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King Arthur Never Ruled in England

Mark Strecker January 4, 2000

The island of Britain is a great place to invade. It is a fine piece of real estate and everyone wants to have it. Of its original inhabitants, little is known. The first historical people to invade and occupy the island were the Picts, Gaels and Britons. Unfortunately for them, the place was so inviting that the Romans decided they wanted it for themselves, so they took it. A few centuries later the Britons, who were the only people there the Romans managed to dominate, took back what was theirs, but not for long.

Those pesky Picts, who occupied much of what is today Scotland, were making all kinds of trouble and pushing into the Britons' territory. Undaunted, the Britons invited the Saxons in as mercenaries to help them fight off the Picts. The Saxons did what they had been hired to: they sent the Picts back to their own territory. Unfortunately for the Britons, the Saxons liked the island so much they decided it would be a great place to call home, so they starting taking possession of it, pushing the Britons into what is today Wales. Meanwhile other people came as well, including the Angles (from which the name England comes) and Jutes, both of whom merged with the Saxons, forming the traditional Anglo-Saxon descent attributed to the British these days.

A few centuries later the Normans of Britain decided that the island was the perfect place to conquer, and, led by some guy named William (who was later dubbed the Conqueror), they captured much of it, taking everything away from the local Saxons and Angles. From this point onward the island would suffer from civil wars, several invasions from an illegitimate heirs to the throne in exile, and countless other difficulties. In time the mixture of Normans and Anglo-Saxons merged into a single people known as the English. They coveted the rest of Britain and conquered Scotland and Wales, too. Then they foolishly turned to the island of Ireland as a source for new territory. This move had mixed results.

With all those invasions in mind, one might ask where King Arthur fits in, since this article is clearly about him. The whole point of providing the historical synopsis of Britain was to make it easier to place Arthur in his proper era. The man who all the Arthurian legends are supposedly based on was born sometime in the mid-fifth century. This period of time is known as the Dark Ages. It is the time when the Saxons were attempting to take over all of Britain and the Britons (of whom Arthur was one) were desperately resisting.

Arthur lived five hundred years before the time of William's invasion and seven hundred years before the height of chivalry, knights, and feudal society. People are constantly trying to place Arthur in this latter era despite the fact he wouldn't have known what a chivalrous knight was any more than he could have identified a car battery. In his time there were no knights as we have come to know them nor any grandiose architecture, especially when it came to fortifications. Arthur's castle, "Camelot," was nothing more than a hilltop fortification, consisting of a stone wall that surrounded a series of timber buildings. One of was a long feasting hall, which was about as close to a place where "knights" could meet at any sort of table, round or otherwise.

If Arthur didn't live in the Camelot of his stories, and he didn't have knights, then what kind of king of England was he? Well, he wasn't even a king because England hadn't yet been formed as a country. Arthur was a warlord; he would have been called a dux bellorum, the Roman name for military commander. Arthur qualified for this position because he possessed a fortification ("Camelot") and commanded an army.

Arthur himself was probably a Romanized Briton and a Christian, which would have brought him into conflict with both pagans (which were many) and the non-Celtic Christians that kept coming to the island and trying to convert everyone to their version of Christianity (which were few but quite persistent). As warlords go, Arthur was a fine specimen; he possibly had many other warlords as his allies or even vassals. He fought and won at least twelve recorded battles, all against the Saxons. This is why he might have been so revered by the Britons; to them a man who so successfully defeated the Saxons would have been quite the hero.

A lot of people assume Arthur fought in full plate mail armor with a huge two-handed sword known as Excalibur. He supposedly commanded a hoard of mounted knights (all equipped with full plate mail as well) who rode their horses into battle against their enemies. In Arthur's day, only the nobility possessed swords or wore armor, and even that was rare. Unfortunately for sword enthusiasts, then, Arthur's sword was no two-handed monster capable of slicing an enemy in two. It would have been made of iron, been around three feet in length with a design used primarily for cutting, lacked a true hilt and had a very lightweight pummel. If Arthur wore armor--and few people of that time did--he would have donned a mail shirt, not plate mail. He might have had a shield and helmet, but the former was very rare and the latter likely used for decorative purposes only.

Arthur's army consisted mainly of hired or impressed common folk. Commoners who went to war usually used a javelin, pike (one that was about seven feet in length), or spear. Of these weapons, the javelin and spear were usually thrown as missile weapons. Neither the Britons nor the Saxons used the bow and arrow as a weapon of war, although they certainly used them for hunting. Those lucky enough to own a horse might very well have ridden it into battle, but they would have lacked a lance or sword. Instead, horsemen wielded spears and javelins, hurling them off at enemies as missile weapons.

For Arthur to use his army to become king of England (which, as has been mentioned, didn't even exist yet), he would have had to defeat all the Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes wandering about his homeland. Then he would have had to turn on the variety of robber barons and warlords scattered across the island and force them to swear allegiance to him. Although it is believed he managed to successfully subdue the Saxons for about twenty years, it is very unlikely he ever ruled many people beyond his immediate vicinity. Still, the legend of Warlord Arthur seems a bit lackluster.

Using an Arthurian campaign setting for a roleplaying game that is historically accurate presents all sorts of new and interesting challenges that might not have been used before. Since weapons and armor are much rarer and a lot cruder than what is usually associated with King Arthur, players will quickly discover they had better be more careful. They can't arm themselves with killer swords and wear such durable armor that they are resistant to about any attack against their person. At that time there was no feudal system or even a centralized kingdom. Cliche plots like "save the kidnapped princess" or "aiding the peasants against their ruthless feudal lord" aren't going to be usable, forcing game masters to invent knew types of adventures. Player characters might get involved in the politics of the era (intrigue among the warlords or with the occupying Saxons), or perhaps in the religious strife of the day. With the withdraw of the Roman, Paganism had returned to the island. This means all sorts of pagan gods and monsters might continuously crop up, possibly attacking the local Christians.

Ultimately, a historically accurate Arthurian campaign will contain an element that always brings delight to roleplaying games: the unexpected. If you don't give players what they expect, it will keep them on their toes and sometimes take them completely by surprise.

Selected Bibliography

  • Alcock, Leslie. Arthur's Britain: History and Archeology AD 367-634. London: Penguin Books, 1971, 1989.
  • Andronik, Catherine M. Quest for a King: Searching for the Real King Arthur. New York: Atheneum, 1989.
  • Daniel, Christopher. A Traveler's History of England, Third Edition. New York: Interlink Books, 1996.
  • Davis, R.H.C. A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis, Second Edition. London and New York: Longman Group Limited, 1970
  • Wood, Michael. In Search of the Dark Ages. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1987.

    Mark Strecker

    What do you think?

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