The Future of History

Sunday, 4 September 2011


British history is in vogue at the moment.

Madonna is releasing a film about Wallace Simpson ("W.E.") and, though I fear for the script, I imagine that the casting of Andrea Riseborough will prove to have been inspired.

Another forthcoming movie release is "Anonymous", which seeks to make out that the plays of William Shakespeare were really written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Okay, let's not worry about the fact that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604 - at least nine years before the end of Shakespeare's playwrighting career.  Even sillier theories have been put forward over the authorship question, with both Christopher Marlowe (died 1593) and Queen Elizabeth I (died 1603) being nominated as the "real" Shakespeares.  The simple reality is that there are no good reasons whatsoever to imagine that Shakespeare was not the author of his own plays - but that hasn't stopped the conspiracy theorists.

(A word of warning: this blog is about ARThur and WILLiam)

The "Was Shakespeare Really Shakespeare" nonsense can be dated back to the late-eighteenth century.  In 1769, the actor-manager David Garrick staged his Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon.  The event was a wash-out (literally) and, besides, it missed the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth by five years.  The Londoners who attended decided that they didn't like the Stratfordians.  They considered them ignorant.

Only a few years earlier, a rather interesting piece of evidence had turned up.  Hidden under the rafters of the Shakespeare family home on Henley Street was a small, handwritten document.  It was a Jesuit 'Last Testament of the Soul'.  Thousands of these had been distributed around the Midlands by two Jesuit priests who had entered the country illegally.  The one found at Henley Street had been signed by Shakespeare's father, roundabout the time that Will Shakespeare was 16.

The discovery of John Shakespeare's illicit 'Last Testament' was dynamite.  Inevitably, perhaps, the document was conveniently lost by a Shakespeare scholar.  But the people of Stratford knew all about it.  So David Garrick and his metropolitan friends decided that the locals were ignorant.  The only people who really knew anything about Shakespeare were the Londoners.  And one thing they knew about him was that he was never, ever, ever a Catholic.

But take the Catholicism out of Shakespeare's writings and they stop making sense.  Or, put it another way, try reading them in the context of a vicious persecution of Catholics, including many of Shakespeare's friends, neighbours and relatives, and see what happens.  It took me twenty years to figure this out (because the academic elite really does not like discussing the possibility that Shakespeare was Catholic), with the result that for twenty years I couldn't enjoy Shakespeare.  I didn't know what he was on about.

Then, fortunately, I asked myself the question (long overdue, given the evidence): Could he have been a secret Catholic?  And the next Shakespeare play I saw became one of the most painful, distressing, cathartic experiences I had ever known.

All these foolish theories about somebody else writing the plays of Shakespeare stem from a blanket refusal in the academic community to admit who he really was.  Effectively, they have suppressed the evidence (for 'political' reasons, all to do with rather outdated, David Starkey-type notions of what England is).  And when the evidence is withheld, conspiracy theories abound.

The same can be said of Arthur.  For years, though I longed to discover who he was, I could only make out a vague, possibly non-existent culture hero.  He had been Welsh, but then the English made him English.  And there simply wasn't enough evidence to point to any historical figure as the original Arthur.  If he had existed, it looked like he would never be found.

But then I found him.  By accident.  I was researching his father, a king called Aedan.  And Aedan had a son called Artuir.  And a daughter called Muirgein.

I had never yet come across any early Arthurs who had sisters called Morgan.  Could Arthur have been Scottish, then?  Well, I decided it was worth taking a proper look.

That was eight years ago, and I've been looking ever since.  And you know what?  The evidence is overwhelming.

There is, however, a long-running argument in the Arthurian community.  While many of us had begun to suspect that Arthur was of Irish extraction and was based in the North, the backlash was constant.  NO!!  Arthur could not have been a Scot.  Or an Irishman.  Or northern.  No!  No, no, no!!

When you look at the arguments used against the theory, though, they are pathetic.  Superficially, the argument against the Scottish Arthur (who was actually more British than Scottish) is that he was too late: the generally accepted era of Arthur was some 50 to 100 years before his time.  But that 'generally accepted' age of Arthur is based entirely on flawed and faulty evidence - and not very much of it, at that.  So while there is a mound of evidence that the first Arthur on record, whose sister was called Morgan, who fought against the 'Saxons' and was buried on a sacred isle, it all has to be studiously ignored.  Why?  Because some people only want to believe in an Arthur who didn't exist, rather than spend a little while examining one who did.

As Will, as Art.  A self-appointed 'elite' determines what we are allowed to believe.  So, Shakespeare was NOT a Catholic (and we end up not really sure if he was really Shakespeare) and Arthur was NOT a prince of the North (so we end up doubting whether he existed at all).  See the link here?  Whenever racial, moral, religious and intellectual intolerance steps in, we lose our heroes.

Because some people only want us to believe in their heroes.  The approved English Protestant ones.  The ones who didn't exist.

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