The Real King Arthur

This blog piece has taken five hours / fifty years to make. Five hours to compose – and, behind that, fifty years of study and love, visits and maps, intellect and intuition. I have been in pursuit of the real King Arthur since I first visited Glastonbury, and then South Cadbury, in the 1960s.

As a schoolboy in Taunton, I believed that he was one of ours – a man of what we knew as The Westcountry, a land that included Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. Now I am confident. The pieces fit together. All the indicative evidence points in one direction. Arthur was King of Lindinis Civitas. This was northern Devon, most of Somerset, northern Dorset, and much of western Wiltshire.

Everything, every story or notice that has a geographical element and is maybe derived from a source in the fifth or sixth centuries, has a certain or probable Lindinis provenance. Modern writers placing Arthur in the north, Scotland, Lincolnshire, or the third century, base their thinking on no more than the odd piece of etymology (such as Camboglanna on Hadrian’s Wall as a claimant for Camlan, or Lincoln – Lindum in Latin – as a claimant for Linnuis), and bypass the inconvenient total absence of Arthur’s name from the Bonedd y gwyr gogledd (“Descent of the men of the north”), a document of genuine antiquity in which the names of the actual kings of the various regions of northern Britannia are given in several genealogical compilations; and any connecting of Arthur to Tintagel, Caerleon, Colchester or London is derivative of the fanciful imaginings of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The earliest historical source on Arthur pointing in part away from Lindinis is the list of twelve battles in the Historia Britonnum, an eighth- or ninth-century compilation; however, all the battles there listed which are identifiably far from Lindinis are also identifiably ones that were unconnected to King Arthur (Chester; Wallop; Armterid – now called Arthuret, north of Carlisle; etc): they were fought by other warriors at dates spread across the quarter of a millennium after the British overthrew their Roman governors.

It is a lost cause to attempt to convince academic historians that there even was a real King Arthur, let alone that anything specific can be said about him. Such historians allow as evidence only documents that are beyond doubt contemporary to the events they attest, or copied unaltered from ones that were so, and physical archaeology and artefacts. In an era when very few people could write, when the main method of culture transmission was oral storytelling – primarily by bards in poetic song – and when even the most imposing residences and strongholds of the social elite were built in wood, evidence that attains academics’ thresholds is virtually non-existent. It is not only for King Arthur that this type of evidence is lacking: even the reality of (piecemeal) conquest of England by Englishmen (the “Anglo-Saxons”) is questioned for lack of such ultra-hard proof.

But the indications for King Arthur are diverse and consistent. What happened has often come down to us as told in allegory and story, a culturally natural form for the fifth and sixth centuries, rather than as the dry facts beloved of modern scholarship.

The one dry source is the Annales Cambriae, which names him as a Christian and as the victor of the Battle of Badon – at a date that has to be corrected to 490 – and as being killed in 538 at the Battle of Camlan. The other sources, which I have discussed in previous posts here, are oral traditions later written down, saints’ Lives, and an eighth-century battle list that straddles the border between eulogy and record-keeping.

In probable chronological sequence, the life of King Arthur thereby conveyed is this:-

  • As a youth when Cador was Governor of Lindinis Civitas, Prince Arthur met St. Carantoc at the mouth of the Doniford Brook, near Watchet in Somerset. They travelled to see Cador in his kaer (citadel) at Dundry (Somerset). Cador chose Christianity to be the official religion of Lindinis. He granted St. Carantoc a land charter to build a church at the commercially significant town of Carhampton (Somerset).
  • Arthur as the new man in charge of Lindinis had a culturally essential duty to fight and win raids on his borders. He won one such at Glein (possibly Clannaborough, in the Lindinis part of Devon), and four more skirmishes on the hills above the River Divelish (near Ibberton, on the border of the Lindinis part of Dorset).
  • He won a battle on the Bristol Channel coast (Somerset); and then another that may have been near Beaminster (on the border of the Lindinis part of Dorset) or near Mere (near the border of the Lindinis part of Wiltshire).
  • He was given Divine protection from death by a Christian Mystery initiation at Beckery on what was then the Glastonbury peninsula (Somerset).
  • He defeated English aggressors at the stunningly successful Battle of the Badonic Hill near Bath (Somerset) in 490.
  • He ruled Lindinis for half a century and became known as King Arthur (rather than Roman-style Governor). During the long peacetime that followed his Badonic victory, his largest citadel which he used often to host feasts for kings of other British kingdoms, was the Cadbury-Camelot hillfort at South Cadbury (Somerset).
  • He was killed at the Battle of Camlan at Queen Camel (Somerset) in 538.
  • He was buried by monks of Glastonbury Abbey (Somerset), most likely at Nyland, the island in the marshes (now the Somerset Levels) held sacred as the Gate to the Otherworld, rather than by the Old Church at Glastonbury itself.

After his death he was remembered as a great warrior hero by Celtic bards of the later sixth century (Aneurin, Taliesin), and as their own past warrior hero by the bard who eulogised a battle lost in the eighth century at Langport (Somerset). He was remembered in song particularly by minstrels of Brittany (culturally descended from immigrants from the Westcountry).

From them, his fame entered mainstream European literature as the fictionalised hero of “Arthurian legend”. The real King Arthur, successful Brittonic warrior leader, commander of a hillfort in SE Somerset beside the River Cam later known as Camelot, Christian ruler of one of the ten former Roman civitates of Britannia Prima, Lindinis, a name after his time corrupted to Lyonesse…. became transformed into the wizard-guided idealised model English (!) king, born at Tintagel, and governing the whole island of Britain (and then some) with the help of the Knights of the Round Table – voided in the public imagination of all lifetime connection to his true home among the hills, coasts, forests, and extensive brackish marshes of Somerset.

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