AN INTERVIEW WITH GEOFFREY ASHE

Professor Ashe in his home


Geoffrey Ashe was born in London in 1923. Educated in England and Canada, he holds an MA from Cambridge University and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was co-founder and secretary of the Cadbury excavations which in the 1960's and 70's established the archaeological credibility of the fifth-century hill fort in central Somerset, said in legend to have been the origin of later medieval tales of King Arthur's Camelot.
He has authored twenty-five books, several on Arthurian topics, including King Arthur's Avalon, The Quest for Arthur's Britain, King Arthur: Dream of a Golden Age, Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain, Camelot and the Vision of Albion, and The Discovery of King Arthur. In addition, he was a contributor to The Arthurian Handbook and The New Arthurian Encyclopedia.
His career includes lectures in Great Britain and North America and several visiting professorships at universities in the United States. A resident of Glastonbury since 1974, he and his wife Patricia live on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor.


THE INTERVIEW

 

Boyles: We are here with author/historian Geoffrey Ashe at his home in Glastonbury. Geoffrey, do you mind if Jake and I ask you a few questions?

Ashe: No, not at all. As long as you get it all down, the question and the answer. This is a bit of a hazard with television interviewing. They ask you the question, but the question is not recorded. You have to be very careful, because it is so easy to say, "Oh, yes you're absolutely right," and then the audience hasn't heard the question. As long as it's all there it's simpler. Sorry to interrupt.

Boyles: Oh no, it's no problem. Hopefully everything will come out all right, I've never recorded an interview before. Ok, the first question is… We were down at Tintagel, I guess it was two or three days ago and we didn't get to see it, but you've heard, I'm sure, about the piece of pottery or stone that they found down there that had the word Arthnou or something scratched into it. We were wondering what you thought about that.

Ashe: Well, I don't know what's happening to that. It was featured in the press, of course, when it was found. I think they want to put it on show in the Visitor's Center there. But if they haven't, I imagine it's being worked on by the archaeological team who found it. Well, I don't know that it proves very much, except that there was somebody there at about the right time that had a name something like Arthur. You find these names, you know, the root syllable Art, bear, resembling the bear, or something like that. And it's mildly interesting that somebody with a name like that should be around at Tintagel. [It] suggests that there were people there who gave that kind of name. But I wouldn't bet very much, of course. But, no… no, it's interesting.

Boyles: Let's see. With the work we've done, or just the reading that we've done, they've come up with many possible Arthurs. People with the name Arthur or people who they think could have been Arthur. And we have, of course, your Riothamus. Am I pronouncing that right?

Ashe: Well, it would have been Rigotamos.

Boyles: Rigotamos, Ok. And then, I think, you mentioned Artorius Castus.

Ashe: Well, that's quite true. There is a record of a Roman commander [coughs] named Artorius Castus in the second century. Uh, now he couldn't be the Arthur, but it's not impossible that the name was brought into the country, that he left descendants, something like that, yes.

Boyles: And then in Scotland there was Artorius, son of Aidan.

Ashe: A prince, yes. Aidan's son. Well, it's not only those. If you look up and down Britain in the sixth century there are several men named Arthur, in various forms. And interesting that they are so widespread, I mean Wales and Scotland and so on. They, um, it's possible, of course, that stories of them may have got into the saga of Arthur. But I think the most interesting thing is just that the name is widespread. It shows that there was someone [who] had become a kind of national hero about that time. The original is probably Artorius, a Roman name.

Boyles: What do you think about, I can't remember who said it, but someone talking about Owain Ddantgwyn?

Ashe: Oh yes, that's one of these theories that's turned out in the last few years. Well, from time to time people find somebody in Wales and they try to connect him with the story in some way. Um, I mean it's possible that quite a lot of people have gone into the saga. What I'm rather cautious about is saying "this person in Wales (or wherever) is the Arthur," because I don't think so. I think the story starts considerably earlier, in the late fifth century or thereabouts.

Boyles: Well, I found a book, it's probably about a hundred years old, at in the Birmingham Library called The Two Lost Centuries of Britain.

Ashe: Oh, yes. Who wrote that?

Boyles: I can't quite remember. Babcock maybe? Have you read that?

Ashe: I think I read it but, of course, it's rather out of date.

Boyles: Right, right.

Ashe: At that time there was no archaeology covering the period. And there's not that much more documentation now, but there is a good deal of archaeological knowledge. So it isn't really completely lost. (Mr. Ashe stands up and walks to his bookshelf) I just wanted to get a book down that shows something…

Boyles: Ok.

Ashe: If I can just find it here. No, that's not the one. Oh, this one. (Sitting down and handing Jake the book) Ah, this is a quite recent American study, which places a lot of stress on archaeological work. He shows really there is quite a lot more, about what was going on, than would have been known two hundred years ago or a hundred years ago. But, it's more by inference than by documentation or anything like that. I like that book, it's interesting.

Boyles: The Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons A.D. 400-600, by Christopher A. Snyder. Ok. How much has archaeology helped, or even hurt, the study of, or the interest in, Arthurian work? Because obviously Leslie Alcock has decided, through his archaeology, that much of it is just a bunch of rubbish.

Ashe: Well, I think I'd put that slightly differently. (Coughs) People have made quite unreasonable claims for archaeology, including things about Arthur or the Arthurian story and that kind of argument certainly can be rubbish. The thing that strikes me most strongly, I think, is that you have, really, three great Arthurian sites in this country, a hundred and sixty altogether. You've got Tintagel, the birthplace, Cadbury, the possible residence, and Glastonbury, the death place. Those are the three really outstanding ones and in all three cases archaeology does show that they were important at about the right time. I think that is important. It doesn't produce a real Arthur, but it does show that the people who placed him there, told the stories, did really know something about what was going on in Britain at that time. They knew what were important places. And, of course, in the case of Cadbury you have Leland saying in 1542 that this was Cadbury-Camelot and so on and so forth. Now, alright, it depends on what you mean by Camelot, but it is a fact that somehow or other, as we know now, Leland picked out the most plausible, possible site. I mean refortification on a large scale in the fifth century. And there's nothing like, there's no parallel, to Cadbury anywhere else. A lot of other hillforts have been investigated since, but this great, elaborate fortification and the gatehouse and so on; that hasn't been found anywhere else in Britain. So you have, if you like, the most plausible Arthur headquarters and somehow or other in 1542 Leland knew this. And even a modern archaeologist couldn't have looked at the hill and seen the rampart was there, you have to dig for it. So, I think Leland had got hold of some quite genuine tradition there.

Livingston: Ah, this is just kind of a brainstorm. We've done a lot of research about the post-Roman/ pre-Arthur political situation with Vortigern, Ambrosius, and that. We were just wondering how valid a progression is that? How reliable is the history on that?

Ashe: Well Ambrosius does really seem to have been a real person. Of course he's mentioned by Gildas, who hardly ever names anybody. But Gildas does name Ambrosius and he is close enough to have some knowledge of what is going on. He doesn't seem to know much or he doesn't seem to want to say much, whichever it is. But I think one would accept that Ambrosius is real, yes. Now as for the other characters in that period, whether it's Vortigern who, according to the story, brings the Saxons in. Well, there has to be some such person because the Saxons were brought in. There must have been some kind of post-Roman arrangement there. Rather like the arrangements that the Roman Empire made itself for settling the Goths and so on. Somebody must have done this in Britain. Now Vortigern is sometimes said to be a title meaning "the overking," that's been disputed. Whether that's so or not, somebody like that certainly has to be real. There certainly has to be somebody who took over in Britain after it ceased to be officially part of the empire and was probably responsible for bringing Saxons in. Now, also it was probably a much more complicated process. I mean he didn't say to Hengist, "Here, come on Hengist. Bring over a hundred thousand men."

It was probably something that sort of trickled up and down the coast. A few came in in one place and a few came in in another. There's certainly real evidence that Kent went first, or very early at any rate. Archaeologically, I mean. Somebody like Vortigern, somebody who takes over for a while from the imperial system. He has to be a real person, I think. So Vortigern and Ambrosius are real in some sense. But beyond that it's very doubtful about individuals. There's no doubt that Angles and Saxons and so on were coming in, doubtless by agreement, and that somewhere about the middle of the century they revolted and they spread around the country looting and pillaging and finally went back to there home bases for awhile. There would have been some kind of British resistance developing and that is associated with the name of Arthur. Well there certainly would be others in it besides Ambrosius. There is no doubt that the man who is called Rigotamos was a real person, I mean he's documented. Whatever his background in Britain may have been. So I think in a shadowy sort of way we've identified some of these people.

Livingston: Yeah, when we were reading Beowulf in one of our classes we noticed Hengist was mentioned there in one spot. Are you familiar with that?

Ashe: Oh you'll find it in there yes, yes.

Boyles: Is that the same Hengist?

Ashe: There's not really much to go on is there? (Chuckles) Ah, I don't know that one can be so sure about Hengist. He may just have been a sort of god of the Saxons, treated as a human in the records. You get something like that earlier in the Roman history when Rome was sacked by the Gauls led by Branus. Well, probably that a god rather than a human, the patron god of the Gauls who sacked Rome. Hengist might have been the same. You certainly get Hengist's name in surprising places. I mean down here on the coast, not far from here, is Hengistbury Head, but I don't think it's at all likely that Hengist came all that way over here. (Coughs) Again, of course, there would have to be some leader of the Anglo-Saxons, because they wouldn't just drift in by themselves. And it would have needed some organization, which is something that I think academic historians tend rather to overlook. They came over in small boats you know. They didn't come over in great ships. Very roughly made boats lashed together and probably leaking all the time. Well you couldn't bring over thousands and thousands Saxons and overwhelm the Britons just ferrying over in little boats. It has to be a much more gradual kind of process, a gradual buildup.

Boyles: With the work you did do on Rigotamos, how much is speculation on that research? You said earlier today that you feel in some ways that in your book [The Discovery of King Arthur] you made it a little too definite.

Ashe: Oh, well a bit too definite, partly because it's the sort of thing the publisher likes to hear.

Boyles: Right.

Ashe: Um, now there's no doubt that he is a real person. There's even a letter to him from Sidonius and records of him in The Gothic History and so on. At least he's a real person. He does come over from Britain, I don't think you could say that he was just a Breton [from Brittany] who popped up on the continent. It's quite clear he came by the way of ocean, he was received as he was in dock with his ships. He is a real person. Now what you do find is that he fits in with quite a number of things that are said about Arthur in the more literary version, in Geoffrey of Monmouth for instance. Now one thing that strikes me…Geoffrey of Monmouth, of course you can't accept him for history, his stories are always taken from something or other you know. He improves them and so on, but Geoffrey of Monmouth does give King Arthur a chronological fix. He says it was during the reign of the Emperor Leo, in the Eastern Roman Empire, Leo, which was 457 to 474. And that is the only real chronological fix that Arthur gets anywhere, but it's a very definite one. And Rigotamos was on the continent at just that time. It works very neatly.

Boyles: And then supposedly he was going down to help the Romans…

Ashe: Ostensibly he was trying to, by some agreement with one of the last western emperors, to try to keep the Goths out. Which he was unsuccessful in doing, but he seems to have had a certain impact at the time. What I think is interesting, of course, is that a British king, whether he was a regional king or what, could take a large army out of Britain at that time. I mean they can't have been so hard pressed by the Saxons. Probably the Saxons had been more or less contained for a while. So that they felt able to enter into continental politics and so forth.

Boyles: I guess that was the last one. It has been wonderful talking with you Mr. Ashe. Your answers have been very enlightening and the tea and crumpets were excellent.

Ashe: Oh you're very welcome.