WAS King Arthur Scottish, or even a king at all? A new book seeks to place him at the heart of a Church plot to discredit his achievements but, says Stuart Kelly, the real Arthur is surprisingly easy to find
BACK in the 12th century, the French poet Jean Bodel wrote that “there are only three Matters a man should not be without, that of France, of Britain and of Great Rome”. These “matters” were cycles of heroic stories, with the Matter of Rome being classical mythology, the Matter of France concerning the deeds of Charlemagne and his paladins and the Matter of Britain being tales of King Arthur. The enmity between historians and poets about King Arthur can probably be dated to the same time. It is a battle which continues to the present day, and is perhaps ever more bitter and unyielding than the conflict between Arthur and Mordred, or Merlin and Morgan le Fay. The latest salvo in this ongoing contretemps comes in the form of a book called The King Arthur Conspiracy by Simon Andrew Stirling, with the headline-grabbing subtitle “How A Scottish Prince Became A Mythical Hero”.
According to Stirling’s thesis, the genuine, true, historical Arthur was the son of Áedán mac Gabráin, who ruled the kingdom of Dalriada, situated in what is now Argyll and Bute, at the end of the sixth century AD, and a beautiful woman called Crierwy, who is mentioned in the Welsh legend-cycle, The Mabinogion and in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, a wonderfully weird collection of folklore translated as “the Triads of the Island of Britain”, which collects fragments of myth, traditional wisdom and history grouped into bundles of three. Stirling dates, with uncanny precision, the birth of Arthur at Loch Leven on the 14th of February 559, and places his death at Arthurbank in Angus, in 594. The “Avalon” of the stories turns out to be Iona, and Arthur’s legacy was deliberately concealed by the Christian church – his contemporary St Columba is depicted as a singularly bigoted and Macchiavellian individual – on account of Arthur’s paganism. It was the church again, this time motivated by a venal desire to cash in on Arthur’s legendary status, that transposed his story to southern England. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae, rewrites history to substitute Tintagel for Tantallon and Glastonbury for Iona, and thus a myth is born.
Allergic though I am to any work claiming to be serious historical research that includes the word “conspiracy” in the title, I am in agreement with the broad idea behind Stirling’s contention. As for the details, well, we’ll come to them later. All the best textual evidence we have points to a war-chief of the 6th century operating in what is now called Scotland who went by the name of Arthur, or Artuir, to strip away a layer of Anglicisation. But the picture is far more ambiguous, faint and piecemeal than enthusiasts would have you believe.
The earliest reference we have to Arthur is in a poem called The Gododdin, written in Welsh. We have one manuscript containing the poem, called The Book of Aneirin, and which dates from the latter half of the 13th century. Or rather, we have two versions: one scribe wrote out one version of 83 stanzas, left a blank page, and then a second scribe wrote out another version of 40 stanzas. Neither version is complete, both contain parts not found in the other, and the parts which are similar are not always identical. The poem is attributed to the bard Aneirin, although the language has clearly been updated and altered in transmission. Just to make it even more complicated, the first scribe wrote in Middle Welsh, and the second scribe wrote in Old Welsh. So what can we say about it? The Gododdin is a series of elegies, commemorating the men of Gododdin, a Brythonic kingdom which encompassed what is now south-east Scotland and north-east England. These warriors feasted at Din Eidyn – modern day Edinburgh – before the disastrous battle at Catraeth, from which only one survived. Most scholars date the events described to the early 7th century, give or take a few decades.
The relevant stanza of the poem is from the version in the older form of Welsh, which suggests it is of more ancient provenance. Praising the warrior Gwawrddur, the poem says that “He thrust beyond three hundred of the boldest… he would sate black crows on the fortress wall, though he was not Arthur”. If this does preserve an original oral dirge, it seems as if the audience would know that Arthur was a paradigm of bravery, just as if I were to say that Andy Murray played with all the vigour and failings of a young John McEnroe. Given the threadbare nature of the version we have, we cannot tell whether Arthur was mentioned in other parts as a participant, or whether he was a stock comparison, or even whether or not that stanza appeared in the original.
Let’s grant that Arthur was a heroic warrior in the generation before The Gododdin was written. Stirling’s hypothesis rests, in a shoogly way, on another early reference. In Adomnán’s Life of Columba, written a century after the saint’s death by one of his successors as Abbot of Iona, we learn that Columba prophesied that none of Áedán mac Gabráin’s sons would inherit the throne. Among the fated sons is named one “Artuir”. It is one of the more vexing and eyebrow-raising points of Stirling’s Arthurian romance that his villains seem to have hid the smoking gun in their own works, while other sources, such as the Senchus fer n-Alban, omit Arthur completely when listing Áedán’s sons. Nonetheless, let’s grant Arthur existed and was Áedán mac Gabráin’s bravest son.
Gildas is one of the few sources we have from the period. He wrote an extensive sermon called On The Ruin And Conquest Of Britain, in which he denounced the past and present kings of proto-Scotland, whose infighting and belligerence were being repeated by his contemporaries. Gildas comes in to the story because he mentions a siege at “Mons Badonicus” where the Saxons were defeated by the local Celtic tribes, and three centuries later, a monk called Nennius listed the 12 battles of Arthur, the last of which was at “Mons Badonis”. The Welsh Annals also mention a battle at Mount Badon, in which Arthur was the Christian victor, putting the date problematically early at AD518. Imagine if, four centuries hence, scholars quibbled over whether Osama and Obama were the same person or not. Alistair Moffat, who has written extensively and cleverly on Arthur and early Scotland, has himself swithered over the location of Mons Badonis: in his first book on the topic, the odd nomination referred to Bath, now he prefers Padon Hill, near Rochester. Stirling says “Badon Hill” is actually Badandun Hill in Angus; older writers have suggested Badbury Hill in Dorset, Bowden Hill at Linlithgow and Bardon Hill in Leicestershire. Importantly, Nennius claims that Arthur was not a king, but rather the “dux bellorum”, a military commander who fought alongside local kings. This ties neatly to the idea that he was a prince who never succeeded to the throne, which might be inferred from Adomnán’s hagiography.
Neither Stirling nor Moffat is the first to claim Arthur for Scotland. Andrew Lang, in his posthumously completed Highways and Byways In The Border of 1913, records that Stow Church once held a fragment of Arthur’s portrait of the Virgin Mary. Despite Stirling’s best efforts, every early myth and source associates Arthur with Christianity, not against it, but absence of evidence turns into evidence of absence all too quickly when there is romantic extrapolation rather than dull truth. WF Skene, perhaps the greatest philologist of the period, situated Arthur’s battles in Scotland back in 1868. Sir Walter Scott, when he was capitalising on the success of his first collection of poems, took pains to point out old Arthurian resonances when he edited Sir Tristrem, such as Merlin’s grave being at Drumelzier, near Peebles, back in 1804.
The preponderance of place names and local traditions connected with Arthur do not necessarily mean that all of them have an actual link to any genuine historical war lord. Arthur’s Oven, at Stenhousemuir, was a Roman temple; destroyed in 1743 in an attempt to dam the river Carron. (The vandalism so appalled Sir James Clerk he had a replica built as a dovecot at Penicuik House). Although the site was clearly Roman in origin, the fact that local tradition attributed it to Arthur is a compelling argument that for the persisting fame of a 6th century military commander.
Such fleeting references are hardly a firm foundation on which to reconstruct the life of Arthur, and are certainly insufficient to support Stirling’s rather fanciful thesis, which manages to encompass such fictitious history as the Scots being descended from an Egyptian princess called Scota and which finds esoteric meanings in such later works as Jocelin of Furness’s life of St Kentigern. It is a work more akin to New Age Spirituality than Dark Age history.
All the academic and pseudo-academic ink spilt over locating Arthur’s 12 battles and identifying him with various tribes, factions and kingdoms in post-Roman Britian rather misses the point. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Carleton Young as the local reporter gets the film’s brilliant clinching line: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The “real” Arthur, I would argue, is the fictitious Arthur. No amount of mental gymnastics with and metaphorical readings of early British Latin, Welsh, Saxon and Gaelic texts is going to reveal the location of Excalibur, since it is a work of poetry. It is in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in Sir Thomas Malory’s later Le Morte d’Arthur, that we get the Arthur that has captured the imagination of generations.
• The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince became a Mythical Hero by Simon Andrew Stirling is published by The History Press, £20.