Arthur, King of Britons: From Celtic hero to cinema icon by Daniel Mersey

By Daniel Mersey

King Arthur, the most renowned of British kings and one whose identify is synonymous with braveness, chivalry and romanticism. Arthur, King of the Britons, Arthur the medieval legend, Arthur the Celtic warlord, Arthur of the Pre-Raphaelites and Arthur of the movies...would the genuine King Arthur please rise up? Daniel Mersey explores the numerous faces, myths and theories surrounding this recognized king.

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The British kingdoms that had formed in the fifth century rapidly began to lose their land to the rising new Saxon kingdoms. Evidence from the seventh and eighth centuries suggest a move away from Romanised British kingdoms to a heroic culture later recognised as ‘Celtic’. Important warlords no longer based themselves in towns, but in fortified hilltop or rural residences, and at this late date (much later than many historians gave credit for), urban life appears to have been 47 ARTHUR: KING OF THE BRITONS pretty thoroughly replaced with a solely rural lifestyle.

It seems as though Vortigern ruled the majority of the former Roman province, although if Britain fragmented into smaller kingdoms earlier than is widely accepted, his story may only tell of the downfall of one kingdom. Having said this, the weight of opinion does suggest that Vortigern was at the head of the whole nation, and as such, the story remembering his life probably contains snippets of the truth behind the Britons’ fall from power in their own country. Before the Saxons arrived as hired spearmen, whether by Vortigern’s invite or not, at least some of the Britons realised that they needed help in repelling the Irish and Pictish raiders.

Trade and political links with overseas lands continued after the withdrawal of Roman authority. St Germanus certainly visited Britain, as, it seems, did Roman governmental or military officials, in the early to mid-fifth century. After this, evidence of continental contact can be seen by the presence of imported goods ranging from pottery to 50 THE HISTORICAL ARTHUR jewellery, found at high status sites (royalty or nobility) across the south of Britain. Continued trading suggests that political envoys would also have passed between British rulers and their continental equivalents, to maintain good links; occasional references exist in European sources to Britons or Saxons abroad, which supports this idea.

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