My search for King Arthur
By Don Carleton
This book began by accident and continued in bloody mindedness. I had been asked by a publisher to consider writing a history of Bristol and the West Country. There are lots of books published about this part of England, so I said that I would only do it if I felt there was something new to be said. I started reading around the subject to see what areas of novelty or re-discovery might be open. It was then that I came across Sixteenth Century references to what purported to be the old Celtic name for the city of Bristol.
That is where the accident came in. At the time, I had recently been reading Anthony Price’s excellent thriller Our man in Camelot. The plot of his book turns on a search for the site for the Battle of Badon, said to be the greatest battle of the famous King Arthur. I had of course heard of the Battle of Badon and of King Arthur, who apparently played a role in it, but I was not, at that time, much interested in either of them. Had I not accidentally been reading Anthony Price, it might not have occurred to me that an old place-name for Bristol and the battle name might be connected in some way.
That is where the bloody-mindedness came in. I asked a colleague, the distinguished Mediaeval Historian Professor Paddy McGrath, about a possible link between the two names: had anyone written on the topic? Although he had a vast store of knowledge of local Bristol history, he said he could not recall having read anything on the point. He commended me to other prominent Mediaeval Historians elsewhere in Britain. I wrote out the substance of my observation – a very short version of the material that appears in Chapters Five and Six of this book – and sent it to them seeking their guidance.
I had a kind and generous reply from Professor Wendy Davies. She said that the coincidence of the names was interesting, that she knew of no articles about it, and that the primary sources relating to Badon were very sparse and were all available in good modern editions. I could therefore pursue the point if I wished but she did not see how it could be proved, unless some new documents were discovered, say, hidden in the binding of an old book in some forgotten part of an ancient library. She did not think it would be worthwhile searching the libraries of Europe in the vain hope of such a discovery.
In a spirit of bloody mindedness, I set out to see if the point could be proved or disposed of for good. I found out fairly quickly that Professor Davies was right; the point cannot be proved to the standards that history now demands, but I also discovered you can learn a lot and be greatly entertained by trying. Many years ago, while on holiday in Greece, I started to write down what I had found.
At one level then, this book is a record of my search for the truth about Badon, King Arthur’s other battles, and King Arthur himself. At another, it is the book I wish had existed when I first spoke to Professor McGrath because it brings together in one place some of the evidence and most of the questions that can be asked about the martial career of the warrior Arthur, and his greatest battle, the Battle of Badon. What battles defined him as a warrior? Where were they fought? Where did the Battle of Badon fit in? Where was it fought? When? Why? How? By whom? What connection did it really have with King Arthur? Who was he anyway? Did he exist? How, why and where did he become a King? What can he, or his legend, tell us about the forces at play in the England of the Sixth Century - right in the middle of the period we call, with justice, ‘The Dark Ages’?
This book is both a record of what I found and my attempt to make it into a coherent story. I hope that readers will find it entertaining and illuminating, but it should not be mistaken for authentic history. Nothing that can be said about Badon and the other battles, or about Arthur, or what we might call ‘the Arthurian era’, or the ‘Age of Arthur’, can be authentic history, not even perhaps ‘Dark Ages History’. Professor Davies is right. The material on which a provable account, an authentic history, might be based, does not exist for, or in, the Sixth Century, the Age of Arthur.
My aims in this book therefore became more limited. I wanted to share with others the fun of finding out neglected sources, of using literature in new ways, and of speculating in a sensible or reasoned way about the legends. The final product, although it might enrage an academic conference, may nonetheless form a history that may serve as the basis for an intelligent conversation at a dinner table, a notion to contemplate alone in tranquillity, or provide a new leisure pursuit, or a guide to the random reading of history. The Arthur who emerges is certainly different from the one we all think we know. And that fact may cause us to examine ourselves by asking: what is it about this obscure warrior and implausible king that makes us want him to be true in the way that history is true?
Piso Livadi, Paros, Greece
Arthur: Warrior and King
Fascinating new conclusions about Arthur’s life.
People have been looking for the sites of the long-lost and mysterious battles of King Arthur for a thousand years. This book is the result of extensive consultation with experts across academic disciplines.
Much of the history of the time was lost because of some kind of natural catastrophe around AD 540. But the warrior elite, of which Arthur was part, went on to rule what later became known as Wessex, the cradle of the English nation – for which King Arthur became a founding legend.
Don Carleton’s study – arguably the first attempt at an ‘authentic history’ of King Arthur for generations – offers a compelling case for a new location of the long-lost Battle of Badon, King Arthur’s greatest battle.
The king and warrior who emerges from this work will be, to some readers, uncongenial. In this portrait, Arthur appears to have been a wily but amoral, boastful blond Irish raider, unrestrained in his ravaging, who used his battles to carve out a kingdom among the Britons and ended his life as a shambling, incoherent shadow of a warrior, a danger to himself and to everyone around him.
A Striking new picture on King Arthur
• Based on research into the Sixth Century supported by academic review. Arthur was from Ireland, Guinevere was his mistress not his queen, he died brain-damaged on the Isle of Skye.
• 34 million Americans of Irish descent will welcome the idea of an Irish Arthur.
• The author is ex-Bristol University and a former broadcaster and film-maker (BBC and elsewhere).
•Interest in Arthur continues to inspire film and TV, and Arthurian societies around the world.
Don Carleton is a journalist, broadcaster and film-maker who has worked for the BBC and later became Director of information at Bristol University. Many academic colleagues at the university reviewed the material for this book. He has previously published histories of Bristol University and the Princes Theatre, Bristol. He has also published theatre reviews in national publications, and his translation of Ibsen's 'Love's Comedy' gained four stars for a London performance reviewed by the Guardian.