Who Were King Arthur’s Enemies?

King ArthurGood question.

The answer varies wildly depending on who you’re reading…or watching.  Arthur has been depicted in hundreds of books and movies, TV and more and it seems that each variation has endowed a different enemy upon the hapless Arthur.

The variety and shape of his enemies runs the gamut from himself, family in-fighting, magical forces, demons, local tribes, Romans, the French, all the way up to Vikings with horned helmets (excuse me while my self-respecting historian’s button explodes), to Anglo-Saxons.

I am an Arthurian nut and have been ever since I discovered an unremarkable hardcover edition of The Hollow Hills in my high school library.  [The edition also awakened an awareness of page layout and font.  It used a version of Garamond that included diamond-shaped periods, that to this day I’ve never found again…Book Antiqua comes close.] 

Mary Stewart’s Arthur faced internal battles; feuding Bretons, Britons, Welsh.  The incursion of Anglo Saxons was a non-event in her stories even though it was an historical event, and the maps included in her books show the two Saxon Shores where the concentration of Saxon settlements clawed their foothold on Britain.

Another long-time favourite of mine, The Once and Future King, of which the fabulous musical Camelot was based upon, had Arthur fighting a mysterious enemy that seemed to combine at times, the French, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and local tribes…but all his fighting was done off-camera (and off the page) except for the bitter in-fighting with his knights, so only the hints peppered throughout the book give any clue as to who his enemy really was.

The Pendragon is not as widely known as either of the last two titles, but it is the only paperback book I hauled over from Australia when I moved to Canada in 1996 because I knew it wasn’t available in North America at the time.  I still have that copy, although I am very careful about handling it because the cover is very stiff and the glue is flaking on the spine.  Still, it is a favourite of mine that had an early influence over my Arthurian education, and in The Pendragon, Arthur’s enemies were the Anglo Saxon tribes, who repeatedly and relentlessly raided and pillaged.

castleAnd so it goes.  In the recently history-warping movie, King Arthur, with Clive Owen in the name role, their enemy was the Celts…which was ironic, as there is little historical fact known about Arthur, but what is known about him is that he was Celtic…and possibly Welsh to boot.

If you look to the times when historians figure Arthur was most likely to have been around – the late fifth century Roman Britain – the political situation that existed at that time gives you the best clues as to whom Arthur’s real enemies might have been.

  1. Despite the period being called “Roman” Britain, the Romans had actually withdrawn back to Rome to take care of their ailing empire, decades before.
  2. The Anglo Saxons had been migrating into the now border-free and open Britain for nearly the same amount of time, and had been given the Saxon Shore (most of the south-east toe of the island) for themselves, in order to keep them contained and content.
  3. Apart from the Saxon Shore, Britain was made up of tribes of Celts and Britons, and even older peoples who stayed out of mainstream politics.
  4. There was no Roman authority in Britain, which left behind a vacuum in leadership.

The sudden departure of the Romans and their administrative guidance left Britain in a state of chaos.  The tribes fell back to defending for themselves…and their territories.  Chaos descended to anarchy very quickly.

Into this mix came annual floods of Anglo Saxons, anxious to find arable land to support their families, and the Saxon Shore was filled to bursting.  Not all the Saxon migrants would have landed on the Shore, and not all of them would have come peaceably, especially once they realized how unruly the island was and that they could step in and take what they wanted.  Who was there to uphold the Roman authority now?

This was the disaster that Arthur was born into.

There are no historical sources or authorities to say absolutely who his enemies were, but from the facts of the day it is possible to speculate that Arthur would have:

  1. First fought for recognition as leader over all the tribes.  He would have had to win the trust and leadership of his local tribes, then bound together the disparate races, too.  That alone was not an easy task.  They were inclined to suspicion, in-fighting and treachery among themselves.
  2. Once he had all the British tribes fighting for him, he would possibly have focused on forcing the Saxons back behind their boundaries and keeping them there.

That would have won for Britain the few years or decades of peace that the bards, authors and poets speak of.

Historical fact tells us that the Anglo-Saxons, along with some Viking hoards, eventually claimed all Britain for themselves.  Arthur’s peace didn’t last, and as the Anglo-Saxons had no written language, nothing was recorded about him or his conquered people.

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