Academic journal article Arthuriana

Arthur's Battles

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Arthur's Battles

Article excerpt

A handful of early documents bearing on the question of Arthur's existence look like serious efforts to preserve historical information. If read properly, they can, among other things, answer the question of whether or not Arthur really existed. (PJCF)

'It is the mark of an educated mind to expect the amount of exactness in each kind that the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator.' Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1.3

It has been said that although there may have been an historical Arthur, historians can say nothing of value about him.1 That is not true. The problem is with Arthur's existence.2 If he existed, he will not have been a bishop, a Saxon, a cripple, a peasant, or a nun. He will have been the outstandingly successful British military commander in an eight-hundred-year- long war in which nearly all British commanders were losers, and it would be hard not to attribute to him the outstanding British military victory that we know of in the period: the Battle of Badon.3 That would be something worthwhile for an historian to say.

If anything at all can be discovered about a man who may have been the most successful military commander of his day, it is likely to be about his battles. Although they have been much discussed,4 I suggest that there may be discoveries still to be made in the handful of documents that appear to tell us something about them. (Those passages are given in an appendix at the end of this essay.) My first contention will be that three of those documents taken together can answer the most disputed question of all, that of Arthur's existence.

The earliest of these documents is Gildas's De excidio Britanniae ('The Ruin of Britain'), a sermon denouncing the vices of its age.5 It begins by summarizing the history of Britain from the Roman conquest until Gildas's own time. This summary must be as accurate as Gildas was able to make it. Only if he told his audience the truth about mundane matters of which they had direct knowledge would they have believed him on the subject he really cared about-The Wrath to Come. His little history is wildly inaccurate for earlier times. He puts the building of Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall (a.d. 122-26 and 142 respectively), for instance, in the wrong order, and both after the usurpation of Magnus Maximus (a.d. 383).6 That tells us a good deal about the quality of historical information available when Gildas wrote. Nevertheless, we must believe him when he speaks about events members of his audience would have known about, and what he says about what later authors were to call Arthur's greatest victory is such an event: he says that it happened in the year of his birth.7 It is the Battle of Badon, which Gildas calls more precisely the siege of Mount Badon (or Badon Hill). The siege of a hill might be surprising, because hills usually have water-supply problems, but as it happens there is evidence that hill-top sites were being fortified and re-fortified in Britain and on the continental mainland in this period.8 The battle was plainly a decisive engagement: Gildas says that the Saxon attacks had not been renewed when he wrote, forty-three years and one month later. The decisiveness is also attested by Gildas's calling it a strages, a 'slaughter.'9 The two factors together suggest massive Saxon casualties.

It is hard to go beyond this. It is usually assumed that Gildas wrote about a.d. 540; if so, the battle was fought about a.d. 497 (give or take perhaps ten years in both cases).10 Gildas does not tell us where Badon is, and no combination of history and place-name studies has been able to locate it. Like many places in modern Britain, it may have an Anglo-Saxon name now.11 It is most likely to be near the area Gildas talks about most, roughly modern Wales and south-west England, a region centered somewhere near Gloucester. …

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