The Future of History

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.