Stepping Back Into Saxon England

I’m delighted to welcome to my blog today popular historical novelist, Helen Hollick who, with fellow author, Annie Whitehead is revisiting a very interesting period of Britain’s past.

The subject matter of Helen’s post is currently very much on my mind as I write book 3 of my Last of the Romans series and attempt to negotiate fifth century Britain – a veritable black hole for historical evidence. Those of us writing about this period must address, at some time, the thorny question of “King Arthur” and that is what Helen is doing today.

King Arthur. From Roman Britain To Saxon England

by Helen Hollick

So what’s that title all about then? Are you looking puzzled? Maybe scratching your head? Do I hear you muttering something like, ‘But King Arthur was a knight. You know, Medieval chivalry, searching for the Holy Grail, Sir Lancelot,  Sir Galahad, Merlin and all that stuff! What’s he got to do with Roman or Saxon Britain?

Well, actually, to be brutally honest, there is no evidence whatsoever to show, let alone prove, that King Arthur existed at any point of history, be it Roman, Saxon, Plantagenet, Tudor… If he had been a real person during the period of knights in armour (roughly 1200s – 1500s) we would have had some form of written documentation about him. Earlier than this, there is nothing about him in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bede writing c731, makes no mention of him in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People,  Nor is there anything definite, aside from a couple of very obscure possible references, in Gildas’s sixth century writing of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, where he is bemoaning the fact that the structure of Roman authority has vanished and the law of the Church has gone to pot. He does mention a victory against the Saxons at Mons Badonicus (Mount Badon) which resulted in a generation of peace between the Britons and Saxons, but infuriatingly he does not give a location or the name of the battle commanders, British or Saxon.

A Welsh ecclesiastic, Nennius, does talk of Arthur in his Historia Brittonum where he lists twelve battles, giving Arthur the title ‘dux bellorum’ (war commander or leader), claiming that this Arthur fought alongside the kings of the Britons. Which is possible, but alas, Nennius was inclined to make things up, so is not likely to be factual after all.

The Welsh Annales Cambriae, which were composed in the mid-tenth century, gives a date of Mount Badon as 516 and states Arthur’s death as 537 at the Battle of Camlann. This is a record written several hundred years after the sixth century – time enough for inaccuracies and augmented legends to make their mark. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-historical chronicle, the Historia Regum Britanniae, written c1136, was the first literary work to give Arthur the title of ‘King’. Other sources mention his name, but these are all poems, legends, stories, and mostly date from the eighth to the twelfth centuries.

Another alternative is that maybe the legend of ‘Arthur’ sprang from the deeds of a successful commander who had a different name. There was a real chap called Riothamus who lived in the late fifth century and is listed as ‘a king of the Britons’ by the Byzantine historian Jordanes who wrote in the mid-sixth century – so maybe a little more reliable? What is fact, is that in 460 a Roman diplomat, Bishop Sidonius Apollinaris wrote to Riothamus pleading for aid against unrest among the Bretons living in Armoric (Brittany). In 470 the Western Roman Emperor, Anthemius was  campaigning against the Visigoths in Gaul (France). Here again, Anthemius asks for help from Riothamus. Jordanes states that he crossed the sea into Gaul with an army of 12,000 soldiers. The campaign failed because of treachery and Riothamus was defeated at Déols. He retreated  north to Burgundy and was never seen or heard of again. Writer and historian, Geoffrey Ashe, has suggested that ‘Riothamus’ could be a title, not a name – meaning something like ‘King Most’ or ‘High King’, which is plausible, but again, not proven.

There has been academic debate about the existence of Arthur for many years, but it has to be accepted that, beyond the realm of fiction, the bloke just didn’t exist. Brian David, in a 2019 review, stated that, ‘Few topics in late antique and medieval history elicit scholarly groans quite like the idea of a supposedly “factual” King Arthur. Yet historians and other scholars made cases for Arthur’s existence in historical and literary studies until the 1980s. For academics today, the question of the realism of King Arthur has been largely banished to popular books, video games, and movies.’

As with Robin Hood, it is possible that the legends and myths of Arthur sprung from a real person who played some small, obscure, part in history during those turbulent, confused years between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Saxons. A period we used to call The Dark Ages because of the almost total lack of creditable documentation. Even so, Arthur was most definitely not a king, didn’t have a castle, didn’t achieve huge victories in battle, and didn’t have a magic sword.

What is real, however, are the numerous wonderful stories about Arthur!

There are many of them, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Disney, via authors such as Mary Stewart, Rosemary Sutcliff, T.H.White, Stephan Lawhead, Persia Woolley, Bernard Cornwell – and myself. My Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy was first published in the 1990s, and is still popular here in 2020. My Arthur is based on the early Welsh legends: there is no Lancelot, Gawain or Merlin in my books.

No magic, no fantasy. I do use Ashe’s suggestion that Riothamus was Arthur, because I think it is a good theory. My Arthur starts out as an illegitimate boy favoured by Uthr Pendragon and detested by Morgause, Uther’s mistress. They arrive in Gwynedd, North Wales  to meet up with Prince Cunedda and his sons, in order to join forces to fight against Vortigern, the tyrant king of Britain. Uthr is slain, and Arthur is revealed to be his son and heir to the kingdom.

From there, the boy, Arthur, becomes the man, who became the king, who became the legend. He has to fight long and hard to gain his kingdom, and the woman he loves, Gwenhwyfar, daughter of Cunedda. To keep both, he has to fight even longer and harder against those Britons who want a return of the old ways of Rome, against the Picts north of the Wall – and against the Saxons who come, in places willing to make treaties and settle in peace,  but elsewhere, determined to fight for the land they want to make their own.

My Arthur is a down-to-earth realistic man with hopes and fears, with capabilities and flaws. He gets some things right, others he gets wrong. He loves Gwenhwyfar, but their relationship has its ups and downs.

Factual history, my trilogy is not.

But it is a darn good read!

© Helen Hollick

The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy

The Kingmaking : Pendragon’s Banner : Shadow Of The King

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This entry was posted in Blog hop, Historical Fiction, History, Post Roman Britain, Saxon England and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Stepping Back Into Saxon England

  1. thank you for hosting Stepping Back Into Roman Britain Derek, so far Annie and I are very much enjoying our tour.

  2. Pingback: Stepping Back into Saxon England: Who Was the Lord of the Mercians? – before the second sleep

  3. E S Moxon says:

    This is what Historical Fiction is all about. We look for the shadows and the legends, we weave them into our stories so that readers ‘feel’ they are real people and circumstances. Great post!

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