The Case for the Northern Arthur

Chris Flynn

There are many motivating energies when a writer considers writing a new book. The whole Arthur myth has become something of a genre in itself and for anyone with a serious interest in Dark Age history, whatever happened in the murky depths of the post Roman era is likely to be truly contentious.

When it came to teasing out the history from the myth there have been new archaeological discoveries that add to our grasp of such a complex period of history. I always considered it strange that the mythology of Arthur centred on sites located in the south of Britain, especially those that stressed the importance of Glastonbury and Cadbury. If there ever was an actual historical figure, lurking behind the mythology, one observation is paramount, Arthur and his warriors were first and foremost horsemen; and secondly, they operated at a time when the bulk of fighting was done on foot. 

There are other clues to pinpoint a northern Arthur; the pacification of Britain’s southern tribes under Roman occupation left a military gap of quite large proportions when the Romans finally did pack up and leave. Those areas that had maintained a largely independent existence from Roman rule, beyond the wall, were much better able to retain a warrior culture than the more ‘civilised’ Romano-Britons in the south. If we’re looking for a tough, doughty bunch of horse warriors, it’s unlikely that we’ll find them in areas of Romanised culture.

However, when holding the wall, the Roman military machine had as many legions on duty as they had in the whole of their eastern empire. Included in their concentrated manpower on and behind the wall, were over 5000 Sarmatian cavalry; barbarian warriors from the east, who contributed a particular set of skills with their combined arms of bow and kontos, a long thrusting spear that was used two handed. It is not too speculative to make a connection between such warriors and the tribe that maintained a buffer zone beyond the wall for the Roman administration south of it – the Votadini. The Picts and the Selgovae, two northern peoples who never succumbed to Roman authority, were responsible for the large garrisons and focused concern on the northern tribes. The Votadini were the only tribe to ally with the Romans north of the wall. Their survival depended upon the skills they had to combat both the Selgovae and the Picts. In such a theatre of operations the development of a cavalry arm would have been vital.

The case for a northern Arthur does not rest merely upon military issues, although they are crucial in matching history to the myth. Administration and co-ordination of efforts to thwart the incursion of Saxon invaders in the 400’s makes very little sense if centred on the south. It was in the south east that the first permanent settlements of such peoples sprouted in this era. Why would a High King of the British hire Saxon mercenaries to assist his defence against the northern Picts, the Irish and other Saxons in the south, if his military forces were in any way capable? A much better case can be made for the north-west and far north as bases for operations; the south would have been far too vulnerable to incursions to provide any sense of stability.

Northumberland and the Border region still celebrate a ‘horse’ culture; the ghost, perhaps of those real historical warriors who, having remained distant from Rome, still maintained the strength, knowledge and skills to delay the Saxon advance into Britain. Not for nothing is Northumberland known as the secret kingdom; between its northern-most hills and the Borders is a region that kept its independence and arguably maintained a foundation for resistance to Saxon expansion for much longer than would have been the case without their actions. As ‘Leader of Battles,’ the historical Arthur was no Briton, as defined by the Romanised southerners; his actions merit recognition as part of the legacy of ‘horse culture’ still found in the far north.

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