King Arthur’s ‘true identity’ revealed? Highlights from our History Weekend in Winchester

Crowds of history enthusiasts visited Winchester for BBC History Magazine’s History Weekend festival in early October, which brought lively discussions, walking tours, a quiz and more to the historic town…

(Images: Steve Sayers)

(Images: Steve Sayers)

Featuring talks from more than 25 historians across three days of events, BBC History Magazine’s History Weekend arrived in the historic town of Winchester on the first weekend of October. The festival kicked off on Friday afternoon with walking tours of the Anglo-Saxon and royal connections of Winchester, before Ryan Lavelle began our programme of talks with a discussion of the nephew of local hero Alfred the Great. 

Over the following days, Winchester’s Great Hall hosted sell-out crowds as Michael Wood explained why the Anglo-Saxons matter and Dan Jones discussed the secretive medieval order of the Templars. Elsewhere, Nick Lloyd reconsidered the battle of Passchendaele on the centenary of the clash, while on Saturday evening, Janina Ramirez treated thousands of social media followers to a live stream of her popular talk on the death of the medieval world.


Dr Janina Ramirez presented a popular talk on the death of the medieval world. 

Meanwhile, Ashburton Hall in Elizabeth II Court hosted talks on subjects ranging from Viking Britain to depictions of royal motherhood. On Saturday, Keith Lowe presented a fascinating exploration of the psychological legacy of 1945, and in a remarkable, sobering event on Sunday evening, Laurence Rees shared his experiences of talking with both survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust.

A selection of videos featuring speakers from the weekend will be available on History Extra soon.

 

King Arthur’s identity revealed? 

In the evocative setting of Winchester’s Great Hall on Saturday 7 October, Miles Russell revealed his findings on the identity of King Arthur.

Speaking below the dramatic artefact known as the Winchester Round Table, Russell shared his research on The History of the Kings of Britain, a 12th-century chronicle by early British historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. Russell believes the account is “probably one of the most important books in European literature, as it creates a whole series of characters… most critically King Arthur. It’s the beginning of the Arthur myth.”


Miles Russell discusses his findings on King Arthur and the origin myths of Britain.

Interviewed later for the History Extra podcast, he explained: “In Geoffrey’s book, Arthur represents about one third of the text. He is the big hero to whom the story is really building up, and of course everyone is trying to identify who the real Arthur is.” Russell explains that though many have tried to go back to the fifth and sixth centuries and identify Arthur archaeologically, his own method was to return to the first person who mentioned Arthur, which is Geoffrey of Monmouth. “What I found was that everything that happens to Arthur has already happened to at least five other people.” 

“The bad news is that Arthur clearly cannot have existed,” says Russell, “because he’s a repeat of what has happened before. The good news is that he’s made up of five separate individuals, so he’s possibly five times more interesting. 

“The key person is called Ambrosius Aurelianus, who we know did exist in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. He is the hook upon whom all the rest of the story is based. Ambrosius fights the battle of Mountbatten, which becomes a key event in Arthur’s life. I think Ambrosius is the core, and upon him we’ve built a series of other stories and characters to create an impossibly fantastic Celtic superhero.”

Our full interview with Miles Russell will be available on the History Extra podcast in the coming months and he will also be speaking at our York History Weekend in November.

 

Past royals continue to fascinate 

Meanwhile, the weekend showed that the royals of the past continue to fascinate. Talks on Henry VI, King John, Richard the Lionheart, Elizabeth I, Charles II and Richard III all drew hundreds of people, as leading historians offered insights into the lives of the monarchs. 

On Sunday afternoon, Tracy Borman shared her belief that although the ‘Virgin Queen’s relationships with men are the subject of enduring speculation, it’s her relationships and rivalries with other women that were the most significant in shaping the queen.

Elizabeth I wasn’t the only powerful woman to feature, as Helen Castor discussed Matilda, daughter of Henry I, and other influential queens in She-Wolves Revisited, while Carey Fleiner and Ellie Woodacre investigated images of royal mothers, who tend to be depicted as either saintly or wicked.

Themes of empire could also be found during the weekend, with Anita Anand discussing the fascinating history of the Koh-I-Noor diamond – a history which she told the audience encapsulated “the rise and fall of empires and much, much bloodshed” – while Lizzie Collingham shared the journey of Indian food throughout the British empire


David Olusoga told audiences that history "should not be a warm bath".

Elsewhere, two historians directly addressed the absence of black figures in popular depictions of British history; David Olusoga explored the forgotten history of black Britons, while Miranda Kaufmann shared a number of stories of Africans who lived and died in 16th-century England. Explaining that history “should not be a warm bath”, Olusoga told audiences that he believed there is a need to readdress the way British history is taught in schools, using the industrial revolution as a key example. Describing the period as “umbilically linked to American slavery,” he suggested that while many British schoolchildren would be aware of the role of the ‘spinning jenny’ and the rise of cotton factories in the industrial north, many schools do not necessarily teach where the cotton came from. 

 

“Engaging audience and incredible venue”

Audiences and speakers alike shared their experiences of the weekend across social media. Chris Skidmore, who spoke on Sunday about the enduring controversial reputation of Richard III, tweeted: “Enjoyed speaking at History Weekend in Winchester on Richard III – really engaging audience and such an incredible venue.”

Following his talk on the manhunt for Charles II, Charles Spencer wrote: “I loved speaking for BBC History Magazine in Winchester: the Great Hall is one of the finest buildings I've ever been into.” 

Thomas Williams wrote how he enjoyed both his talk on Viking Britain and his stay in Winchester, writing it was “a thrill to sleep so close to Cnut's old bones”.


Visitors to the weekend enjoyed lively discussions, walking tours, a quiz and more. 

History fans were sure to tweet feedback too, with Chris Bishop writing: “Really enjoyed History Weekend in Winchester. So good to meet so many fellow history fans.” Meanwhile, ZsaZsa Sixty tweeted: "Last night's talk by Dr Janina Ramirez was the best I have attended. She really enthralled her audience. Great venue as well.”

BBC History Magazine’s History Weekend will return for a third time to York, on 24-26 November. In this historic city, more than 25 speakers will be giving talks in the stunning surroundings of the 14th-century Hospitium and at one of the city’s premier history attractions, the Yorkshire Museum. You can find out more about York History Weekend, and book tickets, here.

Were you at our Winchester History Weekend? You can view our photo gallery here.

Would you like to join us in York in November? Tickets are still available for some talks. Find out more details and book now at historyweekend.com

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