The search for a ‘real’ King Arthur is a topic I usually try to avoid, mainly because I don’t think it adds much substance to the study of early medieval history. I say this as someone whose interest in the early medieval period began more than 30 years ago with a book called The Age of Arthur. In this controversial text, written by John Morris, the original Arthur behind the legend was depicted as a powerful warlord in post-Roman Britain. Gathering numerous scraps of information, Morris managed to weave a detailed historical narrative that many people still find compelling today. Although I initially came to the book via a fascination with Arthur, my attention was soon distracted by what Morris wrote about the Britons of the North. I had previously known nothing about this obscure people, yet their story of heroic kings and long-vanished realms soon held me enthralled. Since then, the North Britons have been at the forefront of my research on early medieval history, while Arthur has become a more shadowy figure in the background.
I simply don’t believe the legendary King Arthur is based on a real person who lived in the fifth/sixth centuries AD. This is why he rarely gets mentioned on this blog or in my books. My opinion on his historical existence is pretty much in line with the position taken by Professor Guy Halsall in Worlds of Arthur, a book I reviewed in the Scottish Archaeological Journal last year. In the review, I supported Halsall’s deep scepticism about Arthur’s historicity.
Like I said at the start of this blogpost, I generally prefer to avoid getting involved in the Historical Arthur debate. Avoidance isn’t difficult, because I don’t feel any great need to include Arthur in my own research on post-Roman Britain. To me, the overall picture is clearer without him. Sometimes, however, he nudges against subjects in which I have a keen interest, prompting me to take notice. This is what happened last week, when a new contribution to the Arthurian debate caused quite a stir in Scotland. ‘Academia up in arms over King Arthur’s Glasgow roots’ said a newspaper headline, referring to a controversial theory by distinguished Celticist and place-name expert Andrew Breeze. Whatever I think of Arthur, any suggestion of a Scottish connection is bound to make me sit up, especially when the source is a renowned philologist who knows a thing or two about Dark Age history.
According to Professor Breeze, the Arthur of legend was a real warlord, a North Briton from the kingdom of Strathclyde, who fought a series of battles in what are now southern Scotland and Northumberland. This runs against a more conventional belief that the historical Arthur was associated with Cornwall and other parts of south-west England. Using the (in)famous battle-list in the Historia Brittonum – a text compiled in Wales in the ninth century – Breeze suggests that all except one of Arthur’s victories were won in the North. The exception is Mons Badonicus or Mount Badon, which he identifies as Braydon in Wiltshire.
Of the other battlefields in the ninth-century list, the river Glein is identified by Professor Breeze as the Glen in Northumberland while the river Dubglas is seen as the Douglas Water near Lanark. I often wonder if these rivers did indeed bear witness to victories won by a Dark Age warlord – perhaps not a northern Arthur, but a Briton nonetheless – and the famous king Urien of Rheged springs to mind. The same might be said of the battle of ‘Celidon Wood’ which, as Breeze observes, must be somewhere in the Southern Uplands. These three identifications are fairly uncontroversial, unlike those proposed for the battlefields of Bassas, Tribruit and Agned, which Breeze locates respectively at Tarras Water (Eskdale), Dreva (Tweeddale) and Pennango (Teviotdale). He sees Bassas as an error for Tarras, which is the kind of typo a careless scribe might make when copying a manuscript. Castell Guinnion, which some historians identify as Vinovia, the Roman fort at Binchester in County Durham, is associated by Breeze with Kirkgunzeon near Dumfries. Again, I think the battle at Guinnion might be a genuine northern event – a victory won by Urien or some other historical hero – that the Arthurian legend has subsequently absorbed. Finally, the battle-site named in Historia Brittonum as ‘City of the Legion’ is often placed at the Roman legionary bases of Chester or Caerleon (in Wales) but Professor Breeze offers his own suggestion of Kinneil at the eastern terminus of the Antonine Wall. It will be interesting to learn the detailed argument behind these theories when he presents them at the International Congress of Celtic Studies in Glasgow in July 2015.
Those of you who are familiar with J.S. Glennie’s old book Arthurian Localities (1869) will be aware that the idea of a Scottish context for the Historical Arthur has been around for a long time. However, a number of places identified by Professor Breeze have not previously been linked to the Arthurian battle-list so, in that sense, his theory is certainly a new one. It will inevitably spark further debate when the conference paper is presented.
Last week, in an article in the Scottish newspaper The National, Professor Breeze was quoted as saying “I know that my views will be controversial”. His ideas have already been challenged by Stuart McHardy and Simon Stirling, two authors of books locating Arthur in Scotland, who quickly responded via the comments thread at the newspaper’s website. Last Friday, also in The National, Professor Thomas Owen Clancy of the University of Glasgow gave a strong rebuttal, arguing not only against the identification of Arthur as a Strathclyder but also against the whole notion that the battles listed in the Historia Brittonum were fought by a Dark Age warlord. I share Clancy’s doubts. Much as I would welcome a narrative to plug the gaps in Strathclyde’s early history, I don’t think Arthur brings us any closer to finding it. On a more positive note, if Professor Breeze’s theory inspires more people to take an interest in Dark Age Scottish history, then even the diehard sceptics among us ought to see this as a good thing.
Take a look at the links below and see what you think…
‘Was King Arthur a Glaswegian from Govan?’ The National, 3 March 2015.
‘King Arthur battle site unearthed near Peebles’ Peeblesshire News, 3 March 2015.
‘Academia up in arms over King Arthur’s Glasgow roots’ The National, 6 March 2015.
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I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for drawing my attention to the first two links and to Michelle Ziegler for sending me the third via Twitter.
J.S. Glennie’s book Arthurian Localities is available as a facsimile reprint from Llanerch Press.
Tim Clarkson: Review of Guy Halsall, ‘Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages’ in Scottish Archaeological Journal, vol.33, Issue 1-2, pp. 84-86.
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[This blogpost was edited and expanded on 13 March 2015]
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