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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



To claim that the stories of Arthur can trace their origin to well before the fifth century AD needs some explaining; although such explanations have already been fully and convincingly detailed by other authors elsewhere (hover the mouse over the dagger for a reference, click the dagger to see the Sources and References page). The popular perception, however, is that the world of King Arthur is to be found in the British Dark Ages between the departure of the Romans from Britain in the early fifth century AD and the final establishment of the Saxon kingdoms and Anglian Northumbria about two hundred years later. The basis for such a post-Roman setting for King Arthur rests on the influential work of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century AD and appears to be corroborated by a much earlier historical treatise, the Historia Britonum, or the History of the Britons, attributed to the monk Nennius in the ninth century AD. However, there are a number of problems with placing King Arthur in this period, many relating to the sort of document that the monk known to us as Nennius was creating, and which Geoffrey of Monmouth certainly knew, but also concerning the kind of world invoked in the subsequent legends about King Arthur and to the fact that our earliest sources for this period, which are admittedly few, make no mention of him at all. Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum ('Ecclesiastical History of the English People'; 8th century AD) for example, De Excidio Conquesta Britanniae ('On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain') by the sixth century monk Gildas, and the earliest references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; all these fail to make any mention of King Arthur, and modern historical scholarship is by no means convinced that he ever existed. In fact the very mention of King Arthur is apt to bring serious historians out in a rash. He is too mixed up with mythology and literature.

There is mounting evidence that the monk Nennius created his warrior hero Arthur from the fifth century deeds of a Romano-British war leader named Ambrosius Aurelianus. He did this because he needed a British hero with a Welsh-sounding name to add focus to what was principally a political treatise that he was writing. There is very little reliable history in the Historia Britonum, and there is no evidence for a historical war leader named Arthur in any document that dates to before this work. In essence, Nennius made him up. But he did not make up the name Arthur. Arthur exists in Welsh poetry that dates to before the Historia Britonum. But in these poems, Arthur is not a historical character but clearly a mythological hero. In fact, even in the Historia Britonum itself, there are references to natural features of the landscape attributed to the mythological and legendary feats of Arthur and those associated with him.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Historia Regum Britanniae ('History of the Kings of Britain') was completed in about AD 1136, is a major source for the alleged 'historical' King Arthur. His work greatly expands upon Nennius's account, in ways that are widely considered to owe a great deal to Geoffrey's fertile imagination. He describes the abandonment of Britain by the Romans, an event which is known to have occurred around AD 410. He describes wars with the Picts and Scots and the invitation into Britain, by the British leader Vortigern, of Saxon mercenaries to help in this conflict, an event that is dated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to AD 449. He describes a young man, Arthur, whose father had himself been a young bachelor when the Saxons had first arrived in Britain; a young man, Arthur, raised to kingship at the age of fifteen when the Saxons had already for a generation been harrying and settling in parts of the island, and when enemies were especially liable to issue forth from the rugged highlands to the north. When Arthur came to power, Geoffrey tells us, the Saxons occupied a portion of the country stretching from the River Humber to Caithness.

From the River Humber to Caithness! This statement implies that the Saxons had overrun hostile Pictish kingdoms in the far north, which in the light of what is known of the period seems very unlikely; in fact the statement flies in the face of all that is known about the pattern of Saxon settlement during the mid-to-late fifth century, focusing, as it did, upon the south-east coast of what is now England. In fact, archaeological research is increasingly questioning whether any such mass migration of Saxons and Angles ever took place at all, in any part of the British Isles. Continuity of settlement through the late Roman period and into Saxon times and beyond strongly suggests that although the culture of eastern and southern England changed, the people who now looked eastwards to Germany and Scandinavia for their fashion and ideas were for the most part direct descendants of those southern British who had been Roman citizens only a few generations before. Other fields of scientific enquiry support this emerging view of immigration and assimilation. It seems that Geoffrey's Saxon invasions never took place, not even in Caithness! Like much in Geoffrey's work, the deeper one goes into it the less sense it seems to make. And this is very clearly illustrated by Arthur's subsequent career across Europe.

Geoffrey tells us that, in a number of glorious military engagements, King Arthur defeats the Saxons who had been the bane of his father's reign, together with their Pictish and Scottish allies to the north; then he subdues an Irish army, invades Ireland itself and then Iceland. For twelve years his fame spreads, and widespread fear of his might prompts him to conceive the idea of conquering the whole of Europe. He invades and subdues both Norway and Denmark, and attacks Gaul, which is under Roman jurisdiction. Over the space of the next nine years, Arthur campaigns to bring all of Gaul into his empire, and having secured his rule there, returns to Britain and to a lavish celebration of his own greatly extended kingship. At these festivities, he is interrupted by a delegation from Rome. They carry orders that he pay the tribute that is owed to Rome and that he take himself to that city in order to receive the punishment due to him for annexing Gaul. King Arthur crosses the water back into Gaul, but not as a man intent upon apology. A Roman army gathers to meet him, which he defeats in a glorious engagement, sending its commander back to Rome in a coffin. He and his forces are about to march upon Rome itself when insurrection at home forces him to abandon his advance and return to Britain. Here he meets his doom at the battle of Camlann, against his nephew Mordred; and the rest, as they say, is history.

This is the story of King Arthur, as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth. But it has to be said that, leaving aside a lack of corroborating evidence in any continental annals for all this, which must itself be a cause for serious scepticism, it sits very uncomfortably with the general political landscape of fifth century western Europe.

So what does Nennius say about Arthur? Nennius wrote in the ninth century AD and under instructions, apparently, from his ecclesiastical superiors to compile a history of Britain before the wholesale destruction of books in monastic libraries by Viking marauders made the material for such a work all but lost forever. So the passionately British cleric wrote a short work in sixty-six sections, each often of a single paragraph only, in which, in addition to much history that is now considered spurious, there is an account of a war leader who fought against Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries AD and was called Arthur. This Arthur, however, was not a king; in fact Nennius states categorically that there were many more noble than he. Yet he appears to have been a brilliant field commander of the British forces and twelve times conqueror over the Angles and Saxons. However, a close perusal of his twelve battles reveal some that are now known, from contemporary and even older Welsh poems, to have taken place in an Otherworld of myth and folklore, against giants, werewolves and witches. And in the section of Nennius that makes this relatively brief mention of Arthur, a curious paragraph states, concerning a slightly earlier period, that: 'Gracian Aequantius was then the consul at Rome, for the entire world at that time was governed by the Roman consuls.' This is a curious statement to make in the context of Rome in the fifth century AD, whose Emperors had ruled for many centuries. But perhaps it is a clue to the antiquity of some of the garbled sources used by Nennius and by Geoffrey of Monmouth after him. That 'the entire world at that time was governed by the Roman consuls' would be a perfectly natural statement to make in the context of Republican Rome.

Before the arrival in Gaul of Julius Caesar in 58 BC, five hundred years before the age we have just been considering, Rome had for nearly five hundred years previously been governed by a senate headed by two consuls, elected annually from the ranks of the senators. This was the age of the Roman Republic. These consuls were expected to be active military leaders in a way that was not desirable in the bureaucratic late Empire. They often headed the army on campaign, as did A. Quintus Sulpicius in 390 BC when he met a large Celtic army led by a warrior named Brenos, twelve miles north of Rome itself. His own ranks were routed and the Celtic victory led to the burning of Rome and a six-month-long siege of the Capitoline hill, a siege which was broken, and the city of Rome returned to its inhabitants, only by the payment of a large quantity of gold. In 225 BC a large Celtic army arrived on the plains of northern Italy, its numbers swollen with allies from among the Celtic tribes living within this area of Cisalpine Gaul. Rome again sent one of her consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, into the region with an army, while her other consul, Gaius Antilius Regulus, was recalled with his army from Sardinia. A third Roman army was mauled in central Italy in an engagement with these Celtic forces but, by a turn of fate that neither side had anticipated, the Celts subsequently found themselves trapped between the two consular Roman armies and were defeated.

By 113 BC, Rome had occupied the whole of Cisalpine Gaul (the Celtic homelands of northern Italy), and extended her influence well into Gaul itself, annexing the modern French region of Provence as her own territory, as well as controlling regions of what are now Spain, Greece, Turkey and North Africa. In this year, she was faced by a Celtic army of Cimbri and Teutoni. These forces had been sweeping through northern and central Europe in an orgy of conquest for seven years, and inflicted a disastrous defeat on a Roman army sent to meet it. However, these Celtic forces then moved westwards into Gaul. In 107 BC, trouble blew up again from the same quarter. In response, the Roman senate sent the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus in command of an army to confront the Celts. His forces were defeated and he himself was killed. A second Roman army managed to contain the situation, but two years later, with the Cimbri still posing a threat not only to Rome's territories and client states in Gaul but, it was perceived, to Rome herself, another army was dispatched. This army was routed by the Celtic forces and the terror of a Celtic invasion of Rome, just as had happened three hundred years earlier, loomed frighteningly large in the Roman mind. Inexplicably, however, the way to Rome, which lay open and unopposed, went untrodden by the Celtic warriors. Barry Cunliffe, a respected archaeologist, has written: 'It is difficult to overestimate the effects of these traumatic years on the Roman psyche.' Perhaps they left some mark on Celtic tradition, as well.

Fifty years later, Gaul was conquered for Rome by Julius Caesar and a century after Caesar's Gallic campaign, Britain was added to the western Empire by the Emperor Claudius.

There are many ways in which the story told by Geoffrey of Monmouth, in which King Arthur extends his kingship over a large area of northern and western Europe, sits more comfortably in the second century BC than it does in the fifth century AD. perhaps hinting at the garbled legends he was encountering. So, we must ask ourselves – is it possible that at least some of the material on which Geoffrey's story of King Arthur was based could have been derived from legends and traditions not of a fifth century commander in post-Roman Britain at all, but of a Celtic ruler who reigned six hundred years earlier than this?

Geoffrey of Monmouth finished writing his 'History of the Kings of Britain', in Latin, in about AD 1136. A hundred and sixty years or so later, about the time of the death of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, a long and wonderful poem was written in Middle English by an anonymous hand, repeating the story of King Arthur's fight against the Romans, and his ultimate and tragic defeat at the hands of his nephew Mordred, incorporating material which is not found in Geoffrey's work and which may point to the true antiquity of the tradition preserved in this Medieval legend.

Having consolidated his territories in Gaul, King Arthur is interrupted at a Christmas feast in Carlisle by an embassy from Rome carrying a message from the Emperor Lucius Iberius. Arthur is summoned to appear before the Roman senate to explain why he has occupied lands that owe tribute to Rome, and why this tribute has been withheld. Arthur entertains this 'senator of Rome [and] sixteen knights' with seven days of lavish feasting while he urgently discusses the matter with his nobles. He reminds them that, contrary to the senator's claim, 'I have the right to receive tribute from Rome. My ancestors were emperors and had title to tribute themselves - Belin and Bremin, and Baldwin III. They occupied the empire eight score winters!' Although this outburst is on the face of it nonsensical, the thrust of King Arthur's argument seems clear. In the past, and one imagines the not-too-distant past, King Arthur's forebears had won the right to receive tribute from Rome; won this right, it seems, by occupying Roman territory for many years.

The whole story is a melange of allusions that mixes the late Medieval period with Imperial Roman times and before. There are bowmen, shield bearers and brave men-at-arms, 'jousters of quality' and 'peers in Parliament'; men drink Malmsey and Venetian wines, converse with 'bishops and bachelors and bannerets noble'. But there is also 'Sir Lucius Iberius, the Emperor of Rome' who is determined that he should receive 'the tribute we ask, that Julius Caesar won with his gentle knights!' If one scratches a little deeper though, signs of a still earlier age peek through. It is acknowledged by scholars that 'Belin and Bremin' refer to Belinus and Brennius, who travel out of Britain and sack Rome before the days of the Roman Empire in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain'. And we have seen that, leading the Celtic forces in 390 BC into Rome, was Brenos, where it may well have happened that, as King Arthur maintains, 'they cast down the walls and hanged Roman senators by the hundreds.' So Arthur appears ready to reply to a senator from Rome who demands that he come to Rome to explain why tribute owing from Celtic lands remains unpaid, that on the contrary, his forebears sacked Rome and it is he who should receive tribute from them. He does not point out that as a citizen of the former Roman province of Britannia, harried by enemies since the withdrawal of the legions and probably descended from Romano-British aristocracy himself, he would gladly receive Roman support again and would raise taxes to pay for this support! The whole tenor has an altogether different feel.

So Arthur gives the embassy seven days to leave Britain, and a few weeks later embarks, himself, with an army for the Continent. Here he is met by 'the flower and the fair folk of fifteen realms' (the Celtic nobility of fifteen tribes, or kingdoms) and, after defeating a giant on a nearby mount, sails up the Seine towards a number of encounters with the Roman army, which is commanded by the 'Emperor' Lucius himself, acting like a true Republican consul. Arthur eventually defeats and kills 'Sir Lucius', sending the army back to Rome in disarray, along with the bodies of 'sixty of the chief senators of Rome' and reaches Tuscany (the southern limits of Cisalpine Gaul) before news reaches him of Mordred's treachery, prompting his inauspicious and premature return.

There are many elements within this story that resonate with the age of Republican Rome. Not least of which is Lucius himself, leading his army and dying in single combat, felled by a blow from King Arthur's own hand. There was no Emperor Lucius during the late Roman Empire. In fact, the western Empire itself had all but ceased to exist by the very late fifth century, the time that most advocates would place the historical age of King Arthur. However, we have already seen how it was not unknown for a Roman consul to lead an army into battle during the days of the Republic, and neither were the Celts unused to his name being Lucius. Rome sent an army commanded by one of her consuls to meet Brenos in 390 BC as we have seen. In 223 BC the two consuls Publius Furius and Gaius Flaminius led an invasion into Celtic territory. In 217 BC, the consuls Gaius Flaminius and Servilius Germinus were given command of the armies sent to face Hannibal. In 216 BC, one of the two consuls for the year, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was found wandering on the battlefield, covered in blood, having faced the Celtic mercenary warriors in Hannibal's Carthaginian army. In 107 BC, as we have seen, the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus was killed in Gaul, fighting the Cimbri and their allies. During a major defeat against Hannibal, eighty Roman senators lost their lives.

When Gawain, in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, approaches the Roman army to deliver an ultimatum from King Arthur, he hears hundreds of elephants trumpeting in their stables - 'hundreths full many hornes of olyfantes full highlich blowen.' That Hannibal used elephants when he crossed the Alps into Italy in 218 BC is well known. Less well known is that Rome faced a Macedonian force of twenty-five thousand men and twenty elephants in 283 BC or that in 153 BC, while fighting Celts in Spain, the Romans themselves brought up elephants in an attempt to capture a hill-fort. However, the move backfired when one of their elephants, frightened by the missiles being thrown at it by the defenders, turned and ran wildly through the Roman ranks.

A characteristic of the Celts was their willingness to settle major military engagements by single combat between the respective commanders, or their champions, rather than by full-scale battle between armies. In fact, the Celts often preferred to settle warfare by this means. A Roman commander in 360 BC, when the Celts of Cisalpine Gaul were actively worrying the Roman-controlled lands of central Italy, for example, accepted a challenge to settle a military engagement in this way. This Roman commander was victorious and carried off his opponent's neck-torque as a trophy. Twenty years later, however, as a consul for that year, Titus Manlius Imperiosus 'Torquatus' made it a law that no Roman commander should henceforth risk accepting a challenge to single combat by a Celtic enemy. The Romans knew that their strength lay in wholesale slaughter. So when, having heard the elephants and delivered his message, Gawain flees the enemy camp, is beset by pursuers and captures a Roman senator in an ensuing skirmish, and then while conducting this prisoner to Paris, one of Arthur's scouting parties comes across a Roman ambush, it is wholly within the traditions of Iron Age Celtic warfare that Sir Cleges should approach this large enemy force and issue a challenge to any nobleman, 'earl or other', to meet him in single combat. The Roman forces, however, in line with their presumed instructions, refuse to settle the issue in this way.

And on this point, a curious episode occurs in Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of King Arthur's conquest of Gaul. Arthur besieges a Roman tribune in Paris, who offers to meet King Arthur in single combat in order to decide the issue. If this sounds unlikely given the Roman attitude to such martial contests, then it should also be noted that during the whole of King Arthur's nine years of campaigning in Gaul, Geoffrey gives no hint of the existence of any Roman legion present in this area.

Another characteristic of Celtic warfare was the taking of heads. Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) writes: '[The Celts] take the heads of enemies killed in battle and hang them from their horses' bridles.' In a war of 225 BC, a Roman consul was killed during the opening exchanges of a battle. His head was cut off and taken to one of the Celtic commanders as a trophy. The reason for Gawain's flight from the Roman camp in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the same flight which led to the senator's capture, was because he had just cut off the head of Sir Lucius's uncle; and when, much later in the story, King Arthur engages Mordred in battle, he has all the prisoners' heads cut off with Gawain's sword. We will see, as we probe deeper into Arthurian legend and literature later on, how ubiquitous is this Celtic theme of taking heads.

A sea battle off the coast of southern Britain, during King Arthur's return to fight Mordred, seems to hint at the tactic of ramming, so favoured in the centuries BC. And all the instances of indiscipline shown by Arthur's forces; as when a scouting party engages the enemy in battle, losing many men, and when, much later, Gawain wades ashore towards Mordred's army in a spontaneous but foolhardy show of bravado. This is clear Iron Age Celtic indiscipline! Such extravagant but pointless displays of individual valour were characteristic of the Celts before they came under the sway of the Roman world, and of whom it was once said by a Roman commentator that if they had fought as a unit, like the Roman army, and not individually, 'wholesale' instead of 'retail', they would have been truly invincible.

It is not new to suggest that in looking for King Arthur we ought to focus our attention on the centuries BC. W A Cummins, in his book King Arthur's Place in Prehistory – The Great Age of Stonehenge points out that the most notable attributes of King Arthur are his marvellous court and the famous Round Table. Take the association of King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth's work with a Merlin who caused the transportation of Stonehenge from the far west, as we now know that the bluestones were, mix this with King Arthur's link with a Golden Age of British history and one is left, Cummins suggests, with the possibility that the oldest shadows of the Medieval King Arthur flit around a sunlit landscape in which Stonehenge is still in use and in which he is king of all he surveys. The wealth and stability of the area around Stonehenge between 2100–1500 BC has been clearly demonstrated from excavated barrows from the Wessex Culture of this period of Bronze Age history in Britain.

The Arthur created by Nennius, the late-fifth century warrior Arthur, it is argued, was manufactured from a British folk hero of legend and mythology who may have been capable of absorbing the half-remembered legends of many times and of many eras. This contributed to the curious evocation in late Medieval Arthurian legend not of a country besieged by Saxons, or of civil war between conservatives who continued to uphold the Roman Church and liberal kingdoms that saw a better future looking eastwards towards Northern Europe and Scandinavia, but, as we shall see later, of a land of giants, single combats, magical springs and mysterious sacred groves, of head-taking, omniscient damsels, shape-changing and chivalrous quests. Just such an argument is made by Nikolai Tolstoy for the figure of Merlin. As well as involving Merlin in the political disputes of the mid-fifth century AD, Geoffrey of Monmouth implicates him in the transportation of Stonehenge from the west, an event which is known, at least as far as the bluestones are concerned, to have actually occurred, as we have already seen, in the third millennium BC. Much could be made of the parallels between the drawing of a sword from a stone and the drawing of a bronze sword from its Bronze Age clay mould.

It is suggested that the late-second century BC might be a fruitful place to look for an era that has contributed greatly to the ambience of the Medieval tales of King Arthur. It is a period that we know, from the writings of Julius Caesar, to have been likely to have embraced, wherever the druids held sway, a belief in reincarnation. And there is mounting evidence that pagan traditions survived through the Roman occupation and into early and even late Medieval times. The River Witham upstream from Lincoln Cathedral, for example, has a number of specific locations where ritual offerings of swords have been found. These weapons can be dated to the Iron Age, the Roman occupation, the Anglo-Saxon period and there are even late-Medieval swords of the fourteenth century AD. These were high quality weapons and must have had prestigious owners (it would be fascinating to know exactly who had deposited them there!) But the point is that they were all dropped in the same specific localities, requiring there to have been an unbroken tradition in existence from at least the Iron Age down to the fourteenth century.

That Geoffrey of Monmouth has Merlin at the same time a player on the stage of the fifth century AD and a man who orchestrated the construction of Stonehenge suggests the accumulation of multiple layers of myth and legend upon this druidic figure and it is possible that a similar accretion, a layering of evolving but unbroken tradition coming down from prehistoric times to the late Medieval period has attached itself to the figure of King Arthur.

A very plausible case, in fact, may be able to be made for the existence of a warrior allied to an old British Imperial Roman family who led the fight against Angles in Lincolnshire, then Saxons in southern Britain, in the late fifth century AD, that is, in the 480s and 490s; at least if by Angles and Saxons we take it to mean those Britains who, to some extent, had adopted North European customs, welcomed pagan immigrants and were perceived as a threat by the remaining Christian kingdoms. This same commander could well have caused the defeat and large-scale retreat of these 'Saxons' in a final glorious victory near Bath in Somerset, or perhaps near Lincoln, in the last decade of that century, leading to relative peace from a much smaller Saxon enclave for the next fifty years. But with the final collapse of the western Roman Empire in AD 476–80 and a Frankish kingdom in place by AD 486, it seems impossible that the continental conquests and battles attributed to King Arthur in the pages of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and in the Alliterative Morte Arthure could have taken place at this time. So could an ancient mythical hero whose name and valour was usurped by the author of the Historia Britonum also have attracted and absorbed the oral legends and stories of a more remote Celtic war leader?

It is not the intention to displace a historical King Arthur from one narrowly-defined time period into another, however fascinating this speculative exercise may be. Rather, it is hoped that it has been shown that a British war-leader, perhaps the High King of a larger confederacy of Celtic kingdoms of the second century BC, is most likely to have been able to recall that his ancestors occupied Roman territory for many decades, as King Arthur does in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and was recalling an era following the sack of Rome by Brenos in 390 BC when, for the next six decades, Celtic raiding parties penetrated deeply and regularly into central Italy. And it has to be said that there is one obvious instance in which it is clear that we are dealing with multiple traditions in Medieval Arthurian legend – and this is in the two conflicting accounts of King Arthur's final days. There is a version described by Geoffrey of Monmouth and by the Alliterative Morte Arthure in which he campaigns against the Romans, as we have seen, and another, in which King Arthur wages war with Lancelot in a very Celtic-seeming northern France before returning to face Mordred's treachery. This is the ending chosen by Sir Thomas Malory to close his fifteenth century Arthurian epic known as Le Morte d'Arthur, and should serve to alert us to the multiple and birefringent nature of the legends of this British king.

It is hoped that, like an onion, the Medieval stories of an Arthurian age can be peeled back to deeper and deeper layers, each with roots and memories that preserve an earlier and preceding age. For it is by this process of building and preservation that oral legends evolve. And once it can be established that a British field commander of the late fifth century AD may have been conflated, in the ninth century, with a mythical folk hero whose name was quickly associated, in the Medieval poetic memory, with the legends and stories surrounding an earlier figure of renown, in much the same way as has been convincingly argued for the legendary and druidic figure of Merlin, the way is open to examine the Arthurian legends as a window into a forgotten age. The druidic Iron Age.

The druids themselves wrote nothing down. It was a cornerstone of their culture that their teaching was transmitted through a rigorous training that involved the development of the memory. Everything a druid needed to pursue his or her profession was committed to memory, during a training that lasted for many years. So nothing of this faith that is first hand and contemporary survives.

The classical Greeks and Romans, however, produced a voluminous literature. Can any of this shed further light upon the religion of pre-Roman Britain?


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