Book Review: Arthur and the Kings of Britain By Miles Russell

ISBN: 9781445662749
Format: Hardback.
Length 336 Pages including full colour image section..
Published: 15 March 2017, Amberly.

Arthur and the Kings of Britain is principally about breaking a code. In the 12th Century a scholar named Geoffrey of Monmouth penned a book called Historia Regnum Brittaniae, the History of the Kings of Britain heretofore referred to as HRB. A mammoth compilation of names and events purporting to chronicle the rulers of the land all the way back to their Trojan roots.

Today they the HRB is sneered at by many writers and scholars who argue that it is just an impressive work of medieval propaganda designed to please Geoffrey’s Norman overlords. But perhaps it is merely that these learned folk have not broken the code. Hidden within the foreshadowing, bias and propaganda there are elements of ancient histories dating back to the 1st Century BC.

Miles Russell sets out to find out once and for all if the HRB, and other similar histories are indeed the load of hokum they are cracked up to be. He does not defend the HRB as a work of history. Instead he argues that it is full of hints and allusions that can help flesh out this obscure time in British history. In so doing might be the first expert to attempt to present a formulaic method of using what many consider as unreliable primary sources.

The first two chapters read like a masterclass in historical detective work. Using a sort of reverse filtration system, Russell shows the reader that by viewing the HRB in the spotlight of preceding chronicles and histories the truth behind the legend begins to gleam. By using earlier books like infra red lenses or the keys to a cypher, we can see what accords, and the unreliable padding gets stripped back to reveal something approaching plausible.

This is the methodology of the book, starting with Caesar and Nennius to name two, the HRB undergoes a rigorous reevaluation, convincingly showing that there is more to the work than meets the eye. It’s not therefore light reading, it is just as much historiography as it is history, and some of the theories put forward are supported by paper thin evidence. Yet it is thought provoking in even it’s most daring assertions.

An investigation of the list of Kings is essentially the aim, using the method of comparing previous chronicles, retellings and histories to find similarities and then compositing that with archeological evidence, especially names inscribed on coins. This allowes the author to surmise that Geoffrey of Monmouth, while skewing and garbling almost everything he touched, probably didn’t just get his information out of thin air.

In that sense it is a revealing glimpse into the medieval mindset as it is fascinating to read about the historical possibilities of HRB’s King list. Geoffrey of Monmouth for instance might well have appropriated the 1066 story, and projected it backwards onto a less significant but similar event. Something calculated to appeal to his Norman masters, and make sense to a 12th century mind. More queer, (apart from the whole Trojan thing) is the confident assertion of medieval writers that Rome did not conquer Britain.

The Romans had a simplified view of nations. The Britons therefore seem quite clear cut. Indeed it’s enlightening to read the possible relationship between the still independent Britons and the Romans between the great invasion of AD 43, not least how the empire changed the fabric of “British” life. Yet when the Saxons come things get complicated and it’s not because the Romans are now considered the good guys, (unless your a Pict), because although the Britons lived in what is now England, lowland Scotland & Wales, it was the invading Saxons who took the name English, and branded their indigenous Romano-British arch enemies “foreigners” or Welsh.

Medieval muddling, back projecting and massaging of facts into neat narratives are things not calculated to inspire much confidence, and to use any of the sources this book investigates without the aid of others, to break the code, would be a great mistake. Russell’s achievement here is to have convincingly argued that no source should be ignored because it appears flawed. Indeed much about the the HRB retold here makes plausible and well reasoned sense.

Now in such a work, it’s very hard to present an invincible narrative. I suspect critics of Geoffrey will have been quick to condemn assertions, and scoff, perhaps heartily at some of the interpretations. I myself always raise an eyebrow when I read about the Njnth Legion being wiped out by Boudicca, such as is briefly mentioned here, but no matter which parts one might disagree with, debates about how to read ancient documents are never ending, and Arthur and the Kings of Britain offers a new argument.

Interesting theories are posed. Saxon kings might have been in fact appropriated British warlords. To demonstrate what the author is asking us to consider, take the case of Aelle. Russell suggests that this King might actually be a reflection of a long lost part of the story of Ambrosius, which was adopted by the Saxons & changed for political ends. In this way the Author searches the ancient writings for coincidence & similarity, he finds surprising similarity in many stories leading him to postulate wether indeed they are one and the same.

And so to Arthur, who headlines the book but as is usually the case forms only a part of it. It seems uncharitable to refer to such a title as a lure, but we should remember that academics use Arthur as shorthand for the final decades of the Romano British kingdom. What of this mystery man? Well by know, having read how the writers of the various histories composited so much into well hammered narratives, it should come as no surprise that Russell Arrives at the decision that Arthur was a man of many parts but little reality, in so far as being an actual man. Rather he decides the man known as Arthur was in fact many men, representing almost a codified history in miniature of some of Britain’s greatest heroes

In his conclusion Russell highlights three facts, derived from this close study of these hitherto derided histories. First that they contain elements of demonstrable fact, second that Arthur cannot have existed, and third, the HRB contains aspects that are historically verifiable, all summing up to say that these should be regarded as respectable source material. And while some may not agree with everything here, this is a undeniably true assertion. With so little out there about the early history of Britain, can we afford to just throw away accounts that don’t fit modern academic standards?

In the end, though we might scoff at new movies and books that fantasies and twist history into different shapes, one does have to at some point shrug and point out, people have been hiding away ancient history in legends for a very long time, and this book proves it.