A rallying call fitting of King Arthur calling his legendary knights to battle issued across the historic lands of Avalon yesterday, as Britain was urged to rekindle its romance with its ancient king.
Hard as it may be to believe in the West Country, at the heart of Arthurian legend, experts addressing a conference in Glastonbury yesterday said it was high time that the hunt for England’s king was extended north, even crossing the border into Scotland.
Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University told the assembled faithful: “His existence has been neither proved nor disproved and it’s quite rare to have a character this well-known in history of whom that can be said.
“Around 1930 experts didn’t believe in him. Around 1970 experts did, thanks to archaeology, then in 1990 they didn’t believe in him again. I think the time is right for a swing again.
“I think we should look for him in the north, between Edinburgh and York, as well as the south. In the north there are thousands of enclosures and ditches and defensive banks which haven’t been excavated.
“They failed to find Arthur at South Cadbury, but that does not necessarily invalidate Arthur for Somerset.”
The rallying call was tempered, however by the man credited by many with building a case for King Arthur’s existence, who urged Glastonbury not to become an Arthurian theme park.
As Glastonbury Abbey considers how to make the most of its historic links, Geoffrey Ashe urged caution.
He said: “I think one should be cautious. One doesn’t want to build a sort of Blackpool Tower of anything like that. Statues? I am not sure. If you put up a statue what would it be of? You can’t have a statue of a medieval knight. That would be ridiculous, and I don’t think you could have a statue of a 5th century Roman Briton.
“Perhaps some great sculptor, like Eric Gill who is no longer with us, could imagine some kind of monument with human figures on it, but not a statue. We need an artist of great, I hesitate to say genius, who can imagine a fitting monument.”
Mr Ashe was one of seven experts speaking on Arthur in history, literature and legend at the Footsteps of King Arthur event which attracted a large audience.
It is, as many will know, not the first time that the abbey has tried some tricks of the tourism trade.
Monks were said to have planted what were claimed to be the remains of King Arthur and his queen in the abbey cemetery in 1191, leading to thousands more people visiting the abbey then and in the centuries to come.
But Johnny McFadyen, a PhD student at Bristol University told how the discovery of the skeletons may have been a plan by Henry II to nail the myth that the king could return, which fuelled rebellious subjects in Wales and Brittany.
King Arthur’s appeal is international, and growing. Nine tenths of Arthurian literature has been written in the 20th century, from academic research to Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur, aimed at teenage readers. Julie Hayes, abbey education co-ordinator, said: “French children learn about King Arthur and we get large numbers of French children visiting, and many Americans. He transcends countries and the ages.”