Britannia in peril – an extract from an epic

Brazen Head Poetry Editor LIAM GUILAR is writing a Legendary history of Britain. Chapter One will appear in Long Poem Magazine in June 2021. This is Chapter Two from the story of Vortigern; Chapter Three will appear in the Summer issue. Further details about the Legendary history can be found at

The story so far

In the fifth century, the Roman province of Britannia is now isolated from Europe. A combination of external threats, internal squabbling and two botched coups has left the Province on the verge of ruin.

But it was not only fornication that characterised this time,

but all the vices to which human nature abandons itself:

The people were abandoned by the Romans,

then led astray by vanity and error into a trackless place.

After Gildas, De Excidio, etc. para 20-21

Chapter Two – A Man of Heart?

A Royal Funeral 

…and the rain began to fall

on the polished armour of the honour guard

ornate, ceremonial and useless.

The wind mangling the bishop’s words

threatened to drag the flame from the torches

before they were touched to the pyre.

Vortigern in the place of honour.

You’re looking at the wrong man.

That shining burnished dazzle

is Adolf, Earl of Gloucester.

Breastplate’s modelled on a statue of Augustus

though which campaigns he’s fought in is a mystery.

He’s Magister Militum material.

Just ask him when you’ve got an hour or two.

Thinks his red cloak should be purple

and doesn’t care who knows.

He’d climb a dung heap

to crow above the competition

and call his stinking pile a kingdom

so he could call himself a king.

Vortigern the thin, the grey fox,

stands beside him. Primes inter pares.

Official speak to smooth the ragged fact

that nobody’s in charge.

They say that once this party’s over

the Vicarius will appoint his successor.

Look at the corpse of the King on the piled wood.

The senators in their windblown finest,

the priests and bishops, the civilian crowd

waiting expectantly for the spectacle.

Brigantes, Atrebates, Cats,

still scratching at old tribal sores.

You’d think four centuries of Pax Romana

would have softened the edges.

So you know we’re in for it my friend

the depth and spread and stink of it

when they’re so scared

they put aside their cherished

self-defining hatreds

and try to work together.

Vortigern framed the elegy he’d deliver,

had anyone asked, and honesty were possible.

Let us now praise Constance the King

Ruler of Britain, Father to us all.

Before we light his funeral pyre

before the flames consume the corpse

let us rehearse his virtues:

Son of a murdered usurper,

dim-witted in council, lacking in wisdom

useless in battle, cowering behind a shield

he could barely lift.

When his father was assassinated

the council ripped him from the monastery

because he was a Descendant of Brutus,

last of the Trojans, ‘legitimate rulers of Britannia’.

Not caring that he was indifferent to the law,

despising the church, a drunkard at the feast,

a sly despoiler of other men’s women:

Incompetent, untrustworthy, dead.

His much younger brothers

bundled to Gaul

where their mother will school them

in the arts of resentment.

Now those old men facing the pyre,

will preside over the death throes of Britannia.

These are the Good Old Days

(Name your drug of choice,

power, land, office, sex,

before the evening’s out

someone will make an offer.)

After the incense and the ritual incantations,

after the prayers and the sermonising,

after the God of Love has been

importuned for military victory,

a party to celebrate these coming men:

friends to drink to their success

who’d known them all their lives

although they’d never met, 

hoping to be remembered, hinting at

a son or protégé who might serve

in a minor capacity on their staff.

Then daughters, decorous and decorative,

well-briefed and drilled for the engagement.

Gloucester, good looking, single,

with the gift of the gab,

a tall figure circled by adoring females

pressing him with their attractions

while Vortigern is steered towards a corner

where members of the council

discoursed upon Britannia’s future. 

These old men, hungering for clues,

competing for his gratitude,

or the revelation of a weakness.

(Name your poison, power, titles, office, sex,

if it’s too embarrassing, just hint at it,

someone, with a mainline to the source,

will make an offer before the evening’s out.)

They want to be his friend

despite their previous contempt. 

Confident enough for hints, innuendo.

He’s not looking well, our aging leader.

The times do need a younger man.

Has a successor been appointed? No?

Walk around inside the pauses

and see the possibilities.

Implications dangling bait

for conspiracy or betrayal.

That’s not what I meant at all…

The council, the council must expand.

Of course, become inclusive, reach out

beyond the city walls, reflect the tribal

distribution, equality of representation?

We’ll need a leader everyone can trust

That rules out the Brigantes. And the Cats.

And the army? An imbalance in the leadership

to be addressed…Taken aside by senators,

passed around in a game of confidential whispers.

I’ve been watching your career with interest

please don’t misunderstand of course we

The Brigantes, after all I was only joking.

Men who would have lost their lunch

at the thought of living in a hut

now sought security, identity, community,

in a rediscovered tribal heritage

they were busily creating for themselves

made attractive by ignorance and nostalgia.

As though ‘culture’ was a buried hoard

that could be excavated, reused untarnished

not made irrelevant by time.

Their bad jokes advance scouts of a civil war.

What do you call fifty drowned Brigantes?

A good start? One hundred Saxons? Not enough.

Soon they’d rediscover druid lore.

invoking hailstorms against their enemies.

There’d be rumours of strange rituals

in forest clearings, and murders for the right

to put on silly clothes and be ‘Archdruid’.

Men protective of their privileges

their rank, their wealth, their family histories,

so proud of their rhetorical skills,

how they were Romans first and Britons second.

Soon they’d be daubing themselves

and trading their sophistication for survival.

Lamps were lit, slaves ghosting between the diners.

Forced female laughter, twining around Gloucester’s voice,

erupted arrhythmically from the other corner of the room.

Vortigern was wondering how long he had to stay

until an older woman at his elbow said:

‘As if any of them cared.

Did they not see the empty streets?

The ruined houses?

We’ll all be dead within the year

and still they play the same old games,

betting long odds on a future

that ceased to exist before most of us were born.

I’ve heard you read?  Do you study Caesar’s wars?

take notes on Onasander? Who’s your favourite author?’


The most accomplished actress

can be startled into honesty.

The Art of Love? She’s too surprised

to hide her disbelief.

Freed of obligations by the insult,

he laughs at her reaction.

‘’The Metamorphosis. A poem for our times.’

‘Everything changes, nothing stays the same’

‘So much changes; so little stays the same.

More accurate; less memorable.’

Next morning there would be a slave

outside his lodgings with a scroll:

or a rare copy of his favourite text

left discreetly on a table.

Name your poison?

He had nothing she could want.

They chatted about literature,

two educated diners waiting for Ovid 

to come posturing through the doors

and scandalise the rich and bored

four hundred years too late.

‘At least’, she said, before she left,

‘one can choose how and when to die.’

After the ladies and the elderly retired

someone produced ‘the girls’:

courtesans who had been paid

or lesser daughters and more desperate wives.

These two men were poised

before the ladder’s upper rung.

When Survival’s on the auction block

you’ll bid with what you’ve got

even if your daughter’s splendid tits

might be your only asset,

hoping they’d be remembered

if one of these two men succeed.

The evening blurring into heaving flesh

scenes for a fresco on a wall in hell:

two prelates spit-roasting a German slave

the girl’s blonde hair incongruous

against the bishop’s bony knees.

A pretty face, well-practised,

In the amatory arts,

her manoeuvres mindlessly

but expertly performed. 

The Matron’s words:

‘I will not watch my daughters

whore themselves to the barbarians.’

She’d call it family politics

and therefore no lost dignity

if she pimped them to a Latin speaker on the rise?

‘One can at least choose how and when to die.’ 

All evening she had sought for an analogy, 

as though precision would validate her suicide.

The lights had faded, the room

a roiling sludge of limbs.

In the foul smoke of oil lamps

a different thinner face,

dark curls plastered to her forehead.

Shut eyed, languid, sinuous,

movements stuttering to her own satisfaction.

Her final version: ‘We’re players

who turn up to find the theatre

has burnt down, and no one’s left

to watch our well-rehearsed performance.’

He gathered up his clothes

stepped his way towards the door.

The bodies on the floor moved fitfully,

scum on the edges of a stagnant pool

shrugging as the ripples died.

Stepped out into the clarity of early morning.

He would not remember them.

There were far too many dead

already begging his attention.

Vortigern in London

The past’s a broken mirror

making the present looked deformed;

the crook backed limping child

of disappointed parents.

The age of iron rusted out,

our age of stone is almost gone.

Now comes an age of wood

where everything can splinter, rot or burn.

The horizon’s clear of smoke,

nor dotted by wheeling carrion.

But the city is dying into itself.

Here there was noisy spectacle.

Stone humanised by speech

now stone without story

is simply broken stone.

Your ancestors’ most sacred site,

or random spillage of disjointed rock.

This coin he’d rescued from the mud,

portrait erased; inscription illegible.

Behind him reeking tidal mud.

The wall he stands on killed the port.

Where his grandmother played

burnt timbers, blackened roofs.

The cart tracks overgrown.

This is what time will achieve

when no one bends a back against it.

Late in this afternoon. A merchant ship

backlit by the golden river,

the slow drift of it at odds

with the frantic scurry of the crew.

The bridge has been maintained

but there are few ships on the Thames.

Few traders skirting down the coast,

fewer coming from the continent.

The evening is turning cold,

the city shrunken, huddled

against its inevitable night.

To his left on the hill,

the amphitheatre’s a piece of wall,

water glinting in the ponds

filling the robbed-out pits

between the piles of weed grown rubble.

There have been bad times before.

But the danger was no longer out there, beyond the walls.

It was in the civil men and women pretending

to be outraged by the new graffiti:

‘Romani non Germani!  Britanni non Barbari!’

As though the idiots who daubed those words

didn’t have at least one grandparent

born somewhere in the empire’s furthest reaches.

Aurelius and Uther, fled to Brittany

after their father then their eldest brother

botched their coup, now proclaiming

they could trace their bloodline back to Brutus.

A standard move to add legitimacy and lustre

to a power addicted family on the make.

Ironic given Brutus was a Trojan immigrant

who slaughtered the indigenous inhabitants.

But when did logic play a winning hand in an election?

When a man like Constantine, caught in his lies,

shrugged and claimed the words he’d used

meant only what he wanted them to mean,

then law became impossible, and titles empty.

The steady rumble that replaced the traffic noise was fear.

Not just fear of incomers and raiders

fear of people who had once been neighbours

and were now ‘others’ to be hated.

Any other, anyone who was not a friend

and trust in friend and family was rotting

because when incompetence and talent

are equally dangerous, look to yourself.

One day he wouldn’t hear the assassin

or see the bowmen hiding on a roof

but he has heard Adolf of Gloucester,

coming along the wall.

Count of the Saxon shore.

Man Most Likely to Succeed.

Gloucester coughs, speaks.

‘He’ll see us now.’

It’s meant to be affable,

drinking buddy confidante.

‘What do you think he wants?’

Vortigern shrugs.

Rude or reticent, it’s hard to tell.

He’s wondering why here?

The roads still spin out across the country

but it’s a long way from the danger zones.

An uncharacteristic nostalgia?

Or a final gesture of farewell?

No one alive remembered the Vicarius

in the days of his youth

His parties were notorious

for excessive decadence.

Perhaps that was nostalgia

for another fabricated past,

the court of Caligula and Nero

when any vice was possible

‘Why not’ sufficient reason

and ‘no’ was not an option.

He is dying without an heir.

He has outlasted Constantine and Constance

and sent the Boys to brood upon their rocky headland.

Word is, he’s going to choose.

Why else call the two contenders

for a private meeting?

Cain and Abel taking their offerings to God.

And we know how badly that turned out.

If you define your progress

by the titles you accumulate;

you measure your success

by your graded movement

along a string of words.

What makes them more

than complicated echolalias,

meaningless as infant babble?

Count of the Saxon Shore,

Magister Militium, Consul,

Heir-Apparent, King?

Vortigern, if pushed, defines success

as battles won, problems solved, lessons learnt,

might have asked ‘Heir to what?’

40 emperors in a hundred years

God for a month, then erased

like the portrait on the coin.

Council members shoaling from the building

form self-important, self-regarding groups

who nod to both the soldiers as they pass.

Overseers of the death of meaning,

Peddlers of cancerous euphemisms,

revelling in the endless crisis of definition

that passes for meaningful debate.

Still busy fighting over granddad’s privileges.

Pay attention now and watch how they react,

trying to pick the winner before the dice are rolled.

Some greet Gloucester. He’s done terrible things

to earn their gratitude. But he speaks when spoken to,

can be counted on to say the right things at the right time

and pay his dues when his debts are called.  

Some acknowledge Vortigern.

See how wary they become?

He’s in no-one’s pocket.

But they all know he’s the silent go to man

when the shit’s on the fan.

In this tired world, titles and positions

are still the gifts of slack old men:

ancient relics twinkling in the wreckage

like stagnant ponds in the ruined amphitheatre

catching a fading sun.

But not this man, not Ambrosius.

He is the ghost of whatever made the Empire great:

devious, unpredictable and dangerous.

Authority regardless of his titles or his clothes.

Neither clumsy copy nor conscious fake,

the steady pilot who would face whatever storm

to bring the Ark to safety, with Noah’s indifference

to the millions drowning who were not on board.

They bend over a map of Britain.

Gloucester finding this foreplay tedious

wanting to hear the job is his

or know the details of their final test.

Ambrosius, between coughing fits.

‘We asked the Western Emperor for troops.

His Master of Horse tells us to look to ourselves.’


‘There’s rumours that the Huns are on the move.

A half a million men. Attila claims the empire

his by right of promised marriage to Honoria.

If even half that number enters Gaul

the Western Empire’s gone for good.’


‘In Britannia Secunda our writ no longer runs.

We summon them and they refuse.

North of the Humber the cities are abandoned,

two bad harvests and constant raiding have brought famine.

They have begun to squabble for the scraps.

A few armed men, a bit of wall, a tribal hill,

a man’s reach might stretch to the tribal boundary.

There’s no tax collection, so no distribution.

So many starve.’ (More coughing)


‘Picts from the north, overland 

through the ruined gates of the wall.’

Vortigern Interrupts.

‘Some of those Picts are Britons painted blue.

They think it best to hide themselves.

Soon they will forgo pretence.’

Why this might be significant

is lost on Gloucester who continues:

‘Irish slavers down the western coast.

Germanic pirates in the east and south.

If we go east, the west is burnt

If we go north they sack the coastal towns.

Strike and run and be long gone

before a rider brings the news

We need three legions, at the most.’

But no one laughs. 

They remember their grandfather’s stories.

How the forts stapled law and order onto the wilderness.

The map still shows the roads

linking fort to town, town to port,

port to other towns and other forts

on and back across immensity to Rome.

Well-kept roads loud

with merchants and soldiers

messengers, supplicants, embassies

crunching the heartbeat of empire. 


‘We are like a goodwife swatting spot fires,

growing weaker with each victory.

Either we train a national army

or recruit more mercenaries.

One will take time we do not have.

The other, when the pack’s too big

the dogs turn on their master.’

The awkward map confirms their lack of options.

Adolf: conversational, exploratory.

‘You’ve heard the rumour of the legion

that was left behind?’ Vortigern waits,

wondering what revelation is at hand.

‘If they retained their discipline

they will have instructors.’

No revelation, no solution

just the gambler’s dream of the winning card.

‘Limitanei gone native?

Somewhere along which wall?

There were so many forts and marching camps.

and even if we had the time,

we’d never find them all.’

Did the old man change his mind

or had he planned what happened next?

He turns to


‘If you think it’s worth the risk

after our envoy has delivered his messages

take whatever men you need.

Take Eagles too, and trumpets,

search out your fathers’ uniforms.

Appear to them as Roman as they were.’

Gloucester thinks he is the organised man.

A lover of maps, a maker of lists.

Now caught by this unexpected switch,

trying to impress with plans he’s making on the fly.

‘I’ll head to Lincoln, there to meet my scouts.

…we’ll take the inland road.

From York’….and Vortigern, unimpressed, lost interest. 

Three thousand men? How could they be hidden?

Garrisons along the wall had gone native,

and whether you called the garrison commander

Tribune or King made little difference.

Everyone who’d been that way

had met such useless bastardised communities.

When Gloucester left

the old man, staring at the map

keeps Vortigern waiting.

It’s easy for a map to lie.

These forts have long since ceased to function.

The roads are overgrown or braided to confusion.

This is a tidy memory of a dead world.

Not even accurate when it was made.


‘Your father-in-law was my good friend.

He and your father were both honest men:

hard working, loyal, at a time

when all those qualities were out of fashion.’

‘My father-in-law lead an army against the Empire

and left this island undefended.’

‘Your father-in-law led an army

against corruption, greed and inefficiency.

He planned to hold the Rhine and make Britannia safe.’

‘He thought he would look good in purple.’

‘Resentment is an easy hand to play for very little profit. 

Three Saxon ships have landed on Thanet.

They’re asking to be taken into service.

Go there, you’ve dealt with them before.

Use your judgement. Offer the usual conditions.

They might be more useful than a phantom legion.’

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:

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


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