The Future of History

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Divided, We Fell

According to Gildas the Wise, writing in the first half of the sixth century AD, the Britons were a stubborn and stiff-necked people.  Even when their "foreign wars" (against Saxon invaders) had come to a temporary end, they continued to be plagued by "civil troubles".

Gildas did not elaborate on the causes or nature of those "civil troubles", but there has been a tacit assumption among many historians ever since that the Britons were simply too chaotic, too petty-minded and too disorganised to mount a proper defence of their island.

Which brings us to Arthur.  Under his military leadership, the Britons, along with their Irish allies, did join forces successfully, and came close to wiping out the Germanic settlers in North Britain.  Was Arthur, then, the exception that proved the rule?  Was he remembered as a great British hero because he unified the fractious tribes against a common enemy?

Up to a point, yes.  But he fell victim to the "civil troubles" referred to by St Gildas.  And because of those civil troubles, we have been denied a clear view of Arthur for hundreds of years.

There are those in the Arthurian community who seem to think of Arthur as, essentially, a sort of prototype "Englishman".  Peter Ackroyd was quoted in the Radio Times earlier this year, saying that Sir Thomas Malory's epic Le Morte d'Arthur (published in 1485) is a "tale of Englishness".  Now, that's a bit odd, really, because Arthur fought against the people who came to be known as the English.  Indeed, it was the Angles of North Britain who gave their name to England, and it was those very Angles who Arthur and his confederates came very close to driving back into the sea.

There's something decidedly imperialistic about the claim that Arthur represents a kind of English ideal.  Those who were his enemies have adopted him as their national hero - not because he fought so bravely against them, but because they want to think of him as one of their own.  Hence the enduring myths of Tintagel, Glastonbury, and other supposedly "Arthurian" places in the south.  Those myths help to bolster the image of Arthur as someone who, whether he realised it or not, was to all intents and purposes English.

Of course, most students of the Arthurian legends know deep down in their hearts of hearts that Arthur was not English at all.  So they plump for Plan B.  If he wasn't English (shame!) then he must have been Roman.

After all, what did the Britons ever do for us?  They just sat around contemplating their own navels and quarrelling so much that pretty much anybody - Roman, Saxon - could steal their country from them.

The notion that Arthur must have had a Roman pedigree, and was no doubt a Romanised Briton of sorts, maintains a kind of continuity of mindset which goes all the way back to St Gildas.  Christianity had been introduced in Britain under the Roman occupation.  Pretty soon, Christianity came to be identified with Rome, so that, even with the Roman Empire crumbling in the West, the Eternal City remained as a symbol of order and discipline.

What St Gildas found so disgusting was that, left to their own devices, the Britons tended to go back to their old gods.  It was this that led to the "civil troubles" which ultimately ruined Britain.  Gildas the Wise spoke on behalf of the Romanised Britons, who looked to Rome as the source of power and Christianity as the Empire reborn.  Because of that, he simply did not have a good word to say about those Britons who preferred their native traditions and felt, rightly or wrongly, that Britain should be responsible for her own destiny.

Under Arthur, the latter faction - the "Ourselves Alone" side of Britain, true to its native ways - might have prevailed against those Anglian invaders who became the English.  But their efforts were undermined by the Romanised faction, spearheaded by the so-called saints of the early Church.  It was not so much the case that the Britons were just too useless as a people to withstand the English onslaught, but that the Britons were destroyed by their own enemies within: the admirers of Rome, the preachers of the Word.

The fiction that Arthur must have been of Roman stock ties in with the affectation that Arthur was quintessentially an Englishman.  It shows a patronising - one might even say "racist" - attitude towards the native Britons.  It also perpetuates a profound injustice.  Arthur was betrayed by the Christians who were closest to him.  He stood in the way of their plans for a uniform Church.  He and his family represented a kind of tolerant, inclusive spirituality - not Christians themselves, they were prepared to accept Christians in their midst, just as long as those Christians weren't actively plotting against them.  Sadly, though, some of those Christians just wouldn't stop plotting, and the outcome was the death of Arthur and the loss of Britain to her enemies.

Those same enemies now claim Arthur as their own.  That is, they try to make him "English".  But, realising that they'd never get away with that, they go to the next best thing: he was Roman.  From there, it is a short step to making him a Christian king, which is what happened to his legends in the Middle Ages.

The idea that only the Romans were capable of doing anything constructive - at least until the English were properly settled - is in keeping with the prejudices expressed by St Gildas shortly before Arthur was born.  It is prejudice, pure and simple, which tries to make out that Arthur was sort of English, probably Roman, and dominated southern Britain at a time when there are no traces whatsoever of an Arthur.

The same prejudice refuses to acknowledge the historical Arthur of the North.  That Arthur wasn't Roman.  Which means he wasn't English.  Which means he can't have been Arthur.  QED.

The old divisions which were created and exploited by the early Church continue to this day.  They are what caused Britain to fall in the first place.  The same treachery which betrayed Arthur and his warriors still keeps him resolutely hidden from view and promotes a myth of an English, Roman, southern, Christian Arthur.

The Arthur, that is, who was invented by his enemies - not the Arthur who was so fondly remembered by his own beleagured people.

No comments:

Post a Comment