Can you believe the Excalibur story?

Some of my favourite stories are the ones about King Arthur.

There are many versions of the Arthur legend. One collection was written by the man whose name I have borrowed, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the Twelfth Century.


These stories contain a fascinating mixture of fact and fiction. Some are hard to place into either category. Perhaps the hardest to believe, or even make sense of, is the story of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Well, two stories, really. In one, he draws the sword from a stone to prove he is the rightful king. In another, he is given the sword by the Lady of the Lake, to whom it is finally returned.

What? Can this be serious?

For a long time, I was mystified. Then I learnt a few things about pre-Roman Britain. Yes, I know Arthur is supposed to be a king of post-Roman Britain. I will come to that later, but bear with me.

The times before the Romans came are known as the Bronze Age, followed by the Iron Age. This indicates the importance of those metals in the societies which came after the Stone Age. Swords were made of bronze and later of iron. Possessing one made a difference.

How do you make a sword?

Start with a piece of iron, or bronze? If you can. First you had to get your metal. How? Find some ore and smelt it. What is ore? A kind of rock. So you start with a stone and turn it into a sword! Not many people could do it. In those days, as any other, knowledge was power. Unlike today, however, people kept it to themselves and passed it on only to their closest friends or relatives. They did not write books or give seminars. You had to be in an inner circle.

So if you could make a sword, you were someone important, powerful.

In 2002 archaeologists discovered the remains of The Amesbury Archer, near Stonehenge. He lived at the start of the Bronze Age. He was obviously a man of great wealth and power. Probably a king. But he was also apparently a man with knowledge of bronze-making. Perhaps the man who introduced the craft to Britain? Was Arthur a bronze-smith or iron-smith?

So they didn’t jump out of lakes, then?

No, and yes! It is amazing how many bronze swords have been found in lakes and in rivers. Now, I refuse to believe that bronze-age people were so careless as to lose their swords whenever they crossed a river or fished in a lake. Swords were valuable. So important that they were given names. Like Excalibur. Lakes and rivers were also important. Vitally. You need water to live. But people drown. Water can be a barrier or a highway. You need to keep on the right side of the gods or spirits of the water. Bronze-age historians generally believe that these swords were placed in water intentionally as offerings to gods or spirits.

So who was the Lady of the Lake?

She could have been the goddess or spirit or angel of the lake. Or else some sort of priestess who served the deity. She could have given Arthur the sword of an ancestor or hero who had given it to the god. That would have been a sign of divine favour. Useful when you apply for the position of king.

Isn’t Arthur in the wrong century?

Apparently. Could there have been stories about a great hero or two from a previous age, possibly also called Arthur. (The name means ‘bear’). Could the legends have become confused? Or did some storyteller draw on the older tales in order to emphasize Arthur’s divine calling and/or to link him with his ancestors?

Of course, all I have said is speculation. But it is based on some scientific facts. Perhaps I will write another version of the Arthur legend, where I will try to make the Excalibur story more credible. Someone should.


Would Brexiters or Remainers have preferred the 18th Century?

Listening to all the ongoing arguments between Brexiters and Remainers about leaving the EU, I have noticed a remarkable similarity with the topical issues of the Eighteenth Century.

Before becoming our king, George I was the Elector, i.e. ruler, of the state of Hanover, which he continued to be throughout his reign, as did his descendants, until Queen Victoria was prevented from becoming ruler of Hanover, due to different rules of succession. For many people, the connection with a country in continental Europe was a good thing. George had experience of government and of continental politics. He continued to have access to other European rulers and politicians, some of whom might have been less well known to most British politicians.

On the other hand, this connection brought Britain into conflicts which were essentially Hanover’s problems, not ours, such as Hanover’s disputes with Sweden . At least, that is how it looked to the Brexiters of his day, although others regarded Swedish aggression as something Britain needed to oppose anyway.  That is an issue which becomes relevant in Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, to be published later this year.

George was also welcomed by some because he was seen as more modern scientific, and constitutional than the Stewarts, his main rivals for the throne. This reminds me of the concerns I have heard from some Remainers, that a post-Brexit Britain could become too friendly with undemocratic countries such as China and Saudi Arabia. Of course, those people tend to omit any reference to such places as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

As the Eighteenth Century is the setting for Highwaypersons, and as the conflict with the Jacobites is a theme running through all the books, there are chapters where you could well imagine you were reading something far more up to date. Of course, these books are not primarily about politics. They are full of adventures, mysteries, romances and personal dramas. Whether you are a Brexiter or  a Remainer,  I hope you will find plenty to enjoy in them.

Can we believe any stories told before writing was invented?

Many of us are sceptical about stories telling of events which seem to have happened before writing was invented. They are written off (the pun is intended) as myths, sagas, folklore or legends. Whatever you call them, they are not history. Are they?

How old is that?

I cannot put a date to this, as writing occurred in different places at different times. In Britain, we usually credit the Romans with introducing writing to our ancestors, along with baths, roads, laws and stone buildings. Some people say Ogham script was used here before then, but was not very widespread.

What about Jewish stories?

The earliest stories in the Bible seem to relate to times before writing was known in the Middle East. Some people claim that they were written by other civilizations before being adopted by the Jewish people. Even so, if Moses is to be given the credit for the first five books of the Old Testament, I have to say that many of the stories cover events long before he was born in a society that did not have writing, as far as we know. There is a similar problem if you say someone else wrote the books in question.


Does this mean that old Celtic legends and the book of Genesis, for instance, must be regarded as fiction, or at least highly unreliable?

Not necessarily!

I have not been watching the recent series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, because I so enjoyed the original TV version that I cannot imagine this one being an improvement. I would sooner watch repeats of the first one. In that story, we see American slaves keeping some memory of Africa alive by African words and by stories about their ancestors.

But they were illiterate!

These words and stories were passed down the generations orally. By the 1960’s a lot had been lost, but the remnants were enough to enable Alex Haley to find where his family came from. A village in the Gambia. Once he got there, he found local storytellers had kept the same stories alive too. The difference was that the Africans had more accurate details, because they had a tradition of learning things by heart and reciting them exactly. I understand that this is true in many societies which do not have written languages.

Perhaps the Celts and the Jews also retold stories exactly until someone wrote them down, centuries later.

When I come across old stories, nowadays, I treat them with a lot of respect, in spite of my natural caution, even scepticism. There may be more to many of them than I used to think.  

Fake News? To us it’s Old Hat!

There’s a lot of talk about fake news these days, as if it was something new. Well, to us historical novelists it is something we have been dealing with for ages. We write a mixture of fact and fiction, but we try to be clear in our own minds where one ends and the other begins. Most of us do, although, sadly, the original Geoffrey of Monmouth tended to be a bit careless in that respect. Many people appreciate my including a set of historical notes at the back of Highwaypersons: Debts and Duties, a practice I copied from Bernard Cornwell, and intend to retain.

Easter is associated with fake news, as I was reminded the other day. The authorities in Jesus’ day put out a story that his disciples had stolen the body, thus explaining the phenomenon of the empty tomb. You may have your own opinion as to what really happened, but that was certainly not it. If you had stolen the body, and therefore knew for a fact that Jesus was dead, would you have continued saying he had come back to life, when that claim could get you into hot water? Or into an arena full of lions?

Let’s expose all fake news, ancient or modern, for what it is as we continue to enjoy reading and writing fiction.

This Easter, if you do not choose to believe the four gospels, at least pick an alternative that is reasonably credible. Happy Easter!

How do you like the language in Highwaypersons?

One aspect of Highwaypersons: Debts and Duties on which I have had little feedback is the language. In any historical novel this is an issue to be considered. I tried to make it modern enough to be easily readable, whilst avoiding anything that would be too gratingly modern, such as ‘awesome’, ‘iconic’ or ‘intentional’. I would welcome your thoughts on whether I have got the right balance. There is still time for me to make some changes to Book II, The King’s Justice before I finish it.

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