Learning from History – Herbart, Hayward and the Celebration Movement

ROSALIND RAWNSLEY recalls a visionary educationist

For centuries, a child’s mind was considered a tabula rasa on which the teacher would do his best to imprint a series of facts which with a bit of luck would give the pupil all the basic tools needed for him to make his future way in life – as the 19th/20th century English educationalist Professor Sir John Adams put it, dividing the ordinary consciousness from ‘mind within and the great world of facts outside’, 

…the teacher’s work is regarded as the shovelling in of as many of those outside facts as the mind can contain. The great shovel for this purpose is known as Observation; a word dear to the hearts of, ‘Teachers; Inspectors, School Superintendents; School Boards, Parents and Others interested.’

In most cases, a basic grounding in the ‘3 Rs’, with, if they were lucky, a working knowledge of the Classics, was for centuries considered a sufficient education for those few boys who were fortunate enough to benefit from schooling of any kind. The vast majority of the population remained illiterate. 

Village School, by Jan Steen , circa 1670

As early as the early 17th century, there had been a few far-sighted philosophers with more advanced ideas on education. The best-known among them was the Czech, John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), who advocated among other innovations, pictorial textbooks written in native languages rather than only in Latin, teaching based on the introduction of gradual development from the simplest to more comprehensive concepts, lifelong-learning, focussing on logical thinking rather than rote learning, equal opportunities for poor children and education for women. 

With evident justification, Comenius is considered the father of modern education, but his was an exceptional voice crying in the wilderness.  It was not until the 18th century, with the dawn of the science of psychology, that educational innovation really began to gather pace in Europe, with the German States leading the way. But the child-centred, leisurely pace of education, first advocated by Pestalozzi and Froebel in the 18th century, and built upon by J.F. Herbart and his followers a century later, by which the child was guided by the teacher to uncover and develop his own innate understanding of the world and his place in it, could not last. With the exponential expansion of educational opportunities in the 21st century, with the invention of the microchip and the internet, space exploration and the vertiginous pace of advance in information technology in particular, this ‘Herbartian’ model has on the face of it had to be laid aside in favour of increasing specialisation. But Herbartianism, as applied through the work of the English educationalist, Frank Herbert Hayward has not been entirely superseded, and may still have a future.

J. F. Herbart, 1776-1841

Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841) the German philosopher and early psychologist, is less well-known in the English-speaking world than Auguste Comte, his near contemporary, with whom he is sometimes compared. It is difficult to comprehend the reason for this neglect, given that for at least half a century after his death, as the founder of pedagogy as an academic discipline, Herbart’s philosophy of education was extremely influential.  It was widely studied and applied by prominent educationists not only in his native Germany, but also in England and in America where, as in Germany, Herbart Societies still flourish. 

Herbartianism, with all its faults, is a system; apparently the only educational system in existence which has at the same time a definite psychology; a vast and fairly coherent mass of literature, a considerable number of journals devoted to its cause; a series of great names – above all, the power of raising enthusiasm!

Herbart’s philosophy of education can be perhaps labelled simplistically as idealist.  He begins with the concept of the mind or soul as a single, inert and homogeneous entity which becomes the battleground for the one set of forces which can have any effect upon it – the ideas. Ideas, once introduced to the soul, compete with each other for a place. 

John Adams, in his magisterial volume of essays The Herbartian Psychology Applied to Education, describes the Herbartian model of the soul as a dome, “the summit of which is the goal of the ambition of every self-respecting idea” . The base of the dome marks the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Once an idea rises above that threshold, its first task, in order to consolidate its position in the dome, is to make useful acquaintances or connections, which together form what Herbart describes as an apperception mass. According to the Herbartian model, the whole of our intellectual life is spent in forming new apperception masses and in expanding old ones. Ideas which do not succeed in attracting others to form apperception masses, having for the time being lost the battle, will sink once again below the threshold of consciousness, where they will nonetheless remain until or unless called forth once again.

Herbart was born in Oldenburg in northern Germany in 1776.  Little is known about his early life, except that as a fragile child he was taught at home until the age of 12. Afterwards, he attended the local Gymnasium for six years, before going on to study under Fichte, who taught him to think logically, at the University of Jena. After Jena, Herbart moved to Switzerland as tutor to the children of the Governor of Interlaken.  Here he made the acquaintance of the Swiss educator Pestalozzi and through him became interested in educational reform.

This meeting, and his own experiences as a teacher, led Herbart during the following years to develop his own philosophy of education – first at the university of Göttingen, where he eventually became a lecturer, and later in Königsberg, where he moved in 1809 to take up the Chair of Philosophy earlier occupied by Kant. Here he established, and conducted for the next 24 years, an influential seminary of pedagogy. In 1833 he returned to Göttingen as Professor of Philosophy, where he remained in post until his death eight years later.

Herbart’s theories of education were taken up and developed in different ways by his followers, who likewise reinterpreted the philosophy of Herbart to suit their respective interpretations. ‘Herbartianism’ thus eventually became synonymous with a system of education, rather than with the original philosophy of Herbart himself. By the second half of the 19th century, Herbart’s doctrines had been so much changed that they would probably have been unrecognisable by their original author.

While Herbartianism had considerably less influence in England than in Germany and in America, it did nonetheless attract a following among influential English educationists following the 1870 Elementary Education Act. This established a framework for the compulsory education of children between the ages of five and twelve.  The direct result of this enactment was the construction and establishment countrywide of hundreds of new Elementary schools and it was not until the Education Act of 1891, the latest in a flurry of Education Acts passed during the twenty years after 1870,  that education was made free of charge to all pupils in Board and Church schools alike).

Among those educationists who took up the Herbartian torch were John Joseph Findlay , John Adams , and Catherine Dodd and Frank Herbert Hayward, all of whom were household names in the field of pedagogy well into the 1930s.

While students of the history of education would certainly be familiar with the first three, Hayward sank into obscurity very soon after his retirement and by the time of his death in 1954 he had more-or-less been forgotten. A pessimist by temperament, Hayward may not have forwarded his own cause as well as he might, had his personality been different; the title of his autobiography, An Educational Failure, published in 1938, encapsulated his self-doubt, and as is so often the case, he was taken at his own estimation. This neglect was nothing short of a tragedy in the field of moral education.

Frank Herbert Hayward was born in 1872 into a poor but industrious Nonconformist family in Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire. Highly motivated and of a studious disposition, he was to become in early adulthood a man of formidable energy and mental ability, rising to become a prolific writer and a highly respected (though controversial) educationist.

He attended various schools, mainly in Bristol, becoming a Pupil Teacher at Barton Hill in 1887, where he seems to have remained on the staff until 1895, when he gained a scholarship to University College, Bristol. From Bristol he gained by private study a B.A. from London University and went on to study for a Teacher’s Diploma at the College of Preceptors, where he gained a Special Certificate of Ability to Teach in 1899. During his studies for this diploma, he appears simultaneously to have studied privately for a B.Sc. in chemistry and geology, and for an M.A. in philosophy and economics.

In 1900 he was admitted as an Advanced Student at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, whence the following year (at some point evidently having acquired a working knowledge of German) he was given a grant by his College to study education at the University of Jena. Here he wrote The Critics of Herbartianism (1903) in which he gives a detailed critique of some 14 German commentaries on Herbart.    

That same year, he gained a D.Litt. from London University, his thesis being entitled The Ethics and Philosophy of Sidgwick published in book form as The Ethical Philosophy of Sidgwick (1901). Meanwhile, he gained the Moral Science prize and a B.A. from Cambridge. These studies in Germany and at Cambridge seem to have awakened his interest in moral education and the precepts of Herbartianism in this field, which was thereafter to remain the principal focus of his working life. 

In 1902 he became Organising Teacher for Mid-Devon, published lectures on Herbartianism in Cambridge, while that year and the years immediately following, he gave lectures in Marburg in Germany. Later, he was appointed Assistant Inspector of Schools for the London County Council, where, rising to become Chief Inspector, he remained until his retirement in 1937. 

During the next 35 years he gave lectures on moral education in various parts of the country, published innumerable pamphlets and some 30 books, not only on educational topics, but also on matters as diverse as ‘Temperance’ and the ‘Power of the Press’. Biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Marcus Aurelius and Alfred the Great were well received by the press. Perhaps his greatest and most original contribution to moral education, however, was the Celebration Movement.

In his biography of Marcus Aurelius (1935) Hayward wrote:

I have been hunting during thirty years for a solution of what has notoriously been regarded as a certain “difficulty” in schools, as well as of certain cultural and civic “difficulties” allied to it… In the spirit of Comte, and indeed under his direct influence, I am an advocate; in schools and out of schools of Celebrations of Great Men as well as of Great Ideas and Great Institutions, in the hope that such Assembly Methods, with their mass emotion and broad impressions and an occasional touch of splendour, will be of help in these times of spiritual unsettlement and distress…

Hayward’s period of greatest activity was likewise a period of flux in educational thinking.  Moral education and education for citizenship became more important than ever during this time of profound upheaval in all aspects of life following the conclusion of the Great War. Education had already been high on the government agenda during the closing years of the 19th century, and, following the flurry of major Education Acts in the years following 1876 by the outbreak of war in 1914 Britain did already have a basic educational system.  Nonetheless, for most of the population this did not extend beyond the Elementary age limit of 12.  By the end of the war, it had become all too apparent that education was more important than ever, not just for the children, but for the improvement of national morale as the country attempted to rebuild the structure of society and to create a ‘land fit for heroes’ from the ashes of conflict.

Hayward did not claim originality for the idea of the Celebration, tracing it back to Plato in The Laws, but the worked-out development and application to educational purposes was entirely his own.

The notion of celebrating ‘Empire Day’, inaugurated in 1907, had set Hayward thinking. He considered it “scrappy, faddy and narrowly propagandist”.  However, he thought, if it were to be celebrated as one of a group of five annual festivities (the others being ‘Home’, ‘City’, ‘Nation’, and ‘League of Nations’), it could be an excellent idea. Alone, there was a danger of Empire Day being nothing but a display of jingoism. On the other hand, under intelligent guidance, the school celebration of Empire Day might include, “impressive references to the ancient empires of the world as well as to those of later times”. The significance of the modern (British) Empire would be enhanced by being set in context. Taken alone, Hayward thought, there was also the danger that children who associated the word ‘Empire’ with a local music hall or cinema, would completely miss the point:

No adult can conceive of the mix-up in many children’s minds as they gather at the annual event and are given a flag to wave about.

The Empire Day concept, he considered, was too good and too original to be lost, but the way in which it was marked was very unsatisfactory. As he thought of it, it required an entirely “new spiritual start”. If the notion of a Celebration of Empire or Commonwealth was legitimate and attractive, Celebrations of the other four concepts, he considered, should be given equal weight. Looking back over his life in An Educational Failure, he regretted that this logic had not appealed to others in authority. Before the First World War, Herbartianism had risen from almost complete obscurity to a position of some prestige, with astonishing rapidity, particularly in England. Yet in the wake of the 1918 Education Act it went, at least nominally, swiftly into decline.

During the War, Hayward, like many others, had been giving considerable thought to ways in which education might be advanced once hostilities were over. Towards the end of the War, he circulated to educational journals and influential individuals a 10,000-word pamphlet, The Religious Difficulty in Schools – A Solution of an ‘Insoluble’ Problem.  However, like an earlier, more academic pamphlet directed to various members of the clergy; supporters of the controversial Education Bill and others; this received a lukewarm response.

A few encouraging letters came, indeed; from teachers (mainly women) and one or two from people of the literary and artistic type; attracted by the idea of a National School Liturgy. Hardly any came from the champions of “religious education”, “freedom of the teachers from religious tests” and other catch phrases of the last decade or two.

It may be, he continued sarcastically,

…that the majestic brains of these gentlemen are still silently absorbing my suggestions and preparing a scheme of incomparable grandeur.  Great minds need time… 

It was therefore useless to bandy reproaches.  Hayward evidently had grandiose hopes for his proposals: “I undertake”, he wrote:

…to make the British nation fundamentally cultured on matters of Bible, literature, and music if I can get a few collaborators and the moderate use of official notepaper and stamps of any responsible educational body such as the Board of Education or the National Union of Teachers”

Evidently not lacking in self-assurance, Hayward had, he continued, indicated the way to a solution of,

…the very honest problem of religious, civic, and aesthetic education that has been raised during the past half century…  

As if this were not enough, a further problem, which to his mind educationists had not considered at all, and one which would equally be addressed by his scheme, was that of the didactic approach to the Bible, literature and even music. There was a need to rescue, he felt, “the ear from its bondage to the eye”; educationists imagining that the Bible and Shakespeare and music should be taught through the medium of print, rather than being heard in live reading or performance.

While these pamphlets may have received a disappointing response, the second document led Hayward to make the acquaintance of Arnold Freeman. Freeman was a Fabian, a philosopher, an educationist, a playwright, an Anthroposophist and founder of the Rudolf Steiner Sheffield Settlement for adult education. Freeman was, according to Hayward,

…one of the few men actively on the look-out for an educational contribution to the very threatening contemporary situation

This meeting proved to be momentous: it led to the joint production of a much-reviewed ‘manifesto’, published in The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction (1919) in which was set out for the first time the concept of the Celebration as a means of moral and civic instruction. Hayward had evidently had the idea at the back of his mind for some time before meeting Arnold Freeman, and it now became a fully worked-out tool for teaching moral values.

Hayward considered that as a disinterested educational practitioner who was not susceptible to political whims, he could bring an independent mind to bear on the solution of great problems. His earlier idea for an Empire Day Celebration had been suspected of partisanship. But nobody, he maintained could discover partisanship in the Celebration itself.  “What we can discover”, he wrote,

…is sound pedagogy; and the only criticism that can be proffered is that it is a solitary Celebration instead of being, as it should be; one among fifty others, each designed to impress the child with the greatness and the weakness of man, and to convey to his mind the social heritage of the race.

Education was seen as a key element in the creation of ‘a land fit for heroes’, to compensate for the horrors of war and the terrible wastage of life lost in the fields of Flanders, while at the same time acting as a means of offering some reparation to those who had given their lives, and even more, to those who had survived.  Education for peace, and social and spiritual reconstruction were high on the agenda before, and in the years following, the Armistice.

How was this to be achieved became a burning question for educationists. Hayward and Freeman had written in the opening words of The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction:

The people of Great Britain desire fervently that the coming peace may bring a League of Nations and an Industrial and Social Order based upon Co-operation… If we are to reconstruct with understanding and imagination, we must have an electorate possessed of an intelligent grasp of the truth of things – of the workings of nature; of man’s history upon this planet; of social evolution…  There must be developed for the appreciation of this environment a widely-diffused reverence for Beauty.  Year upon year, and perhaps decade upon decade of after-war disorder and conflict can be avoided only if the minds of the people are filled with such ideals of national and international Citizenship as will assure unity and co-operation.

This was to be achieved, they thought, through the schools. The very fact that it had been thought necessary to institute a national celebration of Empire Day, was in their opinion a tacit admission by the authorities that the concept of patriotism had not adequately been conveyed to pupils in either denominational or non-denominational schools, on the pretext that religious instruction included moral and civic education. This notion had been proved in practice to be erroneous since,

…if patriotism had been adequately and impressively taught in scriptural or theological lessons, there would have been no need of these celebrations! 

Following the first Empire Day celebration in 1907, the Feast of St. David had been marked since 1915 and the birthday of William Shakespeare since 1916. What for Hayward and Freeman had been “the most pregnant feature” of these celebrations had been the entirely new conception of educational method to which they bore witness.

Whether or not their originators realized the principle underlying them does not concern us.  It is none the less revolutionary. In its bleakest and most absolute form the principle is that:  THE CLASS TEACHING OF THE BIBLE, LITERATURE, MUSIC, HISTORY, AND CERTAIN OTHER SUBJECTS SHOULD BE LARGELY ABOLISHED IN FAVOUR OF A LITURGICAL CEREMONIAL. OR CELEBRATIONAL TREATMENT.  THESE SUBJECTS ARE NOT SO MUCH LEARNED AS ‘IMBIBED’

Here the Herbartian principle of ‘apperception’ is invoked. Herbart believed that the mind was the sum-total of all ideas which entered into one’s conscious life, which grouped themselves into “apperceptive masses”. By assimilation (or apperception) new ideas could enter the mind through association with ideas already present. This principle could be applied to almost any arts subject – History, Morals and Religion could better be taught through Celebrations than by formal didactic methods.

The ‘revolutionary Scheme’ which Hayward and Freeman now proposed had already in part been formulated by Hayward himself. Writing in 1912, in his controversial book on educational administration (The Psychology of Educational Administration and Criticism) which he had written as a rebuttal of Edmond Holmes’ notorious Circular attacking elementary school education Hayward argued that what was lacking from moral and religious lessons in particular was an understanding of the necessity for appreciation.

The formulary for this new approach consisted of four Proposals, which Hayward had earlier outlined in a jointly-written letter to The Times Educational Supplement, the first of which, based on his earlier ideas, was eventually to form the nucleus of the Celebration Movement under his sole aegis .

PROPOSAL I [all capitals in original]


Day after day, the child would hear the best portions of the Bible read impressively, as well as other splendid passages of poetry and prose. He would be familiarized with several hundred of the choicest pieces of music; once a week (say) he would witness or take part in a Celebration, ceremonial, or piece of pageantry in honour of a great personage (St. Paul, Alfred the Great, Joan of Arc, St. Francis, George Washington) or a great idea (The League of Nations, France, Agriculture, Science, Freedom).



The teacher would be free to express personal opinions, but if they were controversial he would be expected to refer his pupils (particularly as they grew older) to pro and con documents provided for the purpose. These documents would be drawn up by a board of responsible educationists, every sect and party sending from time to time statements of its views.


SCIENTIFIC CHARTS OF TIME, SPACE, AND HISTORY SHOULD BE STATUTORILY HUNG ON THE WALLS OF EVERY SCHOOL so that false views about the age of the earth, the existence of a material and spatial heaven “above the skies,” etc., could not obtain a fixed lodgement in children’s minds, and so that a definite and true time and space scheme could, on the other hand, receive a very fixed lodgement indeed.



During the recent war, the sinister influence of propaganda had been acutely recognised as a danger to democracy. It was therefore of vital importance that children should be educated to recognise that few issues are clear-cut. Future citizens trained to see both sides of every important hygienic, ethical and political question would thereafter be able to think for themselves and know how to get at the facts. The time charts advocated would give children a framework of space-and-time relationships which would familiarise them with the general scheme of things.

The rationale of the proposal, that children should listen daily to the finest music and literature and take part regularly in some sort of pageantry or ceremonial, would, it was felt, go a long way to rendering every child aesthetically sensitive – a more effective way of appealing to a child’s appreciation of Beauty than the lessons, dealing primarily and laboriously with technique, currently given.

The grandiose plan for a national liturgy of Celebrations – a sort of precursor of the National Curriculum – through which every child in the land would be offered the same experiences, would, the authors hoped, create a network of common culture-memories. Such a network would in turn help to bind the members of the population together, thus in turn combating the loneliness and isolation of a nation of individuals, a feeling exacerbated by the effects of the recent conflict. If adopted by schools of all classes, Hayward and Freeman’s proposals would, they averred, “bind the nation together by a thousand bonds of sympathy”, while at the same not destroying but intensifying whatever is valuable in sectional and individual effort”

Although The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction was very well received by the press, the response from the teaching profession to the invitation to contribute their own suggestions was distinctly tepid. Hayward was understandably disappointed. In a letter to F.J. Gould, a secular humanist, follower of Comte and prominent educationist, who had reviewed the book with enthusiasm, he expressed his disappointment, but said that nonetheless he hoped to publish a first Book of Celebrations in the course of the year.

This volume duly appeared in 1920. It was reviewed in Nature as “a sound idea”, the writer considering that the suggestions made were wise and well thought out, and he was convinced that the methods suggested, “would grip in a way that nothing except the teacher’s personal influence has hitherto done”. He noted that the subjects dealt with were Shakespeare, the League of Nations, Democracy and St. Paul. Celebrations which had already appeared in The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction; to which were added Celebrations of,

…bards and seers; world conquerors, Samson, eugenics, temperance, commerce, summer, flying, Chaucer and Spenser.

By the time the book was published the Celebration movement was beginning to gather momentum, but mainly through Hayward’s own promotional efforts through the London County Council Education Committee.

A second book of Celebrations, published the same year, expanded on the themes of the first, with the virtues of Work and Toleration, individual great men from history and from the recent past: Alfred the Great, Pasteur and Lister, Sir Philip Sidney, the artists Turner and Watts, The Musician, national Celebrations of Poland and Ireland (the latter in an attempt to alleviate the crisis following the 1918 uprising), Military Conflicts in Palestine, a revised Celebration for Empire Day, and finally, Political Parties, and School Leaving Day

No indication is given as to whether any of these Celebrations had actually been performed. However, The Journal of Education, reporting on a Summer School of Civics at High Wycombe noted that,

Dr. Hayward organised two of his school Ceremonials, one in honour of the city and the other to commemorate the League of Nations. These were carried out by the staff of the Summer School and proved impressive Celebrations  

In an interview with the present writer, Dr. Hayward’s son Frank observed that although the whole gamut of Celebrations eventually covered a great variety of topics, many of the early Celebrations were of a biographical nature, celebrating the lives of great men.  This he saw not just as a reflection of his father’s Herbartianism, but also because he was a Victorian projected into the 20th century, carrying with him the very Victorian characteristic of admiration for the great figures of history.

In a bid further to disseminate the concept, in 1926 Dr. Hayward launched a new quarterly journal, The Celebration Bulletin, which ran to 16 issues. Each contained several fully worked-out complete Celebrations, which could be staged by subscribers. In 1928, despite the rather discouraging response, Hayward published A New Book of Celebrations, reviewed in the Journal of Education:

On former occasions we have directed attention to Dr. Hayward’s idea of Celebrations, and to his very suggestive helps towards carrying the idea into practice… It is not difficult to detect the note of disillusionment and disappointment in Dr. Hayward’s preface. He has worked hard, and has received messages of approval from men so far apart in some ways as H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Dr. R.J. Campbell and Prof. J. Arthur Thomson. Yet his efforts, marked though they are by ability and sincerity, have so far not commanded wide success.

Hayward had many other eminent admirers within the profession, including Sir John Adams. Yet Sir Michael Sadler who must have known of Hayward even if they were not personally acquainted, did not find it necessary to include his name in his 1927 encyclopaedic list of British educationists, pioneering teachers, educational philosophers and administrators, whose talents had made Great Britain the greatest exporter of educational ideas of the time .

A fourth and final book of Celebrations was published in 1932, in which details were given of those which actually had been performed. Of the 28 listed, ranging from Old Testament figures, classical writers, Shakespeare, Schubert, Purcell, various European countries, and India; to The Nation (England), The Home and the virtues of Temperance and Work and Saving.  Of these, nine or ten had been performed once, Schubert twice and Virgil three times. 

Altogether, F.H. Hayward compiled around 100 Celebrations on different topics, putting a lifetime’s knowledge and expertise into their creation. It was extremely discouraging therefore for him that his radical ideas were never enthusiastically embraced by the teaching profession, or the world’s educational authorities and governments. The Celebration as a means of moral and spiritual education seemed to be ‘dead in the water’.

Or was it?

Hayward had unfortunately become obsessed with the Celebration as the most effective means of combining religious instruction, moral education, and the teaching of citizenship, and this may have been his ultimate undoing.  Teachers, war-weary, conservative in outlook and no doubt discouraged when the first post-Armistice euphoria gave way all too soon to the Great Depression, were perhaps not ready to embrace this revolutionary inter-disciplinary concept.

The claims of science, not least as advocated by Bertrand Russell to be pre-eminent in any educational system at the expense of the humanities, may have been a contributory factor in the decline of interest in overt Herbartianism and, in parallel, in F.H. Hayward. Pedagogy, largely under the influence of the advances in educational psychology, also moved on, gaining its own momentum.

Yet Herbartian ideas did not expire with the 1918 Education Act, but continued to permeate educational thinking, even perhaps to the present day. The sinking of overt Herbartianism below the level of consciousness in educational theory does not imply its extinction. In 1929, Cyril Norwood, Headmaster of Harrow School, though not specifically acknowledging the influence of Herbart, wrote that an education on which the cause of international peace could be most firmly based was “founded on practical Christianity, culture, and character”.  .  Norwood was advocating, in other words, the cultivation of the Herbartian ‘circle of thought’ as the foundation of a moral education. 

Child-centred education has not been abandoned.  It was a key to teaching practices, particularly in the 1970s – developing children’s understanding of the world by investigating the outdoor environment through a cross-curricular approach . It was only with the introduction of a more rigid structure through the ‘National Curriculum’ proposed by the 1988 Education Act that this Herbartian’ approach to curriculum planning had, at least nominally, to be laid aside.  Every Government, of whatever political affiliation, has ever since the introduction of a National Curriculum if not from 1870 onwards, felt it incumbent upon them to tinker with the methods and content of education, in a manner which would no doubt have been anathema to Hayward.

Nonetheless, Herbart’s ideas and Hayward’s practical suggestions and theories continue to underpin educational praxis to this day, even if no longer in formal curriculum planning. The present writer, in collaboration with the Head Teacher and staff of a Shropshire primary school, during the late 1980s and early 1990s directed a series of major thematic interactive Festivals of the Arts and Sciences for young people, outside school hours, which could be considered as natural developments of Hayward’s ‘Celebrations’, and there were other examples elsewhere.

There are few comparable events today in schools, and certain aspects of Hayward’s theories feel outdated – which is rather ironic, considering that he conceived them as liberating and modernising. In 2021, history is more often contested than celebrated, morals, sociology and even the hard sciences are in a state of flux, while the concept of ‘Great Men’ is at odds with modern ‘diversity’ and egalitarian preoccupations. Yet still there must be a place for a model of education that uplifts even as it informs, and at the same time provides all-round thematic understanding rather than partisanship or uninspiring specialisation. Hayward, like Comenius in his day, seems for the moment to have been a voice crying in the wilderness, but perhaps his time too is yet to come.

The once and un-killable king

King Arthur: The Making of a Legend

Nicholas J. Higham, Yale University Press, 2018, 380 pages

LIAM GUILAR marvels to see a sledgehammer being wielded against castles-in-the-air

People in Britain have been telling stories about an ‘Arthur’ since at least the 9th century, possibly earlier. In the Middle Ages, those stories include some of the finest literature ever produced in Europe, culminating in Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century masterpiece.

Scholarly arguments over the existence of an historical King Arthur, a single figure as point of origin for these stories, are more recent. In the mid-20th century, the idea that there was an historical figure gained ground, but the high-water mark of scholarly attempts to argue the case had passed by the 1980s. Leslie Alcock (Arthur’s Britain) and John Morris (The Age of Arthur) were both respected academics, but both their books, especially the latter’s, received the kind of academic reception about which scholars must have nightmares.[i].

Despite repeated attempts by experts in the field of ‘post-Roman’ or ‘Dark Age’ or ‘Early Medieval’ British history to discredit the various candidates, and despite the lack of evidence to support any of them, the arguments rumble on. Nicholas Higham’s new book is an attempt to demolish the idea that there is an identifiable historical figure who is the real King Arthur. It seems doomed to fail. He is not the first scholar to announce that the historical Arthur did not exist. It’s unlikely he’ll be the last.

In 1977, David Dumville, one of the leading authorities on the sources for early medieval history in Britain, concluded an article that discussed the Welsh evidence for an historical King Arthur:

The fact of the matter is there is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books

In 2013 an equally exasperated Guy Halsall, an expert on early medieval history, wrote a book offering “a corrective to the shelves of pseudo-Historical ‘Arthurian’ nonsense available in practically every bookshop in Britain”, concluding,

No sane scholar will now argue that there is definitely a “King Arthur” figure in 5th– or 6th-century history about whom anything solid can be said

In 2018 Nicholas Higham, who specialises in what used to be called ‘The Dark Ages’, produced this encyclopedic refutation of the varied and various arguments for an ‘Historical King Arthur’. He lines up the contenders – the Sarmatian Arthur, the Greek Arthur, the list of nominees with names sounding like Arthur or those whose names sound nothing at all like Arthur – the ‘if this, then this, and then that means we’ve found Arthur’ arguments, and one by one he knocks them over.

Higham’s conclusion is that

[…] we can now agree to discount King Arthur as a ‘real’ figure of the past, leaving him and his deeds to the ‘smoke’ and ‘highland mist’ of make-believe and wishful thinking; it is there that he properly belongs

I distrust that first person plural which Higham is fond of using. Reading the book is like being bludgeoned, very thoroughly and very carefully. It should settle the argument. But it won’t. Even the blurb on the cover hedges its bets. Max Adams, identified as the author of In the Land of the Giants, is quoted: “Riveting…brings the historical Arthur to what may be his last decisive battle”. “May be” because, given the nature of the evidence, there is never going to be a final, irrefutable argument.

Candidates for the historical King Arthur have their partisans. But if the experts have become more wary, the field is still held by enthusiasts who fly on a combination of ill-informed speculation and wishful thinking. They simply cherry pick ‘information’ and don’t bother with the usual rules of evidence, source analysis, linguistics or logic. If anyone is arrogant enough to believe that lacking the skills and knowledge required to move through the tangle of evidence puts them in a position to argue with people who have spent their professional careers studying that evidence, then nothing is going to dent their self-confidence.

The question of Arthur’s existence hinges on a very limited number of sources, and the combination of skill, knowledge and training required to assess the reliability of those sources is very rare. There is a world of difference between ‘looking stuff up’ on the internet, or in the library, or in the museum, and doing research. The failure to understand that difference, which is becoming increasingly widespread, lies at the heart of the ‘Arthur Was Real and Eureka I’ve Found Him’ phenomenon.

A scene from John Boorman’s Excalibur

The scarcity and unreliability of the surviving written sources can be hard to grasp. Imagine if 1,000 years from now, you are tasked with writing the history of the Trump Presidency. Your only piece of evidence is a copy of a copy of something from a newspaper. The copy was made in 2320. There’s a name attached to it, but you know nothing else about the journalist. You don’t know which newspaper the text is from, nor do you know if it is from an editorial, factual report, opinion piece or work of fiction. You have no way of checking anything in it against other sources.

And if you think that reconstructing four years from such a fragment sounds difficult if not impossible, then spare a thought for the historian of the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, who can put the only surviving piece of contemporary insular ‘narrative history’ on a couple of PowerPoint slides. That oldest surviving narrative, written by Gildas within living memory of the battle of, or at, Badon, does not mention anyone called Arthur[ii].

All the other surviving sources were written much later and they all need to be handled with care. The problem with the sources can be demonstrated with one example,

What may be Arthur’s earliest appearance in an insular text comes in a collection of eulogistic stanzas of early Welsh poetry collectively known as y Gododdin

While often referred to as ‘a poem’, Y Gododdin, as Higham rightly states, is a collection of verses commemorating a Northern British raid on the Saxons at Catreath. The raid was a complete disaster and the verses celebrate the men who died. The problem is that Y Gododdin only survives in a 13th century manuscript. The work is generally credited to Aneirin, who is said to have lived in the 6th century. It’s worth pausing to remember that the distance in time between ourselves and Shakespeare is less than this. How much of the material, if any, in the manuscript dates back to the 6th century is a matter of scholarly controversy. Obviously, the date of the ‘Arthur reference’ makes a huge difference to the value of that reference.

Higham is willing to accept an early date, and he quotes the relevant stanza in English. The last four lines read:

He used to bring black crows down in front of the wall 
Of the fortified town – though he was not Arthur – 
among men mighty in deeds 
in front of the barrier of alder wood-Gorddur

Gorddur is the warrior’s name, and he is being praised for his ferocious deeds in battle, although ‘he was not Arthur’. That’s all there is.

The enthusiast says it’s obvious that here we have a reference to a famous Arthur, and this proves stories of King Arthur must have been circulating (off-stage) when this verse was written.

The sceptic asks for evidence that independent stories circulated about a real character called Arthur at the time this verse was composed. The enthusiast points to the poem. Aneirin must have been able to rely on his audience to know the stories, in order for the allusion to work. The allusion proves the existence of the stories and the stories guarantee the validity of the allusion. Dizzying?

Nor does it tell us anything about Arthur except it was a famous name. It doesn’t help us to identify an Arthur, or tell us when or where or if he lived.

A literate person with the necessary patience can follow Higham’s summary of the complicated problems of dating Y Gododdin in general, and of that line in particular. But there are very few people who can read the manuscript, or its facsimile, and the number of people on the planet who have the expertise to negotiate the dating arguments and evaluate the evidence for themselves probably wouldn’t fill a coach for a day trip to Catreath.

And therein lies the real problem. Early British, post-Roman history, is a highly specialized field, but Higham, as did Guy Halsall before him, bemoans the fact that in many ways the specialists have withdrawn from the debate:

Today most specialists distance themselves from the whole issue of Arthur’s reality, citing insufficient evidence to be able to judge his place in history and declaring themselves agnostic on the matter. But their silence leaves the history-reading public with insufficient guidance to the competing claims and without the specialist knowledge to judge between them effectively, for these are highly complex issues

Higham is critical of ‘agnostic’ scholars who refuse to be drawn into a conclusion on the subject. Ironically, Max Harris, whose comment is quoted on the cover of Higham’s book (see above), wrote, in his introduction to In the Land of the Giants:

And then there is Arthur. Historical references to this legendary Romano-British warlord are very few: a list of 12 battles; a great victory recorded at a place called Badon (perhaps Bath in Somerset) a death notice, a possible mention in a battle poem [iii]

This short reference to King Arthur continues with a classic piece of professional ‘agnosticism’: ‘Arthur may be, as many historians have argued, an irrelevance, a distraction’ (p.14). Adams also includes the ‘dates’ from the Annales Cambriae for the battles of both Badon and Camlann in the timeline of the Dark Ages he appends to the book (Adams, Appendix two, p. 429). That ‘may be’ that leaves the door open – just as the inclusion of the Annales Cambriae dates for Badon and Camlann in a timeline with verifiable dates gives them a spurious authenticity [iv].

For all the evidence Higham can marshal, (his bibliography runs for 23 pages of small print) there’s never a knockout punch. If Y Gododdin demonstrates the problems inherent in the evidence, Higham’s detailed discussion of the Historia Brittonum demonstrates why it’s not possible to close the argument.

The 56th ‘chapter’ of a document known as the Historia Brittonum (hereafter HB) is the crucial piece of evidence for enthusiast and scholar alike. HB chapter 56 contains a list of Arthur’s 12 battles. It’s the oldest surviving piece of extended writing about an Arthur. It names him as a victorious war leader against the Saxons.

‘Chapter’ might be misleading. It runs to 23 lines of continuous Latin prose in John Morris’ edition. Though written in Latin, compiled in the early 9th century and ascribed to ‘Nennius’, for most of us, our access to this strange text is through John Morris’ 1980 translation, which is not without its own problems[v].

Higham, like many before him, quotes the ‘chapter’ (p. 185). But I think that misrepresents the HB. The focus on chapter 56 allows people to treat this strange compilation as far more factual than it is. My own interest is in the earlier story of Vortigern (HB 31-49) who takes up much more of the HB than does Arthur. The Venerable Bede, writing at the beginning of the 7th century, following a hint in Gildas, had made Vortigern instrumental in the fall of Roman Britain. In the HB he has become an incestuous, bigamous, drunken fool in a bad folk tale about a beautiful princess. It is not history as understood in the 21st century. Ambrosius Aurelianus, who also appears as an historical character in both Bede and Gildas, has become a vatic child who was born without a father[vi], and St Germanus of Auxerre, who is perhaps the one person in this motley crew who can be established as undeniably historical, has become a spell-working magus who prays Vortigern to a fiery death in his tower[vii]. Reading the whole text does not inspire confidence in its factual accuracy[viii].

Higham, to his credit, takes on the whole of the HB and he’s very good on what it reveals about how different 9th-century attitudes to writing about the past are to our ideas of writing history. His chapter on the HB is worth the price of admission, even if you have no interest in ‘Arthurs’, although he has written about this, at length, before.

However, it’s not possible to dismiss the ‘Battle List’. It’s not enough to point out that no one has identified the battle sites with enough conviction to convince everyone else. (Guy Halsall reported one attempt to do so based on the names of modern pubs (Halsall, 2013, p. 154)); or that if the enemies are Saxons they seem to have been much further north much earlier than any other source suggests; or that the number 12 in a work riddled with biblical echoes seems more than a bit suspect and Arthur’s 12 battles mirror Patrick’s miracles as R.W. Hanning pointed out in 1966 (p. 120): or that some of the battles seem to have been fought by a leader who chose his battlefields because their place names rhymed: or that single handedly killing 960 enemies in a single charge sounds a tad unrealistic. Even with ten hours of daylight, how many deaths is that per minute, every minute, without a break for ten hours[ix]?

There’s more. At least three centuries have passed between the events described and the time of writing. Despite decades of attempts to find one, there is no evidence for an earlier source for the list. A lost poem is the best candidate, but then it would have to be a very strange poem and a list of rhyming battles might still be unconvincing. Anyone who claims that HB 56 is based on accurate oral transmission has to explain how, given that at least 14 generations have passed between writer and event, any oral story could be passed down without alteration. As a rule of thumb, students of oral history accept accuracy is possible in a story passed down for three generations: from your grandparents to you. Not, as Higham points out, a story passed down about your “great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents (give or take a generation either way)”.

Despite all this, the weight of evidence can only say: ‘it is highly unlikely that this is a reliable source’. Higham’s analysis of the way Nennius uses other names in the HB whom we know to be historical, leads him to the perfectly demonstrable conclusion that: 

This was a scholarly community prepared to manipulate the distant past, shift individuals around and invent characters to make British history fit for purpose. They amended names to better suit their needs, misquoted from and rode roughshod over earlier testimony, fictionalized historical figures and made up others de novo. The harvesting of names from their original setting to be reused in a different context was commonplace

But he can’t prove this is what happened to Arthur. He can only suggest it is likely. He also claims that to understand the HB,

Our treatment of it must depend on understanding why it was written, where the author obtained his information, how he used what he had gleaned and the ways in which he expected his work to be understood

In his discussion of these features, he’s as guilty of speculation as anyone. Granted his speculation is much more well-informed, he’s still straying out of the world of facts. He is attempting to construct not only the context of a text that does not fit any modern genre, but its contemporary purpose and reception when there is no external evidence for these. Without knowing anything about the Real Author of this text, he’s going to draw conclusions about his intentions.

When Higham lists what can be inferred about the author from the text he’s constructing an Implied Author. It’s the reader’s idea of the author. We have no way of knowing who ‘Nennius’ was, let alone why he wrote what he did, if in fact he did write it. The ‘context’ of a written text is always a construct[x]. In the absence of corroborating evidence independent of the text, such a construct is never going to be the final word on the subject.   

I’d back Higham’s informed speculation against most people’s, but there’s no escaping the fact it’s still speculation. He slides from qualified statements, ‘the prologue if accepted as original……in that case he is likely…’ (my italics) to declarative ones:

These were Latin texts written by churchmen tasked with repositioning the Britons within a tradition of European history that centered on Rome

It’s that ‘tasked’ that rings the alarm bells. His reading of the evidence supports his hypothesis, but there’s no way he can prove it.

Sir Bedivere casts Excalibur back into the lake

Higham does need to be applauded for his willingness to accept that medieval authors made stuff up. There’s a peculiar strand in medieval studies, both amongst professionals and enthusiastic amateurs, that works on the assumption that everything that interests us has a prior source. Put like that, it sounds ridiculous. But the unstated assumption is that fiction is a post-medieval invention. So, when Higham surveys the evidence and writes

Wace’s introduction of the Round Table to Arthurian literature was a practical solution to an imagined problem, which there is every likelihood he came up with himself

it’s one of the best moments in the book.

The Tudor invention of Arthur – the “Round Table” in Winchester Cathedral

Given that none of the evidence for an historical Arthur seems convincing, why the persistent arguments? I think people want to believe, and don’t understand or care that the existence of an historical figure, like Alfred the Great or Lady Godiva, is not a question of belief but of provable fact. The arguments over Arthur repeatedly illustrate one peculiarity of early British medieval history. Given the lack of sources for the 5th and 6th centuries in Britain, it’s almost impossible to prove someone didn’t exist. Therefore, says the ‘agnostic’, we have to accept the possibility he did.

Higham is strongly, justifiably against this. He quotes Bertrand Russell:

’Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than the business of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake.’ He illustrated the point by supposing the existence of a teapot in orbit around the sun that is too small to be visible through even the most powerful telescope. That this assertion cannot be disproved does not mean that it should be allowed to influence our thinking about the solar system. That way only chaos lies, for such speculations are infinite

Beyond a desire to believe, what reason is there to even entertain the idea of an historical Arthur? The answer to that probably lies in a bad metaphor which should have been dismissed the first time it was used. A long time ago someone advanced the argument that since ‘there is no smoke without fire’ there must be a factual, historical basis for the medieval stories about King Arthur. Higham returns to this metaphor in his final chapter and tries to replace it with another, but it’s time someone got rid of the habit of arguing based on inappropriate metaphors.

There may well be no smoke without a fire, but stories aren’t smoke. They are stories. The metaphor implies that all stories have some kind of factual basis. That’s demonstrably not true. If we throw out the inappropriate metaphor, there’s nothing left but wishful thinking.

Anachronistically-armoured knights feast with Arthur, who is in the Round Table

For all the detail, the knockout blow never arrives. Each chapter has its conclusion which sums up the case against the particular contender/argument, and then everything is summed up again in a concluding chapter. This makes the book laboured and repetitive. While the marshalling of scholarly argument is impressive, as the book progresses and Higham goes after some of the ‘fringe’ dwellers, it starts to sound brittle.

I admit to bemused admiration for Graham Phillips. He has made a career out of finding things Arthurian. He found the Grail. He found Camelot. He identified the ‘Real King Arthur’ as Owain Ddantgwyn using a chain of reasoning that was so circular it makes a spin cycle look linear. He has not let scholarly opposition or derision stop him. Give the man his dues: he’s held his line. Recently he claims to have found Arthur’s grave[xi]. The idea that Arthur’s 5th century grave can be found by reading Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th century text has so little to recommend it that it shouldn’t require pages of detailed refutation. It is a fine example of Russell’s orbiting teapot.

And despite what Higham has written about not being obliged to disprove the existence of orbiting teapots, he’s put himself in the position where he has to do so. If the purpose of the book is to educate the history-reading public, then he has to engage with Phillips’ argument. Reading his three-page explanation of the flaws in a portion of Phillips’ argument (pp. 264-267) is like watching someone trying to swat an annoying but mobile ant with a very large, very heavy hammer. It’s hard not to think that all this erudition could be put to a better use.

Despite all the knowledge, despite the careful explanations, despite the clear statement of intent, it is hard to assess how successful this book is. Who is its target audience? Higham claims,

The purpose of this book, is therefore, to set out the main arguments which are on offer, test each one against the sources on which it relies, and determine which, if any deserve support

But it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that the conclusions were written before the tests had been done.

Anyone interested in Arthurian studies, historical or literary, will benefit from reading the book. It’s an encyclopedic survey of the subject, written by an expert. It gathers together disparate information, and the Sarmatian, Nart and Greek chapters are a welcome summary of those diverse cases. But I wonder if Higham really thinks that someone inspired by the Clive Owens’ 2004 film King Arthur which was advertised as “The untold true story that inspired the legend”, is going to read his detailed, painstaking deconstruction of the argument that Lucius Artorius Castus was the original Arthur (pp 14-39)?

I suspect the people who need to read it probably won’t. And if they do, it probably won’t change their minds[xii]. The growing cult of the self-appointed expert means there is an increasing number of people who think access to the internet puts them in a position to discover what the experts have missed, and to challenge the experts’ arguments. We’ve seen this in the 2020 pandemic; it’s not confined to Arthurian studies.

For experts in the field, they’ve heard most of it before. They’ve read some of it in Higham’s earlier work, especially King Arthur: Myth making and History (Routledge, 2002). I suspect there will be those with recognized expertise in some of the more unusual fields that he has picked his way through who might object to the finer points in some of his arguments, but most of us won’t be in a position to follow the ensuing discussion, let alone play referee.

Those who don’t have the patience to read the book will stay happily deluded. Anyone who honestly thinks Arthur was an Ancient Greek Constellation before he had a career as a medieval king is not going to let the problems of transmission get in the way. Worse, as a contributing factor, there’s someone out there willing to publish your theory, or turn it into a documentary, because people like to watch the little amateur sticking it to the experts, even when the audience has no idea what’s at stake. It’s hard not to love a story that declares the Holy Grail has been discovered in an attic in Coventry, or Excalibur has been found[xiii]. Throw in the idea that there’s an academic conspiracy to hide the truth and there’s a small industry aimed at exploiting those who want to believe. Detailed arguments about manuscript dating, linguistic borrowings, or the problems of editing and dating early Welsh poetry simply do not make great television even if they are being presented by Michael Wood.

While the arguments over the historical Arthur are fascinating for all kinds of reasons, for many who are interested in the stories that accumulated around the name, it has always seemed an interesting irrelevance. Even if it were possible to identify a single person as the point of origin for all these disparate stories, and even if the proof were so convincing Higham publicly retracted everything he’s written here, ‘Arthur’ would be a brutal thug whose claim to fame was his ability to organize the slaughter of other violent thugs. He would have nothing in common with Malory’s Arthur except, perhaps, a shared name.


My thanks to those who read early versions of this essay, and in particular to Peter Hart whose painstaking proofreading saved me from serious embarrassment. All the remaining errors are mine

Works Cited

Adams, M (2015) In the Land of the Giants. Head of Zeus Ltd

Alcock, L (1971) Arthur’s Britain. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books

Dumville, D (1977)  ‘Sub-Roman Britain-History and legend’. History 62:173-92

Halsall, G (2013) Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages. Oxford University Press

Hanning, R W (1966) The Vision of History in Early Britain. Columbia University Press

Morris, J (1973) The Age of Arthur. Weidenfield and Nicholson

Morris, J (ed.)  (1980) Nennius – British History and The Welsh Annals. Philimore & Co

Author’s Notes

  1. Despite the comprehensive mauling it received from the experts, Morris’ The Age of Arthur is still on sale, and if the comments on Goodreads are any indication, still encouraging the unwary to believe

2. Gildas The Ruin of Britain. (De Excidio et conquestu Britanniae)

3. Ironically, Higham’s book denies the ‘Historical’ status of everything Adams refers to here

4. The entry before the one for Badon reads: ‘Bishop Edur rests in Christ [i.e dies] he was 350 years old.’ It tends not to be quoted by those who want to believe in the reference to Badon. Higham’s discussion of the Annales is on pp. 222-225. They are included in Morris’ edition of Nennius

5. See Higham p. 178-9 for a discussion of the problems of ‘establishing the text’ in general and with Morris’ edition in particular

6. It’s typical of the HB that in chapter 41 the boy has no known father and in chapter 42 he does

7. The HB faithfully records that there are three stories circulating about Vortigern’s death, one of which involves the ground opening up to swallow him.

8. My own interest is in the way these stories developed, rather than any desire to sort fact from fiction. You can read about the development of Vortigern’s story across time, as well as those of Hengist’s daughter and St Germanus at: http://www.liamguilar.com/the-legendary-history

9. I once pointed this out and was told that Arthur would have been using Excalibur and ‘we all know’ Excalibur was an alien artefact

10. I thought this phrase was Peter Barry’s, from Literature in Context (Manchester University Press, 2012) but I can’t find it

11. http://www.grahamphillips.net/arthur_tomb/arthur_tomb1.htm

12. The repeated use of  ‘probably’ here is nothing more than a conventional stylistic avoidance of declarative statements in an attempt to appear undogmatic. If I were a betting man, I’d bet they won’t.

13. Amateur Sleuth traces ‘Holy Grail’. The Courier Mail, August 14, 1995 p.12