A Conversation with Geoffrey Ashe
Re: King Arthur & Glastonbury
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
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.
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 skillful 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 center 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.
When did Arthur actually live. . . if he did live?
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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 center 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.
Suppose the cross from the grave were indeed to be rediscovered, say
in some old garage or tool shed. What significance would it have?
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
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.
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
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.
A Quest for Arthur
Part one in a series of articles by Geoffrey Ashe, providing the foundation for a proper understanding of the legend of King Arthur.
There are certain special places, where you get a feeling that is different from any other place you've ever been. Glastonbury is one of those places. Ashe explains what it is about this town that makes us feel that way.