Whistling in the dark

sunset
Sunset in the west

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.

Map in Pendragon for Speculum review, 1981

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)

dusk
Dusk over the Preseli Hills

24 thoughts on “Whistling in the dark

  1. Pingback: Whistling in the dark — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. This is fascinating. I think your conclusion sums up my feelings – sometimes we just need a hero. I love the idea that so many might have been contained in that single figure of ‘Arthur’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Cath, I absolutely agree that ‘Arthur’ has become a premier catch-all for our concept of a hero so he can be almost everything to everyone, shape-shifting as necessary into multiple forms.

      Sorry the review was, of necessity, so dense—the original text was addressed to an audience who were expected to have a more detailed knowledge of the history, literature, mystery and myth-making behind the legends we know and love! At some stage I may get round to that book I’ve spent decades researching…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not so much dense, as full of interesting detail. I love it when someone summarises complicated or convoluted arguments for me. Hope you do get started on the book. It would be a shame to waste research.

        Liked by 2 people

          1. I can’t believe I missed finding this. I taught Once and Future King a while ago. In my trawl around reading up on the background to the legend I thought I’d read widely, but I don’t seem to have found your site. Thanks for the hint.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this article (and your original) with big interest – absolutely fascinating. In the 1980s, I was totally obsessed by Arthur. Michael Wood was to blame, with his excellent series In Search of the Dark Ages (and his flying jacket *cough*). I hoovered up every text, ancient and modern, I could get, but in a distinctly hobbyist way, including Ashe of course. I even applied to Mastermind – but with Arthurian Myth and Legend as my subject rather than the historical basis. (I didn’t get on the show). I still have a huge interest in Arthur – but like Cath I prefer to see him as a legendary hero who embodies the dark ages, and it’s the myth and magic and romance that I love. That said, I’d love more posts from you on the subject. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, Michael Wood, such an enthusiastic communicator (and, yes, definitely a bit of eye candy!). Anyway, glad to know you’re a fellow devotee of all things Arthurian, such a rich field to be, as it were, a detectorist in.

      Here’s the thing: I came at Arthuriana in the sixties, during the time was archaeology was becoming sexy, involved at South Cadbury, then a nearby Roman villa, and then progressing to a long-running dig at a Dark Age site in the Gower. I knew all about the fragile threads connecting the literature, myths and legends with putative Arthurian history and archaeology, fascinated by the divide but able to divorce one from the other.

      All that said, I was always bemused and frequently irritated by commentators that couldn’t accept that projecting back medieval notions of magic swords, round tables, armoured horsemen and concepts of kingship into a post-Roman context were misguided. Ashe, for all his erudition, intelligence and insights (not to forget prolific authoring) fell/falls into this trap of backprojecting, though it sorrows me to say so. My approach would be to always go beyond the who/what/when/where discussion and to ask why: why do we need an Arthur-tyoe figure, and why do we need to turn the Dark Ages into a Golden Age? There’s the title song from the musical Camelot that perfectly encapsulates this I think!

      Mastermind, eh? I can well imagine that, despite you not being picked! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I had to go back and remind myself of Camelot‘s title song. I remember going to the movie as a kid and being bored stiff – whereas Errol Flynn as Robin Hood was thrilling! Actually, give me the later Excalibur – now that’s an Arthurian movie and a half (all that Orff and Wagner in the soundtrack helped, plus Nicol Williamson was superb as Merlin).

        I should have added, despite no Welsh connections, I love the Mabinogion similarly (and very much enjoyed those of Seren Publishlings New Mabinogion retellings I’ve read) – I hope to fit in another one or two of them for the Welsh reading month soon.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. “In short, there’s simply not a more congenial spot / For happily ever after in than here in Camelot,” are the lines I was referring to (though I had to check to see the exact wording) which to me encapsulate that yearning for a return to a Golden Age, and which—to be briefly political—Brexiters try to evoke. (Blitz spirit, rationing, plucky Tommies, blue passports, Union flag-waving . . . Makes me sick just thinking about it.)

          Errol Flynn! Leaving aside the irony of an Australian-born American (married to a Frenchwoman and dying in Canada) playing an English rebel, I think he will always be the archetypal Robin Hood. And, apart from the love-making scene in full armour, Excalibur is the best of the romantic Arthurian films (though the Monty Python parody will always be my favourite movie on this topic, especially the police arriving at the end as the oddest-ever deus ex machina resolution to an epic).

          Which Seren retellings have you read so far? Of the two I’ve read I enjoyed the Horatio Claire more than the Fflur Dafydd.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, this was exactly the intellectual distraction I needed on a difficult Monday. I’ve always been intrigued by Arthurian scholarship, although a degree in archaeology and a dissertation focused on post-Roman Britain cured me of most of my romanticism 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad to be of service! Interesting to see what your academic background was about—I guess you pour your lingering romanticism into reading SFF rather than the minutiae of animal bones, pot sherds, tooth enamel and coprolites…

      Having previously glanced at your blog I have been meaning to follow you, but perhaps now the moment has arrived. (No, this is not a threat!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’d be right 🙂 Space archaeologists, alien relics and fantasy dinosaurs over pollen or pottery under a microscope (although dendrochronology and ice core dating are very cool). I had no idea how political archaeology was until I was studying it. Honestly, my biggest take away was that most of our theories were a function of who and when we were, and likely as flawed as all the ones that came before. So it’s all just storytelling with authentic props, really, isn’t it? 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great essay! I’m looking forward to that book of yours – you kind of promised 😀
    I’m not a professional in the field, but isn’t the recent dominant idea that Arthur as we know him is in fact a mix of several figures? Ashe’s theory sounds quite convincing, even if build on sand… And I distinctly remember several other instances of Riothamus being identified with Arthur (sadly, won’t be able to say whether the sources were post- or pre-Ashe, as I don’t recall them!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ola! A professor called Léon Fleuriot preceded Ashe with a Riothamus theory, though he in fact identified R with Ambrosius Aurelianus, a different character altogether, dubbed as ‘the last of the Romans’ after all the legions left Britannia. And I’ve heard the composite-Arthur theory, but it just doesn’t hold water as nobody can agree which figures go into the mix! I’ve been tempted to write a summary of all the problems, but then I suspect it would only expand into that long-promised book… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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