Setting "King Arthur" To A US History Time Scale

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I wrote this for fun as a historical entry in the discontinued Yahoo! Kids' portal.

I think almost everyone with a western European or American cultural background is somewhat familiar with the myth of the British King Arthur, seemingly set somewhere around the time of Robin Hood, against a backdrop of knighthood, chivalry, and tournaments.

There have been plenty of books and movies reinforcing the familiar myth, so it caught my interest to hear that the 2004 epic "King Arthur" was trying to breathe some new life into the tale.

However brave the attempt, this movie didn't quite qualify as a period docu-drama, as Roger Ebert pointed out. Several movie reviews trashed "Arthur"s historical accuracy, which led me straight to Google for a bit of arm chair research. (for examples, see (1), (2), & (3))

The results in short: The Romans latinize the natives of southern Britain, just in time for the British to care about the collapse of the Empire. Without any Legions to protect them, the local government hires a tribe of smelly Danes to keep the other unwashed heathens out. The Danes end up inviting the whole family over to stay. In time, the locals live to regret their hospitality as they are pushed into Wales, while the Danes become the English. After 700 years of Welsh storytelling and French embleshments, we end up with Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable.

The long-winded version: From about 30 A.D., the southern half of Great Britain became the Roman province of Britannia. Free born men were Roman citizens. Most of the Briton elite became Latinized, and enjoyed 300 years of Pax Romana (the Roman Peace). Nearly a sixth of the Roman armed forces were stationed in Britannia, until most were withdrawn to fight on the Continent in 396, leaving for good in 406 to defend the remaining bits of the western Roman Empire.

Illustrations of the Period

The Britons were not particularly happy at being cast adrift. Almost immediately, the Britons were beset with raids by non-Latinized Celts from the north and west, and Angle, Saxon, and Viking pirates from the east. Their hands already full in France, Roman generals responded to pleas for assistance with the suggestion that the locals tend to their own defence. At this point, Romano-Briton leaders followed a later-day Roman practice by inviting a number of Germanic Angle and Saxon clans to Britain as defenders of the isle's eastern shores. The hired hands got out of hand and began carving their own fiefdoms out of British territory. Events spun out of control until around 480, when the Romano-Briton noble Ambrosius Aurelianus rallied the Britons. After 25 years of war, he managed to force the Angles and Saxons into a detente with the Britons.

Although the Anglo-Saxons continued to occupy most of lowland Britain, Romano-Briton culture enjoyed about 40 years of peace, long enough for the Christian monk Gildas to pen a history of the previous 140 years, "De Excidio Britanniae" (The Ruin Of Britain). (Read it unabridged)

Eventually, Briton leaders returned to intrigue and infighting among themselves, which the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms used to their advantage. By 600 A.D., those Britons whom hadn't been assimilated were forced back into western Wales, and by this time commonly called "foreigners" (Old English "Wealh", Middle English "Welsh").

The now isolated Britons developed a 400 year store of lore surrounding the times of Ambrosius Aurelianus, which the Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth pulled together with inventive flair in his 1138 work Historia Regum Britanniae (History Of The Kings Of Britain). The manuscript was recopied many times and introduced the legend of Arthur to the noble courts of Medieval Europe. The poets and bards of the Continent spent the next 340 years adding considerable romantic embellishments, until Sir Thomas Malory set them to print as Le Morte d' Arthur (The Death Of Arthur) in 1470, the first known English language novel.

Overall, the evidence suggests the historical "Arthur" was someone we would now consider an educated, Welsh-speaking warlord, the last flowering of a Latinized upper class in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain.

To get a feel for the flow of 200 years of post-Roman British independence from which Arthurian legend sprang, I developed the rough timeline below to chart their history against another 200 years of - for me - familiar United States history. Enjoy.

Roman Roots Of King Arthur
Year Post-Roman Britannia US History
400···
410···
Roman legions withdraw US Revolution
Romano-Briton independence, Saxon invasions begin
420···
Early Republic
430···
440···
Romano-Briton elite select king, Vortigern
450··· War with UK
Expansion
Rise of Ambrosius the Senior
460···
470···
Briton/Roman expedition to Gaul defeated by Goths
480··· Ambrosius Aurelianus rallies Britons against Saxons
War with Mexico
Futher expansion
490···
Civil war
500···
Reconstruction
Generation of peace
510···
Gilded Age
520···
530···
540···
550···
WWI
Renewed warfare, Britons pushed back to western Wales
Twenties
560···
Depression
570···
WWII
580···
Truman to Armstrong
590···
600···


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Additional references:

  • http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gildas.asp