Geoffrey Ashe in association with Debrett’s Peerage:
The Discovery of King Arthur
Debrett’s Peerage 1985
Humans make history, and histories about individual humans are particularly fascinating if not always fashionable among scholars. Occasionally popular and scholarly tastes overlap, as we have seen in the case of the discovery of Richard III’s body under a car park in Leicester. But if anybody’s hoping in similar fashion to discover the body of King Arthur they might just be whistling in the dark.
Why? Well, frankly the historical documentation for Arthur is, to put it mildly, very sparse, some might say non-existent.
There are scraps contained in The History of the Britons (from the 9th century and attributed to Nennius), along with the vestiges of a handful of folktales; and there are the entries for the ‘Arthurian’ battles of Badon and Camlann in the 10th-century Welsh Annals. The folklore – Arthur chasing a giant boar, the strange mystery of his son’s grave – throws more light on human psychology than hard history, however, and the Annals are rather too late (by half a millennium) to be reliable.
There are Dark Age individuals called Arthur – such as one from western Scotland, another from Dyfed in Wales, a semi-mythical figure from Northern Britain in an Old Welsh poem called Y Gododdin — but they all flourish up to a century after the legendary Arthur. All rigorous scholars of the period have been troubled by the apparent lack of contemporary allusion to a recognisable Arthur in documents or inscriptions: in a relatively literate age a man of his supposed stature and pedigree has somehow escaped notice.
Geoffrey Ashe’s The Discovery of King Arthur (1985, revised 2003) argues that Arthurian scholarship in Britain is too insular. If it wasn’t it would have taken more account of the Gaulish episodes contained in the 12th-century pseudo-historical History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Ashe maintains.
King Arthur’s warlike forays on the continent, which form a significant part of this narrative, are now usually regarded as unhistorical and an embarrassment. But, unlike Geoffrey’s so-called history, later continental chronicles place Arthur firmly in the late 5th century rather the early 6th favoured by Geoffrey and, before him, the compilers of the Annals and, rather more vaguely, The History of the Britons. Geoffrey’s own dates for Arthur are irreconcilable: his Arthur dies in 542 but flourishes in the time of Pope Leo, who actually died in 461. Ashe suggests that continental Europeans thought of Arthur’s heyday as in the 460s. In the 1980s a radical rethink of the Arthurian question was clearly called for to help sort out this chronological mess.
Ashe’s theory of Arthur’s real identity first surfaced in the Speculum—the Journal of the Medieval Academy of America—well over three decades ago. Arthur, by these continental accounts, matches up with Riotimus or Riothamus, a king of the Britons whose existence is in no doubt. With twelve thousand troops shipped into Gaul Riothamus is reported in 468 to have fought Saxons successfully in the Loire valley before being betrayed by the imperial prefect of Gaul to Visigoths attacking from the south. Riothamus and the remnants of his Britons fled east to Burgundy before vanishing from history in the area around Avallon, in 470.
Does this sound familiar? A King of the Britons, defeating the Saxons, is betrayed by the Emperor’s deputy while fighting in Gaul, then mysteriously disappears near Avallon: it’s suspiciously like the continental campaigns of Arthur described by Geoffrey of Monmouth, taking up half of the story of Arthur’s reign in Geoffrey’s History. Geoffrey even quotes these lines in his Prophecies of Merlin (included in his History):
The Boar of Cornwall shall lord it over the forests of Gaul. The House of Romulus shall dread his savagery and his end will be shrouded in mystery.
Ashe argues strongly for the equation that Arthur (‘the Boar of Cornwall’ in the Prophecies) is really Riothamus, who is abandoned by imperial forces (‘the House of Romulus’) to meet an uncertain end. This is an attractive hypothesis, refined and expanded since “A Certain Ancient Book” first argued the case in the Speculum.* It answers many questions and appears to solve many problems of chronology. But there are, of course, difficulties. There are always difficulties.
1. The name is different. Riothamus is never specifically identified with Arthur by any of the contemporary or near-contemporary sources: Cassiodorus (c 531), Jordanes’ Gothic History (c 551), Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks (c 591) and especially Sidonius Apollinaris, who actually wrote to Riothamus by name. Ashe argues, against the opinions of some philologists, that Riothamus is not a name (‘very kingly’) but a title (meaning something like ‘High or Supreme King’) which Arthur assumed, rather like the cognomen or nickname by which Romans such as Caligula or Augustus were better known.
These are interesting analogies but for Arthur Riothamus no more than that. The two separate bodies of lore about Arthur in Britain and Riothamus in Gaul prior to the 11th and 12th centuries is more troubling, though if we were resorting to analogies we would note the more recognisable correspondences between the native Macsen legend and the continental history of Magnus Maximus.
2. The dates are different. Riothamus disappears in 470, Geoffrey’s Arthur in 542. Where did Geoffrey get 542? In his Speculum article Ashe argues that Geoffrey saw a date 442 for the disappearance of Arthur and couldn’t square it with a post-500 date for a victory against the Saxons at Badon, which both Nennius’ History and the Annals credit to Arthur. Ashe postulates that the 442 date was calculated from the Passion, not the Incarnation as now, and though the computations were incorrectly devised (we should get a date of 470 for the disappearance of Arthur-as-Riothamus, not 475) Geoffrey bypassed the problem by changing it to 542 — just as a later Arthurian writer, Wace, was to adjust this further to 642!
Fun though it is to play with numbers though, this kind of speculation is not proof.
3. Nowhere in earlier references is Arthur mentioned as being in Gaul. None of the insular texts take Arthur beyond the confines of Britain. However, one of Ashe’s star witnesses is a Latin Legend of St Goeznovius, dated to 1019 and given third-hand in a 15th-century MS formerly at Nantes in Brittany.
Vortigern, to buttress the defence of the kingdom of Great Britain which he unrighteously held, summoned warlike men from the land of Saxony and made them his allies in the kingdom. Since they were pagans and of devilish character, lusting by their nature to shed human blood, they drew many evils upon the Britons.
Presently their pride was checked for a while through the great Arthur, king of the Britons. They were largely cleared from the island and reduced to subjection. But when this same Arthur, after many victories which he won gloriously in Britain and in Gaul, was summoned at last from human activity, the way was open for the Saxons to go again into the island, and there was great oppression of the Britons, destruction of churches and persecution of saints…
In those days, many holy men gave themselves up to martyrdom; others … left the greater Britain which is now the Saxon’s homeland, and sailed across to the lesser Britain (Brittany).
Note, however, that there is no sense of Arthur being “summoned from human activity” consequent on his many Gaulish victories; he is just as likely to have returned to Britain and enjoyed many years of peace as to die in Gaul (which is never explicitly stated, and may not even be implicit).
The Legend gives a historical context for Arthur, between the rule of Vortigern and the subsequent migration of pious Britons to Armorica, which was re-named Brittany on account of the influx. Crucially, by placing Arthur fighting in Gaul — a good century before Geoffrey of Monmouth did — the Legend of Goeznovious not only predates the growth of the Arthurian legend in Continental writing but could have been a (or even the) source book for Geoffrey; and moreover may have a basis in historic fact.
Much of Ashe’s argument depends on that 1019 date (anno ab Incarnatione Domini M nono decimo: “one thousand nine plus ten years from the Incarnation of the Lord”) for the Legend which the author gives — is it trustworthy or is it spurious? A major problem is that it only survives quoted in a later manuscript, a 15th-century copy of the 14th-century Chronique de Saint Brieuc, which makes it hard to authenticate. Only scholars from relevant disciplines are in a position to validate this, and unfortunately that excludes me, but without other later nearly contemporary copies to compare (as has happened with so many other texts, including Geoffrey’s Historia) reliance on a source given at third hand is fraught with difficulties.
Then there are the coincidences of three narrative themes in a specific order — victory, betrayal and mysterious disappearance — which Ashe adduces as supporting evidence. But are these enough to nail the identification? After all, these themes are individually found in many culture heroes, from Roland (victory and betrayal) to The King (‘Elvis lives!’), and in combination in, famously, the story of Christ (teaching and miracles followed by betrayal and mysterious disappearance).
This review was first published in the Journal of the Pendragon Society in 1984, posted here now in a revised form. I’ve previously published an expanded version of this review incorporating my review of Ashe’s original Speculum article
* Geoffrey Ashe (1981) “A Certain Very Ancient Book: Traces of an Arthurian Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History” Speculum 56: 301-323
— — (1996) ‘Arthur, Origins of Legend’, ‘Goeznovii, Legenda Sancti‘, ‘Riothamus’ in Norris J Lacy (1996) The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (Garland Publishing)
— — (2003) The Discovery of King Arthur (revised edition, Sutton Publishing)