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Myths & Legends
KING ARTHUR’S FRENCH ODYSSEY
"Riothamus is probably as close as we’ll ever get to a real-life model for the legendary King Arthur."
In his book, The Discovery of King Arthur (v), Geoffrey Ashe re-presents a theory that has never been effectively faulted. It’s treated as the front-runner historical theory in Professor Lacy’s History of Arthurian Scholarship (2006). It puts forward a flesh-and-blood soldier of great renown – an Over King of the British and Breton peoples whose reputation as a fearless warrior was unsullied enough to carry the stories and interpretations that have thrilled the world for a thousand years. That soldier is called Riothamus - a soubriquet for ‘Over King’ not the man’s actual name, which was Arthur. So he could be referred to as Arthur ‘Riothamus’, in a similar convention to Julius ‘Caesar’. Geoffrey Ashe proposes feasible dates for Arthur Riothamus based on exhaustive analyses of all the known texts. He suggests that Arthur Riothamus reigned between 454 and 470 AD.
Riothamus was real. He lived in Britain in the middle of the 5thC AD. He led soldiers against the invading Saxons in Britain. He was much respected abroad by the leaders of the moribund Roman army of occupation, in their dwindling Empire. His fighting skills were requested by the Emperor’s representative in Gaul as the Romans engaged in their last, desperate battles against the invading ‘barbarians’. Riothamus is probably as close as we’ll ever get to a real-life model for the legendary King Arthur.
What do we know for certain about Riothamus? That he was called King of the Britons by the Roman Emperor, and that in 468 AD he went to France with a British army 12,000 strong, at the Emperor’s bidding, to assist the Romans alongside the Franks and Burgundians, in their war against the invading Visigoths from the south. It is recorded that the Britons came by sea, and Riothamus was given a royal reception.
There were initial battles nearby against the old foe, the Saxons. They were occupying land at Angers and islands in the River Loire. With the Britons as their allies the Romans and Franks were victorious. At this point a letter was sent from Sidonius (vi), the Gallic writer and later bishop of Clermont, to Riothamus, King of the Britons, advising him of the laddish behaviour of some of his soldiers and trusting that Riothamus will sort it out in his usual just and honourable way. This solid contemporary evidence not only confirms both the date and the circumstances of Arthur’s presence in Gaul, but it also implies a level of friendship and past familiarity between the two. The Britons marched on up the Loire valley and occupied the town of Bourges where they waited for the coming battle against the Visigoths – and for the reinforcements promised by the Romans. But treachery was afoot. The King of the Visigoths was told of the necessity to crush the Britons while they were vulnerable. He was also informed of their position. Two contemporary historians take up the story:
So this was Riothamus’ last, bold battle. But, just like King Arthur, there’s a question mark at the end. Jordanes gives us the last account of Riothamus:
Riothamus was forced to flee with what was left of his men, to a place of safety - a sanctuary. He may have been wounded. He went due east into Burgundy. He travelled along the Roman roads which criss-crossed this wealthy and fertile area of France. From the ancient town of Bourges to the ancient town of Avallon there is a direct route. Avallon was a known Roman stronghold – a fortified central location through which passed the Via Agrippa the main road connecting the south to the north of the country, and along which any relieving Roman army would march.
"If we drew diagrams of what we know of the final journeys and battles of both Riothamus & Arthur... then one quite astonishing fact leaps out."
Whilst their enemies were different (King Arthur v The Romans – Arthur Riothamus v The Visigoths) the treachery element is common to both narratives. Geoffrey Ashe even makes the point that the names of the traitors in each case are too similar to be simply co-incidental: King Arthur’s traitor is Mordred – Arthur Riothamus’ traitor is Arvandus. An historical Chronicle of Anjou refers to Arthur’s nephew as ‘Morvandus’. (x)
So, if we drew diagrams of what we know of the final
journeys and battles of both Riothamus & Arthur on two separate
pieces of tracing paper, and overlayed them on a map of 5th century
Gaul, then one quite astonishing fact leaps out. After their
final battles, their lives converge in Burgundy – and, conceivably,
2016: King Arthur's French Odyssey - Avallon in Burgundy by Marilyn Floyde, has now been republished with fresh findings. Your can order it from www.islandofavallon.co.uk. Now also translated into French.