Thursday, 27 December 2018

Arthur: Warrior and King

Arthur: Warrior and King
Don Carleton
Amberley Publishing, 2018

From the Publisher:

"People have been looking for the sites of the long-lost and mysterious battles of King Arthur for a thousand years. In this book, the result of extensive consultation with experts across academic disciplines, the author’s researches point to fascinating new conclusions about Arthur’s life.

"Much of the history of the time was lost because of some kind of natural catastrophe around AD 540. But the warrior elite, of which Arthur was part, went on to rule what later became known as Wessex, the cradle of the English nation – for which King Arthur became a founding legend.

"Don Carleton’s study – arguably the first attempt at an ‘authentic history’ of King Arthur for generations – offers a compelling case for a new location of the long-lost Battle of Badon, King Arthur’s greatest battle.

"The king and warrior who emerges from this work will be, to some readers, uncongenial. In this portrait, Arthur appears to have been a wily but amoral, boastful blond Irish raider, unrestrained in his ravaging, who used his battles to carve out a kingdom among the Britons and ended his life as a shambling, incoherent shadow of a warrior, a danger to himself and to everyone around him."

The Author
Don Carleton is a journalist, broadcaster and film-maker who has worked for the BBC and later became Director of Information at Bristol University. Many academic colleagues at the university reviewed the material for this book. He has previously published histories of Bristol University and the Princes Theatre, Bristol.

Arthur, Guinnion and Bridget
This is a strange book. In the Preface Carleton tells us it happened by accident as he came across 16th century references to the old Celtic name for Bristol which prompted him to delve deeper.

In the Third chapter, in which the author puts forward identifications for the 12 Arthurian battle sites as listed in the Historia Brittonum (or ‘Nennius’ as he calls it), he makes reference to David Dumville’s attack on “Arthurian History” in response to publication of books like John Morris’s ‘The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650’ and ‘Arthur's Britain: History And Archaeology AD 367-634’ by Leslie Alcock and seems to be suggesting that ‘Arthur: Warrior and King’ is the first serious attempt at creating an authentic history of King Arthur since Dumville shook the academic world back in 1977. It’s not, despite the author alluding to his work being endorsed by “prominent medieval historians”.

Dumville’s point being that there is so little truly historical information on Arthur that you cannot write an historical account of the legendary king. He is correct; any account claiming to have identified the man and his battles is forced to fall back on conjecture, scribal errors and insecure genealogies.

In discussing the battle sites, Carleton locates Arthur’s eighth battle at Guinnion as having been fought at Glastonbury. This a first to my knowledge, but it fits nicely within the author’s theory for a localised campaign in the south west of England centred around Bristol. There is no tradition of a battle at Glastonbury.

Carleton’s 'Glastonbury is Guinnion' argument is based on the conjectured existence of a Marian cult at the Somerset town. Carleton admits it is doubtful that devotion to the Virgin Mother had reached England by Arthurian times, the first half of the 6th century. He suggests it may record a ‘Christian victory’ or a battle claimed as such in later years when Nennius wrote.

Carleton unravels an etymology for Guinnion as the ‘castle of the holy women’, suggesting it may refer to a refuge or convent. Sure enough he taps in to the tradition of Saint Bridget at Glastonbury and ponders that if there was a monastery for women at Glastonbury, defended by Arthur and his men, it was probably dedicated to Mary Magdalene, the companion of Jesus. Yet Bridget is said to have resided at Beckery for a short period where excavations have revealed a strong male presence among the 50 graves surrounding 6th century monastic buildings. Carleton seems to be getting confused here with John of Glastonbury’s 14th century 'Chronicle' which records a tale of Arthur visiting a chapel at Beckery while staying at a convent on Wirral Hill, midway between Glastonbury Abbey and Beckery, but he fails to mention this.

Carleton later goes on to identify Bridget as ‘Henwen’ (Old White) the white sow of Welsh tradition that gave birth to the Cath Palug, the monstrous clawing cat. He explains the story of the white sow as Arthur expelling Bridget from Glastonbury and destroying her shrine.

In the Afterword, Carleton quotes the four stages of acceptance of JBS Haldane that he says should encourage people putting forward their own thoughts and discoveries about King Arthur:

    • this is worthless nonsense,
    • this is an interesting but perverse point of view,
    • this is true, but quite unimportant,
    • I always said so.

The reader will no doubt categorise ‘Arthur: Warrior and King’ accordingly.

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