If you’re a King Arthur fan and plan to visit Stonehenge sometime soon, you should totally go there on the summer solstice. Because that’s when your chances are high to spot the real-life King Arthur and his 20,000 followers – a motley crew of tourists, pilled-up teenagers in sportswear and neo-druids.
Their leader, formerly known as John Rothwell, now claims that he is the living embodiment of the 1575-year-old legendary British monarch – King Arthur. He rose to fame in the 1990s, when his efforts to open up access to Stonehenge during religious festivals like the summer solstice paid off, after winning a case at the European Court of Human Rights. Fast forward to present-day and you will find Arthur elected as the ‘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. What’s more, King Arthur also has a partner, his very own High Priestess, and the two of them are quite active these days in protesting for ancient druid remains to get out of the hands of archaeologists and reinstated to their rightful resting place.
We’re not too sure if the original King Arthur would be turning in his grave if he got a chance to see his modern-day self. Dressed in white shirts, sleeveless denim jackets, denim pants, and a white cape of sorts, he wields a sword in one hand and a staff in the other. Driving a motor-bike, his long blond hair billowing behind him, Arthur cuts a rather strange picture. But he’s obviously doing something right, him having so many followers and all. He even believes that he and his Arthurian Warband are waging a war. “We’re already at war,” he says. “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 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,” he asserts. And he wasn’t the only famous one. “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.”
According to Ronald Hutton, the leading expert on neo-paganism, the Arthurians are the largest neo-pagan community in Britain. King Arthur isn’t too impressed by this, he doesn’t play the numbers game, he says. This might just be his modesty on display because the Arthurians are pretty popular around Britain. A few celebrities have been knighted into the order by Arthur himself, including Ken Kesey (knighted at a total eclipse in 1970s Cornwall). Arthur explains, “He arranged to meet me because he’d always had an interest in all things Arthurian. 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.”
Rothwell changed his name to Arthur Uther Pendragon in 1986, but is generally known as King Arthur. According to him, there are three Arthurian ages and he belongs to the post-Thatcher one. “As far as I’m concerned, until another Arthur – bigger, badder and bolder – comes along, I’m it. So handle it.” He says he had always known that he was supposed to be the monarch. He started off as the president of an outlaw bike club 20 years ago, but today he is still going strong on his beliefs. Even though he doesn’t have a job, Arthur does not claim state benefits. He just decided that the Goddess would sustain him if it was all true, and he has had no problems so far. Spiritual places like Stonehenge help him access his past-life memories. He remembers having fought on the Saxon shores against Saxon armies and on the western shores against Irish pirates. What he’s doing now is not very different in his eyes, from what he did 1500 years ago.
There are other interesting things that Arthur has to tell us about the real King Arthur and his life. He says Merlin was very wise and understanding and that it was ‘very, very hard’ to pull the sword out of the stone. Arthur doesn’t care much for skeptics, “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.” Well, we’ll just have to take his word for it now, won’t we?