29 August 2019


Caleb Howells. King Arthur - The Man Who Conquered Europe. Amberley, 2019.

Scholar, enthusiast or nerd? No, not King Arthur. I often found myself wondering what kind of author had written this tome as I ploughed diligently through more than 250 pages of the minutest detail, obscure names, excessive speculation and overload of information. The trouble may be that this is such specialised and unfamiliar territory. Anyone who has studied and researched a subject to this depth would seem to be a scholar, yet it is a fine line between that and the nerdish qualities of obsession with details to the extent that a non-specialist reader loses the plot entirely.

There is a phrase that has come into common use in this internet age, that of 'clickbait', most often meaning an intriguing headline that gets you to click on it out of curiosity. It's a clever technique to generate more traffic to that website, increasing advertising revenue and connected sales. Book publishers and authors evidently use a similar technique, that might be referred to as 'titlebait'. Anything with 'King Arthur' in the title is bound to attract attention. Now add the subtitle 'The Man who Conquered Europe' and you have a bestseller, possibly. Who could even have imagined that King Arthur fought on mainland Europe, let alone conquered it? This is something that demands further examination.

The author's bold claim, as announced in the blurb on the book's cover, is that he has finally cracked the question that has defeated all historians and researchers until now: Who was King Arthur? He states that, although there is no consensus, "there is one conclusion that virtually all investigators agree on: he was some kind of war leader who fought against the Saxons in Britain". This is a fair conclusion, but it misses - or ignores - something crucial. That missing element forms the bulk of Howells' thesis and exhaustive research. It all depends on dubious source material relating that Arthur engaged in a great campaign in mainland Europe and waged war against the Roman empire.

This is where it gets really complicated, because apparently the King Arthur we all know and love was not the only one. Somehow, two 'Arthurs' got conflated into one. That is the simple essence of Howells' argument but arriving at that conclusion is very hard work indeed. He himself says at the outset of his introduction: "One could write reams about virtually any aspect of the [Dark Ages] era because it is so poorly documented." Referring to the period of 400 to 600 CE as the 'Arthurian Era', King Arthur features as the main subject of "countless books, academic and mainstream, factual and speculative". So now we have another one to add to the list.

The main source material for this theory comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth's major work Historia Regum Britanniae ('The History of the Kings of Britain') dated around 1137. It traces the purported history of Britain from the arrival and settlement of Brutus of Troy up to the rise of Anglo-Saxon rule in the 7th century. Now considered to be pseudo-history, it nevertheless has had a great influence as a work of medieval literature, containing the first known version of the story of King Lear and his three daughters. It is of course most famous for being a source of lore and legend concerning King Arthur and the prophecies of Merlin.

Part of Geoffrey's narrative states that 'Arthur' waged war in Europe and defeated the Roman Empire, thereby qualifying to be emperor, but then had to return to England to deal with the rebellion of his son Mordred, whom he kills at the Battle of Camlann. But Arthur is mortally wounded and is carried off to the isle of Avalon. Some of the details are very familiar, but the European interlude is inconsistent and generally considered to be fabricated by Geoffrey, as so much of his material demonstrably is. For example, his account of the two invasions led by Julius Caesar differs greatly from the highly detailed account written by Caesar himself. Howells goes to great lengths to justify Geoffrey's variance in one case after another, having convinced himself that the report of 'Arthur's' conquest of Europe must have a valid historical precedent, somewhere, somehow.

He may of course be right, in that, even when the original source is lost, a legend may contain some historical event or personage. In his introduction, by way of illustration, he takes the example of the myth of Atlantis and its destruction as described by Plato in the 5th century BCE. The massive volcanic eruption of the island of Thera, now known as Santorini, is identified as a possible source of the myth. Thought to have occurred around the 16th century BCE, this was one of the biggest eruptions on Earth in recorded history. Resultant earthquakes and tsunamis devastated communities and settlements in the region and far afield. It may have contributed to the downfall of the Minoan civilisation. While there is still much speculation and conjecture about the source of the Atlantis myth, the Thera eruption is one of the leading 'candidates'.

Similarly, in the quest to identify the 'Arthur' who fought in Europe, Howells checks the credentials of all the various candidates. These include Constantine the Great and Riothamus. At first, the former seems feasible. "He became emperor in Britain and was even believed to have been born in Britain by some later historians, such as the writer of Geoffrey of Monmouth's source." He did make war against Rome, eventually emerging victorious as the emperor of both the western and eastern parts of the empire. The ancient city of Byzantium became the new capital of the Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople in honour of Constantine. Also, he was famously the first emperor to convert to Christianity. However, there are not enough similarities with the Arthurian account for it to be him.

Riothamus, a Romano-British military leader active in Britain in the latter part of the 5th century, is favoured by Geoffrey Ashe, a British scholar and King Arthur specialist. Howells argues strongly against Ashe's conclusions with much detailed analysis, completely dismissing Riothamus as a possibility. It naturally leads to a fundamental question for the reader: if specialists with access to the same available texts disagree so fundamentally, what hope is there for the rest of us in coming to grips with the King Arthur conundrum?

After considering the pros and cons of other candidates in history as the "identity of the first Arthur", Howells make the case for his own choice, Andragathius. His quest to prove this part of his theory is perhaps the most labyrinthine of the whole book, starting with an attempt to show how that name may have been corrupted into 'Arthur'. To add to the confusion, Howells claims that this Andragathius was also referred to as 'Anthun', which at least is much closer to 'Arthur', but also 'Dunod', which is totally different. If these are one and the same person, as Howells claims, it appears that he was the eldest son of Magnus Maximus, Roman commander of Britain in the late 4th century.

The reasoning behind this conclusion is based on some obscure Welsh genealogies referring to wives and sons of Maximus, despite the fact that a son named Victor, referred to in the contemporary Roman accounts, is "the only recorded son who can definitely be said to have existed". Whether or not Andragathius was related to Maximus, there is independent evidence that he was Magister equitum (Master of the cavalry). More relevantly, he did capture and kill the Roman Emperor Gratian in Gaul in 383, fulfilling one of the author's criteria for identifying the 'earlier Arthur'. Another criterion was that he had to be the 'King of Greece'. Evidently getting as far as the Balkans was enough to earn this epithet.

Caleb Howells has clearly worked hard at amassing a vast amount of textual references from various sources to throw more light on the mystery of the true identity and time of our iconic British King Arthur. I admire his tenacity but am sorry to say I found his research, arguments and tortuous speculations not only painstaking, as they are, but also painful. There is no pleasure in reading this book, apart from acquiring a little more knowledge about Roman Britain and the Dark Ages. But what is knowledge without wisdom?

There is no romance here, nothing of the 'quest for the grail' that the King Arthur story represents. Admittedly, the author did not set out to do that, and his book may appeal to a very limited readership of the same leanings as himself, digging for historical truth in obscure places. The mass market for the romantic legends will always be T.H. White's wonderful novel The Once and Future King. It may not be historically accurate, but who cares? Fantasy can be as strong as truth. Moreover, this would be a good time for King Arthur to return. England, and Britain, are in disarray. We need wise leadership now. And if he does return and reveal himself, then he might also tell us who he was, although that will put a few writers out of business. – Kevin Murphy


Caleb Howells said...

Hi there, Caleb Howells here! Thank you for taking the time to review my book, I really appreciate it. I consider this to be a very fair review, and it is clear that you did understand my arguments and you have accurately conveyed them here.

I'm sorry, though, that you found it painful to read. I appreciate that I perhaps didn't simplify the content as much as I should or could have done. I wanted to make the case as detailed as possible because I wanted to make the *best* case possible, without leaving any stone unturned, as it were. But I suppose I ended up alienating the majority of the audience that was not looking for such an in-depth analysis. I have taken your comments on board, and if ever I write another book, I will endeavour to make it much easier to read.

However, something that you didn't particularly touch on in your review is how convincing you actually found the case? You didn't comment on how convincing you found the idea that Andragathius was the historical basis for the tales of Arthur conquering Europe, nor how convincing you found my identification of Athrwys ap Meurig as the primary Arthur. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.

Kevin Murphy said...

Hello Caleb, good to hear from you! Kevin Murphy here, saying thank you for your comments on my review of your book.

To give a direct answer to your question, it is almost impossible to assess the validity of your general thesis. The whole question of the historical identity of King Arthur has obviously attracted a lot of interest over many years. Before reading your book I had not studied the matter in any depth. I may be representative of a so-called 'general reader' who knows and loves the popular Arthur legends and would like to see evidence of any historical basis for them. For that reason I gladly chose your book when it became available for review. As I honestly said in my review, I found it very hard work to get through, and would probably have given up if I had bought it casually for myself.

As I found myself getting bogged down by the minutiae of unfamiliar names and obscure textual references I wondered what your aim actually was? I appreciate from your comments that you were keen to prove something that you had discovered from your extensive research. Your identification of Athrwys ap Meurig as the primary Arthur and Andragathius as the 'European' one may add something to the debate, but I strongly doubt it will settle it. It will be interesting to see what your fellow researchers and scholars have to say about it. Your suggestion that Athrwys was a sixth-generation descendant of Anthun ap Maxim would tie up your theory nicely, but there is nothing there that has the status of proof. The whole case seems highly speculative and based on dubious and inconsistent source material.

The one firm conclusion that I drew from your book, and for which I am grateful, is that 'King Arthur' was not one single individual from the Dark Ages. It seems certain that at least two historical characters got conflated as one 'Arthur' by Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, as I am sure you are aware, the historian and archaeologist Miles Russell asserts that King Arthur was a composite 'Celtic Superhero' drawn from five separate characters. He identifies Ambrosius Aurelianus as the key character. One other example of disagreement, as analysed in your book, is Geoffrey Ashe's identification of Riothamus as 'the man who conquered Europe'. As I said in my review, if even experts disagree so fundamentally with access to the same records, what hope is there for us non-specialists, or general readers, to know what is valid and what is not?

If I may make a suggestion, it would have made your book much more readable and enjoyable for general readers if you had involved yourself in it more. By that, I mean if you had written a more inclusive introduction that mentioned how you became interested in the subject of King Arthur and what theories about his identity you had come across. Having given an overview of these, you could then entice the reader to go along with you on a journey of discovery, a quest for the real Arthur. This would naturally lead into a discussion of the romantic legends and their sources before getting into the details.

Best wishes for this book and your future writing. Kevin

Caleb Howells said...

Hi Kevin,

Thank you very much for the reply. As before, I appreciate hearing your thoughts, and I will endeavour to make any future book more readable and enjoyable to all audiences. It's a shame that you were not particularly convinced by the theory itself, but I am glad that I was able to at least induce one conclusion.

Thanks again,