It’s hard to believe that the third season of Forbidden History has already come and gone. However, with just six episodes in the season, time really does fly by. It’s not the most interesting show, a sort of knockoff-cum-homage to America Unearthed and Ancient Aliens staffed entirely by junior varsity wannabees, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a fringe history TV series to review, and I need to keep my reviewing muscles worked out for the upcoming return of Ancient Aliens next month.
In this final installment, our roving band of ignoramuses stumble into a search for King Arthur, that most British of British historical topics. Given that cable nonfiction pseudo-historical documentaries are, at their core, lazy, it’s no wonder that this episode bears a striking resemblance to Josh Gates’s visit to some of the same sites on Expedition Unknown back in October, and amounts, in essence, to an hour-long commercial for Graham Phillips’s new book on King Arthur, which provides most of the research (or what passes for it) for the episode.
When I call the regular cast of Forbidden History ignoramuses, I am not simply exaggerating for effect. From host Jamie Theakston, former presenter of Top of the Pops, to Ross Andrews, a “historian” once seen on Bargain Hunt who has published no books of history, to Templar conspiracy theorists Clive Prince and Lynn Picknett, to Heretic magazine editor Andrew Gough, to radio host Heather Osborn, the personalities on this show are singularly unqualified to offer anything by way of facts. In “In Search of the Real King Arthur” (S03E06) nothing changes or challenges this view, and the program continues its suspicious practice of feeding each talking head with the same talking points, which each one then repeats in virtually the same words. It’s clear that the “facts” about King Arthur they spout came from the show’s producers, since the similarity of phrasing—time and time again—is too close to be coincidence.
We start with Theakston visiting Glastonbury Abbey, where in 1191 monks uncovered enormous fossil bones (likely planted by them) that they declared the bones of Arthur and Guinevere: “You must know that Arthur’s bones, which were found in that place (Glastonbury), were so big that in them the words of the poet seemed to find fulfillment: ‘The farmer … will … marvel at gigantic bones in the upturned graves’ (Virgil, Georgics 1.497)” (Giraldus, Liber de Principis instructione, Distinctio I, folio 107b, 1193 CE, my trans.). As with all TV documentaries, which care nothing for the primary sources, they omit the giants, while correctly noting (over and over again, with multiple talking heads) that the monks fabricated the entire thing as part of an effort to make money off of the tourist trade. But since our show is as fringe as fringe can be, New Age tour guide Tor Webster tells us that the bodies, located near the convergence of a “hundred ley lines,” might actually be those of Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene, the latter of whom he believes was the Holy Grail! Since when were they giants? Since speculators stopped reading the sources they base their speculation upon.
Following this, we visit with Graham Phillips, who is here to promote his new book, itself a rewrite of a twenty-year old book of his, which in turn copied many of its claims from a 1960s book. I reviewed Phillips’s new book in February (part one here and part two here).
Here Phillips recounts many of the claims from his two books, beginning with Welsh chronicles from the 800s that recorded references to Arthur and the Battle of Baden, specifically the History of the British Kings (Historia Brittonum). I had to laugh when Theakston declared that Phillips uncovered the text, written around 830 CE (not the 700s as the show says), with great and enormous difficulty “through his research” while on screen we see a public domain e-text of the book, which you can read here and which does indeed mention Arthur. Phillips then tells Theakston that he identifies the hero called “the Bear” in Gildas’s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae as Arthur, but he again revises the dates, attributing Gildas to “around four-four-five A.D.” when Gildas wasn’t born until after 500. (A few scholars think the book was written by an earlier figure around 490.) He reads from the Latin text in anachronistic Shakespearean English, which made me wonder why he would be sight-translating into early modern English. I checked, and he’s actually reading from Michael Winterbottom’s translation but mixing in J. A. Giles’s pronouns from his earlier (and public domain) Victorian King James-style translation. To what end? The “Bear” here isn’t our Arthur but explicitly, per Gildas’s own words in section 32 of Giles’s translation, Cuneglasse. His idea is that “the Bear” in Welsh or Brythonic would have the name Art or Arth (cognate to Arktos in Greek), son of a king named Owain Ddantgwyn (Owen White-Tooth), whom he calls the historical Arthur and the first Bear. He shows Theakston the places he claims are the site of Arthur’s last battle and Arthur’s tomb.
In my reviews, I explained why Phillips’s case rests on a foundation of assumptions and hot air. As I said at the time, Phillips’s claims are as plausible as any other, but they rely on too much faith placed in medieval chronicles that are unlikely to be factually accurate. For a more sustained criticism, see pages 124 and 125 of Rodney Castleden’s King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend (2003). I am on record as not being a huge fan of Castleden, whose conclusions often overshoot the evidence (his book on the Mycenaeans has a whole sections with little or no archaeological support), so it’s going some for me to say he’s quite right here!
The talking heads show up after Graham has said his piece, and they all say exactly the same thing (except for Lynn Picknett, who alone seems to have a mind of her own in this episode). It’s kind of creepy that these Stepford pundits march in lockstep, but it’s downright depressing that the producers think the Greek chorus is necessary at all.
Clive Prince then delivers a harangue against “professional academics.” He says that they “don’t take kindly” to “amateurs” like Phillips and Adrian Gilbert “muscling in and proving them wrong.” He claims that this is not a conspiracy per se but rather a professional firewall that prevents archaeological work from occurring merely on the say-so of fringe theorists and amateurs. Prince’s writing partner, Picknett, agrees and says that only passionate amateurs get anything done because, she implies, professionals are too conservative.
Andrew Gough repeats the entire episode point for point for no reason but to celebrate Phillips, and he fails to disclose that he has a business relationship with Phillips, whose work he publishes in Heretic magazine. His puffery of Phillips and Phillips’s claims directly benefits him.
In wrapping up the hour in his usual milquetoast way, Theakston says that he thinks that Phillips “makes a pretty compelling case” and blames authorities for not giving Phillips permission to dig up the tomb of Owain to prove it. He does not address the question of why no mainstream scholars have agreed with Phillips’s claims since he first made them in the early 1990s, though I guess that’s because in the view of this show “professional academics” have too much lose from finding the “truth.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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