Adrian Gilbert, Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett:
The Holy Kingdom
Bantam Press 1998
I scarcely know where to start with reviewing this work except to say that it is one of the most misguided books produced by a mainstream publisher that I have ever come across.
With sensationalist claims (the publishers go for the hyperbolic “explosive” and “astounding”) the authors, calling themselves historians, purport to overturn orthodoxy: they claim there were not one but two kings named Arthur — one the son of the imperial pretender Magnus Maximus and the other his sixth-century descendant from Glamorgan — whose careers were conflated to produce the single King Arthur of legend.
They not only identify the supposed burial sites of both Arthurs, they then go on to justify the title of their book with madcap theories about holy dynasties and the quest for the grail; sadly it’s all puerile balderdash.
I have to confess a personal interest in countering the nonsense that the authors spout. I first wrote to Wilson and Blackett in August 1983 after Welsh paper The Western Mail reported on their claims, expressing what I thought was mild scepticism while also acknowledging that at that time I didn’t have their full arguments at my disposal. I wasn’t prepared for the unprovoked abuse that I subsequently received, nor the deliberate misrepresentation of what I’d written, the mistakes in transcription, mistranslations of Latin and the fanciful claims.
I started to make a list of questionable statements in this book before stopping, exhausted, at page 40. These include calling medieval poets Chrétien and Wolfram by the place they’re associated with (Troyes and Eschenbach) as though these are bona fide surnames or titles; true scholars would use best practice and simply call them by their given names, as they would have been then, otherwise it’s a bit like referring to Tom O’Bedlam only by the 17th-century madhouse he was confined in.
They then accuse Tudor historian John Leland of “faking” place names around Cadbury in his Itinerary. What Leland actually wrote was “At the very south end of the church of South-Cadbyri standeth Camallate, sometime a famous town or castle . . . The people can tell nothing there but that they have heard Arthur much resorted to Camalat.” As spelling was variable in those days (witness Leland’s own variation) Leland interpreted the places we now know as West Camel and Queen Camel, both near the River Cam (Celtic for “crooked”), as related to Camelot on the basis of local folk etymology.
Elsewhere there is a so-called report into a 1990 dig northeast of Cardiff, at the site of St Peter’s Super Montem which Wilson and Blackett had previously bought. Two archaeologists, Dr Eric Talbot and Alan Wishart of Glasgow University, were down to lead the dig. Unfortunately the report is incomplete, inadequate and has clearly been doctored. Despite the dig being authorised by then Royal Commission for Ancient Monuments, the artefacts discovered — axe, knife and small electrum cross inscribed Pro Anima Artorius — have still not been examined by either trained archaeologists or other independent experts. The fact that Pro anima Artorius* is in illiterate Latin (it’s not ‘for the soul of Arthur’ but the gibberish phrase ‘Arthur for the soul’), that the finish is crude and that the design is completely anachronistic should alert anyone to the truth that it’s a plant and a hoax. We’re not even told its find spot, which in itself speaks volumes.
Of the archaeologists, Eric Talbot unfortunately died in 2011, but the report as presented here is unworthy of someone with his expertise and reputation. Alan Wishart (who reportedly did most of the digging) is currently a dealer in postal history specialising in material dating from 1400 to 1870, an area he pursued from soon after the 1990 excavation, and is no longer involved in archaeology.
A previous find was the so-called gravestone of Arthur II, identified from an inscription reading ARTORIVS REX FILI MAURICIVS. Unfortunately this doesn’t read ‘King Arthur the son of Meurig’ as the authors pretend but the gibberish ‘King Arthur Meurig of the son’.* Both the suspiciously fortuitous and unprovenanced cross and stone ‘proving’ the existence of ‘Artorius’ — even the oddly consistent spelling for Artorius raises questions — run counter to any established scientific method.
Quite frankly Wilson and Blackett, like Adrian Gilbert, are seekers after what they call suppressed knowledge, investigating “ancient Esoteric knowledge and religious Mysteries”: in other words, they are conspiracy theorists. It’s pointless going into aspects of their ridiculous assertions — others have done this effectively, for example here and here. They’ve also been antisocial and litigious neighbours; and in 2004 they stood unsuccessfully as local government candidates for the defunct far right British National Party. These are not trustworthy individuals: Blackett was not only BNP candidate under the name Brian Terry, he was apparently convicted of handling stolen art. Is his name Anthony Thomas Blackett, or Mike (said to be his brother’s name), or M T Byrd, or Grant Berkeley?
This all then results in a confused and badly written narrative featuring two fantasists who have no real historical sense at all, along with a linking commentary by a writer who specialises in Alternative History (another name for — let’s give it its proper appellation — Pseudohistory). The Holy Kingdom is anachronistic, relies on speculative antiquarianism, and has little foundation in any recognisable reality.
The result is unreadable nonsense — extremely easy to parody — which depresses the human spirit; you cannot have a meaningful dialogue with theorists who say they are right and you and everyone else is wrong. The real King Arthur? Don’t make me laugh.
Based on and expanded from a review in a 1998 issue of the Journal of the Pendragon Society
* Pro anima Artori would mean ‘For the soul of Arthur’; the correct Late Latin for ‘King Arthur the son of Meurig’ would be Rex Artorius filius Maurici. Even given the vagaries of Vulgar Latin in the Late and Post-Roman period across the former Empire, Wilson and Blackett’s ignorant insistence that such crass mistakes weren’t really mistakes speaks volumes.