The Future of History

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Camelot - City of the Legion


In the last blogpost we considered the information divulged by Lambert of St Omer in 1120 that the palace of Arthur the warrior was in 'Pictland'.  We noted that the massive Roman military encampment of Colania - now the Camelon suburb of Falkirk in Scotland - was known locally, at least as late as the eighteenth century, as "Camelot".

The earliest literary reference to Arthur's Camelot comes down to us from the romance of Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart by the French poet, Chretien de Troyes:

Upon a certain Ascension Day King Arthur had come from Caerleon, and had held a very magnificent court at Camelot as was fitting on such a day.

Chretien seems to have based his vision of Camelot on the Roman city of Camulodunum, now Colchester in Essex, which had been the capital of Roman Britain in the first century AD and the first major settlement to be razed by Boudica's violent uprising of AD 60.  The name Camulodunum came from Camulos, a Celtic god of war, analogous to the Roman Mars.  The city of Camulodunum was also the site of a colonia - a sort of retirement home for Roman army officers.

It does not require too much imagination to see how Camulodunum could have been romanticised by a French poet of the twelfth century, becoming the fabled city of Camelot.  It is also not difficult to see how the Roman colonia at Colchester might have been confused with the Roman fort of Colania just north of the Antonine Wall.

Even more striking, though, is an age old association of the Colania encampment at Camelon (or 'Camelot') with a place called Camulodunum, the Fort of Camulos, the War-God.

George Buchanan was a Scottish historian of the sixteenth century and tutor to the future King James I of England.  Very much a figure of the Scottish Reformation - a dour, Calvinist affair - Buchanan was not a man to be carried away by romantic notions.  He wrote of the Antonine Wall which created a barrier across central Scotland, from the Forth to the Clyde, and noted that "where it touched the River Carron, [it] had a garrison or fortress which, by its situation and the termination of a number of roads there, had the appearance of a small city, which some of our writers falsely imagine to have been Camulodunum".  Buchanan preferred to think of this ancient "small city" as the city referred to by Bede, the eighth-century historian of the Angles, as Caer-Guidi: the City of the Men of the Forth.

But Buchanan's belief that the fortress beside the River Carron could not have been Camulodunum wasn't shared by everybody.  Robert Sibbald, in his Historical Inquiries of 1707, did wonder whether the ancient city couldn't have been "Camulodunum Brigantium, which the vulgar call at this day Camelon near Falkirk".  This is an interesting remark.  Sibbald seemed to be arguing that, while Buchanan had been right - Camelon was not Camulodunum, because that had been Colchester, many miles to the south - it was still possible that Camelon had been Camulodunum Brigantium or, if you prefer, the Camelot of the North.

Brigantia was a major mother-goddess, a sort of Celtic Venus.  She came to be venerated in Ireland as Brighid (later St Bridget) and in the Hebrides as Bride (pronounced "breed": the Hebrides were the "Islands of Bride").  She is similarly remembered throughout much of Britain in the various Bridewells and St Bride's, and she seems to have been the particular patron of the Britons of the Pennines, a tribal federation known in Roman times as the Brigantes.

If Sibbald was right, then the Camelon fortress - just nine miles south of Arthur's Round Table at Stirling, and very much on the front line of sixth-century Britain - was a remarkable fortified city dedicated to two Celtic war gods, Camulos and Brigantia.  It would also help to explain how Arthur's main military stronghold in central Scotland came to be thought of as "Camelot".  It was a Camulodunum in its own right, a mighty citadel as impressive as the other Camulodunum of Essex, only it was the mainstay of the North Britons and easily one of the most important military stations in the Old North.

Chretien, in his romance of Lancelot, seems to have implied that "Camelot" was another name for "Caerleon".  Here's where things tend to get confusing.  If Chretien modelled his Camelot on Colchester in Essex, then how could it have been the same place as Caerleon, which many scholars have assumed was the old Roman fortress of Isca, now Caerleon-on-Usk in south-east Wales?  The two places are simply too far apart to have been the same - and, what is more, neither is properly connected with the historical Arthur.

In fact, Caerleon simply meant the City or Fort of the Legion (Caerllion, in Welsh).  As we saw in the last blogpost, the Colania fortifications at Camelon had been constructed by a detachment of the XX Legion; it was there that (in the words of the Roman poet Claudian) the imperial legionaries had curbed the "savage Scot" and scanned the "lifeless patterns tattooed on the dying Picts".  Furthermore, the City of the Legion was remembered as the site of one of Arthur's major battles.  The Welsh monk Nennius, writing early in the eighth century, noted that Arthur's ninth victory was won in a battle "in the City of the Legion".

The likelihood is that this battle was triggered by an attempted invasion of Irish warriors from Ulster.  The Irish Annals record the "first expedition of the Ulaid to Manau" in 577.  Manau Gododdin was the western spur of the British-held territory of Lothian - that is, it was the volatile region around Stirling, immediately to the south of the River Forth.  The Ulaid, who gave their name to the province of Ulster, were the long-time enemies of Arthur's people (the tribe of Riata) in Ireland, and for some reason they decided in 577 to cross the Irish Sea and, under the leadership of their chieftain Baetan mac Cairill, to seek to wrest the strategic bulwark of Stirling and the borderland between the Britons and the Picts from Arthur and his family.

A few posts back, I showed that it was possible to date Arthur's twelfth battle ('Mount Badon') to the year 580, when Arthur successfully defended the Highland kingdom of his kinsman Bruide against an attack by the southern Picts.  The year 577 would therefore be about right for Arthur's ninth battle, fought in defence of his principle fort in Manau Gododdin, the enemy on this occasion being the warriors of Ulster and their king, Baetan, whom medieval genealogists in Ulster would cheerfully - if erroneously - describe as ri Erenn ocus Alban: "King of Ireland and Scotland".

Arthur's ninth battle at the "City of the Legion" - Caerleon, or Camelot, as Chretien de Troyes knew it was also called - was evidently a success for Arthur the warrior.  The warriors of the Ulaid returned to Ireland the following year (there appears to have been another battle fought between Arthur's coalition and the Ulaid in 578, probably at the Fords of Frew near Stirling, a few miles to the north of Camelon), and another enemy was chased out of North Britain.  It all added to Arthur's fame as a brilliant military commander, the land-holder of Manau, whose main stronghold stood between the Antonine Wall and the River Carron.

The place we came to know as Camelot.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Camelot - An Introduction


In the last blogpost we glanced at the argument that there is "no evidence" that Artuir mac Aedain (c. 559 - 594) was the original King Arthur.  It's completely untrue, of course.  There's quite an abundance of evidence that Artuir was Arthur 'the Emperor'.

Lambert of St Omer was a Benedictine monk, born in the latter half of the eleventh century, who in 1065 was chosen abbot by the monks of St-Bertin and the canons of St Omer in France.  He is best known for his Liber floridus or "Book of Flowers", which he completed in about 1120.  It is essentially a medieval encyclopedia, and it discloses some interesting information about Arthur.

Building on the work of the ninth-century Welsh monk known as Nennius, Lambert of St Omer wrote in his Liber floridus that -

"There is in Britain, in the land of the Picts, a palace of the warrior Arthur, built with marvellous art and variety, in which the history of all his exploits and wars is to be seen in sculpture.  He fought twelve battles against the Saxons who had occupied Britain."

One or two things immediately stand out from this statement.  Firstly, in referring to the 'palace of Arthur the warrior Arthur' (palatium ... Artuir militis) Lambert seems to have plumped for the Scottish spelling of Arthur's name - Artuir.  Secondly, he locates this palace firmly in the 'land of the Picts', or what we would now term Scotland.

It has long been suspected that the 'palace' referred to by Lambert was the structure known, at least since 1293, as 'Arthur's O'en' or Arthur's Oven (Furnum Arthuri).  This was a Romano-British temple, supposedly erected by Vespasian in honour of the Emperor Claudius, not far from Falkirk in central Scotland.  The circular temple was later described as 'an old building in the form of a sugar-loaf, built without lime and mortar', and though it was destroyed in the eighteenth century an exact replica can be found among the stables of Penicuik House in Edinburgh.

The assumption that Lambert's 'palace of Arthur the warrior' was the Arthur's Oven temple is quite probably wrong.  More likely, that 'palace' was a Pictish roundhouse which stood on raised tableland overlooking the River Carron a short distance away.  One manuscript based on the ninth-century work of Nennius claims that a Roman commander built 'upon the bank of Carron a round house of polished stone, erecting a Triumphal Arch in memorial of a victory'.  The same site seems to have been referred to by the sixteenth-century Scottish historian Hector Boece as the palace of one Cruthneus Cameloun, a supposed 'king of the Picts'.  Today, the place is known as Camelon.

In the middle of the second century AD, the Roman army constructed a turf-and-stone rampart across the pinched waist of Scotland, from the estuary of the Clyde to that of the Forth.  This wall, named after Antoninus Pius, passed a short distance to the south of the Pictish roundhouse which stood on the bank of the River Carron, and which would appear to have been commandered by Vespasian.  Around it, a detachment of the XX 'Valiant and Victorious' Legion built a large fortress, which eventually grew to include two large encampments and ten smaller marching camps.  The Romans called this place Colonia.  The imperial army abandoned these impressive fortifications later in the second century, and no doubt the great fortress of Colonia was gratefully occupied by the local Picts.

Much of this 'little ancient city' still existed in Arthur's day.  As late as the year 1720 it was recorded that 'We may still discern the track of the streets, foundations of buildings and subterranean vaults.  The country people call it Camelon or Camelot.'

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1695, Edward Gibson, Bishop of London, revising William Camden's earlier Britannia, had remarked of the Colonia site: 'There is yet a confused appearance of a little ancient city ... They [the 'common people' of the locality] call it Camelot.'

Clearly, the ancient fortifications at Camelon were also known as Camelot.  Camelon has two-syllables - 'came-lon' - and the place is known in the Scots dialect as Kemlin or Caimlin.  In Gaelic, it is Camlan, a place of unparalleled consequence in the legends of King Arthur.  The site of his last battle, in almost every telling of his tale, was Camlan.

It is also worth noting that the site of Arthur's Round Table, as explained in a previous post, was just nine miles away to the north, along what would once have been a Roman road.  This road led into the wild lands of the native Picts from the Antonine Wall, which passed to the south of the Colonia fortress.  The fortress had clearly been built to guard a ford across the River Carron, on what was at one time the very boundary of Pictish territory.  Here was where the legionaries of Rome had come face-to-face with the tattooed Picts.  An anonymous correspondent of 1697 provided the local knowledge that a paved (Roman) road had crossed the River Carron near this ancient fort.  At the end of this road stood 'a great castle, called by the country folks the Maiden Castle'.  The site was surveyed by General W. Roy in the eighteenth century: he noted that the 'town' must have been 'one of the most considerable stations belonging to the Romans in North Britain'.  The particular mound beside the River Carron as surveyed by Roy was excavated during the twentieth century, when it was discovered that the mound, which was fortified by a several ditches and a palisade, supported two circular houses of timber.  One of these was perhaps the 'palace of the Picts' described by Hector Boece in the sixteenth century; the other might have been the 'Maiden Castle' referred to in 1697.  Both formed part of what was known locally as 'Camelot'.

Let us suppose, then, that the 'palace of Arthur the warrior' mentioned by Lambert of St Omer in 1120 was not the Arthur's Oven temple but rather the fortified roundhouse or 'palace of the Picts' nearby, which was also 'one of the most considerable stations belonging to the Romans in North Britain'.  This was the very fortified enclosure or 'little ancient city' which was known locally, a thousand years after Arthur, as Camelot.

Lambert of St Omer's testimony concerning 'Artuir the warrior' in the land of the Picts is of great importance.  His "Book of Flowers" appeared nearly twenty years before Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain.  Geoffrey's work can be thought of as the first Arthurian bestseller, but it played havoc with British history.  It is to Geoffrey that we owe the myth that King Arthur was born at Tintagel in Cornwall, and that the climactic battle of his career was fought nearby on the River Camel.  Geoffrey therefore placed his King Arthur a long way away from Pictland, although he did have Arthur fighting battles in and around the western end of the Antonine Wall.  Geoffrey's account was in many ways the inspiration for subsequent versions of the legends; Lambert's account, by way of contrast, is barely known.  But it is Lambert's reference to the Arthur's palace in the land of the Picts that is almost certainly the more accurate of the two.

The very obscurity of the Lambert reference is illustrative of the King Arthur conspiracy.  It puzzles scholars - "How could Arthur's palace be in the land of the Picts?" - but only because it is anathema to them to admit that there was an Arthur in Scotland.  Rather, they continue the false trails left by Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Lambert also mentioned the existence of stone sculptures depicting the twelve legendary battles of Arthur.  England - so far as I am aware - has nothing to compare with the many fantastic examples of Pictish stone carvings which display images of battle and which have been found over much of the Arthurian region in the province of the southern Picts, against whom Arthur would die fighting in 594.  It is quite possible that some of these magnificent Pictish stone carvings actually relate to the historical Arthur's battles in central Scotland (I'm looking forward very much to Iain Forbes's The Last of the Druids: The Mystery of the Pictish Symbol Stones, published shortly by Amberley, to see what light he is able to shed on these fascinating carvings).

Once again, though, we find evidence for an Arthur in Scotland when no such hard evidence exists for one further to the south.  Another plus for Artuir mac Aedain: the first, and probably the only, Arthur.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Badon Conundrum


The King Arthur Conspiracy has a Facebook page which gives occasional updates on the book.  Someone went on there recently to leave a comment:

"King Arthur was never Scottish!!!!"

The only real answer to that confident, though unsupported, assertion was that Arthur's father was Scottish, but his mother and paternal grandmother were British - making him three-parts "Welsh".

But the insistence that "King Arthur was never Scottish" is an interesting one.  It keeps coming back in various forms.  One I've heard several times is: "There's no evidence that Artuir mac Aedain was the original Arthur."  In fact, there's no evidence for lots of things ... until you look.  Then the claim gets modified, becoming: "Artuir mac Aedain has been thoroughly investigated and there's no evidence that he was the original Arthur."  Well, that one's rather more dishonest.  I spent eight years investigating Artuir mac Aedain and came across very little evidence indeed that he had been "thoroughly investigated" by anybody.  What is more, those I discovered who had looked into his candidacy tended to have formed the opinion that he probably was the original Arthur.

It so happens that the earliest references to a man named Arthur (Gaelic Artuir) in the historical records belong to what we now call Scotland (specifically, those references occur in the Irish Annals and Adomnan's Life of St Columba, both of which ultimately originated on the Isle of Iona).  The earliest references to Arthur in early British poetry were made by sixth-century poets specifically associated with the North (Taliesin and Aneirin).  The early Welsh tales of the Mabinogion consistently associate Arthur with historical princes of sixth-century North Britain (Owain, Cynon, Caw, Peredur, etc.).  In Arthur's day, Edinburgh, Stirling and Dumbarton were all British, and it is in those places that we find Arthur fighting.

By way of contrast, the ideas that Arthur was born at Tintagel in Cornwall and was buried at Glastonbury in Somerset didn't come along until five or six hundred years after he died.  And yet, there are those who insist that we should be looking for Arthur in those areas, rather than in the region where Arthur was first mentioned.  Because no Arthur has actually been discovered in the south, a whole list of candidates have been put forward for the coveted role of the "original" Arthur.  These candidates are all known by names other than Arthur and most of them did not originate in the British Isles.  Not one of them can be associated with any of the other heroes who accompanied Arthur into the legends.  They have been nominated, not because they are realistic candidates for the original Arthur, but because too many people stubbornly refuse to examine the credentials of Artuir mac Aedain, the historical prince of the North who also happens to have been the first Arthur on record.

There is only one piece of "evidence" which appears to link Arthur with the south.  This is his famous victory at the Battle of Badon.  We first hear of the "siege of Badon Hill" from St Gildas, who was writing in the middle of the sixth century.  He did not mention Arthur.  The next reference to a "Battle of Mount Badon" comes from Nennius, a Welsh monk writing early in the ninth century.  This battle was the twelfth of Arthur's epic victories.  There is nothing in Nennius's work to indicate that the "Battle of Mount Badon" was the same as the "siege of Badon Hill" mentioned by Gildas.

Next, scholars point to a couple of entries in the Welsh Annals.  The first of these purports to record the "Battle of Badon in which Arthur carries the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were victors" as having taken place in the year 518.  There are several problems with this entry.  First of all, it was obviously interpolated at a much later date.  Secondly, the date it gives for the battle - 518 - doesn't square with the testimony of St Gildas.  Gildas wrote that the battle had taken place 44 years before he was born.  If the entry in the Welsh Annals was correct, then Gildas would have been writing his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae in about 562.  But St Gildas went on to chastise a number of his contemporary British princes, including Maelgwyn of Gwynedd, who died in 547 (or 549).  So somebody got their dates wrong, and the balance of probabilities would suggest that it was the annalist who retrospectively added the entry for the "Battle of Badon" to the Welsh Annals who made it all up.

There can be little doubt that a "siege of Badon Hill" took place towards the end of the fifth century AD, probably in southern Britain.  The Welsh name for the city of Bath is Caerfaddon (from baddon, a 'bath'), and so that would seem a likely place for the siege mentioned by St Gildas.  This, though, was not the battle at which Arthur fought.  He had not even been born when that siege took place.

The "battle of Mount Badon" must have been a different battle.  Only the similarity of the names creates confusion.  It is as if somebody muddled up the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 with the Battle of Yorktown in 1862.  They sound alike, but they were completely different battles fought in completely different wars.

For Arthur's Mount Badon, we need to remember that the Gaelic bad is a common element in place-names.  It is easily confused with the Welsh bad or baddon - a 'bath' - but it means something else entirely: a grove or a thicket, a plain or a 'spot'.  The Irish records indicate that a battle was fought in 580 in the Angus region of Scotland, and that the loser was Galam Cennaleth, the leader of the southern Picts.  These same southern Picts were the sworn enemies of Arthur, and in the account left by Adomnan of Iona we find Arthur losing his life in 594 fighting against these very Picts.

The Picts in question inhabited the 'land of Circinn', a Pictish province designated by the term cir - a crest or a 'comb'.  The spearmen of this territory distinguished themselves by adopting the appearance of a boar, either by wearing their hair in Mohican style or donning the 'crest' of a boar.  One of the earliest Arthurian tales - Culhwch and Olwen - features a major boar-hunt at which one of Arthur's comrades comes to grief, being poisoned by the bristles of a dangerous boar.  The same legend is told of a valley in Angus, Scotland, where a great warrior is poisoned by a boar he has just killed.  Adjacent to that very valley is a hill called Badandun.  Badandun - or "Mount Badon" in English - reveals in its topography the name of the warrior who died while attacking the boar-warriors of Galam Cennaleth: his name was Fergus, and he was the constant companion of Arthur's nephew Drystan (St Drostan to the Scots, Sir Tristan to the medieval romancers).

The date of Arthur's battle at Badandun Hill - 580 - is rather revealing.  According to the Welsh Annals, Peredur of York (later to evolve into the romantic Sir Perceval) died in 580 (in fact, he died several years later).  The Spanish Anales Toledanos, meanwhile, state that the infamous Battle of Camlan was fought in 580.  Though this, too, is somewhat inaccurate, it does suggest that a memorable Arthurian battle was fought in 580 - and, second only to Camlan, the most memorable of all his battles was that of "Mount Badon".

Politically, the Battle of Badandun was fought to relieve pressure on Bruide son of Maelgwyn, a kinsman of Arthur's who was also the king of the northern Picts.  Arthur's half-brother Gartnait was poised to succeed Bruide as the High-King of the Highlands, and so by destroying the rebellious southern Picts and their boar-like chieftain Galam Cennaleth, Arthur was effectively securing the Highland throne for his half-brother.

The "siege of Badon Hill" in the south, meanwhile, continues to pose problems.  No one knows for sure when it was fought or even where.  The only near-contemporary reference to it fails to mention Arthur.  But the myth that King Arthur was a warlord of southern Britain is founded almost entirely on the assumption that this rather difficult-to-pin-down battle was also the "Battle of Mount Badon" at which Arthur fought.

As usual, the Scottish Arthur yields a great deal of information about the "Battle of Badon" while the "English" Arthur creates nothing but confusion and disagreement.  Still, we are continually being told that "King Arthur was never Scottish!!!!" and that there's "no evidence that Artuir mac Aedain was the original Arthur".  Yeah - and if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Sword and the Stone


One of the most enduring images from the Arthurian legends is that of the young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and thereby proving that he is the true king.  Here's how the stone was described by Sir Thomas Malory in his fifteenth-century Le Morte d'Arthur:

And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in the midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:- Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.

You could search high and low for such a stone in England, and you wouldn't find it.  The reason being that the stone in question does not really belong to any English tradition.  That said, however, at the time when Sir Thomas Malory was writing, the stone in question had been in England for nearly two hundred years.

The tradition of the sacred stone of kingship actually belonged to the Scots.  According to the mythic history of the Scots, or 'Gaels', the stone was brought out of Egypt by the legendary Gaedal Glas or Gathelus, the supposed ancestor of the Scots.  Writing in 1527, the Scottish historian Hector Boece explained it thus:

Gathelus, an Athenian or Argive, travelled from Greece to Egypt, where he married Scota, daughter of Pharaoh.  At the Exodus, Gathelus fled with Scota to Iberia, where he founded a kingdom at Brigantium, now Santiago de Compostella.  There, Gathelus reigned in the marble chair, or fatal stone like a chair: wherever it was found would be the kingdom of the Scots.  Simon Breck, a descendant of Gathelus, then took the chair from Spain to Ireland, and was crowned king of Ireland in it.

Tradition holds that the 'marble stone' followed the Scots to their original power base in Argyll, on the west coast of what is now Scotland.  Andrew of Wyntoun, writing his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland in the fifteenth century, noted that it was the great-great-grandfather of Arthur who brought the stone to the sacred island of Iona in about the year 498:

Fergus son of Erc from him then
Did descend line by line
Unto the fifty-fifth generation,
As even man may reckon,
Brought this Stone into Scotland,
First when he can and won that land,
And set it first in Icolmkyll
And Scone thereafter was it brought unto.

The reference to the Isle of Iona (Icolmkyll - the 'Island of Columba of the Church) is especially intriguing.  Iona was a seat of kingship - reputedly, 48 kings are buried there, including Macbeth and Duncan.  What is more, one version of the story has Simon Brecc raising the marble stone from the sea off the coast of 'Ireland'.  Iona has a natural band of marble which stretches out into the sea from its south-eastern shore.  A block of this marble served as the altar of Columba's church on the island.  It could be, then, that in one of its early guises, the 'great stone four square, like unto a marble stone' was actually a bloc of Iona marble.

John of Fordun, a Scottish chronicler who wrote more than a century before Sir Thomas Malory described the 'great stone four square, like unto a marble stone', revealed that the 'fatal' stone of Scottish kingship, commonly known as the Stone of Destiny, bore its own inscription:

Ni fallat fatum, Scoti quocumque locatum
Invenient lapidem, regnasse tenentur ibidem.

['If Destiny prove true, then Scots are known to have been kings wherever men find this Stone.']

The legends of the Stone argue that it was originally the very stone on which Jacob laid his head at Bethel (Beth-El - 'House of God' - shares a linguistic origin with the Greek Baetylus, a sacred stone or pillar) and dreamt of a stairway to heaven.  As such, the Stone compares with various Middle Eastern sacred stones, the most famous of which is the 'Black Stone' or Ka'aba at Mecca.  The Ka'aba - Islam's holiest of holies - was once thought to house an aspect of Al-Uzza, the Arabic version of Venus.  In the Scottish tradition, the goddess housed in the Stone of Destiny was Scota, daughter of the Pharaoh and mother-goddess of the Scots.

The Stone of Destiny left the Isle of Iona and eventually found its way to Scone in Perthshire, taken there by Kenneth mac Alpin when he established himself as the King of Scotland in 842.  It was from Scone that the Stone was taken by the English king, Edward I, in 1296.  As anyone who has seen Braveheart will remember, Edward 'Longshanks' had convinced himself that Scotland belonged to him.  His removal of the Stone of Destiny from Scone meant that he had laid claim to the Scottish stone of kingship.  It has long been rumoured that the stone stolen by Edward I (see photo above) was actually just a random hunk of masonry, and that the genuine Stone of Destiny was safely hidden away.  Given that the early accounts of the stone refer to it as 'marble', it is possible that there was some truth in the notion that the canny Scots tricked Edward I into stealing an irrelevant bloc of locally-quarried Old Devonian red sandstone.

Edward I installed the Stone of Destiny in the coronation chair at Westminster Abbey.  Every English monarch, from Edward II in 1308 to Elizabeth II in 1953, was crowned whilst seated on the stone.

It is typical of the way in which the legends of Arthur were corrupted by English writers that the stone's inscription was altered from the original legend ('Wherever men find this Stone is the kingdom of the Scots') to 'Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born of all England'.

But how does this stone relate to Arthur?

In the spring of 574, a comet appeared in the skies.  This was almost certainly taken as an omen, a sign that a new king was about to be crowned (the Gaelic word for such a heavenly omen was dreag).  That same year, the Irish annals record a brutal battle in Kintyre.  The king of the Scots, Conall mac Comgaill, had died and a great battle was fought for the throne.  The victor was Aedan mac Gabrain, the father of Artuir.

St Columba, who had taken the Isle of Iona as the headquarters for his mission to Scotland, was reluctant to ordain Aedan as king of the Scots.  The saint had to be bullied into accepting Aedan's claim.  Still suffering from his ordeal, Columba returned to the Isle of Iona where he ordained Aedan as King of the Scots in the year 574 (the prophetic comet had been right!).  Present at this occasion - the first recorded instance of a king being ordained by a Christian in the whole of the British Isles - were Aedan's sons, including Arthur.  St Columba made use of the occasion to prophesy that Arthur would fall in battle, slain by enemies, and would never follow his father onto the throne.

The ceremony would have involved the 'fatal chair, or marble stone like unto a chair', as described by Hector Boece.  King Aedan would have knelt or stepped on the Stone of Destiny, which was expected to emit a shriek if Aedan was indeed the true king (in other words, the goddess Scota must have voiced her approval of his candidacy).  Aedan would then have swung his sword over the stone to demonstrate that he intended to govern the land and uphold its laws with the power of his arm.  The sword would not have been drawn out of the stone: rather, the stone represented the land (and the tutelary goddess who presided over the land) and the sword represented the authority of the king, whose rule was legitimised by a form of sacred marriage with the goddess of the land.  The power of the sword was drawn from the stone of the land.

It is rather amusing to note that the comet which flared in the skies over Britain in April-May 574 was not seen again until 1994.  Just two years later, the Stone of Destiny was finally returned, under military escort, to its proper home in Scotland, having spent a full seven centuries legitimising the rule of English monarchs.

Once again, though, we find that the 'English' Arthurian traditions were 'borrowed' from those of another culture - specifically, that of the Scots.  The 'fatal' stone was their royal stone, stolen by Edward I in 1296 and finally returned in 1996.  It was their Stone of Destiny which supposedly bore the inscription concerning kingship.  It was also the stone on which Arthur's father was ordained by St Columba on the Isle of Iona in 574, when the fifteen-year old Arthur was told that he would never be king of the Scots.

Try finding any Arthur in England who ever had anything to do with a sacred stone of kingship, and you'll enjoy a long and fruitless search.  There was no Arthur in England.  It is high time that, like the Stone of Destiny itself, he was at last returned to his Scottish roots.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Round Table

When a question was raised in an online King Arthur forum about whether "England has the original Round Table", I read a few of the replies and felt moved to respond.

Back in August, this blog mentioned the news that researchers from Glasgow University, working alongside local historians and archaeologists, had surveyed the King's Knot near Stirling Castle ("Stop Press: Round Table Discovery").  A "circular feature" under the turf of the central mound - see above - was revealed by geophysicists.

I added that to the online discussion about the existence of the Round Table.  The exchange of ideas, views and information continued, but only one person referred, in passing, to what I had written:

"there is the recent news about the Stirling 'circular feature' tho I'm not convinced."

So that's that, then.  Another minor distraction safely buried.

Except that this wasn't "recent news".  I'd pointed out in my post that the French poet Beroul, writing his romance of Tristan in about 1200, had located the Round Table firmly at Stirling.  The Fair Yseut sends her squire with a message for King Arthur and is told that Arthur "is seated on his throne.  You will see the Round Table which turns like the world; his household sits upon it."  The squire makes his way to Stirling, where he finds Arthur "on the dais where all the knights were seated."

That was written 800 years ago.  Hardly recent news.

In the fourteenth century, the Scottish poet John Barbour composed his poem The Brus about the Battle of Bannockburn, fought a short distance south of Stirling in 1314.  The defeated English king Edward II rode desperately to Stirling, seeking shelter in the castle, but he was turned away by the castle's governor.  Edward and his followers galloped off; as John Barbour wrote:

And besouth the Castle went they thone,
Rychte by the Round Tabill away.

In 1478, one William of Worcester wrote that "King Arthur kept the Round Table at Stirling Castle".  A generation later, Sir David Lindsay bade a fond farewell to Stirling's Castle Rock:

Adew, fair Snawdoun, with thy towris hie,
Thy Chapell-royal, park, and Tabyll Round ...

As late as the sixteenth century, it was reported that the thousand-year old traditions were still being honoured at Stirling: "in a sport called 'Knights of the Round Table', the Institutions of King Arthur were commemorated."

King James VI of Scotland was christened at Stirling Castle in December 1566.  He was heralded as the new Arthur who would one day unite the thrones of England and Scotland, thereby recreating the Britain which had been divided by the Anglo-Saxon conquest.  Intriguingly, when he acceded to the throne of England in 1603, King James insisted on having exactly 24 counsellors to advise him.  Twenty-four was also the number of the 'horsemen' of Arthur's Court - the legendary Knights of the Round Table.

The stepped earthworks surrounding the central mound of the King's Knot were added for the benefit of King James's son, Charles I.  It is the central mound itself, which is about fifteen metres in diameter, which appears to have been the original "dais" upon which Arthur and his noble war-band met.  And it is this central mound which, as the archaelogical surveys carried out this summer showed, was topped by a "circular feature".

The relevance of the mound was partly strategic.  The River Forth, which curls round the Castle Rock at Stirling, was effectively the boundary of Britain.  Just two safe crossing places, the Fords of Frew, immediately to the west of Stirling, allowed Pictish warriors from the north cross into Britain.  The defence of those fords was integral to the security of North Britain.  For a while, that task was entrusted to Arthur's father Aedan, the 'Prince of the Forth'.  For several years, from about 575 until 584, the task fell to the "emperor" Arthur.  He fought at least one of his battles at the Fords of Frew on the River Forth.

But I also suspect that the Round Table mound was important to Arthur and his close-knit war-band for another reason.  It was the burial mound of their mutual ancestor, Brychan of Manau.

Manau Gododdin was the contemporary name for Stirling, the Gododdin people being the tribesmen of Lothian.  Brychan of Manau almost certainly had his own version of the Round Table - a "family" of twenty-four "sons" - which was replicated by Arthur.  After his death, according to a manuscript in the British Library (Cognatio de Brachan), the mighty Brychan was buried "in the island which is called Ynysbrachan and which is next to Manau".

The Welsh word ynys can refer to an island or a river-meadow.  The meadow on which the King's Knot stands, beside the River Forth, was next to Manau - that is, it lay immediately beneath the volcanic crag-and-tail rock of Stirling.

Brychan's remains might not have stayed in the King's Knot burial mound.  There is some evidence that one of Arthur's companions, St Cadog, exhumed them and carried them to the site of his new monastery, a little further to the north, near Doune (St Cadog is commemorated at Kilmadock).  But prior to that, it seems likely that Arthur's legendary band of inter-related warrior-princes met at the grave of their forefather, Brychan of Manau, and held their councils of war in the field beside the Castle Rock, on the very edge of Britain.

Not convinced?  That's up to you.  But you can't call it "recent news".

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Here You Go

This might seem a bit premature - but then, there might be some out there who want to book early to avoid disappointment.

The book isn't due out until next summer, but Amazon are ready to take advance orders:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/King-Arthur-Conspiracy-Scottish-Mythical/dp/0752476858/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321999216&sr=1-2

An excellent stocking-filler ... for Christmas next year!!

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Twelve Hundred Words

Part of this week was spent trying to explain in 1,200 words why Artuir mac Aedain, the "Scottish Arthur", is worth considering as a candidate for the Real King Arthur.

Sometimes, you can say a lot with a thousand words.  But it's also a case of deciding what not to include.  So that, for example, there was no space to point out that Edinburgh has Arthur's Seat while the Trossachs have Beinn Artair ('Arthur Mountain') and there are many, many other Arthurian place-names in Scotland.

Nope, no room for that.

Other things could only be alluded to, such as the battles of Arthur, which ranged from the Borders region up to Aberdeenshire.

So what did make it into the piece?

Well, I began by explaining that when a certain long period comet appeared in the sky in 574 (it was the comet now known as McNaught-Russell, and its next visit came in 1993/4) it heralded a historic event.  This was the first recorded instance in the British Isles of a king being anointed by a Christian evangelist.  Adomnan of Iona told the story in his Life of St Columba.  Aedan mac Gabrain was ordained king of the Scots on the Isle of Iona by Columba, and several sons of King Aedan were present.  One of them was Arthur.  St Columba took the opportunity of predicting that Arthur would never become king but would die in battle.

Sixteen years later, the British Men of the North, along with their Irish allies, had the Angles of Northumbria pinned down in two coastal fortifications.  The "English", as they came to be known, were about to be driven back into the North Sea which had brought them over to Britain.  Then tragedy struck.  Treacherously, a British king named Morgan the Wealthy arranged for the assassination of another British chief, Urien of North Rheged, and the British alliance crumbled.

That was the end for the Britons.  Arthur's death came four years later in a battle fought in Angus.  After that, the Angles invaded much of the Old North.  Britain was finished.

One would hope that any historical Arthur could be placed at the very heart of the British resistance to the invasion of the Germanic tribes from Angeln, Saxony and Jutland.  And so it is rewarding to discover that Artuir mac Aedain was there.  Only the year before his father became King of the Scots, his friend Menw (later known as Myrddin Wyllt, later still as Merlin) had gone mad at a battle fought in the Scottish Borders.  Arthur's adulthood coincided with the concerted actions carried out by British and Irish allies to pacify the North and force the Germanic Angles out of Northumbria.  In their hour of triumph, the coalition partners were brought down by treachery.  And with the death of Artuir mac Aedain four years after the British disaster at Lindisfarne in 590, the battle for North Britain basically came to an end.

So that alone makes Artuir a promising candidate for having been the original Arthur - he was there during the crucial period of British resistance, the most effective counterattack yet mounted in Britain against the Germanic invaders.  And when he died, so too did the hopes of the Britons.

But that's just the start.  The early legends repeatedly associate Arthur with a group of historical individuals who can all be traced to North Britain in the late sixth century.  The same names appear in the Welsh romances and the early British poems of the time, as well as on medieval lists of the Four and Twenty Horsemen of the Court of Arthur and the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain.

The Welsh romance of Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain opens with Arthur relaxing in his chamber with Owain son of Urien and Cynon son of Clydno.  Owain's father was the victim of the assassination plot carried out at Lindisfarne in 590.  Cynon is named as one of the few survivors of Arthur's last battle; he appears in a contemporary poem of Arthur's last battle (as does Owain), and his homeland was Lothian.

Both Owain and Clydno appear on the list of Arthur's twenty-four knights.

Other names keep recurring: Llywarch of South Rheged, for example, who carried the head of his cousin Urien away from the scene of his murder at Lindisfarne; Peredur, who ruled the military stronghold of York and went on to become the romantic hero Sir Perceval; Drystan, or 'Sir Tristan', whom the Scots knew as St Drostan ... the list goes on.

They were all contemporaries, near-neighbours and kinsmen of Arthur son of Aedan.

And then there was the Round Table, identified as early as circa 1200 as having stood at Stirling.  Earlier this year, local historians and archaeologists, along with researchers from the University of Glasgow, ran geophysical surveys of the King's Knot earthwork in the meadow below Stirling Castle - the place known for centuries as the Round Table - and found evidence of a "circular feature" beneath the turf of the mound.

The first reference to the Round Table at Stirling came in the romance of Tristan by Beroul, a French poet.  The Fair Yseut had sent her squire with a message for Arthur.  Before he was directed to Stirling, the squire had gone to Caerleon, expecting to find Arthur there.

Caerleon - the 'City of the Legion' - was not far from the Round Table at Stirling: about nine miles, by the old Roman road.  It was a massive military encampment which had been built on the banks of the River Carron, just north of the Antonine Wall.  The place is known as Camelon, near Falkirk.

Camelon has just two syllables - 'came-lon'.  In Gaelic, it is Camlan.

In 1695, Edward Gibson, Bishop of London, was revising William Camden's Britannia.  He wrote of what remained of the Camelon fortifications:

"There is yet a confused appearance of a little ancient city, where the common people believe there was formerly a road for ships.  They call it Camelot."

A historical "Camelot", just nine miles south of a historical "Round Table" ... a prince named Arthur (the first on record to bear that name) who commanded the Britons and their allies in the front line region of Britain (Stirling and the River Forth) ... whose kinsmen and contemporaries joined him in the legends ... whose lifetime saw the counterattack which nearly chased the English out of Britain, and whose death opened the floodgates of the Anglian conquest of the North ...

Can we really pretend that Artuir mac Aedain - the "Scottish Arthur" - isn't a promising candidate?

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Road Less Travelled

It is a problem which affects both Arthur and William Shakespeare.  Let's call it the "Don't Look There!" syndrome.

One way of imagining how this problem works is to compare it with a police investigation.  There undoubtedly was a time when certain detectives, faced with the task of solving a crime, would make up their minds who did it and then go flat out to convict on the basis of their assumptions and/or prejudice.  This led to countless miscarriages of justice, of course.  Basically, if you take that approach then you are obliged to ignore all evidence which disproves your theory and, where necessary, cover it up.

This happens all the time in Arthurian studies.  The debate goes round and round in circles until somebody raises a question along the lines of, "You know, after x-number of years looking into Arthur, I've begun to wonder whether he might not have been northern, perhaps even Scottish?"  This triggers a mini frenzy of condemnation ("No, of course he couldn't have been northern, let alone Scottish; we've looked into it time and time again and there's simply no evidence whatsoever to suggest that he was!!!")  And then the discussion returns to "We don't know who he was, he must have been in the south, or maybe Roman, or maybe he didn't exist, we just don't know!"

As you can imagine, that means that the discussion goes nowhere.  The Arthurian thought-police have ruled out any inquiries focussing on the North or Scotland, so we're stuck with a resounding "We don't know!"  For the record, evidence that they really have looked into the possibility of Arthur having been northern or Scottish is practically non-existent.  Like the detective who made his mind up right at the start of the investigation, they simply have no intention of examining any historical candidates - including the first Arthur on record - because that would spoil the game.  Better to cling to the (hugely unlikely) possibility that a Roman-ish Arthur will suddenly turn up in southern Britain than to admit that he might have been - urgh! - a Scot!

Shakespeare has suffered from the same narrow focus.  A new Shakespeare biography seems to come out every year - perhaps more often than that even.  I say a "new" biography, when what I mean is that somebody has taken the opportunity of slightly rearranging what everybody else has said on the subject.  But the Smithsonian magazine blog has come up with an interesting, if rather long, piece about one of the lesser-written-about facts of Shakespeare's life:

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/history/2011/11/william-shakespeare-gangster/?utm_source=smithsonianhistandarch&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=201111-hist

The fact that Will Shakespeare was the subject of a legal document known as a "surety of the peace" is not exactly news, and it certainly didn't make him a "gangster", as the blogpost likes to suggest.  But it is a nugget of Shakespearean history which most biographers avoid, principally because we don't really know what was going on and the idea that somebody took out legal protection against Shakespeare and a few others "for fear of death, and so forth" doesn't really square with our image of cosy Mr Shakespeare, gent.

The blog piece does have a point, though.  So many biographies, but so few facts.

Well, as the Arthur book - now beautifully titled THE KING ARTHUR CONSPIRACY - How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero - winds its way towards the printing presses, I have been gravitating towards my next project, which, as you might have gathered by now, will concern Mr William Shakespeare.  And I'm seriously inclined to concentrate on a host of facts and anecdotes which are kept as far away from the standard Shakespeare biography as possible.

After all, I have the experience of my Arthur research to guide me.  If I'd listened to the vast majority of Arthur experts, I'd have stayed staring into space hoping that one day somebody would find an Arthur who never existed (Roman background, English mannerisms, busy in the south).  But I went where they told me not to go - "No, no, we've looked, there's nothing there!" - and found out so much about the historical Arthur that I had to decide what merited going into a 125,000 word book and what would have to be left out.

In other words, I left the path, went where I was told not to go, and found more, much more, than I was looking for.

The same, I suspect, will happen with Shakespeare.  Read the usual biographical stuff and you'll end up absolutely none the wiser.  I should know - I've read dozens, and none of them told me anything particularly useful or interesting about our national poet.

But I happen to know that there is an awful lot of stuff which has been swept under the carpet by these people (look back a few posts and you'll find out that the first woman to whom Shakespeare was betrothed - Anne Whately - really did exist; you won't find that in any of the biographies).  Some of it is fantastic stuff, like the story of Shakespeare's skull, and the work done by German forensic scientists on his death-mask, and why his mulberry tree was chopped down by a fanatical parson (who then completely destroyed Shakespeare's house), and how the "lost" play of Cardenio probably led to his murder after a "merry meeting" with two of his fellow poets.

Only by following those leads which the Arthur experts insist don't exist was it possible for me to find Arthur (and his comrades).  Only by following those leads which the Shakespeare experts ignore will it be possible to get to grips with the man and his works.

And then we can start to make up for yet another historical miscarriage of justice.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Divided, We Fell

According to Gildas the Wise, writing in the first half of the sixth century AD, the Britons were a stubborn and stiff-necked people.  Even when their "foreign wars" (against Saxon invaders) had come to a temporary end, they continued to be plagued by "civil troubles".

Gildas did not elaborate on the causes or nature of those "civil troubles", but there has been a tacit assumption among many historians ever since that the Britons were simply too chaotic, too petty-minded and too disorganised to mount a proper defence of their island.

Which brings us to Arthur.  Under his military leadership, the Britons, along with their Irish allies, did join forces successfully, and came close to wiping out the Germanic settlers in North Britain.  Was Arthur, then, the exception that proved the rule?  Was he remembered as a great British hero because he unified the fractious tribes against a common enemy?

Up to a point, yes.  But he fell victim to the "civil troubles" referred to by St Gildas.  And because of those civil troubles, we have been denied a clear view of Arthur for hundreds of years.

There are those in the Arthurian community who seem to think of Arthur as, essentially, a sort of prototype "Englishman".  Peter Ackroyd was quoted in the Radio Times earlier this year, saying that Sir Thomas Malory's epic Le Morte d'Arthur (published in 1485) is a "tale of Englishness".  Now, that's a bit odd, really, because Arthur fought against the people who came to be known as the English.  Indeed, it was the Angles of North Britain who gave their name to England, and it was those very Angles who Arthur and his confederates came very close to driving back into the sea.

There's something decidedly imperialistic about the claim that Arthur represents a kind of English ideal.  Those who were his enemies have adopted him as their national hero - not because he fought so bravely against them, but because they want to think of him as one of their own.  Hence the enduring myths of Tintagel, Glastonbury, and other supposedly "Arthurian" places in the south.  Those myths help to bolster the image of Arthur as someone who, whether he realised it or not, was to all intents and purposes English.

Of course, most students of the Arthurian legends know deep down in their hearts of hearts that Arthur was not English at all.  So they plump for Plan B.  If he wasn't English (shame!) then he must have been Roman.

After all, what did the Britons ever do for us?  They just sat around contemplating their own navels and quarrelling so much that pretty much anybody - Roman, Saxon - could steal their country from them.

The notion that Arthur must have had a Roman pedigree, and was no doubt a Romanised Briton of sorts, maintains a kind of continuity of mindset which goes all the way back to St Gildas.  Christianity had been introduced in Britain under the Roman occupation.  Pretty soon, Christianity came to be identified with Rome, so that, even with the Roman Empire crumbling in the West, the Eternal City remained as a symbol of order and discipline.

What St Gildas found so disgusting was that, left to their own devices, the Britons tended to go back to their old gods.  It was this that led to the "civil troubles" which ultimately ruined Britain.  Gildas the Wise spoke on behalf of the Romanised Britons, who looked to Rome as the source of power and Christianity as the Empire reborn.  Because of that, he simply did not have a good word to say about those Britons who preferred their native traditions and felt, rightly or wrongly, that Britain should be responsible for her own destiny.

Under Arthur, the latter faction - the "Ourselves Alone" side of Britain, true to its native ways - might have prevailed against those Anglian invaders who became the English.  But their efforts were undermined by the Romanised faction, spearheaded by the so-called saints of the early Church.  It was not so much the case that the Britons were just too useless as a people to withstand the English onslaught, but that the Britons were destroyed by their own enemies within: the admirers of Rome, the preachers of the Word.

The fiction that Arthur must have been of Roman stock ties in with the affectation that Arthur was quintessentially an Englishman.  It shows a patronising - one might even say "racist" - attitude towards the native Britons.  It also perpetuates a profound injustice.  Arthur was betrayed by the Christians who were closest to him.  He stood in the way of their plans for a uniform Church.  He and his family represented a kind of tolerant, inclusive spirituality - not Christians themselves, they were prepared to accept Christians in their midst, just as long as those Christians weren't actively plotting against them.  Sadly, though, some of those Christians just wouldn't stop plotting, and the outcome was the death of Arthur and the loss of Britain to her enemies.

Those same enemies now claim Arthur as their own.  That is, they try to make him "English".  But, realising that they'd never get away with that, they go to the next best thing: he was Roman.  From there, it is a short step to making him a Christian king, which is what happened to his legends in the Middle Ages.

The idea that only the Romans were capable of doing anything constructive - at least until the English were properly settled - is in keeping with the prejudices expressed by St Gildas shortly before Arthur was born.  It is prejudice, pure and simple, which tries to make out that Arthur was sort of English, probably Roman, and dominated southern Britain at a time when there are no traces whatsoever of an Arthur.

The same prejudice refuses to acknowledge the historical Arthur of the North.  That Arthur wasn't Roman.  Which means he wasn't English.  Which means he can't have been Arthur.  QED.

The old divisions which were created and exploited by the early Church continue to this day.  They are what caused Britain to fall in the first place.  The same treachery which betrayed Arthur and his warriors still keeps him resolutely hidden from view and promotes a myth of an English, Roman, southern, Christian Arthur.

The Arthur, that is, who was invented by his enemies - not the Arthur who was so fondly remembered by his own beleagured people.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A Cover Up

Last week, all over Warwickshire, people covered up the name of Shakespeare.  On signs here and there, the name of William Shakespeare was masked by black tape.  This, apparently, was a form of protest against the new "Anonymous" film which rehashes the rather daft theory that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was actually responsible for writing Shakespeare's plays.  Although it could, of course, have been a clever marketing ploy to raise awareness of an indifferent movie.  These days, it's hard to tell.

But it got me thinking.  One of the problems with Will Shakespeare - and one of the reasons why conspiracy theories like the Oxfordian authorship nonsense are able to flourish - is that, now and then, his name did disappear.

Consider this: humble Will Shakespeare, a grammar school lad (probably) from a Warwickshire market town, made enough money to buy and renovate the second grandest house in his hometown.  He entertained kings and queens, earls and apprentices.  He left a body of creative work that is second to none.  Students at Oxford slept with his poems under their pillows.  He was quoted left, right and centre.  For more than twenty years he dominated the London stage.

He died rather suddenly on St George's Day in 1616 and was buried two days later in his local parish church.  Being a gentleman and the owner of what had once been church land, he was buried inside the church, immediately before the altar (which had also been buried, there having been a Reformation of the Church, let's not forget).

Naturally, most of England mourned the passing of her finest poet-dramatist.  You'd think so, wouldn't you?  Shakespeare is dead.  Somebody, you'd suppose, would have mentioned the fact.

No.  There are no surviving written references to the death of William Shakespeare.  None.  He died - and everyone was looking the other way.

It took more than seven years for anything acknowledging his death to appear in print.  This, of course, was the famous First Folio of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, for which we have two of Will's colleagues - John Heminges and Henry Condell - to thank.

William Basse, a minor poet from Oxfordshire, had written a sixteen-line poem in Will's honour.  It began by calling on some of England's most famous dead poets to make room for Shakespeare in the Poet's Corner section of Westminster Abbey:

Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nigh
To learned Chaucer; and rare Beaumont, lie
A little nearer Spenser, to make room
For Shakespeare in your threefold, fourfold tomb.

Basse's poem was not included among those which prefaced the plays printed in the First Folio.  Ben Jonson, it would seem, had seen to that.  Jonson went so far as to sneer at Basse in his own prefatory poem:

My Shakespeare, rise.  I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further to make thee a room.

One has to feel a little sorry for William Basse - not only was his poem omitted, but the bullish Ben Jonson openly mocked his sentiments.  Jonson in fact preferred to group Shakespeare with three less fortunate dead poets - John Lyly, Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe - one of whom (Kyd) had never recovered from having been tortured by government agents, while another (Marlowe) had been murdered in strange circumstances.

It would seem that poor, neglected William Basse was one of the first in the kingdom to mention Will Shakespeare's demise on paper.  Still, years had passed since Shakespeare's death.  Had no one else made any written remarks about it?

There are two poems in the First Folio which seem slightly odd, in that they appear to have been inserted at a very late stage in the printing process.  Ben Jonson, we can assume, had vetoed the inclusion of Basse's short eulogy.  But Jonson's library had been destroyed by a fire just a month before the First Folio was published in December 1623, and so he might have been otherwise occupied.  At the last minute, two extra poems were smuggled into the publication by Shakespeare's theatrical friends.

One of these poems was written by Leonard Digges, whose step-father, Thomas Russell, was one of Will Shakespeare's close friends and neighbours in Stratford (Will named Russell as one of the two overseers of his will in 1616).  Digges's poem alluded to the fire which had damaged Ben Jonson's library, and a few years later he would supply another poem which sharply contrasted Jonson and Shakespeare.  The other poem was written by Digges's friend James Mabbe, a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.  Mabbe's short poem in the First Folio opens with the intriguing words:

We wondered, Shakespeare, that thou went'st so soon
From the world's stage to the grave's tiring-room.

These two poems, written by men who knew each other well and had a personal connection (via Digges's step-father) to William Shakespeare, and which were added to the First Folio at the last minute, suggest that Ben Jonson had lost his editorial stranglehold on the project as a result of his devastating fire.  This had allowed Will Shakespeare's long-term friends Heminges and Condell to slip two adulatory poems into the publication which, the chances are, Jonson would have kept out of it.  Let's face it, with his own long prefatory poem and his dedication 'To the Reader' of the famous Droeshout engraving of Will Shakespeare at the front of the First Folio, the whole thing had the feel of a Ben Jonson Production.  But then, Digges and Mabbe got their poems in, thankfully.  Digges, it would seem, did not think much of Ben Jonson.  And Mabbe really did let the cat out of the bag.

We wondered, Shakespeare, that thou went'st so soon
From the world's stage to the grave's tiring-room.

Who 'wondered'?  Presumably, those who knew Will Shakespeare.  And why were they so stunned and surprised by Shakespeare's sudden exit from the world?

Will Shakespeare died in April 1616.  Then, everything went quiet.  Until the last months of 1623, when somebody let slip that certain people had 'wondered' about Shakespeare's sudden death.  Presumably, they had 'wondered' about it quietly, refraining from committing anything to paper, because no reference to Shakespeare's death survives.  He died, and nobody said anything about it, although they 'wondered'.

It's this sort of thing that makes the story of Shakespeare so intriguing.  Sadly, it also allows a few weirdos to claim that William Shakespeare was just a cardboard cut-out, a front man for a more illustrious author.

More likely, it was widely known that Shakespeare had died, suddenly, and had been buried, quickly, and that was that.  Best not to talk about it.

Even though they 'wondered'.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Trouble Ahead?

Apologies, good people, that the blogposts aren't coming thick and fast at the moment.  There's a good reason for this.  I'm just going through the publishing contract for the ARTHUR book (title to be determined), and there's a meeting with the publishers next week.  Originally, the plan had been to self-publish.  Now that The History Press have accepted the book for publication, the book won't be coming out until next year.  So I have to be careful not to give away all the revelations in the book before then.  So I'm having to rethink the blogspots.

It's only recently come to my attention that a minister in Ohio published a book a year or two ago.  "The Revelation of Arthur" seems to argue that there is evidence in the Scriptures, of all places, for the existence of Arthur, and that Arthur was or is nothing less than the Anti-Christ.

Ooh.  Oh dear.  Looks like the greatest hero Britain has ever known might have been a baddie, folks.

Well, maybe not.  As the song says, it ain't necessarily so.  But the minister's book does raise an interesting issue: that of the Church and its attitudes towards Arthur.

The Church has long been ambivalent towards Arthur, to say the least.  There's a charming story, first told early in the 1200s, of a preaching abbot who, realising that his flock wasn't really listening, suddenly said: "Listen!  I have a strange and wonderful tale to tell.  There was once a king called Arthur ..."  And all his monks started paying attention.

The Church didn't like that sort of thing.  Arthur, and the stories told about him, were just too popular.  But the ecclesiastical antagonism towards Arthur and his fellows went back much further than that.

It was a senior missionary of the early Church in Britain who arranged the assassination of Arthur.  The evidence for this is produced in the book (coming out next summer, all being well), and relies on contemporary poems of Arthur's last battle and his burial.  Having killed him, the Church then did its best to forget all about him.  If there is a supposed paucity of information available about the historical Arthur, the reason is because the medieval Church had a practical monopoly of writing, and anything that was not approved of by the Church was liable to be expunged from the records.

In fact, it's a miracle of sorts that any information survives about Arthur (although you wouldn't know it if you just followed the discussions of the Arthur 'experts', who often go out of their way to ignore what information there is).  Arthur's popularity prevented him from disappearing altogether, and the best that the Church could do was to convert him into a Christian king.  Oh, and also to pretend that he was buried at Glastonbury.

The discovery that Arthur's principal enemy was a churchman, and that this churchman betrayed Arthur and effectively handed Britain on a plate to Arthur's enemies, did not form part of any preconceived notion with which I approached the research.  No - it emerged, painfully and reluctantly, during the course of the research.  I read the contemporary sources and tried to figure out what they were saying.

The poem of Arthur's last battle, for example, makes no bones about it: Arthur and his men suffered a treacherous surprise attack at the hands of a "raucous pilgrim army", a "tempest of pilgrims".  They were betrayed by a priest, who also happened to be one of Arthur's twenty-four 'Round Table' knights.  But the real conspirator - the puppet-master, if you will - kept away from the scene of the final battle.  He was present, however, at Arthur's burial.  And the chief poet of the time makes his contempt for the famous saint all too apparent.

The minister in Ohio and his book, "The Revelation of Arthur", would appear to be taking the Church's fear and loathing of Arthur to a new level.  In his eyes, evidently, Arthur was not just a British warlord who fell foul of an early saint: oh no, he was the Anti-Christ.

Perhaps, when the complicity of certain early saints in the death of Arthur and the betrayal of Britain becomes clear, the Church will actually have cause to proclaim Arthur as the antithesis of their own culture hero.  Till then, it should be pretty obvious that there are no references to Arthur in the Scriptures.  The Church is simply attacking Arthur as it has done so often in the past because he is popular.

I do, however, see the minister's crackpot theory as a bit of a warning.  Since I pieced together the evidence surrounding Arthur's death I have been aware that some of this will not go down at all well in certain circles.  It will be interesting to see how representatives of the Church - like the minister in Ohio - respond to the fact that the early Church was responsible for Arthur's death.

Even after fifteen hundred years, Arthur and the Church are still at loggerheads.  And I can't wait to present the case for the defence.  Anti-Christ?  No.  Victim of the Church?  Yes.

The Church, I suspect, won't like that at all.
 

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Finding Arthur

Back in the first quarter of the ninth century, a monk in Wales gathered together a pile of scrolls and manuscripts, from which he cherrypicked the material for his Historia Brittonum - a 'History of the Britons'.  One of his sources comprised a list of twelve battles won by Arthur, the dux bellorum or 'duke of battles' who led his allies to a string of victories.

Nothing took me longer than pinning down the locations and rough dates of those twelve battles (the list does not include Arthur's final battle campaign, but there's a separate poem about that).  Some weren't too difficult; others were a real problem.  But I tended to feel that I was on the right lines when coincidences began to crop up.

Put it this way - when several different pieces of information appeared in connection with one particular location, I began to feel that I'd found another of the battle sites.  And that's the key thing.  You see, it's a common thing in Arthurian studies for someone to suggest such-and-such a place on the grounds that the name is a bit similar.  But that's not enough.  It's like triangulation: I need several pointers to indicate a place before I'm prepared to accept it.  A similar-sounding name isn't enough.

Now, there's been an interesting discussion on Arthurnet lately concerning the eleventh battle fought and won by Arthur.  Different versions of the Historia Brittonum have different names for this battle.  It was fought either on the 'mountain which is called Agned', or at a place called 'Breguoin' or 'Bregion', or was perhaps known as Agned Catbregomion - the 'Agned Battle of Bregomion'.

A few blogposts back I referred to the 'Professor Schoenbaum Said' phenomenon, and something along the PSS lines has been happening on Arthurnet.  Somebody has decided that there was no such place as Agned.  It was one of those pesky scribal errors (a familiar resort of the historian who hasn't yet dug up the right information).  Strangely, that theory is being pushed quite forcefully on Arthurnet.  There was no 'mountain which is called Agned'.  It was a misprint.  It meant something else altogether.

In fact, Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century, indicated that there was city on Mount Agned - one of three created by a mythical British king, the others being York and Dumbarton.  In the fourteenth century, John of Fordun explicitly stated that Agned was an old name for Edinburgh.

Arthur's family, on his mother's side, were Edinburgh-based.  The obvious 'mountain' of Edinburgh is the volcanic plug we know as Arthur's Seat.

An old Welsh poem known as Pa Gwr ('What Man is the Porter?') has Arthur and his foster-brother Cai pleading for entry at the gates to the Otherworldly hall of heroes.  The poem acknowledges that Arthur and his comrades fought at Mynydd Eidyn - the 'Mountain of Edinburgh'.  So it's a reasonable assumption that the eleventh battle, fought on the 'mountain which is called Agned', took place somewhere near Edinburgh.

Not a clerical error at all.

Just south-west of Arthur's Seat rise the Braid Hills, their name coming from braghaid, the dative form of the Gaelic braigh, meaning the 'upper part'.  The equivalent of braigh in Welsh is brig - 'top' or 'summit'.  This would appear to have been the root of 'Bregion' or 'Bregmion'.  The battle known as Agned Catbregomion would therefore have been the Edinburgh Battle of the Braid Hills.

Right by the Braid Hills, in the Edinburgh suburb of Fairmilehead, there stands a great standing stone, three metres tall, known as the Caiy Stone or 'General Kay's Monument'.  Doesn't that sound like Arthur's foster-brother, Cai?

A little further up the shore of the Firth of Forth, the headland of Bo'ness juts out into the sea.  It first appears on a map of 1335 as Berwardeston - the 'Town of the Bear Guardian'.  Arthur was named after the bright star and red giant Arcturus, the 'Bear-Guardian'.

It would be one thing simply to state that Arthur's eleventh battle was fought in the Edinburgh district.  The nay-sayers would simply respond with the bizarre assertion that there never was such a place as "Agned".  But add to that the presence of the Braid Hills, the Caiy Stone, Arthur's Seat, the 'Town of the Bear Guardian' and the reference in the Pa Gwr poem to Arthur and Cai having fought in the region of Edinburgh (Mynydd Eidyn), and things begin to look pretty convincing.  At least, that's what I think.

Ultimately, though, I guess it's up to the individual.  Do you accept the theory, based on little or no evidence, that "Agned" was a misinterpretation of something else, or do you acknowledge the likelihood that Arthur and his warriors fought in the Edinburgh region, given the various clues we have touched on?

It probably all depends on whether or not you're prepared to accept that the historical Arthur of the North was the genuine, original 'King Arthur'.  If you refuse to accept that the real Arthur had anything to do with North Britain, then you have to make up reasons not to allow the "Agned" battle to be counted.

But then, there are eleven other battles mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, and Arthur's later battle campaigns on top of those.  You can't dismiss all of them simply because they don't suit your theories.

Monday, 10 October 2011

A Lover's Complaint - continued

At the end of the last blogpost I promised to reveal the identity of the 'reverend man' who sat down on the Oxford riverbank and heard the confession of Jane Davenant, Will Shakespeare's adulterous lover.  And here he is (look left).

What's that you say?  That's not a man, it's a book.  Well, alarmingly enough, this book (which was put up for auction in 2007) is believed to be bound in his skin.  It was printed in 1606, the year in which the 'Father' in question - Henry Garnet - was hanged, drawn and quartered in London, a victim of the government's reponse to the Gunpowder Plot.

Will's poem, A Lover's Complaint, can be dated to 1605 or thereabouts.  Certainly, the events it recounts - the 'fickle maid full pale' talking quietly with a 'reverend man' on the bank of the River Thames (or Isis) in Oxford - can be traced back to the very end of August 1605.  King James and his Court had just spent three rather awkward days at Oxford.  They left in the afternoon of 30 August.  That same day, a party set out from Enfield Chase, north of London, making its way across the Midlands to North Wales.  The party, which was led by several prominent Jesuit priests and included at least one future Gunpowder Plotter, was heading to the shrine of St Winefride at Holywell in Flintshire.

St Winefride had been the patron saint of Will Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, as we know from a copy of a Jesuit last will and testament found hidden among the rafters of the Shakespeare Birthplace property in Stratford in 1757.

The route taken by the pilgrims led them across the country, through the Catholic backwaters of the English Midlands, where the Jesuits and their entourage stayed at the houses of men who were well-known to Will Shakespeare - men like John Grant of Snitterfield, Robert Catesby of Lapworth, and the three men who had taken up residence in Clopton House, just outside Stratford.  The pilgrims were dismayed by what they saw: concerted efforts to amass war-horses and weaponry in anticipation of an uprising.  Father Garnet, leading the pilgrimage, had heard that Catesby and others were planning an attack on the English State, but he had persuaded them to do nothing until he had received orders from his superiors on the Continent.  Sadly for Garnet and his friends, the conspirators proceeded with their plans, which came to grief at around midnight in the morning of 5 November 1605.

Amazingly, Will's poem A Lover's Complaint includes a brief biography of the 'reverend man' who came over to inquire the 'grounds and motive' of the middle-aged woman's distress as she wept and wailed on the Oxford riverbank.  As Shakespeare wrote:

A reverend man who grazed his cattle nigh,
Sometime a blusterer that the ruffle knew
Of court, of city, and had let go by
The swiftest hours observed as they flew,
Towards this afflicted fancy fastly drew,
And, privileged by age, desires to know
In brief the grounds and motives of her woe.

The afflicted maid addresses the 'reverend man' as 'Father'.  He was a priest.  But he was no ordinary priest: he was the Superior of the Society of Jesus in the province of England, and he had been on the run from the authorities for twenty years.

Father Henry Garnet was fifty years old when he sat down beside Will's lover.  He had been born in Derbyshire and won a scholarship to Winchester College, one of the last schools in England to have accepted the reforms imposed by the Protestant regime of Elizabeth I.  He had gained a reputation as a skilled debater and was praised for his 'modesty, urbanity, musical taste and quickness and solidity of parts'.  He had been, in short, a 'blusterer', a keen-witted and able debater.

After school, Garnet was apprenticed to a printer.  Richard Tottel ran his printshop in Temple Bar, London, and specialised in legal texts.  Garnet became his proof-reader, a 'corrector of the common law print', and among the regular visitors to Tottel's printshop were those leading figures in English law who would one day try Garnet for his life.  The young man had therefore come to know the 'ruffle' of the law courts and the city.

In 1575, at the age of twenty, Garnet travelled to Rome to train as a priest.  He was received into the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in September 1577, pledging his obedience directly to the Pope and undertaking to celebrate the Divine Office, otherwise known as the Liturgy of the Hours, which required the daily observance of the eight canonical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  He had let go by 'the swiftest hours observed as they flew'.

Father Henry Garnet had returned to England in secret in the summer of 1586.  Travelling with him was another Jesuit priest, Father Robert Southwell.  Distantly related to Shakespeare, Southwell would address a poem of his own to his 'worthy good cousin, Master W.S.', in which he criticised Shakespeare's choice of material.  Southwell insisted that Shakespeare should leave topics like Venus and Adonis alone and concentrate on more devotional poetry.  The poem in which Southwell reminded his 'worthy good cousin' Will Shakespeare of those who, out of fear of the authorities, denied their true faith was entitled St Peter's Complaint.

Will's A Lover's Complaint was his answer to Southwell's charges.  Southwell was arrested in 1592 and executed early in 1595.  Will left it until 1605, at the earliest, to respond to Southwell's St Peter's Complaint.  What prompted him to do so was the sight of Southwell's spiritual partner and brother in Christ, Father Henry Garnet, sitting beside his lover, Jane Davenant, and hearing her confession on the Oxford riverbank.  Garnet was on his way, we remember, to the shrine of the patron saint of Will Shakespeare's father, a saint who was associated, moreover, with childbirth (some years later, King James II would visit the same shrine to pray for a son; St Winefride duly responded, and the 'Old Pretender', James Francis Edward Stuart, was born approximately nine months later).

Father Robert Southwell had urged upon Shakespeare in his St Peter's Complaint the fact that 'well-wishing works no ill'.  Well-wishing was the Catholic practice of praying at sacred shrines and holy wells - this sort of activity had been banned by the Protestant authorities.  The action of Will's A Lover's Complaint took place in the midst of a 'well-wishing' pilgrimage to St Winefride's holy well.  As a stark, and rather threatening, reminder of this illegal activity, when the first part of A Lover's Complaint was published along with Will's sonnets in 1609, the cryptic dedication mischievously referred to the poet as a 'well-wishing adventurer'.

A Lover's Complaint relates part of the conversation which took place between Jane Davenant - wife of a respectable Oxford tavern-keeper, two months pregnant with Will's child - and Father Henry Garnet, Superior of the underground Jesuit mission in England, in Oxford at the end of August 1605.  Within months, the Gunpowder Plot would deal a shattering blow to the Jesuit mission and the cause of the embattled English Catholics.  Father Garnet would receive the news of the plot and its discovery at Coughton Court, just a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.  Instantly, he knew that he and his fellows were doomed.

His execution in May 1606 prompted Will Shakespeare to write Macbeth.


There are, of course, a whole host of questions to be answered: did Will Shakespeare personally summon one of the most wanted men in England to hear his lover's confession, and did he undertake to sponsor a 'well-wishing' pilgrimage to the shrine of his father's patron saint as penance for having got a married woman pregnant?  And, if so, how could he have escaped scrutiny by the authorities in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (his rival and colleague Ben Jonson was summoned by the Privy Council, and many of Will's friends and neighbours in the Midlands were questioned, so why did Will Shakespeare avoid suspicion?)  And why, for so many years, have scholars insisted that the holy King Duncan whose assassination impels the tragedy of Macbeth was King James I of England, when it was James himself who was so eager to prove himself the successor to Queen Elizabeth (i.e. the 'son' - mac - of 'Beth') and whose willingness to see the gentle Father Garnet cruelly butchered turned him, in Will Shakespeare's eyes at least, into a 'butcher' with bloody hands?  In reality, Father Garnet was Will's inspiration for the murdered King Duncan, and Macbeth was a fierce denunciation of King James and his anti-Catholic policies.

The next blogpost will look at the issue of Will's affair with Jane Davenant and the boy born of their adulterous affair.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A Lover's Complaint

For reasons we don't need to go into just now, I've taken a few days out from working on the ARTHUR book.  Which just means that I've been revisiting the early parts of my first SHAKESPEARE book.

WALKING SHADOW ("Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot") is a project I've been obsessed with for more than twenty years.  It opens with a scene pretty much just like the one shown here: a sunny afternoon on Christ Church Meadow in Oxford, where Will Shakespeare lay down on the grass and watched as a 'fickle maid full pale', who was weeping and wailing down by the river's edge, was approached by a 'reverend man' who wished to know the 'grounds and motives of her woe'.

The details arre largely provided by one of Shakespeare's lesser known and least regarded poems, A Lover's Complaint.  The poem was published along with the sonnets in 1609 - that is, part of the poem was published, the second half or so apparently uncompleted or forever lost.  Which is a pity, because what the surviving fragment of the poem has to tell us is intriguing indeed.

In short, it brands Will Shakespeare as an adulterer and a traitor.

Now, if you take a look at the poem, you'll wonder what Christ Church Meadow has got to do with anything.  Shakespeare makes no mention of it in the poem.  But he does tell us exactly where the action of the poem took place - where the 'fickle maid' made her confession to the 'reverend man'.

The opening lines of A Lover's Complaint go like this:

From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded
A plaintful story from a sist'ring vale,
My spirits t'attend this double voice accorded,
And down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale ...

The hill with the 'concave womb' stood at the centre of Oxford.  Back in the misty, mythical past, a British king named Lludd was trying to figure out how to put a stop to a devastating plague.  He summoned his wise men, who told him to measure out his kingdom and find the exact centre; there, he was to dig a pit, place a cauldron filled with sweet mead inside it and cover it over with a satin sheet.

Lludd did this.  He measured the land from east to west and north to south and found that the exact centre lay at a crossroads known as Carfax, in what is now the City of Oxford.  He dug his pit there and prepared the cauldron.  Two dragons appeared in the sky - a red one, representing the Britons, and a white one, symbolising the Saxon invaders.  The dragons were wrestling and writhing (this being the cause of the dreadful plague), but when they tired they came down to land in Lludd's pit on Carfax hill.  The dragons drank the mead, fell asleep, and Lludd was able to gather them up in the satin sheet and transport them far away to Wales.

A strangely similar story belonged to the valley of the River Thames, just a mile or two away from Carfax.  King Henry II took a lover named Jane Clifford, although she was better known as the Fair Rosamund or 'Rose of the World'.  The king installed his mistress at his royal palace at Woodstock, north of Oxford, and when the affair came to an end in about 1176, Jane Clifford retired to the nunnery at Godstow, just outside Oxford, where she died and was buried.

A few years later, Hugh Bishop of Lincoln visited Godstow and was appalled to find that the nuns were still honouring the tomb of the 'harlot', Fair Rosamund, with fresh flowers and candles.  The bishop ordered the nuns to exhume her remains and rebury them outside the chapel as an example to lewd and adulterous women.  The nuns did as they were told, but as soon as the bishop had gone they dug up Jane Clifford's "sweet-smelling" bones and carried them back into the chapel in a "silken scented bag".

The heraldic crest of Jane Clifford's family featured two 'wyverns gules' or red dragons.  Like the dragons of Carfax, Jane Clifford's remains had been transported to their burial place in a satin sheet or "silken scented bag".

The opening lines of Shakespeare's A Lover's Complaint therefore point to Oxford as the setting for the poem, and in particular Carfax, the hill whose 'concave womb' re-worded the sad tale of Fair Rosamund's  remains from the 'sist'ring vale' of Godstow.

But the poet had moved away from the hill of Carfax to listen to the 'double voice' of a 'sad-tuned tale'.  Just to the south of Carfax stands Christ Church College, the chapel of which is also Oxford's cathedral.  It housed a bell - "the loudest thing in Oxford" - which was known locally as Great Tom.  Previously, though, the bell had belonged to Oseney Abbey, where it was affectionately known as Mary.  At the Reformation, when Oseney Abbey was dissolved, the bell was taken to Christ Church and renamed.  It was double-voiced (the Catholic Mary and the Protestant Tom) and sad-tuned: damaged in transit, its clapper was worn out; it sounded awful.

So Shakespeare had made his way from Carfax down to Christ Church and lay down in the meadow, watching a middle-aged woman (she was actually thirty-six) weeping on the riverbank and tearing up letters and love tokens and throwing them into the river.

Her name was Jane Davenant and, at the time, she was two months pregnant with Shakespeare's child.

And pretty soon, I'll reveal the identity of the 'reverend man' who came and sat down beside her to hear her confession.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Catraeth

There's a poem of Arthur's last battle.  But, shhh-! don't tell anyone about this, because it's not very widely known.

Yes, there's an authentic, eye-witness account of that dreadful battle, composed by a man who was there.  Two versions of this poem survive, one slightly longer (and probably older) than the other.  It gives quite a bit of detail with regard to where the battle was fought, who was there and what happened.

It's one of the most important pieces of early British literature.

No one, it seems, has noticed that it deals with Arthur's last battle, and there are two reasons for this.  They are, sadly, rather familiar reasons.

Firstly, so many scholars have refused to acknowledge any connection between Arthur and the North (Scotland, especially) that they just won't countenance the idea.

Secondly, the poem refers to a place called Catraeth.

In Welsh, Catraeth is the name of the Roman fort of Cataractonum, which became the North Yorkshire town of Catterick.  So, of course, everyone assumes that the poem deals with a disastrous raid on Catterick, sometime roundabout the year 600.  A British war-band left Edinburgh, went south in to the territory of the Northumbrian Angles, and came to grief.  There were very few survivors.

There are problems with this analysis, though.  The main one being that the Anglo-Saxons, who quickly forgot their defeats, sure liked to remember their victories.  The resounding defeat of a British army of Lothian would have been remembered by the Angles, and yet with uncharacteristic reserve they chose not to mention this one.

That is not the only problem with the assumption that Aneirin's Y Gododdin poem concerned a disastrous battle at Catterick.  For example, one of the British heroes mourned in the poem is 'Gereint from the south'.  We know from another contemporary poem that Gereint son of Erbin from Cornwall died at another battle, which the Britons knew as Llongborth ('Harbour').  He can't have died at two different battles, can he?

The poem refers to several places which just happen to have been at or near the site of Arthur's last battle, which was nowhere near Catterick.  Among those mentioned in the poem we find several names which recur side-by-side with Arthur in the early literature - Cynon, Owain, Caradog, Taliesin, etc.

Even where a part of the poem turns out to have been added in later, there is a clear link with Arthur (one extra stanza concerns a battle fought by Arthur's nephew, Domnall the Speckled, in Strathcarron in 642).

But one of the biggest problems with the notion that Y Gododdin relates a battle fought at Catterick is the fact that the poet refers to a 'tempest of pilgrims' and a 'raucous pilgrim army' which attacked the British position from the rear.  There weren't any pilgrims in Anglian territory at that time.

And yet, following on from the last blogpost, we find that recurrent problem: somebody, once upon a time, said - "Oh, look!  Catraeth means Catterick in Welsh.  So that's where the battle happened."  And it has become heresy to point out that this really doesn't make sense.  After all, Catraeth probably meant 'battle-shore', so it could refer to a lot of places, especially the one where Arthur made his last stand, and this is confirmed by other references to specific places in the poem.

But because the Word of the Lord is that Catraeth is Catterick and nowhere else no one has been allowed to know that there is a contemporary poem of Arthur's last battle - a poem which tells us much about how he was betrayed, which confirms the location of the battle and indicates just how many close family members fought and died there with Arthur.

It's typical of history, or rather historians, that is.  A wonderful piece of evidence, a genuine British treasure, totally misunderstood and largely ignored because one person once picked up on a coincidence (Catraeth, Catterick) and nobody since has had the imagination to ask whether there really was a battle at Catterick (evidence?), why those who fought at this battle also died somewhere else, and why the place-names mentioned in the poem don't refer to the Catterick region.

You get into trouble for raising these questions.  There will be those (who probably haven't read the poem) who will scream and shout IT WAS CATTERICK because that's what they've been told.

Their loss.  It's a great poem.  And it helped me to reconstruct Arthur's last battle.  Which did not happen at Camlan.  The place is properly known as Camno.