Mining for History

Author Derek Birks examines the evidence for a heroic defender of the Britons.
King Arthur, by Charles Butler
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Mining for History

Researching British history can be both a pleasure and a trial. You might well start with the relevant secondary works, but in my experience that only serves to whet the appetite. It’s when you trawl through the minutiae of contemporary written evidence, or root about in detailed archaeological reports, that you dig out the real gold nuggets of history. There you can discover the little sparks that fire the imagination and make you really consider how people lived many centuries before our time.

However, there is one period of British history where the normal rules of engagement just don’t apply: the Post-Roman period of Britain’s story. This period after Britain dropped out of Roman control remains shadowy and very difficult to pin down. Why? Because almost no written evidence survives from the period of c.AD 400-600. As a result, until the last 30 years or so the thrust of historical understanding of the period has been driven by what historians manage to glean from only a few surviving fragments of writing. This emphasis began to shift a little as more archaeological evidence started to turn up, but often the archaeological finds raise more questions than they answer.

I shall just consider here the first part of the period – the 5th century. If you ask the ‘man or woman in the street’ what they know about 5th century Britain, what you are likely to get – if you get any response at all – will be closer to fantasy than history. Most will suggest that when the Romans abandoned Britain, it was all a terrible mess and eventually the poor defenceless Britons were swept aside by hordes of Angles and Saxons – an extra point is on offer for mentioning the Jutes.

A few folk might also have heard of the Saxon brothers Hengist and Horsa, or perhaps one or two might come up with the names Vortigern or Ambrosius Aurelianus. But most will be much more confident in talking about King Arthur, even though Arthur may not have existed at all.

In summary, most people – even if they are actually interested in British history – know very little about this period where fantasy and history are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. One reason for this is self-evident: the lack of written evidence; but a further problem is that historians have never been able to agree completely about what these few sources actually tell us. So, even with those sources we do have, our understanding is flawed. Added to that is the fact that where we have no evidence at all, even the most respected historians are obliged to guess or simply make things up to fill in the inevitable gaps in our knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with that – after all, what else can we do? But the effect of all this uncertainty is to create a version of the 5th century which may not have existed at all.

When written sources are sparse you have to recognise that what they tell you is almost certain to have some elements of truth, but may also be misleading. Essentially you have only a tiny fraction of the evidence you need to form a coherent picture of life at that time. But written sources are not the only evidence available, and archaeology is playing an increasingly important role in unravelling at least some of the mysteries of Post-Roman Britain.

It seems at the moment that with every passing day new archaeological discoveries challenge our existing interpretation of the period.  A classic example of this occurred when a 5th century mosaic was uncovered by archaeologists at Chedworth Roman Villa. Since no 5th century mosaics had been discovered in Britain, it was understood none had been laid down and, as everyone knew, villas were in decline throughout the 4th century. Yet here is a new 5th century mosaic – the first found in Britain – and inevitably it changes our perspective of certain aspects of life. Clearly someone had enough wealth and desire to have a splendid feature installed in their home at a time when Britain was supposed to be in chaos. Very recently, several large cemeteries have been unearthed which date from the 5th and 6th centuries, and their finds will no doubt enhance our understanding of who lived where and how.

So, what happened after Roman control of Britain disintegrated? Were the Britons defenceless? Were they systematically slaughtered by Saxons? Did Saxons and Britons coexist for a time, or were they enemies from the start? There are so many questions and so few genuine answers.

Where, you might ask, does King Arthur fit into all this? Well, the short answer is that he doesn’t. In the chief – almost only – written source for Britain in the 5th century, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), there is no mention of Arthur at all. Its author, the monk Gildas, was not writing a history, however, but a bitter complaint against the shortcomings of his own contemporaries in the immediate aftermath of the 5th century. His account was therefore often quite vague about people, dates and events – in other words everything a historian might actually want to know!

Gildas was writing sometime between c.AD 490-550 – most likely between c.AD 510-530. His description of Britain includes a brief account of how Britons in the 5th century managed to defeat and drive back Saxon expansion. According to Gildas, the British war leader and architect of the successful defence against the Saxons was not King Arthur, but Ambrosius Aurelianus. He tells us that it is Ambrosius who led the Britons and we have to ask ourselves why he does not mention Arthur if he is as important as legend would have us believe. Some have suggested that Arthur was not as God-fearing as Ambrosius and was therefore erased from the monk’s account, but that seems very unlikely to me.

Like many others, I was fascinated as a child by tales of King Arthur and I would love it if he had actually existed, but the historian in me knows that there is no firm evidence that he did, despite the vast number of places around Britain that carry his name. All of those, of course, owe any association with Arthur to much later periods when he became a symbol of British hope. But even the man that Gildas did credit with leading the British war effort, Ambrosius, remains a sketchy figure. Is it possible that Arthur was a subordinate of Ambrosius – one of his captains, perhaps a cavalry commander? Yes, but there is zero evidence for that in Gildas’ work.

The mention of the name Arthur in early Welsh accounts suggests that there might have been an actual Arthur – perhaps unconnected with the fight against the Saxons, but maybe a local hero. In the 9th century a monk called Nennius wrote a rather jumbled account called Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons). In this work he mentioned Ambrosius but he also gave a starring role to Arthur. He described his Arthur as the ‘war leader’ of the Britons but the Latin description is ambiguous and it could well be that he was just a commander of some of the British forces. According to both Gildas and Nennius, Ambrosius was a part of the story, but only Nennius introduced Arthur as a significant figure in the defence of Britain. Is it relevant that Nennius was writing in the 9th century at a time when Saxons controlled much of Britain and were certainly encroaching upon Welsh territory? Is the idea of a Welsh war hero just what was needed at that time?

Yet when I consider that Nennius painted Arthur as a very religious man, I cannot think why Gildas would have ignored such a significant leader, since the whole point of his work was to contrast the moral strength of that generation with their successors in the 6th century.

Despite the name of Arthur being mentioned in these early Welsh texts, the legend did not really start until the Middle Ages with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain published in 1136. In his work Geoffrey described Arthur as a great British king who conquered just about all the known world. But sadly, even some contemporaries realised that Geoffrey had made it all up. Who knew? Fake news is not a modern invention! There is always a market for fantasy which offers hope and many people lapped up Geoffrey’s account. After that, Arthur’s story took on a life of its own so that to this day he continues to fascinate us. But fascination alone should not convince us that he is real.

When I began my research for a series of novels set in this shadowy period, it quickly became clear to me that I had set myself an impossible task: to separate historical fact from fantasy and legend. And so, whatever I found out, I would still have to make things up.

I went back to Gildas – the nearest contemporary account – and took the decision that he could not simply have erased Arthur from his account. Thus, in the end for me it is Ambrosius Aurelianus, not Arthur, we need to look at to understand the tumultuous course of events in the 5th century. Ambrosius appears to have been a titanic figure, a man who was able to unite the squabbling tribes of Britain – and they were squabbling – to form a coherent and effective resistance to an ever-growing number of Saxons. In my view he must have been not just a formidable soldier, but an exceptional man. How tragic that we know so little about him.

So, what of Arthur? Well, I have not dismissed him out of hand because the early mention of his name suggests to me that Arthur could have been one of Ambrosius’ subordinates. As such, Gildas might not have thought him worthy of mention in his broad-brush account. But Nennius and other Welsh writers who preceded him seized upon the name and it clearly meant something to them. And I suppose it could even be that Arthur and Ambrosius are two legendary faces of the same actual person.

Because both traditions mention Ambrosius, I decided to focus my attention upon him to try to recreate a genuine British hero at the heart of my fictional tales. To flesh out this man from the few traces of him that remain, I have had to research the whole period to discover what sort of man might have been in a position to achieve what he did. Along the way, I have explored new archaeological discoveries which help to create a picture of what 5th century Britain might have been like. That picture is not an ultra high-definition digital image; it’s more of a threadbare tapestry that shows a land of rival British tribes, of plague and famine, of Scotti raiders from Ireland, Picts from Scotland and, of course, the Saxons who, having been invited to Britain, decided to stay. But that story will have to wait until next time.

Derek Birks is a historical fiction writer and former teacher. His debut novel, Feud, was published in 2012 and he has since written seven more books. More recently, he has focused on the Post-Roman period, with The Last of the Romans and its sequel, Britannia: World’s End. The third book in the trilogy, Land of Fire, is out now.

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