East Anglia and down into Kent is covered by Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and settlements.  The expansion continued up to around AD 500, but then there is a pause.  Gildas hints that this is due to the successful siege of Mount Badon which is often thought to be in Wiltshire, where the long winding earthwork known as the Wansdyke is often thought to be an abandoned defensive work of this period.  The date of Mount Badon is usually considered to be around AD 500.  Gildas in his infuriating way dates it precisely as being forty-four years after the arrival of the Saxons, which was also the year of his own birth, which is a pretty useless form of dating.  For two generations, fifty or sixty years, the Saxon advance was held, but then the Saxons broke out, and according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 577 the three cities of Cirencester, Gloucester and Bath fell to the Saxons led by Ceawlin, who was the great leader who formed the kingdom of Wessex.  But who won the battle – Gildas calls it “the siege” of Mons Badonicus?

Gildas does not mention any names.  The only name he does mention is Ambrosius Aurelianus, whose parents he said “wore the purple” which presumably means they were Roman governors.  But he implies –  though as usual he is not specific – that he won an important though not decisive victory, a generation before Mount Badon.  Bede also mentions Mount Badon without mentioning any names, presumably because he is following Gildas.

The first mention of Arthur in connection with Mount Badon comes in the History of Britain composed in the ninth century, traditionally by a monk called Nennius, though the identification is now generally disbelieved.  But the link between Arthur and Mount Badon is repeated in the Annales Cambriae, or the Annals of Wales that is usually assigned to the tenth century and is equally unreliable, but equally fascinating.  It is tempting therefore, perhaps one should say convenient, to attach the name of Arthur to the victor of the Battle of Mount Badon and to assign Mount Badon to the cause of the delay in the Saxon conquest of Wessex until the middle of the sixth century.

But what if anything can we learn from Gildas as to whether Britain, by my terminology, was barbarian or civilised? The first point to make is that western Britain was certainly Christian by this time.  It is generally assumed that by AD 400, although the Roman Empire was formally Christian, in a far off province such as Britannia, Christianity would only have been a thin layer at the very top.  But by AD 500 it is clear that Britain was basically Christian.  Gildas refers in one place to ‘the diabolical idols which we still see mouldering away within or without deserted temples’, but there is no reference to any active opposition from the pagans.

Indeed Britain had its own heretic called Pelagius who was sceptical of predestination and believed in free will, on which point he was very British, and he was slapped down by Saint Augustine who pointed out that we are all miserable sinners, and can therefore only be saved by the grace of God.

Britain however was clearly ruled by kings and alongside the kings were “judges”.  The most famous passage of Gildas comes at the beginning of the third part of his diatribe, known as The Epistle he begins in fine form:

Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones; generally engaged in plunder and rapine, but always preying on the innocent; whenever they exert themselves to avenge or protect, it is sure to be in favour of robbers and criminals; they have an abundance of wives, yet they are addicted to fornication and adultery…

Gildas goes on to name five of these kings in person starting from the least important who is Constantine, who is the son of the “unclean lioness of Damnonia” – though it is not clear whether by this if he means Dumnonia in Devon or Damnonia in central Scotland.  However he murdered two royal youths with their attendants, and then having stained himself with the abomination of many adulteries he put away his wife.

Just as bad was Aurelius Conanus who apart from being swallowed up in the filthiness of horrible murders, fornications and adulteries appears not to have been a Christian: “and unless thou shalt be speedily converted, our Lord will shortly brandish his sword against thee.”

Next up is Vortipore, the foolish tyrant of the Demetii – a known tribe of central Wales.  His main sin was that he put away his wife and after her honourable death he was shamed by the base practices of his shameless daughter.  Then there is Cuneglasse who made war on his own countrymen, but worse than that threw out his wife and took up with her detestable sister.

However worst of all was Maglocune, the most important of the kings he mentioned, the Dragon of the Island who had killed off many tyrants and taken away their kingdoms. He is generally thought to have been the ruler of Gwyedd in North West Wales.  He began by taking away the kingdom from his uncle, he then decided to turn to the right way and became a monk, but then the devil carried him away and he returned “like a dog to his vomit” to become a naughty king.  His marital record was appalling.  His first wife “Was not lawfully thine but only by right at the time she was with thee”   He then took up with another woman who was the wife of his brother’s son, and finally he publically married a widow.  And then he went off to commit wickednesses so great that they can only be described in a couple of pages of Old Testament history.  One cannot help getting the impression from reading Gildas that if this is how Christians behave, one would surely rather have been a pagan.

Thus the impression one gets from Gildas is of a country ruled by kings and extremely unstable.  One would like to know who these judges are, how far are they the remains of a proper judicial system, or are they simply the court advisers?  And there are of course the ecclesiastical apparatus and the whole of the latter part of his epistle is devoted to a condemnation of the wicked priests and monks.  Perhaps wisely he does not name any of them in person, and his condemnation is all general and expressed in Biblical terms.  Indeed the most interesting aspect of Gildas is to see how religious it all is.  He certainly knows his Old Testament very thoroughly.  Indeed he tells us more about life in Palestine in the eighth century BC than he does about life in Britain in the sixth century AD.  It would certainly seem to reflect my model of a barbarian society, one ruled arbitrarily by kings, advised only by corrupt judges, and taking women as wives, and then casting them away.

It is interesting to compare this with the image in the Middle Ages when the warlike nature has been formalised and there is an admixture of courtly love.  But the Arthurian tradition does seem to form a coherent whole and reflects a society very different from what we consider to be a civilised society.


On to: What happened in the Eastern Roman Empire?


23rd May 2014