Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Somewhere in the background of your uncle’s monotonous and routine photos of his summer trip to Stonehenge, chances are you’ll catch a glimpse of a peculiar, burly old man. He’s often there, leaning up along the fences at the edge of the site. And most likely, he’s wearing flowing white robes emblazoned with a red dragon holding a sword, a tin crown with a dragon and Celtic crosses wrought into it, and a goddamn broadsword on his hip. Many tourists make a point of zooming in and snapping a shot of him, thinking he’s a quaint historical prop left out by the site’s custodians, English Heritage. But he is emphatically not. He is Arthur Uther Pendragon, the Once and Future King of the Britons risen again to defend the land, its people, and its history. Or at least that’s how he tells it.
Arthur has been a fixture at Stonehenge for well over two decades now, and pops up in the British news from time to time for his scuffles with the site’s managers. Early on he and his Druid companions fought for access to the site, first just to celebrate the summer solstice, then for general access. But after gaining that right, while many other Druids patted themselves on the back and stepped away, he kept on fighting, both in the courts and beyond—for the reburial of excavated bones he views as respected Druidic ancestors, against the Disneyfication of the site, and against construction and developments that might ruin the site’s ambience. Most recently, he convinced the Ministry of Defense to alter its plans for new barracks to preserve the path of the sunlight at the solstice.
For many Brits, that’s the be-all and end-all of this King Arthur. He’s a particularly in-character Druid, possibly very gimmicky or tongue-in-cheek, obsessed with one historical site. But Stonehenge is just the flashy stuff. He and his personal Loyal Arthurian Warband, a collective of Druids numbering perhaps up to 10,000 worldwide and, ideally, sworn with his sword on their shoulders to defend truth as they know it, honor their word, and uphold justice through dissent and action, protest across the UK and beyond, for pagan, libertarian, and environmentalist causes. In recent years, they’ve taken on climate change, public housing, and tabloid journalism through lawsuits, rallies, direct action, and even a belief in powers beyond man’s understanding and their ability to influence the world. Soon, says Arthur, “I’ll be focusing on fracking and other things less in the public eye than Stonehenge.” Next year he’ll stand as an independent parliamentary candidate for Salisbury in the British General Elections—not his first political bid—and will try, as a candidate, “fighting for the people, of the people,” to whip others up to stand for election outside of the political system as well. And he’ll do all of it as King Arthur, because yes, he is dead serious about being the reincarnation of the legendary British folk hero, so serious that in 1986 he legally changed his name, reflected in his passport, where, after some struggle, he’s now pictured in his robes and crown.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Of course, Arthur hasn’t always been Arthur. He was once John Timothy Rothwell, a 1970s member of the Gravediggers/Saddletramps bicycle gang. Known to his friends as King John, the biker of days long past would throw parties in the abandoned Odiham Castle, off the main road between Farnborough and Basingstoke in Hampshire. In the 1980s, the bikers started partying at Stonehenge as well, and in 1985 they rallied with the Druids in opposition to Margaret Thatcher; when the prime minister sent police to intercept those looking to celebrate the summer solstice in 1985, Rothwell and company tried but failed to ride in to their defense.
Sometime in the 1980s, Rothwell picked up a book on King Arthur. He had never read much of the legend, but instantly saw himself in the stories. He felt such a deep connection that, in 1986, he changed his name, renounced worldly goods, jumped on his motorcycle—his modern steed—and rode down to Stonehenge in search of Excalibur. He didn’t find it there. But on the way back he saw a sword in a shop window, stopped in, and learned that it was the sword from the 1981 film Excalibur and that the store owner would, supposedly, only sell it to King Arthur himself. He showed the man his ID and walked out with the sword.
The legend grew around him from thereon, and he gradually gained prominence and recognition both within the Druid community and under English law. After meeting Rollo Maughfling, the Arch Druid of the Glastonbury Order of Druids, he decided he’d met the modern Merlin. The Order granted him the title of Pendragon and made him their Swordbearer. He then established his own Warband by the end of 1986, and joined it with the Druid orders in 1990 at the Gaelic May Day festival of Beltane. By 1998, the five major Druid orders of Britain met at Kingston-upon-Thames and, during a protest movement, named him the Raised Druid King of Britain on the ancient Anglo-Saxon Coronation Stone displayed in the town square.
Earlier, in 1994, the English courts gave up and acknowledged his identity as well, granting him the right to wear his robes and sword in court while being deposed for two years of tax delinquency. They even let him swear on Excalibur. Eventually, after 30 arrests wherein Arthur refused to remove his robes and was forced into nude solitary confinement, they agreed to allow him and the other Druids of Britain to wear their robes in prison as well.
As time went by, though, Arthur proved a bit more stringent than many of his fellow Druids. For years, they were bulwarks of the direct-action and road-protest movements in the UK, but their fights faded. “It’s part of the general political climate,” says Arthur. “Thatcher galvanized resistance, but now there’s nothing joining us.” But as that specter faded, Druid leaders realized they’d gained a few rights and became wary of sticking their necks out for more. Ironically, says Arthur, “most of [those gains that made them complacent] are what I gained by fighting for it… Now my fears are that a lot of the other pagan leaders are waiting for scraps from the master’s table. They’re afraid of rocking the boat.” But as many other Druids left the direct action movement and softened into casual, cultural followers or passive critics, Arthur remained planted at Stonehenge, getting himself arrested, and in his own words, “motivating by example, leading from the front.” Arthur believes he’s a people’s hero, and, he says, “I’m not afraid of rocking the boat.”
Today, relations between Arthur and the Druids are icy. Some Druid forums refer to him as a dogmatic absolutist, a false representation of the faith, and an unnecessarily standoffish zealot who’s drawing lightning to neo-paganism. In turn, Arthur’s relinquished all of his titles from other Druid groups, instead choosing only to refer to himself as the Battle Chief of the Druids and the Titular Head and Chosen Chief of his own Loyal Arthurian Warband, the independent and self-described militant (yet nonviolent) activist leftist wing of the Druids.
Arthur knows he’s mostly able to stay relevant and draw attention because, well, he’s a 60-year-old man claiming to be King Arthur. When he ran for office in 2010, touting his history of taking the nation to court and embarrassing political parties into electoral losses, he also admitted that his eccentricity was a political asset. He even, in a fit of strategic self-awareness, added “Loyal” to the name of his Arthurian Warband, it appears, just so the acronym in court documents and news stories would be LAW. Showing up to court in robes gets him in the papers, and he’s fine with the vapidity of that. “If being a nutter who thinks he’s King Arthur gets me a soapbox,” he says, “I will use that name as a tool, as a weapon. I once called a press conference and specifically didn’t attend, but I called it on a protest site so that when the reporters came and asked, ‘Where’s Arthur?’ they had no other choice than to cover the protest instead when I didn’t show.”
The fact that he’s savvy about using his image shouldn’t be taken to diminish his absolute faith in his identity, though. He’s spoken on the record of his reawakened past memories fighting Saxons and Irish pirates at Stonehenge. He feels that he can say, with confidence, that Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Archbishop of Canterbury are in truth Druids themselves, but that he outranks them as the Arch Druid. He doesn’t worry too much that he’s not been popularly embraced by the British peoples, as, he says, “[The legend]’s always been interpreted wrong: It’s not [that he’ll rise again] when Britain needs him most, but when the land needs him most,” so it’s the land and its history itself he’s defending, whether or not everyone’s with or against him. And he does believe he’s here for something important, that before his life is over he’s going to do something grand, although he’s not sure what it is. “I believe I am the Arthur,” he says, “so I believe I’m back for a bloody reason. And if it comes, I’ll be ready for it.”