Rowan Williams on King Arthur

The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes in the New Statesman (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Our once and future king

No indisputable evidence exists for a “real” King Arthur, but, fictional or not, Britain has always needed him.

BY ROWAN WILLIAMS

Does anyone now read the historical novels of Henry Treece? A minor poet associated with the postwar “New Apocalyptic” group, he produced in the 1950s and 1960s a steady stream of fiction for the adult and young adult market, set mostly in early Britain and in the Viking age. The books are characterised by vivid, simple and sometimes repetitive plotting, ample bloodshed, a well-judged mixture of the cynical and the romantic, and plenty of gloomy Celtic and Nordic atmospherics. Several of the novels feature an “historical” King Arthur – a sixth-century warlord, co-ordinating resistance to the invading Saxons. Treece portrays with some skill the ways in which such a figure might have manipulated vague memories of Roman power and cultural identity to shore up his dominance in a chaotic post-Roman Britain.

The picture Treece outlines (a picture that can be found in rather less highly coloured narratives by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Meriol Trevor) is in fact not too far away from what a substantial number of professional historians of the mid-20th century had come to take for granted. The withdrawal of Roman military presence from Britain in the first quarter of the fifth century must have left the native population at the mercy of rapidly increasing swarms of settlers from north-western Europe, who pushed across lowland Britain, sacking Roman settlements and killing a substantial proportion of the population. Archaeology seemed to support this picture: Roman towns had been ruined and abandoned, British hill settlements were reoccupied and refortified. There appeared to be a bit of a hiatus in “Saxon” settlement in the first half of the sixth century, however, and some historians saw this as the result of a concerted campaign of British resistance.

There was an obvious gap for an “Arthurian” figure to fill, a military leader with nationwide authority, leaving a legacy in popular memory strong enough ultimately to generate the familiar legends of a great British hero and king. We are on our way to the Round Table and the Holy Grail and all the other riches of the “Matter of Britain”, as the medieval authors called the jungle of legendary traditions that grew around the name of Arthur.

More at the link.

It’s interesting how some figures who resisted invasion are later appropriated by the invaders themselves. King Arthur is one such; if he ever existed, he would have been a Romanized Briton defending an (unwillingly) independent Britannia from Anglian and Saxon invasion. The Britons lost, of course, and were pushed into Wales and Cornwall, where they consoled themselves that some day Arthur would return and vindicate their claim to their ancestral homeland. Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1095-c. 1155), a man of Welsh background who entered the church and who ended up at Oxford, wrote the History of the Kings of Britain, which included a long chapter on Arthur. From that point on, Arthur ceased to be a Welsh figure and became an English one, since he defended the island from invaders.

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