A Conversation
with Geoffrey Ashe
Re: King Arthur & Glastonbury

An Article from britannia.com

Britannia: Mr. Ashe, you are most widely known in America as a scholar and writer in the areas of Arthurian legend and British mythology. Would you give us some background on your career, and tell us what led to your interest in these topics?

It's a rather mixed record, by no means conventionally "scholarly." I was born in London, lived several years in Canada, and went to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and then to Cambridge. My official subject was English; history was an acquired taste. But outside of all that, I had several industrial jobs and even lectured on "Management Studies," as they called it, at the London Polytechnic. All the time my writing was what mattered to me, and it built up to a point where it became my chief activity. I've held visiting professorships at American universities without ever being a full-time academic.

Over the years I've written on several topics. The Arthurian interest came quite late and has never been exclusive. The first push was given by an author who influenced me a great deal, G.K. Chesterton. He wrote a Short History of England with some fascinating pages about Glastonbury, sometimes known as Avalon, a place with an immense history and numerous legends, strongly associated with Arthur. I wrote a book about Glastonbury myself, King Arthur's Avalon. My work on this opened up vistas for me and it went on from there.

Since the twelfth century, a lot of creative effort has been expended on Arthur, and, in recent years, that creativity has taken the form of film, video, TV games, comic books, music and scholarly research. How do you account for the amazing persistence of these stories over the centuries?

The versions that are most familiar bringing in the Round Table and Merlin and Guinevere and Lancelot, took shape in medieval Europe. One reason for their becoming popular was that they appealed to a wide variety of interests, in an age when there wasn't much in the way of imaginative fiction. They offered stories of adventure and war and love and magic and religion. They had something for everybody who read such things at all and that included women, whose tastes in literature were becoming influential.

Of course that's not the whole of it. As you point out, Arthur isn't purely a medieval character. He keeps fading out and coming back, and he has been pictured differently in different periods. I think there is a constant factor that has a great deal to do with his vitality. One way or another, his legend embodies the dream of a golden age which is found in many societies and mythologies. It's a haunting, persistent dream. Even modern novelists, well aware that there never was a real golden age, have pictured Arthur's reign as a time when people of vision and courage were on top for a while, surviving against the odds, and going down gloriously. It's something we would like to believe in.

Has some sort of saturation point been reached? Do you think that there is anything further to say on the subject of Arthur, or has it all been said?

We may be near the end of the line with the medieval saga of the Round Table and so forth. Even "Prince Valiant" has wandered away from it. But in the last thirty years or so, the whole thing has taken on a new dimension because of historical and archaeological research. With new knowledge, authors have felt able to bypass the romances and portray Arthur's Britain as it might have been, back in the so called Dark Ages before it got romanticized. I'm thinking of the prize-winning epic poem Artorius by John Heath Stubbs, of the drama The Island of the Mighty by John Arden and Margaretta D'Arcy, and of a series of outstanding novels beginning with Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff. We've seen fresh approaches to the material, especially by the novelists. Mary Stewart has shifted the emphasis to Merlin. Marion Zimmer Bradley and Persia Woolley have told the story from a woman's point of view. Who can say what may happen next?

For one thing, there's the ancient prophecy that Arthur will return. So far as I know, this has yet to inspire a major novel or play. The only treatment that comes readily to mind is a comic book I should say, "graphic novel" called Camelot 3000, by Mike Barr and Brian Bolland. This had a science fiction setting and was artistically vivid and well-informed. But more might well be done.

Prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the twelfth century, there were oral and written traditions concerning Arthur, but most of what we "know" of him is due to Geoffrey, who published his highly imaginative History of the Kings of Britain in the late 1130s. Without him, would we have even heard of Arthur? Would the subsequent developers of the story Wace, Chretien de Troyes, Layamon, Malory and others have written about him? Does Geoffrey, ultimately, deserve all the credit?

It's always risky to guess at what would have happened if things had gone otherwise. But Arthur's fame before Geoffrey was strictly among the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons, the Celtic peoples of the west, descended from Britons of his own time or apparent time. If Geoffrey hadn't expanded the saga into a "history" that was read throughout most of Europe, it might have stayed regional and never inspired authors outside. The Irish had a hero something like Arthur, Finn MacCool, and stories of Finn spread to Scotland, but that's as far as they went. No one like Geoffrey took him up, and he never attained international renown as Arthur did.

Arthur has been presented in various ways, depending upon who is doing the presenting. Sometimes he is portrayed as a local chieftain, sometimes as a skilful war leader battling invading Saxons, and sometimes as the glorious emperor of a vast domain outside Britain. Why has he been presented in such different ways?

Different storytellers in different societies have had different interests, and so have their audiences. Naturally the hero has appeared in different guises. However, they aren't irreconcilable. Accounts of a man as a guerrilla fighter, as a military commander, as a benevolent sovereign, and as a campaigner overseas, could all be rooted in memories of successive phases in his career. I don't say they were in Arthur's case, but they could have been. Take someone who flourished a century or so later, far from Britain, yet relevant under this heading the Prophet Mohammed. At different times he was a merchant, a civic dignitary, a leader of guerrillas. He rose to supremacy in Arabia, and he launched a religion that conquered a vaster empire than Arthur's.

We know that, over the years, King Arthur has proven to be a mother lode of source material for writers and other artists, and it has been said that even some reigning English monarchs found ways to put the "King" to work for them. Can you explain?

English kings during the Middle Ages definitely believed in Arthur. It was good for their morale and good for the Crown's mystique that they should be heirs of such a famous monarch. Practical politics were involved. Edward I claimed to rule Scotland on the ground that Arthur had ruled Scotland! Later, propagandists for the Tudor sovereigns, who were part Welsh, made much of their alleged Arthurian ancestry, and it enhanced the prestige of the greatest of them, Elizabeth I. Later again, Tennyson's best-selling Idylls of the King, a poetic evocation of Arthur in terms of Victorian ideals, helped to revive the glamour of the Crown when dissatisfaction with the actual Victoria had laid it open to attack.

The evidence for Arthur before Geoffrey of Monmouth seems to consist mostly of sketchy entries in ancient chronicles, obscure battle poems, and credulity-straining episodes from various saints' lives. Shouldn't someone who had been so successful in conquest and who was the centre of a glorious court have left more of a trail behind, with better documentary support?

In dark age Britain we have to recognize various adverse factor, such as the loss and destruction of manuscripts by invading armies; the character of the early material, oral rather than written; the decline of learning and even literacy among the Welsh monks who might have kept reliable records. The whole period is plunged in obscurity from the same causes. People who were certainly real and important are no better attested.

An old Welsh text with some historical pretensions says Arthur was the leader of a national counter offensive against encroaching Saxons, and won twelve battles in widely separated parts of the country. The passage is fairly circumstantial and there is at least something in it, since counter action did happen, sporadically over four or five decades. I think it likely that Arthur played a conspicuous part in it at some stage. But his status as a long-term supremo could be a retroactive promotion inspired later by the growth of his legend. It may be factual. We must face the possibility that it isn't. Insufficient data!

When did Arthur actually live ... if he did live?

He's usually imagined as living in the Middle Ages, and going around in castles with knights in armour and magnificently dressed ladies. But he certainly didn't. As I said, his legend in its best-known form was a medieval creation, and authors in those days didn't care about authenticity like a modern historical novelist. When they handled a traditional story they updated it, putting things in terms of their own time, irrespective of when it was supposed to have happened. This shows in art as well, in illustrations to the Bible, for instance. You'll see a painting of the angel appearing to Mary, and a window at the back looks out on a French chateau that couldn't possibly have existed in Nazareth. So, with the Arthur story, characters in a milieu which the authors knew quite well to be ancient were still dressed up as knights and ladies appropriate to the twelfth or thirteenth century. Neither Arthur nor any of his circle would have been like that. To answer the question, he really belongs in the late fifth century or the early sixth, a mysterious phase after Britain broke away from the Roman Empire. He may indeed have been a king, but it's hard to say what kingship amounted to.

The study of Arthur seems to be becoming a literary pursuit rather than a historical one, and perhaps with some justification, given the scarcity of hard evidence. What about archaeology. . .do you think that can ever tell us anything about Arthur, or is it a dead end?

Archaeology may never prove anything about Arthur personally. Something might turn up: his name on a memorial stone previously overlooked, or even a coin, though no British coins for the period have been found. It's probably too much to hope for. What archaeology can do, and certainly will, is tell us more about the dark age Britain where his legend originated. In doing so, it can shed light on the literary process itself.

For instance, recent excavations have shown that Tintagel in Cornwall was a major community during the fifth century, very likely a regional centre of government. Now Geoffrey of Monmouth says a Cornish overlord had a stronghold at Tintagel, and Arthur was begotten there. Archaeology doesn't prove the story, but it does prove that Geoffrey chose an appropriate location. It points to a tradition of Tintagel's importance at the right time, an authentic tradition, which Geoffrey drew upon. He wasn't inventing irresponsibly, out of nothing. And that must affect our assessment of him. It encourages belief in a factual basis for at least some of his account, however wildly he exaggerates and fantasizes.

You had something to do with the excavations at Cadbury Castle, probably the leading candidate for being the location of "King Arthur's Camelot." Could you tell us about your involvement in that project and the results?

This is another case like Tintagel, where archaeology has shed light in its own way. Cadbury is a large isolated hill in Somerset. During the last centuries BC. its summit area was inhabited, with a protection of earthwork ramparts. There was never a castle here in the medieval sense; the fortified hill itself was the "castle," as elsewhere in southern and southwest England. The Romans captured it and evicted the people.

A writer in the time of Henry VIII, John Leland, said this was Camelot. The Camelot of romance is a dream city which it would be futile to look for, but it has an aspect that may be significant. It's not the capital of Britain, it's Arthur's personal headquarters. Cadbury could have become the headquarters of a real Arthur, and a dim recollection of that reality could have conjured up the fiction.

Believing there was evidence to support such a view, Dr. Ralegh Radford, the pioneer of British dark age archaeology, formed an excavation committee with Leslie Alcock as director and myself as secretary. We carried out work in 1966-70 which showed among much else that the hill was re-occupied in the latter part of the fifth century, and refortified on a massive scale, with a new encircling rampart of stone and timber, and a gate house. Whoever was in charge was clearly a chief or king with impressive resources of manpower, at any rate an "Arthur-type figure," as Alcock put it. No complete parallel for the Cadbury fortification has been found anywhere else in post-Roman Britain. It remains special and unique.

When Leland picked out this hill as Camelot, he picked what seems to be the most plausible candidate (as, by the way, several novelists have agreed). How did he do it? Even a modern archaeologist couldn't have guessed that the fifth century fortification was there, embedded in the old earthworks, just by looking without digging. I would say there must have been a tradition about the hill and its powerful overlord, handed down from the Dark Ages. The overlord may have been Arthur or he may not, but as at Tintagel, archaeology shows that people who spoke of Arthur here were not talking in a void. They knew something.

In the film of the musical Camelot, you have a brief glimpse of a map of Britain, and Camelot is in Somerset. It's there because I told Warner Brothers to put it there. That is my one contribution to Hollywood.

There have been various attempts to identify Arthur with someone who is well-documented. Some investigators have argued that he was a Scottish prince, others, that he was a minor Welsh king. Still others have claimed that Arthur is elusive only because he has been improperly dated, and that he is "really" Caratacus, the first century leader of British resistance to Rome, or Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman commander of the second century. Do any of these identifications appeal to you?

As full identifications, no. They tend to cancel each other out. But the Arthur of legend may well be a composite, a superhero created by grafting deeds of other men on to the saga of the original, and some of these figures may have gone into the making of him. That might account for Arthurian echoes which their advocates have detected. And I suspect that the basic idea is sound, only they haven't looked in the right place.

Ambrosius Aurelianus, a genuine, historical character who flourished at about the right time, was a heroic figure who could be a credible original for Arthur. What disqualifies him from consideration?

Nothing absolutely disqualifies him. But why should storytellers have invented another name for him when he had a perfectly good one? Early authors are quite clear that Arthur and Ambrosius were different people.

That brings us to the next question. In April 1981, you published an article in Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America, in which you detailed the research that you did to identify a genuine historical figure of Arthur, who fits all the known facts. Could you summarize your conclusions as presented in that article?

The discussion has gone further since 1981. You can follow it in my book The Discovery of King Arthur and in various articles. My new idea was to scrutinize Arthur's foreign warfare in Geoffrey of Monmouth and take it seriously. Historians had assumed that any original Arthur would never have gone outside Britain: in that respect Geoffrey's narrative was pure fancy and it was useless looking for clues overseas. I did look overseas, and found trustworthy records of a "king of the Britons" who took an army to Gaul toward the year 470. We even have a letter to him. He is referred to as Riothamus, which means "supreme king" or "supremely royal" and may be a sort of honorific applied to a man who had another name. His career seems to underlie at least a major portion of Geoffrey's account, and passages in a Breton text and several chronicles suggest that he was in fact the original Arthur. One or two previous writers have thought the same. But it's too big a subject to go into here.

Glastonbury, in Somerset, is the key point on the Arthurian map and the gravitational centre of the Arthurian legends. How did Glastonbury ever get involved with Arthur, in the first place?

In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found Arthur's grave in their own cemetery. If they were correct and he really was buried there, I suppose that's how the association began. Certainly, the grave was generally accepted in the Middle Ages, and that confirmed a Glastonbury-Arthur link. "Confirmed" is the word; the connection goes back further, whatever the nature of the alleged grave. A story is on record before Geoffrey of Monmouth telling how Arthur brought an armed force to Glastonbury to recover his wife from a local chief who had abducted her. The monks who exhibited the grave seem to have known some tradition that already connected him with the place, and so, presumably, did the author of the abduction story. But we can't get back to the beginnings. Glastonbury was an ancient religious centre, Christian and probably pre-Christian. Its own legends added to the Arthurian linkages when it was reputed that the Holy Grail had been brought there and then concealed somewhere else, and that many of Arthur's knights went in quest of it.

Let's take a closer look at the Glastonbury monks' claim about Arthur's grave. Do you believe that the discovery was genuine? Do you believe that the occupant of that grave was Arthur?

The accounts of this find are early and detailed, though they aren't entirely unanimous. According to an old Welsh poem Arthur's grave was a mystery. However, a bard apparently revealed the secret to King Henry II. Arthur lay in the Abbey's burial ground between two monuments. There were some complications which we needn't go into, but early in 1191 the monks dug there and unearthed a stone slab with an inscribed lead cross on its underside, naming Arthur. They dug down further and found a rough coffin made from a hollowed-out log. In it were the bones of a tall man whom they took to be Arthur, and the bones of a woman whom they took to be Guinevere. These were removed, enshrined, and eventually placed in a marble tomb before the high altar in the church. That's where you see a notice board today.

Most historians, not all, have dismissed the exhumation as fraudulent. Arthur's grave, they would have us believe, was concocted to enhance the Abbey's prestige and attract funds for rebuilding, after a recent fire. Another motive perhaps was political. Welshmen were encouraged to resist English domination by the hope that Arthur would return and help them. Proof that he was dead, and wouldn't, might have been expected to dispel that hope and win royal favour.

Both these motives are plausible, and they are often cited as if they were proven facts. The truth is that they are modern speculations only. There is no serious evidence that the grave ever was exploited to raise money, or used as a propaganda weapon. In 1962-3 excavations by Ralegh Radford confirmed the monks' account so far as it could be confirmed. They had dug where they said and they had uncovered an early burial. To that extent, then, the grave was genuine.

Was the dead man Arthur? It might be easier to decide if we had that cross bearing his name. The monks could have faked it. Still, there is one interesting thing about it. When the Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, the cross wasn't lost. We have a picture of it, and, tantalizingly, we know of somebody who had it as late as the eighteenth century one of the cathedral clergy in nearby Wells. It only vanishes from sight after that. It might still be rediscovered.

I think it's unwise to be dogmatic about all this, one way or the other. It is quite untrue that all scholars reject the grave. I could name highly qualified persons who accept that it was Arthur's, or could have been. Something which has impressed me is that several contemporaries in Wales, far from being downcast, actively publicized the find. No one challenged it and no one produced a rival grave, though there must have been reluctance to admit English possession of a hero of the Welsh. My belief is that the Welsh did have a tradition of Arthur's Glastonbury burial, and that when it drifted back to the Abbey and the monks dug and made their announcement, it was well understood that denial was inadmissible.

Suppose the cross from the grave were indeed to be rediscovered, say in some old garage or tool shed. What significance would it have?

How would we know it was the real thing? If a cross were to turn up that looked like the picture of the original, it could be put through scientific tests. These might simply show that it was too recent, a copy, perhaps made as a Glastonbury souvenir, there are plenty around. Conceivably, though, the tests might show that it was old enough. I've no idea whether it could be pinned down to the twelfth century. If that did happen, we'd be virtually certain that the cross was the one which the monks produced, and that they faked it to clinch their identification of the grave. Any dating much prior to that would likewise prove it to be the original, but, in this case, not a monastic fake. It would raise questions ... but this is too hypothetical to pursue.

If it were proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Arthur existed, would his impact on us be any greater than it already is? Or, if it were proved that he never existed, would his impact be at all diminished? Does it make any difference whether Arthur has a factual basis, or not?

Personally, I'd like to see the question settled, because I've spent a good deal of time on it and would be glad to have the answer at last. So would some others who have likewise spent time on it. I'm not sure what difference an answer would make to the public at large. Very little, I suspect, for readers and movie-goers in general.

The most significant effect might be on ideas about historical evidence. If Arthur were proved to have existed, it would be a triumph for people who believe in taking legends seriously, and a setback for historians who try to reduce everything to documentation. That might open up fresh approaches to other issues where legends are involved.

As for the second alternative, I doubt whether the negative could ever be proved. What needs to be stressed is that the would-be debunker can't be allowed to get away with it by just saying "No." The obvious retort is, "Then what did happen?" The Arthurian phenomenon is a fact, a very big and complex fact, and to sustain a denial you'd have to account for it without Arthur. Has anyone ever done that convincingly? Until someone does, I'd say it remains easier on balance to believe in him than to disbelieve.

So far as I can see, the only possibility of disproof is that someone might discover an ancient god or demigod with a name like "Arthur," and interpret the stories as based on myths about this being and not on the acts of a living mortal. A few scholars have tried to do that very thing, but they failed to find the god. If another succeeded, it would push ideas of evidence the opposite way. There would be less of a case for taking legends seriously, because the legend of Arthur would have turned out to be a false trail, not leading to historical fact.

All this may be pretty academic, implying that a final answer would only make a difference for those who care strongly about exploration of the past. Everyone else who is interested in Arthur could live with either result and not be greatly moved. And I think that's a good conclusion, discouraging undue partisanship. This is a fascinating mystery, and by all means let's be fascinated, but let's not be fanatical on either side.

Click here for an Introduction to Geoffrey Ashe.
Click here to read the 'Quest for Arthur' Article by Geoffrey Ashe.
Click here to read the 'Magical Glastonbury' Article by Geoffrey Ashe.

David Nash Ford was formerly history editor for the now defunct online British history magazine, britannia.com.
The reproduction of this article is dedicated to the memory of its publisher, Rod Hampton.


    © The Estate of Rod Hampton 1995. All Rights Reserved.