I was watching the excellent BBC documentary 'King Arthur's Britain: The Truth Unearthed' last week, when I remembered my reading pile included 'King Arthur: A Military History' by Michael Holmes. I also paid a visit to Tintagel this summer. So what have I learned?
Michael Holmes makes a bold attempt to justify, not only the existence of King Arthur, as a High King of Britain, but a series of military victories that held back the Anglo-Saxon invasion for many years. He has been influenced by the late Dr John Morris who wrote another heavy tome on the subject, 'The Age of Arthur', that also rests on my bookshelves.
That book has come under sustained academic criticism and I fear many of the same traps have been galloped into by Michael Holmes. He takes what few, and they are very few, documentary sources to build an edifice that is difficult to justify. In fairness, he examines the various sources and arguments made for battle sites etc. so the reader can draw their own conclusion. He argues a new factor is the comparison with the conquest of Gaul by the Franks, which happened much more quickly than in Britain. However, there are obvious differences that might explain the different timeline, other than the heroic figure of King Arthur.
Professor Alice Roberts in the BBC documentary, uses the latest archeological evidence to paint a somewhat different picture. Far from the great military invasion, she argues that the Anglo-Saxons infiltrated into the east of England, filling the vacuum left by the departing Romans. The absence of any major battle graves or significant numbers of sword wounds in skeletal remains, reinforces this view. The latest DNA evidence shows that less than 10% of people in the 'Saxon' areas came from Northern Europe. In essence, the Anglo-Saxons arrived and built their own communities, before gradually mixing with the local population. The Britons weren't driven out to the west or Wales - most of them stayed put.
There certainly was an east-west split in England, but this is more likely to reflect trading links. Tintagel was an important centre, looking to its long standing trading links based on tin, which are reflected in the latest finds on the site. Whilst the east of England traded over the North Sea, as it had done for many years.
|Tintagel Castle - well worth a visit, even if no evidence that Arthur was there!|
While the documentary didn't make this point, I was reminded of the Slav 'invasion' of the Balkans in the same era. They gradually infiltrated into the Balkans during a period of Byzantine weakness, filling another vacuum. No huge armies or massive battles.
All this adds up to a much less exciting or heroic story, but to me at least, a more credible one. I will still manoeuvre my Arthurian war band across the tabletop, while recognising that this is probably more fantasy than historical wargaming.