I have completed a new book and it’s a fresh departure for me in terms of genre – an historical fiction, the first of an intended trilogy: Hero for a Dark Age: Arthur.
Now this is a pretty crowded part of almost any library anywhere so why did I have the temerity to go there when there are so many other versions already extant? And the answer is – dissatisfaction, a profound belief that even the best of them hadn’t got it quite right. Let me explain…
Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written about ‘King’ Arthur – many scholarly exegeses based on the flimsiest of hard evidence, many speculative histories based on little else than their author’s pet theories and prejudices, and many, many more fictional – and often utterly fanciful – accounts of his supposed life and exploits. There seems to be, then, an endless fascination with this particular heroic figure, whether he was for real or legendary, and the effort offered here – in my Hero for a Dark Age trilogy – is not going to stem the tide in Arthuriana, that’s for sure; besides I would not want to – every generation seems to find something anew in the romance of ‘Arthur’ and that, in general, is a very positive thing.
Looking at the literary genre called Arthuriana, there are broadly-speaking two discernible schools: – that based on his later French and English medieval advocates who ground him firmly in their own time or thereabouts and had him and his fabled company, from many-turreted Camelot, issuing forth to chase dragons and rescue damsels all encumbered by chain mail and clunking armour – or there is the much more plausible post-Roman military commander and cavalry genius who successfully resisted and discomforted the Saxons; thus giving the British a respite of sorts (for a generation at least) and the chance to consolidate themselves after a fashion in their mountain fastnesses or more remote strongholds.
Now the ‘King’ Arthur of Camelot is a well-established genre that inhabits a world entirely of its own making and is none the worse for that if you like that sort of thing, but I have always been more attracted to the earthier and more plausible-sounding Arthur of Dark Age myth and legend, and - though it is based upon the scantiest of references – of a possible historical Arthur, too. In myth and legend he is sometimes called a king, but the historical evidence for such a regal figure is singularly lacking and a Dux Bellorum, a leader in battles (a general no less), is much more probable, if he existed at all.
But, that said, what then? Was this ‘Dark Age’ Arthur a thorough-going Roman or a Romano-Britisher or what? Was he based in what we now call the West Country or was he, in fact, a North Briton from an area that is now predominantly in Scotland but back then was firmly British in character and in people? Was he possibly a Gael (Irish) – in language and custom – hailing from western Scotland instead of the usual assumption that he was a Brythonic-speaking (proto-Welsh) hero both culturally and in loyalty? Just about every region of mainland Britain – except, naturally enough, the southern and eastern portion of England – claim him for their own! So what are we to make of all this?
There is one approach that might get us closer to an answer and it is an increasingly well-trodden path – that is, to go back to the (tantalisingly few) original sources and resolutely set one’s face against all the later interpretations, emendations and accretions. If one looks at the earliest extant Latin, usually, or Welsh texts that mention Arthur – they were nearly all, significantly, written by Welshmen or men who had very close attachments - residential, familial and cultural - with Wales. Now, that does not, of itself, prove that Arthur was actually a full-blooded Welshman, of course (though the earliest sources all clearly identify him as one of their own: a Cymric hero) or that he even came from ‘Wales’ itself, since the geo-political and cultural entity we now recognize as Wales did not exist back then. For Wales in the ‘Dark Ages’ was essentially all of mainland Britain that was not Pictland nor the fledgling western peninsular homelands (sometimes temporary) of the Irish nor the south coast and eastern homelands of the Saxon and other Germanic invaders and settlers.
So, in theory, Arthur could have come from almost any of the Brythonic kingdoms that emerged after the leaving of the Romans, circa 410 AD: from Alt Clud (Strathclyde) and Manau Gododdin (Edinburgh and Lothian) in the far north to Dumnonia, or Dyfnaint, and Cernwy, in the far south west, via Rheged, Gwynedd or Powys or any one of a host of lesser kingdoms in-between.
So tantalisingly obscure or remiss in essential detail are some of the earliest sources that it is not always obvious that Arthur is even primarily concerned with fighting the Saxons. Some evidence suggests that he might have had his hands full with the Picts and the Scotti (Irish) as well at times, which – some interpreters – take to favour an Arthur of the Old North again, though Wales had its Irish incursions too, in the Dyfed and Lleyn peninsulas – and the Picts were great seafarers as well. And, sad to relate, the British oft-times fought amongst themselves too, as in the civil war between ‘Vortigern’ and Aurelius Ambrosianus (Ambrosias the Elder), which happened in the generation before a likely ‘Arthur’ and then again, and disastrously, at Camlan – Arthur’s final battle. So many claims, so many Arthurs, so much confusion!
In the light of the above, and the absence of any authentic and corroborated archaeological evidence which unequivocally fixes an identifiable Arthur in a particular landscape, it seems to me that – within reason – Arthur, if he existed at all, could have come from almost anywhere within the Prydain of his day. However, in my judgement, there is one area that stands out above all others as a highly likely and plausible contender: I refer, of course, to the area of south-east Wales known as Gwent. Apart from a few notable writers* this has had scant attention (oddly being glossed over or dismissed by others but with no reasonable explanation) yet it seems to be both historically very plausible and entirely consistent with many aspects of the legend itself.
This was one of the safest (furthest back from the Saxon ‘front-lines’), surviving and thriving, farmed and forested, sub-roman kingdoms of Britain based as it was on the walled Roman civitas of Venta [Caerwent] and the former legionary base at Isca [Caerllion] – even as they both physically declined. It still had relatively good communication lines (road, river and sea) with what remained of the Roman villa culture of the Cotswolds and the cities and settlements of Glevum [Gloucester] and Corinium [Cirencester] and southwards to Aqua Sulis [Bath]. To the north it was linked, ultimately, to Deva [Chester] and beyond via Viriconium [Wroxeter] and virtually all points eastwards were accessible via the great Fosse Way, of course.
The continuing importance of things Roman in south-east Wales, during and even after Arthur’s (supposed) time, is strikingly affirmed by the lineage of the kings of Gwent: Meurig (c528-535), Erbic and Erb ap Erbic (c535-555), Tewdrig (c610-625) and Meurig ap Tewdrig (c620-665) with Meurig almost certainly being derived from the Latin Mauricius, Erbic/Erb (and Erbin, king of neighbouring Dumnonia) coming from Urbanus, in all probability, and Tewdrig being the Brythoneg form of Theoderic (or Theodosius, quite possibly). Furthermore, although one finds, here and there, references to ‘Arthur’ all over the British Isles, the areas of present day south-east Wales and its adjacent territories (over the English border today) actually abound with references to Arthur, and some of the earliest references to him in Welsh folklore and legend place several of his exploits very firmly and quite explicitly in the Gwentian area.
Recent ground-mapping work and excavations at Caerllion have exposed the fact that it was twice the size formerly thought and that it had an extremely impressive river frontage and some of the largest public buildings in Roman Britain. Furthermore, high status finds – including a cavalry officer’s chain-mail – have been unearthed and the whole site is being re-appraised as one of the most important in all Roman Britain.
I am reasonably confident, therefore, that locating my Arthur-figure, my Dux Bellorum, in Gwent – on the topographical, linguistic, historical and legendary ‘evidence’ available from almost exclusively Welsh sources – is as plausible as many another and far, far sounder than a good deal more.
© Aeddan Howells 2014
* Geoffrey of Monmouth in The History of the Kings of Britain [Folio Society, London, 2010]