Visit Stonehenge on the summer solstice of any year and you'll see 20,000 people partying in and around the ancient rock formation. The crowd is usually made up of around one third tourists, one third pilled-up teenagers in sportswear and one third neo-druids. It's a genuinely bizarre sight. Don't get me wrong – I enjoy chewing my own face off at archaeologically significant sites as much as the next guy, but in a time when British disobedients seem to spend more time in police kettles than they do in squats, you have to wonder how all of this is, y'know, allowed.
Turns out it's all do with the guy above, who used to be the leader of an outlaw biker gang, but now claims to be the legendary monarch, King Arthur. Arthur, formerly known as John Rothwell, rose to fame in the 90s when he won his case at the European Court of Human Rights to allow open access to Stonehenge for religious festivals like the summer solstice.
Today, as the elected “Battle Chieftain” of the Council of British Druid Orders, King Arthur and his Loyal Arthurian Warband represent the political wing of Britain’s neo-druid community. I headed down to Stonehenge to visit the only living 1575-year-old king.
King Arthur on his motorbike.
Under the convenient protection of European religious freedom laws, people have been getting stoned at Stonehenge since Arthur won his battle, but it's been a go-to party destination ever since the 70s. In the 80s, it was commonplace to get naked, bash a tambourine and sway around near the stones nonchalantly. In 2012, it's a great place to visit if you enjoy standing in a crush of soaking wet, gurned-up revellers.
However, it hasn't always been just fun and games. On the eve of the 1985 summer solstice, Thatcher's government sent an army of riot police to intercept party-goers, which – in an event enshrined into crusty lore by the Levellers song, “Battle of the Beanfield” – quickly turned into one of the largest acts of organised police brutality this country has ever seen. Arthur's bike gang were meant to reinforce the besieged partiers, but they never made it through the front line; instead setting up a makeshift festival near the Uffington White Horse.
Since then, Arthur and his biker-druid followers have been protesting in support of the environment, druid rights and establishing open access to Stonehenge. These days, you can find him and his partner, the High Priestess, campaigning in the 'henge's car park in the hope of getting ancient druid remains out of the hands of archaeologists and reinterred to their rightful resting place. Dressed in a sleeveless denim jacket, he looked a little less kingly than I had anticipated, but the guy definitely knew how to pose for photos.
I asked Arthur if the Loyal Arthurian Warband was planning on going to war again soon.
“We’re already at war,” he told me. “I stand in parliamentary elections and, at the moment, I’m taking on the Minister of Justice with a lawsuit to get our ancestors reburied. We fight in the courts, we fight up the trees and, in the case of Stonehenge, we believe in the motto 'fight them on the beaches'. Believe it or not, Churchill was actually a druid.”
The picket outside Stonehenge. Photo by Lou Purplefairy.
“Really?” I asked, sceptically.
“Yeah, and Queen Elizabeth II is an honorary bard of the Welsh Gorsedd of druids. The Archbishop of Canterbury is also a full druid, but I’m an Archdruid, so I outrank him. It’s good to be the king.”
The leading expert on neo-paganism, Ronald Hutton, credits the Arthurians as the largest neo-pagan community in Britain, but Arthur apparently “doesn’t play the numbers game”. Despite his modesty, he’s formally knighted quite a few celebrities into his order.
People as auspicious as the cage fighter who used to go out with Katie Price.
Alex Reid signing the petition to return the dead to Stonehenge. Photo by Lou Purplefairy.
When he told me he'd knighted Ken Kesey at a total eclipse in 1970s Cornwall, however, everything got way more impressive.
“He arranged to meet me because he’d always had an interest in all things Arthurian," the king explained. "I personally liked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so I thought I’d quite like to meet him. We met, we got on and I ended up knighting him.”
“Did he try to slip acid in your drink?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe that’s why I think I’m King Arthur! Who knows? We’ve also got Johnny Rotten; he’s one of my bards. I knighted him at Glastonbury Abbey.”
Ken Kesey at Stonehenge.
“So, when did you learn who you really were?” I asked him.
“I’ve been Arthur Uther Pendragon since ‘86. I’m generally known as King Arthur. There are three Arthurian ages and I’m the post-Thatcher Arthur. As far as I’m concerned, until another Arthur – bigger, badder and bolder – comes along, I’m it. So handle it.”
“Where does this feeling come from?” I asked.
“I just always knew. I used to be the president of an outlaw bike club and a lot of my mates thought I was off on one, but 20-odd years later, I’m still doing it. I decided that the Goddess would sustain me if it was true, so I don’t claim any state benefit and – well, hey – something’s working. I’ve been known to have a tipple, but guess what? I speak exactly the same bollocks whether I’m pissed or sober, because I actually believe in it.”
Arthur told me how spiritual places, like Stonehenge, help him access the memories from his past life.
“I remember fightin’ on the Saxon shores against the Saxon armies. I also have a memory of fighting on the western shores against Irish pirates. See, the motorcycle is the modern iron steed, so I’m not doing it a lot different now to what I was doing 1500 years ago.”
“What was Merlin like?” I asked. “I always imagine him being very pedantic.”
“No, no. Very wise and very understanding,” Arthur said.
Arthur is allowed to wear a crown in his passport photo for religious reasons.
“How hard was it to pull the sword out of the stone?”
“Very, very, very hard.”
“What would you say to people who might be sceptical that you’re King Arthur?”
“I’d say it doesn’t matter. I’m not out to convince people I’m King Arthur. Me name’s Arthur Uther Pendragon and I’ve got a crown on me passport photo. What I’m out to show people is, were King Arthur here now, this is what he’d be doing.”
I suppose this all isn't too much crazier than any other religion, when you really think about it. Arthur is pretty good at that thing that articulate Christians do sometimes, where they don't exactly admit to it, but somehow let you know that their faith is all just one big metaphor for basically being a good human being. I was starting to really like the guy. Plus, when he donned the full robes and took the sword by its handle, something magic happened: I began to believe.
“Where did you find Excalibur?” I asked him.
“Ah well, therein lies another tale. It was built for the film.”
King Arthur and The High Priestess mounting their hog.
“The film Excalibur?”
“Yeah, the armourer who built it had it on show in the window. He said 'Look, if the real King Arthur walks in here, he can bloody have it. Otherwise, it’s not for sale.' So I just threw me passport on the desk and walked out with the sword. I never leave it with other blokes – because that would make them the sword bearer – but if I haven't got it about my person, it's always a female priestess who looks after it.”
Okay, so maybe he isn't the true reincarnation of King Arthur, but he definitely does have a four-foot broadsword replica of Excalibur. That only left one thing: to be knighted, with a fabled sword, by a legendary king.
“You want to join the order? Oh bless!” said the High Priestess, noticeably touched.
Two Arthurian druids picked us up and drove us all to their house to commence the ritual. It began with us calling the "four corners", where we beckoned the spirits of earth, fire, water and air, when, all of a sudden, a blue-skinned man rose through the soil and shouted, "By your powers combined, I am Captain Planet!"
Lol, just kidding – we just drank some ale from a chalice and Arthur read some original poetry. Someone called celestialelff remixed one of Arthur's poems, if you're wondering what the vibe was like.
Me, embracing Arthur after he'd knighted me.
After the photographer and I were knighted, it suddenly felt like we'd all been bros since the Dark Ages – a warm, welcome, open environment that made me feel like I'd always have a place in the druid community. Maybe this is why people become religious in the first place; as a means to feel like you belong to something, no matter how daft and delusional it might be.
Ritual over, Arthur de-robed and re-denim'ed, and we all sat down at the "Round Table" to share beers and battle tales.
At the “Round Table.” From left to right: Robyne, Mick, the High Priestess, the King, me.
“I got some broken ribs once at Stonehenge," Arthur told us. "In ’99, they decided to have a ticketed event there and I was offered ticket 001. I refused it, went over the fence with everybody else and got rugby tackled by the police eight times before I was arrested.”
“Why didn’t you whip out Excalibur?” I asked, aware that Arthur is legally allowed to carry Excalibur around, much like the Sikhs can carry a kirpan in public.
“Excalibur is purely ceremonial. It’s a magical tool.”
With that, Arthur announced that he needed to pee, so while he was off bleeding the dragon, I took the opportunity to ask his followers whether they truly believed that he was the real deal.
“Yes,” they all responded resoundingly.
“He leads from the front,” said Mick, through a scraggly beard. “He don’t wind people up.”
Robyne, who’s 826 years old (including past lives), was next to chime in. “When I was first introduced to him, I laughed and said ‘You’ve got to be joking, he’s no king of mine.' But Arthur does what it says on the tin, and slowly my opinion changed to one of total belief, without any persuasion.”
Once Arthur got back, we realised how much the ceremony had taken it out of us, so decided to get a cab back to Salisbury and let the king ride off into the sunset with the Priestess sitting on the back of his bike. Before he left, however, he imparted a message to the people of Britain:
“Stand. Stand and be counted. If you believe it, go for it. No regrets. Fight for truth, for honour and for justice. Take no shit.”
If you want to celebrate nature, dance around for a few hours and take no shit, the winter solstice festival is at Stonehenge on December 21st. Arthur, your true king, will be wandering around somewhere and knighting people at dawn.
Photos by Andrea Herrada.
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