King Arthur and the myths of Britain: 60 seconds with Miles Russell

New research has revealed how the prehistoric and Roman traditions of Britain were preserved in the Medieval histories of Gildas, Bede, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth. In his talks at our Winchester and York History Weekends this autumn, Miles Russell will explore the origin myths of Britain, explaining in the process how the character of King Arthur was forged from the amalgamation of heroes past…
Miles Russell.

Ahead of his talk, ‘Friends, Trojans, Countrymen: Arthur and the Origin Myths of Britain’, we caught up with Miles to find out more…

 

Q. What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A. A chance to rethink the origin myths of Britain by re-examining early historical sources and evidence gathered from archaeological fieldwork. Key to the talk is the Historia Regum Britanniae, the medieval bestseller which, among other things, introduced King Arthur to the world. I hope to do a bit of myth-busting, get people thinking and to question the most fundamental of established historical ‘facts’ relating to the kings and queens of early Britain. There’s lots to get through! 

It is not certain whether King Arthur, the legendary leader of the Knights of the Round Table, was based on a real person. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

 

Q. Why are you so fascinated by this topic?

A. Dragons, magic, swords, wizards and the most evocative names in British mythology, such as Arthur, Vortigern, Hengist, Caratacus, Boudicca, Morgana and Merlin – what’s not to like? I’ve always had a fascination for the epic matter of Britain, especially the legends that swirl around the ‘once and future king’. Rather than trying to prove (or disprove) whether Arthur was a real warlord of the Dark Ages, I went back to where his story began, exploring and trying to better understand the context from which Arthur emerged as a fully formed hero. Post-Roman and medieval writers Gildas, Bede, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, together with literary epics such as the Mabinogion, the Annals of Wales, the Gododdin and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, are often dismissed as unreliable pieces of medieval propaganda and national mythmaking. Yet all contain a surprising amount of historical truth, if looked at in the right way.

 

Q. Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history.

A. That many events occurring in the period that we refer to as ‘prehistory’ were recorded and celebrated right up to the 11th and 12th centuries. That the Iron Age inhabitants of southern Britain wanted to be Roman as much as the people of late Roman Britain wanted to be German. That the outwardly bizarre story of Trojan refugees arriving on the shore of ancient Britain is perfectly explicable in terms of the political climate and mindset of late prehistoric society. That Hengist and Horsa, traditionally thought of as the first Saxons to arrive in Britain, almost certainly didn’t exist. That the story of Merlin building Stonehenge can be explained in archaeological terms. That King Arthur was actually… well, that would be telling.

Some stories suggest that Merlin, a wise man and magician in Arthurian legend, had Stonehenge built for him by a giant. (Danita Delimont/Getty Images)
 

Q. What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?

A. The great thing about appearing at conferences is the chance to debate and discuss ideas with people and to be asked questions about topics that you simply hadn’t thought of before – fresh perspectives that can open your eyes to new points of view and new ways of seeing things. 

Having said that, one particularly tricky question from years ago does stand out in my mind, when a loud and booming voice cut through the crowd to ask: “Do you think that the legendary city of Atlantis was originally located near Swindon?” To this day I’m not sure how to answer that without the simple, and perhaps ultimately rather disappointing, “no”.

 

Q. If you could go back in time to witness one moment in history, what would you choose and why?

A. I would love to go back to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, to witness the building of the great henges and stone circles, and find out why they were thought necessary (although that might just put me out of a job as an archaeologist) or to experience the multicultural greatness of Roman London in the early 2nd century AD. If I had one particular event to visit, however, it would unquestionably be the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s, a catastrophic period of cultural and literary destruction during which the monastic libraries were savagely obliterated. I would try to get in and salvage some of this island’s great literary heritage before the book-burning armies of Henry VIII arrived. 

King Henry VIII's men orchestrating the seizure of property from a monastery during the Reformation. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)
 

Q. What historical mystery would you most like to solve?

A. The disappearance of the Ninth Hispana Legion. Ever since reading Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth as a boy, the story of a desperate Roman army, surrounded and cut down by a barbarian horde has intrigued and beguiled me. They’re out there somewhere…

 

Q. What job do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a historian?

A. When I was young, the only thing I was really interested in, other than history, was athletics. I ran the 100 and 200m at school, town and county level, but training was hard and ultimately, archaeology proved to be more fun. Athletics careers are over too soon and, in the cold light of day, I could never really see myself being good enough to have competed professionally!

 

Miles Russell is a senior lecturer in prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. Miles will be speaking about King Arthur and the myths of Britain at BBC History Magazine’s Winchester History Weekend, on Saturday 7 October, and BBC History Magazine’s York History Weekend on Sunday 26 November.
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here