British Heritage: March 1998 Letters


Post-Roman Britain was a time of far-reaching change, even if the scarcity of records dating from this period make it truly a Dark Age. Throughout the next several centuries after the Roman withdrawal, the framework of modern England and Wales was forged in a series of violent confrontations. Out of the midst of this struggle, most probably, rose the historical figure dimly recalled as King Arthur.

But while Arthur personifies this period of history, his death did not bring it to a close. The events that culminated in the emergence of a new land–Angle-land–continued to unfold over nearly three more centuries. Therefore, while our primary focus in this issue is on the 5th and 6th centuries, we will also consider the larger period of Anglo-Saxon expansion in Britain–from the time the Roman emperors effectively granted Britain autonomy in the early 4th century, until the ascendancy of the ‘Northmen’, or Vikings, in England in the 9th century put the Saxons on the defensive.

The latter half of this period was characterized by the ultimate victory of Arthur’s one-time enemies and the rise of several Saxon kingdoms. This was a time of religious conversion. Even while the Saxons overwhelmed the native British Celts in political and military affairs, Roman and Celtic Christianity triumphed over the invaders’ pagan beliefs. Their conversion led directly to the establishment of Britain’s first monastic foundations. These, along with several earthen dykes, constitute most of the archaeological remains dating from the period. We take a close look at several of them in the article ‘Holy Britain’.

Fortunately, we are not completely reliant on archaeological evidence when examining the culture of this Dark Age. Researchers have also depended on a small but tantalizing collection of surviving ancient chronicles (albeit ones of questionable accuracy) in their attempts to reconstruct the events of Arthur’s time. Some of them are mentioned in the articles that follow, and it may be useful to introduce these sources at the outset.

The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh folk tales that was committed to paper after a long period of oral transmission. About half of the tales deal with Arthur and his ‘knights’, although they are often depicted as rather unsavoury characters involved in shady or, at best, trivial exploits. The tales have a distinctly mythical flavour, but may preserve memories of genuine history.

Another Welsh source, The Annals of Wales, also written down long after the events it describes, (although it claims to be based on much earlier sources) includes the key reference to Arthur’s death at Camlann, and places it in the context of other non-Arthurian events of the post-Roman period. Likewise, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides interesting clues to the events of the 5th and 6th centuries and on through the Norman conquest, but remains silent about Arthur himself.

Concerning the Ruin of Britain was written by a monk named Gildas, who claimed to have been born in the year of the Battle of Badon. His purpose in writing was not to record history, but to criticize Britain’s post-Arthurian rulers for corruption and ineptness. The work therefore contains few historic details, and where it does record history, it is often misleading. It is unique, however, in having been written by someone whose own lifetime overlapped Arthur’s. Unfortunately, it does not mention Arthur by name.

Another monk named Nennius, probably writing in the 9th century, composed a work that provides modern theorists with a good deal of raw material. History of the Britons lists 12 battles supposedly fought and won by Arthur, and its descriptions have formed the basis of many works that have followed–both fictional and historical.

But by far the most important source (and also the most perplexing,) is the 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey borrows from Nennius for parts of his tale, but elaborates greatly, creating a coherent history of Britain that begins with a mythical connection to ancient Greece and Rome and continues right through Arthur’s journey to Avalon. Just how much of what he includes is pure fantasy is uncertain. Few historians, if any, accept what he says at face value, but many of the incidents that make up his history do seem to contain faint echoes of actual events.

Because these records combine to form a foggy and sometimes contradictory picture, Arthurian research tends to result in a growing diversity of opinion, rather than a distillation of theory into widely accepted fact. This special issue does not attempt to harmonize the wealth of speculation, nor to promote any particular theory as the most likely. Instead, we have simply asked several particularly well-qualified writers to explore various aspects of the Arthur legends as they are known today, and to draw their own conclusions. Theirs are not the only interpretations. For readers who want to delve deeper into the current pool of speculation, see our Reviews department, which not only highlights several of the classic Arthurian tales, but also offers some suggestions of recent titles dealing with the search for their historical foundation.

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