King Arthur Uther Pendragon has been fighting for the rights of British Pagans since the 1980s, and his main battleground has been Stonehenge. His main foe? English Heritage, the charity that manages the ancient monument in the county of Wiltshire.Arthur shot to prominence when he led a campaign to remove an exclusion zone around the inner circle of the monument, so that the solstices and equinoxes could be celebrated properly there.
His fight took him all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, and English Heritage finally dropped the exclusion zone for the quarter days in 2000.
Arthur was born John Timothy Rothwell and was head of a biker gang called the Gravediggers before finding the Druidic path and, as he explained, coming to a realisation that he was King Arthur reincarnated.
He decided to change his name accordingly, but had to wait for updates to English and Welsh Law that allowed it. As a hangover from centuries of being a Christian nation, people could not change their “Christian name” until 1986.
In an interview with The Wild Hunt, Arthur said, “I’ve been on this quest as King Arthur for 30 years. It was the Queen’s birthday on June 11th, 1986 that I officially changed my name. I couldn’t have done it before that.”
Arthur is backed by his Loyal Arthurian Warband, a Druidic order that describes itself as the warrior/political arm of the modern Druidic movement. According to Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, a world authority on Paganism, Arthur has “the biggest Druidic order in the world.”The latest battle in his ongoing quest is against English Heritage’s introduction of a car park charge of £15 (roughly 21 USD) at the summer solstice. The site is open all year except for Christmas Day, and then the quarter days – when only Pagan communities are given access.
Arthur has been holding pop-up protests against the levy, blocking access routes to the site for tourists.
“This is a pay to pray charge,” he said. “English Heritage make money off Stonehenge for 360 days a year. They receive 1.3 million visitors per year and charge them approximately £20 each per entry. They have a car park capacity of 600 vehicles per hour, soon to be extended to 900.”
To Arthur, this ruling is partly about a clash of cultures and a lack of understanding about the importance of Stonehenge as a pilgrimage site to modern Pagans worldwide. Access, after all these years, is still a key issue.
Arthur said, “An order has been put in for around the site to restrict parking on the roads in and out of Stonehenge, so they would have a monopoly on the car parking.
“Stonehenge has always been a gathering place for like-minded spirits. It’s a Sun temple and is a sacred clock that comes alive at the solstices and equinoxes. It helped us to transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, as through it we knew which time was the right time to plant (crops), otherwise their whole community would have been wiped out. So it was very important to study the stars and know our place in the heavens.”When we contacted English Heritage it did not address Arthur’s campaign directly but stressed its role as steward of the site and insisted that the charges were a response to booming visitor numbers.
In a statement, the body said, “In recent years there has been huge growth in people and cars coming to the World Heritage Site for summer solstice. To protect Stonehenge and to keep solstice special, English Heritage has introduced two new changes this year, intended to make the occasion cleaner, greener and more enjoyable for everyone.”
Kate Davies, general manager of Stonehenge at English Heritage, added, “As guardians of Stonehenge, it is our job to look after the monument. We ask all attending summer solstice to respect the stones and the people around you.”
As usual, Arthur will be at Stonehenge this year. But he has decided to use his usual time of celebration to protest the charge.
He said, “I’m not going to pay their charges. I’m going to be stood in the car park encouraging everybody not to pay.”
Another bone of contention is the alcohol ban on the site. English Heritage states that “by making solstice alcohol-free and encouraging more people to travel by public transport, we believe people will be able to enjoy Stonehenge and the solstice here”.
But Arthur points out: “Paganism is not a sombre, po-faced religion. We are there to celebrate the rising of the Sun. How we choose to celebrate in our belief structure is no concern to English Heritage.”
Some have raised concerns about the celebrations held at Stonehenge to mark summer solstice not being spiritual enough and Arthur concedes: “It is akin to a secular event for some, something you’d have on your bucket list, like Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve.”
However, he went on to say, “To all the Druids and Pagans who complain it’s not spiritual enough, I say it’s because you’re not going that it’s not spiritual enough. Put your robe on, get there, and start teaching people about the spirituality of it. Then it will be spiritual enough for you.”
Arthur makes a point. Summer solstice is an opportunity for Pagans of all stripes to engage the public, yet many shy away from this. Arthur uses the annual gathering to inform people about the occasion. He said, “I’m there, robed up, talking to people all night about the spirituality.’Summer solstice at Stonehenge is such a big event compared with the other quarter days because the warmer weather and lighter evenings attract a huge crowd. Last year, some 40,000 people turned up.
Another campaign running in tandem with the one on car parking fees concerns the ancient bodies, which had been found buried around Stonehenge. Arthur would like them to be returned to their original resting places at the site.
In his podcast The King’s Speech, Arthur begins outlining what this campaign is about by saying: “As Druids, we believe in honouring the ancestors. We believe that those who were buried around Stonehenge were instrumental in developing the culture there that went before us.”
This re-interment campaign is of its time, as it has paralleled a similar one spearheaded by British Druid Emma Restall Orr called Honouring the Ancient Dead. But Arthur’s campaign is primarily focused on Stonehenge.
He said, “For too long, us Pagans and Druids have been silent on this matter. We cannot see the wishes of our forefathers swept aside in the name of science and technology. We believe our ancient dead have a much right to be left in peace as our recent dead and that their cultural belief structure is as valid as any belief structure to this day.
“They’ve got a skeleton on display in the gift shop. With modern science and technology, they don’t need to do this. Those people were buried there as guardians of Stonehenge and I want them put back. It is disrespectful to take our ancient dead out of the ground and put them on display in such a fashion.”
For this solstice though, Arthur’s focus will be on the car park charges at Stonehenge.
He stresses: “For us it’s a spiritual pilgrimage, we should not be charged to pray, we should not be told how we can and can’t celebrate. We go with a wild Pagan heart and that’s how it’s going to stay.”