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Druids and daggers

Arthur Pendragon, Chief Druid

Arthur Pendragon, Chief Druid Wikipedia

11 October 2010

Public life benefits from historical expertise in unexpected ways.

Professor Ronald Hutton from the Department of Historical Studies is no stranger to sharing his work with the public. From his extensive media work and authoring books  to advising on unusual court cases and sitting on the commissioning body of English Heritage as the Government’s historical adviser, his research impacts upon public life in a variety of ways.

Take the 1997 case of Chief Druid Arthur Pendragon against the Metropolitan Police, who accused him of carrying offensive weapons in a public place. The druid was wearing his ceremonial sword and dagger as regalia, in keeping with druid practice. As the foremost expert on the history of British Druidry, Professor Hutton was engaged immediately by Mr Pendragon’s counsel, and sent the judge a written testimonial, explaining the significance of wearing ceremonial weapons, particularly for a senior Druid chief. The judge read the testimonial at the start of proceedings, then immediately dismissed the case in response. This set a legal precedent; no further Druid chiefs have been prosecuted.

But this is not a one-off example of historical input into the legal world since Professor Hutton is regularly approached to advise on particular cases involving modern alternative spiritualities, such as paganism. He also challenges assumptions relating to how the practices of alternative spiritualities are expressed in the public domain.

For example, the British Museum held an exhibit of human remains found in a bog at Lindow, Cheshire. Known as Lindow Man, it was described as a human sacrifice resulting from Druid practice. This single interpretation was challenged by Professor Hutton as it not only substantiated the view that our ancestors were ‘savages’ but also failed to consider the possibility that the body was open to other interpretations.

A public conversation started between Professor Hutton and the British Museum, through the mainstream media. Ultimately the British Museum staff acquiesed and rewrote the exhibit information to cater for alternative interpretations. In fact, the issue was taken further by the subsequent Museum curator who wrote an entire booklet relating to different interpretations of Lindow Man. Both examples have increased public understanding about these spiritual practices and how they manifest themselves today.

 The Professor’s position on the Commission of English Heritage is a particular honour. He advises the Government on the care of ancient monuments in public ownership and the conservation of historical environments such as old town centres. He also chairs the national committee which advises the government on which buildings should be scheduled for protection as historically important.

“All this experience enriches my teaching and research at the University and means that I have a much broader understanding of current concerns regarding the remains of history” he said. “Such endeavour is also valuable as it strengthens an acute sense of why our historical heritage matters.” Peppering his lectures and tutorials with any number of anecdotes from his public work reflects his passion for the subject, and helps transfer that passion to his students.

“It’s really important that academics get involved in public service like this” he concludes from his study in the University’s Department of Historical Studies. “It’s a very powerful reminder that the work of academics, especially in the arts, can make significant contributions to public life.”

Further information

Professor Hutton can be contacted by email at: r.hutton@bristol.ac.uk. Recent publications on Druidry include Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain, (London: Yale Publications 2009)