A very different Arthur

BRLSI member Michael Davis speaking on the Battle of Mount Badonicus
Hands up those who thought King Arthur lived before recorded history and spent most of his time in Camelot romancing Queen Guinevere? Hands up, for that matter, those who thought Arthur was a King? In a fascinating (and eye-opening) talk on Mons Badonicus – Arthur’s Greatest Battle, BRLSI member Michael Davis swept aside these and many other misconceptions about the legendary British leader, in the process serving up a very different Arthur, a hard-bitten, post Roman professional soldier who spent his time on the road between battles, and was a military ruler rather than a monarch.
In the 5th Century AD the highly Romanised British (whom we’d now think of as Celts) found themselves cast adrift by the Roman Empire, which had its own problems elsewhere in Europe, not least that of fighting off a certain Atilla the Hun. Instead of liberation from military occupation (Britain was the most militarised of Rome’s colonies, with three 50,000-men legions permanently stationed here), Rome’s withdrawal turned out to mean vulnerability to invasion by the Saxon hordes. The leading British General resisting them was Arthur (otherwise known as the “bear-man of Cornwall”), who fought a series of pitched battles against Saxon forces all over the country.

Edwin Pace – an alternative theory on the Battle of Mount Badon

The 12th, and greatest, of these was Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon), occurring around 500 AD somewhere in the West Country and fought to prevent the Saxons from splitting the Welsh from their English allies. Arthur defeated the over-stretched Saxons, whose takeover of Britain was set back by two generations. In Michael Davis’s theory (shared by many mainstream historians) Mount Badonicus was Solsbury Hill outside Aquae Sulis (Bath), and the Saxons were driven back along what is now the A4.
Most historians, having aired their theory, would happily have left it unchallenged, but here at BRLSI historians are made of sterner stuff. Accordingly Michael Davis introduced Edwin Pace, an expert on 5th Century Britain who’d come from Cambridge to give his rather different view on Arthur and Badonicus. In Mr Pace’s version (backed, it must be said, by some impressive scholarship), the battle happened 50 years earlier somewhere further south (possibly Brent Knoll in Somerset), and the enemy was not the Saxons but the Irish.
No-one knows for certain (this period is, after all, called the ‘Dark Ages’). Sadly though, both speakers agreed that after the glory of Badonicus things went downhill for the British, and for Arthur. In Michael Davis’s version the Saxons took their revenge in 577 at Dyrham (also outside Bath), then evicted the entire population of Aquae Sulis to the wilds of Walcot (now Bath’s trendy ‘artisan district’) as punishment. Arthur, meanwhile, switched sides to the Saxons and was murdered by resentful British forces on his return from a disastrous European sortie. Who on Earth said history was dull?