The Future of History

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Arthur in Avalon

First of all, allow me thoroughly to recommend this excellent online magazine:

Secondly, allow me to heartily to recommend the November 2012 edition of The Celtic Guide.  The Nov 12 issue can be downloaded for free by clicking on the link above, scrolling down to the bottom of the page and then clicking on the front cover image - "Celtic Heroes":

This should open up a free PDF of the magazine.

Finally, allow me - if I may - to recommend the first article in the November issue.  It's by yours truly and it represents a sort of potted guide to the death and burial of the first Arthur on record, Artuir mac Aedain, the original "King Arthur".

And, if you continue through this excellent magazine (a fabulous range of stories and articles relating to Celtic matters, especially of the heroic variety), you will come to an advert created by the gifted team at The History Press:

It's so good to have this level of support!

Monday, 29 October 2012

Not Halloween

With every year that passes, the festival of Halloween seems to loom larger in our consciousness - mostly because the retail sector has realised that the night of ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties is ripe for commercial exploitation.  It's been nice, though, to note that Twitter has picked up on my earlier blogpost ("Arthur's Ghost?") as a suitable Halloween story.

But here's the thing.  We've got the date of Halloween all wrong.

The term "Hallow E'en" derives from the Christian calendar - it is the day before All Hallow's Day - but the traditions associated with Halloween are older.  They relate to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced something like "sow - un").

The Celts seem to have done things rather differently to us: their day began at twilight, and life (it would appear) began with death.  The Celtic Year effectively began at Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter, just as its polar opposite, Beltane, heralded the start of summer.  Both festivals - Samhain, at the end of October, and Beltane, at the beginning of May - were deemed to be occasions when the veil between this world and the Otherworld of spirits and ancestors was unusually thin.

Samhain seems to have grown out of the agricultural calendar.  The Earth, which had lain dormant throughout the winter, had returned to life in the spring.  This was symbolised by the Great Goddess in her Maiden aspect.  As the year progressed, so the goddess became the Sacred (or Flower) Bride of early summer.  Her bounty was revealed in the healthy growth of wheat or corn, which was harvested in late summer.  Once the harvest was taken in, the year began to turn towards the dead season of winter.  The goddess appeared in her hag-like Crone aspect, the harbinger of death, which was how she was celebrated at Samhain.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, much of Catholic Europe adopted a new calendar.  This was the Gregorian Calendar, so named after its sponsor, Pope Gregory XIII.  By then, England was a Protestant country and refused on principle to adopt any initiative proposed by the Bishop of Rome.  England therefore stuck with the much older Julian Calendar, named after Julius Caesar.

Initially, the two different calendars - the Gregorian Calendar, used by much of Europe, and the Julian Calendar, which remained in use in Britain - were out to the tune of ten days.  This created a rather chaotic situation, reflected in Hamlet's remark that "The time is out of joint".  Easter, for example, was celebrated on entirely different days in different parts of Europe, depending on which calendar was in use.

Finally, Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 - by which time, the difference between the Old and New calendars had grown to twelve days!  Thus, in Britain, Wednesday 2 September 1752 was immediately followed by Thursday 14 September.  Many Britons rioted over the "loss" of those days.

The 12-day shift in the calendar which took place in 1752 helps to explain certain anomalies in our present-day calendar.

For example, the tax year in England runs from 6 April to 5 April.  This appears to make no sense whatsoever, until we realise that, according to the Old Style Julian Calendar, the new year started on March 25th.  Add in the days which were "lost" in 1752 and we arrive at 6 April.  The financial year in England therefore remains more or less as it was; the start of the "new" year having slipped twelve days from 25 March to 6 April.

The same shift can be detected elsewhere.  Christmas is celebrated by and large on 25 December - except in those parts of the world where "Old" Christmas Day falls on 6 January.  Interestingly, in Scotland it is the festival of Hogmanay (New Year) which generates more excitement than Christmas.  Wind back 12 days from Hogmanay and you arrive at the midwinter solstice - 21 December - which really does mark a turn in the cycle of the year.

In The King Arthur Conspiracy I noted how the change in the calendar affected another major Celtic festival.  Imbolc took place at the start of February, when the goddess appeared in her Maiden guise, the first green shoots were showing and ewes started lactating.  It was a festival of new life, innocence and purity.  With the 12-day shift in the calendar, this festival slipped forward to 14 February - or what we now call Valentine's Day.  There is no connection between St Valentine, an obscure martyr of the third century, and the celebrations of true love on Valentine's Day - they are a relic of the old Imbolc festival.

Similarly, the "Glorious Twelfth" of August, which marks the opening of the grouse-shooting season, recalls the original games of Lughnasadh, which took place on the eve of 1 August.

So what happened to Samhain?  We continue to celebrate the old Day of the Dead at the end of October - only now we call it Halloween.  But this takes no account of the shift in the calendar.  It would be presumptuous to imagine that the ancestral spirits would happily alter the day on which they made themselves present just because we changed the way we calculate the date.

Well, here is where history shows her quirky side.

The Great War of 1914-1918 came to an end on 11 November.  Pretty soon, Armistice Day - as it came to be known - was recognised as the day on which the sacrifice of so much doomed youth was commemorated.  Another name for this occasion is Remembrance Day.  Poppies are worn in remembrance of the young men who were slaughtered in the fields of Flanders.  Those who wear these poppies are probably unaware of their older symbolism.  The blood-red poppies which bloom in cornfields were cut down when the wheat was harvested, and so they became symbolic of the sacrifice of John Barleycorn, the spirit of the grain, which was recalled at the Samhain festival in remembrance of the dead.

When the Julian Calendar was updated in Britain, being replaced by the Gregorian Calendar, the old Samhain festival would have slipped.  By adding in the twelve days lost in 1752, we can arrive at the true date of Samhain - the original Halloween.  It would have fallen on what today is 11 November - the date which, since 1918, we have recognised as Remembrance Day, a veritable Day of the Dead.

So while it is fine to celebrate the commercialised festival of Halloween on the last day of October, anyone interested in the true moment in the year when the departed are close at hand, when the old year dies away and the new year is born at the start of winter, should look to the Remembrance Day celebrations.  After all, it's fun to dress up as witches, vampires, ghosts and such things.  But the spirits insisted on being commemorated on the proper date - 11 November.  That is the appropriate date for ghost stories.  That always was - and, since the early twentieth century, continues to be the proper Day of the Dead.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Dating Arthur's Battles

Let's conclude this short run of posts about Arthur's final conflict with a consideration of the date of that battle.

To recap: in my more recent posts, I've suggested that "Camlann" was not a place-name.  Rather, it meant "Broken Sword".  The battle was remembered, not for where it was fought, but for its relevance: when Arthur's sword - and Arthur himself - was broken, the world of the Britons collapsed.

The place of the battle was, however, recalled in the popular memory.  Aneirin, writing about the battle almost immediately after it had happened, referred to a specific landmark - "the Alledd", or the Hill of Alyth in Perthshire.

Separately, the British refugees who fled to Brittany remembered that the battle had been fought around "Kerlouan"- the "Castle of Luan" - and they named a whole district of Brittany in honour of that terrible disaster.  St Luan, as we noted yesterday, is commemorated solely at Alyth in Perthshire, where this contemporary of Artuir mac Aedain was the local patron saint.

There is also the ancient tradition that Arthur's wife was held captive by the "Pictish" king Mordred at Barry Hill (above), which is adjacent to the Hill of Alyth, and that she was punished for her treachery and buried at Meigle, four miles to the south (and next to the spot where Arthur was betrayed).

Arthur hacked his way across the Mains (farmland) of Camno to Arthurbank, just south of the River Isla.  The place where he suffered his mortal wound was, until the 1790s, marked by a standing stone known as the Arthurstone.

So - when did this happen?

The Irish Annals of Tigernach indicate that "Artur" was one of four sons of Aedan mac Gabrain, King of the Scots, who died in a battle in Angus in AD 594 (another source, written a hundred years later, noted that the battle was fought against the southern Picts).  The Annals of Ulster date the same battle to 596 and tells us that it was not Arthur but Bran who died there (Bran is, of course, the name of the stricken lord and knight in the Breton poem, analysed in yesterday's blogpost; he was, in reality, Arthur).

Ah, but ... those who like to pretend that they know all that there is to know about Arthur invariably protest that Artuir mac Aedain (the first Arthur to appear in any historical records) can't have been the historical Arthur.  There must have been another Arthur, earlier and decidedly more "English", after whom the northern Arthur was named.

Going back a few blogposts, I endeavoured to explain why the entries in the Annals of Wales (Annales Cambriae) pertaining to Arthur were misleading.  The dates they give for his battles are wrong.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the dates appear to be wrong (they are, in fact, fairly accurate, but we need to adjust them to account for variations in the dating system being used).

The Annals of Wales include an entry for circa AD 664:

The first celebration of Easter among the Saxons.  The second battle of Badon.  Morgan dies.

As previously explained, the battle of Badon is one of the main sticking-points when it comes to identifying the real Arthur.  This "second" battle of Badon is seldom taken into consideration.  But it's important, because (as I show in The King Arthur Conspiracy) Arthur's main rival at his final battle was Morgan the Wealthy, who had been accepted by the southern Picts as their "Chief-Boar" or pseudo-king.

The entry in the Welsh Annals for the "second battle of Badon" and the death of Morgan appears to relate to Arthur's last battle.  But the given date is wrong.

What I suggested in a recent post is that the date given in the Welsh Annals for this long-forgotten battle was the result of confusion over the Easter cycle used by the early Church.  The calculations for when Easter would be celebrated each year were complex, but there was an 84-year cycle which the early Christians were able to follow.  In other words, rather than trying to figure out each year when Easter should fall, the early monasteries kept a table of the 84-year Easter cycle.  As each year passed, they just moved to the next date in their table.  The various annals of Wales, Ireland and elsewhere were eventually compiled using notes made in the margins of these Easter tables.  As each year passed, any major event of the previous year was entered alongside the relevant date in the Easter cycle.

But this system was prone to confusion.  The date of AD 664 for Arthur's "second battle of Badon" is wrong.  It was linked to the wrong Easter cycle.  Take away 84 years, and you arrive at AD 580: not the date of Arthur's last battle (at which Morgan died), but the date of another decisive battle fought by the real Arthur - his first battle of Badon.

Now, it's one thing to claim that a date relating to the military career of Artuir mac Aedain - the original "King Arthur" - got muddled thanks to confusion over the 84-year Easter cycle.  It's another thing altogether to prove that this sort of mistake actually happened.

Well, hold onto your hats, because I'm about to prove that this sort of blunder did take place.

Bruide son of Maelgwn was the High-King of the Picts from about AD 553.  He was contemporary with Artuir mac Aedain.  They were, in fact, related: Bruide's daughter, Domelch, had married Arthur's father, Aedan.  Domelch ferch Bruide was the mother of Arthur's half-sister, Muirgein, and his half-brother, Gartnait, who became King of the Picts after the death of his uncle Bruide.

The Annals of Ulster indicate that Bruide, King of the Picts, died in AD 584, which fits in with the known facts.  The Annals of Tigernach, however, tell a different story.  They state that the year 752 saw a "Battle of Asreth in the land of Circinn between Picts on both sides, and in it Bruide son of Maelchon fell."

So, two sets of Irish annals (both ultimately deriving from notes made in the Easter tables maintained on the Isle of Iona) contain information regarding the same battle, fought in Angus between warring Pictish factions, which resulted in the death of King Bruide.  But one - the Annals of Ulster - give the date of that battle as 584, which is correct.  The other - the Annals of Tigernach - give the date as 752, which is way out.

The difference between the two dates is 168 years.  That is, of course, 84 years times 2.  The Tigernach annalist based his record on the same Easter tables entry as the Ulster annalist did, but he mistook the Easter cycle.  In fact, he skipped two full Easter cycles.  Bruide son of Maelgwn died in AD 584, but one annalist mistakenly ascribed this to a date which was two full Easter cycles later.

Evidently, then, it could happen.  The same note in the margins of an Easter table could be interpreted accurately, or it could be attached to another date altogether - 84 or 168 years later, depending on which Easter cycle the annalist mistakenly plumped for.

The date of circa AD 664 given in the Welsh Annals for the "second battle of Badon" and the death of Arthur's treacherous antagonist, Morgan the Wealthy, was the victim of a similar error.  It was out to the tune of 84 years.  Artuir mac Aedain fought his first "battle of Badon" at Badandun Hill in Glen Isla in 580, overcoming the "Chief-Boar" of the southern Picts, Galam Cennaleth (whose epithet meant "Chief of Alyth").

The so-called "second battle of Badon" was fought nearby, in the valley of the same River Isla, against a new "Chief-Boar" of the southern Picts.  His name was Morgan Mwynfawr: "Morgan the Wealthy".

If you look at the map, you'll see that seven miles from the Arthurstone on the south bank of the River Isla in Perthshire, there is a Morganstone, a few miles west of the Hill of Alyth.  The cataclysmic Battle of the Broken Sword (Camlann) was fought between those two landmarks.

The year was AD 594.  For the Britons, it was the end of the world as they knew it.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Arthur's Last Battle - More Evidence

In the last blogspot, I suggested that Camlann - the name by which Arthur's last battle is commonly known - was not, in fact, a place-name.  Rather, it meant something like "Broken Sword".  As such, it was far more descriptive of the cataclysmic outcome than a mere place-name could ever be.

It was the battle in which Arthur's sword failed him, in which the "emperor" was mortally wounded, and which sealed the fate of Britain.

In my book, The King Arthur Conspiracy, I explain where the battle took place.  It was along the River Isla in Angus.  Arthur's forces occupied the south bank of the river.  His opponents were ranged along the hills to the north of the Isla.  Arthur was standing by a standing stone, near the village of Meigle, when he was treacherously attacked from behind.  He fought his way across the hollow plain to Arthurbank, beside the River Isla, where he fell.

A Breton poem recalls something of this.  It is entitled Bran, which means "Raven" or "Crow", and a translation can be found here:

In my book, I explain at some length why Bran was an alternative name for Arthur, and that the Welsh legend of Bendigeid Fran ("Blessed Raven") recalls the treachery which culminated in Arthur's last battle and his terrible wounding.  The Breton poem of Bran would appear to have encapsulated the memory of those British refugees from the kingdom of Lothian who escaped to Brittany ("The Lesser Britain") after their homeland fell to the invading Angles in AD 638.  They remembered their lost land as Leonais - the Land of the Lion - which, through the garbled yarns of the medieval storytellers, became the romantic "Lyonesse".

The poem tells us that "Bran the knight" was grievously wounded at "Kerloan fight".  His side won, apparently - thanks, in large part, to "great Evan", who put the Saxons to flight (Evan, or Yvain, is the Frenchified version of Owain, son of Urien, who was indeed present at Arthur's last battle; he was also Arthur's nephew).  But Bran - who, in the poem, is designated "Bran-Vor's grandson", reminding us that Arthur was the grandson of the "great raven" (Bran mhor) whose given name was Gabran, King of the Scots - was "captive borne beyond the sea" to the place where he died.

The Breton poem, therefore, recalled the battle at which Arthur ("Bran") was mortally wounded as "Kerloan fight".

Now, Kerloan, or Kerlouan, is a district in Brittany, a long, long way from the site of Arthur's last battle.  There is good reason, however, to suppose that the name of the Kerlouan region actually came from the site of Arthur's battle.  The ker prefix is the same as the Welsh caer - a fortress, castle or citadel.

When I first tried to locate a "Castle of Louan" I thought of Arthur's grandmother, Lluan or Lleian, a British princess of Strathclyde who married Gabran mac Domangairt ("Bran-Vor", in Breton tradition) and gave birth to Arthur's father.  Gabran himself gave his name to the Gowrie region of Scotland, and in The King Arthur Conspiracy, I note that Arthur's half-sister, Muirgein, was born in Bealach Gabrain, the "Pass of Gabran", which I suggest was the low-lying pass or Balloch which lies beneath the Hill of Alyth in Perthshire, not far from the town of Blairgowrie ("Battlefield of Gabran's Land").  I wondered, then, whether the Hill of Alyth, or one of its neighbouring hills, such as the Hill of Loyal or Barry ("Ridge of the King") Hill, was once thought of as the "Castle of Lluan".

In fact, the louan element in the Breton Kerlouan comes from Saint Louan - or Luan, as he was known in Ireland.  The Welsh form of his name - Llywan - recalls a famous pool which, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Briton, Arthur discusses with one of his comrades after they have both seen action in and around Dumbarton and Loch Lomond.

In Scotland, Luan is better known as St Moluag.  He was a contemporary of Artuir mac Aedain, and is said to have held a race with St Columba to determine who should have possession of the island of Lismore, near Oban.  Moluag is principally associated with Lismore, although there were churches dedicated to him throughout the Western Isles and northern Scotland (he appears to have spent a great deal of time amongst the Picts).  One tradition holds that he cured the holy Molaisse (Arthur's nephew, Laisren) of an ulcer.  He was mentioned in 1544 as the patron saint of Argyll - the heartland of the Scots of Dal Riata, whose king was Arthur's father - and his death is dated to AD 592.

Other versions of his name include Elvan, Elven, Lua, Lugaidh, Molloch and Murlach (the Gaelic murlach actually means a "kingfisher" or a "fishing basket").  There is only one place in Scotland at which he is remembered as Luan.

St Luan's Church stands in Alyth, Perthshire.  The Alyth Arches (see photo above) are all that remain of an earlier church, built on the site of a sixth-century chapel named in honour of St Luan.  Notably, as well as being the patron saint of Argyll, Luan was the patron of Alyth, and his fair - "Simmalogue Fair", a corruption of St Moluag - was held there.

Given that Moluag's chapel would appear to have existed by the time of his death in circa 592, we can presume that the "Fort of Luan" was already there when Arthur fought his last battle in the immediate vicinity in AD 594.  This was the Kerlouan remembered by British refugees from Arthur's land who escaped to Brittany and named a coastal region there after the site of Luan's Citadel.

The Hill of Alyth features in a more-or-less contemporary poem of Arthur's last battle.  It was a place of supreme strategic or symbolic importance - one of Arthur's earlier enemies, a king of the southern Picts named Galam Cennaleth - bore an epithet meaning "Chief of Alyth".  A very ancient tradition holds that Arthur's queen, Gwenhwyfar, was held prisoner at Alyth by the "Pictish" king Mordred.  The name Alyth means something like "The Height" or "The Strength".  The Britons spelled it Alledd - phonetically, much the same as Alyth - and it is in this form that it occurs in the epic poem Y Gododdin:

Again the battle-shout about the Alledd,
The battle-horses and bloodied armour,
Until they shook with the passion of the great battle ...

This, then, was the scene of Arthur's final conflict.  His own position was to the south of the Hill of Alyth, and is recalled at the ridge of Arthurbank (where, until the 1790s, an Arthurstone stood).  Between the hill and the ridge lay the chapel, cell or monastery named after St Moluag - the Fort of Luan, patron saint of Alyth, or, as the British refugees in Brittany remembered it, Kerlouan.

The Breton poem indicates that Lord Bran (Arthur) died in a tower or keep "beyond the sea".  He had despatched a messenger to summon his mother from "Leon-land" (the Land of the Lion, or Leonais, as the exiles thought of their Lothian homeland).  The mother of the historical Arthur was indeed a princess of Lothian.

And, in an interesting twist on what caused Arthur's last battle, the poem suggests that Arthur's messenger was a "false sentinel" with a "mischief-working smile".  But to know how that relates to Arthur's last battle, you'll just have to buy The King Arthur Conspiracy!

Anyway - the long and the short.  Here, in the form of the Breton poem of Bran, we have another source for the location of Arthur's final battle.  The Britons of Lothian remembered it well: in his poem, "The Gododdin", the British bard Aneirin recollected that Arthur's enemies had swarmed around the Hill of Alyth.  Those of his fellow countrymen who fled to Brittany remembered that the battle had been fought around a settlement associated with Luan, patron saint of Alyth.

So, anyone looking for a place called "Camlann" where Arthur's last battle was fought is likely to find nothing, especially if they are foolish enough to go looking for it in England.  The clues are unmistakeable.  Arthur fell at Arthurbank in Scotland, near the Hill of Alyth and the Church of St Luan.  It just so happens that, as he hacked his way towards Arthurbank, he crossed a hollow plain known, to this day, as the Mains of Camno.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Battle of the Broken Sword

You know the old joke - "Never asssume.  When you assume, you make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'."

It's astonishing how many discussions about things Arthurian start out from a common assumption.  One example is the place of Arthur's last battle, traditionally known as Camlan or Camlann (according to a Welsh dictionary, cadgamlan - "battle of Camlan" - is a byword for confusion, or a rabble).

The assumption made by almost all commentators is that Camlann was a place-name, probably from cam - "crooked", "bent", "false" or "wrong" - and llan, an "enclosure", "parish" or "yard".

And so, off we go, looking for places called Camlann.  Geoffrey of Monmouth (12th Century) thought it was the River Camel ("Camblam") in Cornwall.  Others have pointed to a Camlann near Dolgellau in North Wales.  Others still have suggested the Roman fort of Camboglanna on Hadrian's Wall.  But then the linguists pipe up that Camboglanna could not have been "Camlann" ... and we're back to square one.

Now, if the approach you're trying isn't working, it's usually best to try a different approach.  Nobody has identified the real site of Arthur's last battle.  Could it be because their assumption that Camlann was a place is entirely wrong?

There's another interpretation of Camlann.  The cam ("crooked") element is the same in Welsh and Gaelic (in Old Irish, camb - which, given that Camlann was often written "Camblann", suggests that this was the original root).  But in Gaelic, lann, as well as meaning a "meadow" or "land", can also signify a blade or sword (compare the Welsh llafn, a "blade").

So, what if Arthur's last battle was not the encounter at the Crooked Meadow, but rather the Battle of the Broken Sword?

Interestingly, Arthurian tradition indicates that this might have been the case.  Indeed, reading between the lines, it would appear that Arthur was presented with a sword, in advance of his last battle, which was specifically designed to fail him at a crucial moment.

Probably the best evidence for this is to be found in Le Conte du Graal (circa 1180) by Chretien de Troyes.  The hero of this tale, Perceval, was originally Peredur of York, who perished at Arthur's last battle.

Perceval encounters the Fisher King, who invites him to his castle and presents him with a sword. Perceval then neglects to question the meaning of the mysterious Grail procession which he witnesses, and he awakes in the morning to find the castle deserted.  He is soon upbraided by a maiden, who tells him that the sword he was given would surely fail him and shatter into pieces if he ever drew it in battle.  The only place where the sword could be "rehammered, retempered and repaired", Perceval is told, is at the "lake beyond Cotouatre", where the sword was made by a smith named Trebuchet (possibly from Turbe, the father of the smith-god Goibhniu or Gofannon).

Chretien's Cotouatre was a corruption of Scottewatre - that is, the Firth of Forth or the River Forth.  There is a lake, known as Loch Venachar, just north of the River Forth, near Stirling.  From this lake emerges Eas Gobhain, the "Cascade of the Smith", which forms the River Teith.  This river flows past the site of St Cadog's monastery from which - as I argue in The King Arthur Conspiracy - a "tempest of pilgrims" set out treacherously to attack Arthur at his last battle in Angus.

Welsh tradition also recalls a semi-divine figure, Dylan Eil Ton ("Ocean son of Wave") who was killed by a blow administered by his uncle, Gofannon.  Gofannon, the god of smith-craft, might also be remembered at Govan (Baile a' Ghobhainn - the "Town of the Smith"), and my last blogspot ("House of Arthur") was illustrated with a carving, identified by a letter "A" and thought by some to represent Arthur, which was discovered on a sarcophagus in Govan Old Parish Church.  If the smith, identified with the lake beyond the River Forth, who created Arthur's sword, intending it to fail when he most needed it, was also Arthur's uncle, then we have reason to suspect that it was St Cadog who forged the weapon.

The failure of Arthur's sword at his last battle in Strathmore, Angus, in AD 594, was catastrophic.  Arthur was mortally wounded, and with the "Duke of Battles" dealt with, the encroaching Angles ("Saxons") were able to invade and conquer most of North Britain.

Looking for a place called "Camlann" might be a fool's errand, then, if the battle was remembered as being the one at which Arthur's sword failed him, shattering into pieces when he most needed it.

It was the Battle of the Broken Sword.  And it is still remembered by the native Britons (the Welsh) as a byword for chaos and confusion.  Hardly surprising, really, because the failure of Arthur's sword sealed the fate of the Britons.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

House of Arthur

I've had some very exciting and enjoyable contact lately with the Seannachie ("recorder", "historian" or "antiquary") of the Clan Arthur.

Hugh McArthur is an effusive Glaswegian who, in the midst of life's journey, decided to trace his antecedents.  So involved did he become in the history of the clan that he was appointed Clan Arthur Seannachie by the clan chief some years ago.  Hugh has since produced a series of booklets which peer at different aspects of the life and times of Artuir mac Aedain, the historical model for the Arthur of legend.  That series of booklets continues to grow.  For further information, please visit

Understandably, perhaps, Hugh McArthur is in no doubt whatsoever that his distant ancestor, Arthur son of Aedan, prince of the Scots, was the original "King Arthur".  His researches have turned up a great deal of interesting information (including a fascinating reference to the plant badge of the Arthur clan - most Scottish clans had a plant symbol, and the Gaelic name of the plant worn by the MacArthurs has a most intriguing and impressive translation).

Much as I found the information available on the Clann Arthur website useful in the course of my work on The King Arthur Conspiracy, I refrained from contacting the clan on the grounds that I wanted to research and write my own history of Arthur, and not the history of the Arthur clan.  Now, however, I feel free to liaise with the Seannachie who, along with other Scottish researchers (Stuart McHardy, Adam Ardrey), is working so hard to raise awareness of the historical Arthur.

That work is not made any easier by the intransigence and arrogance of certain Arthur scholars.  Which brings me back to the title of my Arthur book.  The "conspiracy" in question was not just the conspiracy to end the life of the historical Arthur - it is an ongoing conspiracy to prevent the real "King Arthur" coming to light.  The British establishment is built on its own myth of the past, of which Arthur is a major element.  A latent English nationalism (which dares not speak its name) refuses to accept that King Arthur was anything other than - well, if not an Englishman, then at least recognisably imperialistic and by-and-large English.  The fact that there is NO REAL EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER for the existence of the mythical Arthur who preceded Artuir mac Aedain means nothing to those whose notion of Arthur forms part of a patriotic pseudo-history of England.  And yet, the only way they can explain the fact that the first Arthur to appear in any historical records is Artuir mac Aedain is to pretend that there must have been an earlier (more "English") Arthur after whom Artuir was named.  It's a bizarre, pointless and endlessly circular argument, with no evidence to support it.  Which is partly why most Arthur "experts" decline even to mention the historical records in which the first named Arthur - a Scottish prince - appears.

But all this is, or at least could be, changing.  With the vote for Scottish Independence looming, and a growing number of historians (including Michael Wood, popular denizen of the BBC schedules for many years) pointing to Artuir mac Aedain as the probable origin of the Arthurian legends, I'm fairly confident that the Scottish Arthur will soon become a talking point.  Others will join in the quest to reveal his life story and legacy.  And it will be more and more difficult to support the "Earlier Arthur" fiction.  That Arthur is purely speculative.  The real King Arthur, Artuir mac Aedain, undoubtedly existed.

There will be more research and more information coming from the Clan Arthur Seannachie, and every little bit is another piece in a tantalising jigsaw.  Finally, the real Arthur is being revealed.

Although, as Hugh McArthur pointed out to me, much excellent work had been done on this subject before the First World War, by scholars such as J.S. Glennie and W.F. Skene.  But with the First World War, it is as if the English refused to let go of a culture hero who (in reality) was their bitter enemy (the irony being, of course, that the English were originally Germanic - so that, in order to distance themselves from their enemies in the Great War, they embraced ever more rigidly a British hero who had fought against their ancestors!).  The strides taken by Victorian scholars in identifying the Scottish origins of Arthur and his legends were quietly sidelined and forgotten.  Back to square one.

I get a great sense of pride and purpose in being able to work in tandem with those who will not accept that Arthur was a fanciful creation of an English elite, but that he was, in reality, a Scottish prince, whose existence - unlike that of the "English" Arthur - is a matter of fact.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Somerset Scandal

How timely is this?  Barely have I sent in the manuscript for Who Killed William Shakespeare to my editor at The History Press, than the BBC decides to show a programme which touches on a major historical scandal featured in the book!

Tomorrow evening (Wednesday, 9:00pm), BBC1 will screen an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" with Celia Imrie.  The popular actor discovers in the course of the programme that one of her ancestors was Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset (pictured here).

The scandal which engulfed Frances Howard, her husband Robert Carr, and the entire Court of King James I, was to prove fatal to William Shakespeare.

And what a scandal it was!  According to the official version, it involved adultery, poison, witchcraft and murder.  But this is somewhat typical of history, in that it is the tabloid version of events which tends to be remembered.  The reality is that a vicious and bitter power struggle was raging at the heart of King James's court, and Lady Frances was just one of the victims of that struggle.

On the one side of the power struggle were Frances Howard's relations and her husband, the handsome Robert Carr, a former favourite of the King.  On the other side were the forces of Puritan oppression: the Earl of Pembroke, his younger brother, the Earl of Montgomery, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  This latter group also included Sir Fulke Greville, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Recorder of Stratford-upon-Avon, and Shakespeare's great rival, Ben Jonson.

At this distance in time, it is difficult to know just how bad Frances Howard was.  She had been married, at the age of 14, to the 3rd Earl of Essex.  This was in fact a political arrangement designed to protect the despicable Robert Cecil, an ally of Frances's father, who was widely blamed for the death of Essex's father.

Frances Howard and her first husband lived apart for the first three years of their marriage and then soon found that they were utterly incompatible.  Frances then fell in love with Robert Carr, a young Scot who was also the King's lover.  Strenuous efforts were made to ensure that Frances's marriage to Essex was annulled, so that she could marry Carr.

Robert Carr had a close friend called Thomas Overbury.  The two were seemingly inseparable.  Carr was nobody's idea of an intellectual, and he relied on Overbury's superior brain power.  Overbury, in turn, relied on Carr's relationship with King James for his own advancement.

Overbury grew intensely jealous when it became clear that his companion and meal-ticket, Robert Carr, had fallen hopelessly in love with Frances Howard.  Because it looked like Overbury would create difficulties over the matter of Frances's marriage annulment, King James personally ordered that Overbury should be locked up in the Tower of London.  After five months of imprisonment, Thomas Overbury was dead.

It was not until two years later that rumours began to circulate concerning Overbury's miserable death.  These rumours were exploited by the Puritan faction which was seeking to oust the crypto-Catholic Howards from King James's government.  Four "lesser" people were tried and executed for the supposed murder of Thomas Overbury before Lady Frances and her husband themselves stood trial.

In my forthcoming book on Shakespeare, I explain how this trumped-up scandal impacted on the life of Will Shakespeare, guaranteeing that he was "stopped", and how his illegitimate son was able to exact some sort of revenge upon those who had conspired against Shakespeare.

For now, it might well be worth watching tomorrow night's "Who Do You Think You Are?" in order to get a glimpse of Lady Frances Howard, the dazzlingly beautiful young noblewoman whose scandalous story robbed us of our greatest ever poet-dramatist.  And to admire the fact that these people, so distant from us in time, live on, in our own age, in the form of their descendants.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Arthur on Mull

A couple of days ago, I blogged about the legendary apparition of a headless horseman on the Isle of Mull.  The apparition appears in the vicinity of the spot where - as I argue in The King Arthur Conspiracy - the headless body of the original Arthur, Artuir mac Aedain, was buried.

After the burial of his body in the "Spirit-hill of the Stream of the Sons of Arthur", his head was carried down to the shore of Loch Scridain (left), where a ship was waiting to carry the funeral party down the loch to the Isle of Iona.

In the book, I point out that, according to Charles Maclean (The Isle of Mull: Placenames, Meanings and Stories), Loch Scridain was known, up until about 1790, as Loch Leffan or Lough Leven.

Arthur started his life on another Loch Leven - or, rather, on an island in that loch.  Now known as St Serf's Island, the islet in Loch Leven, Fife, was associated with Arthur's British kinsman, Serwan, and was the home to some sort of religious settlement, almost certainly connected with healing.  Immediately to the south of the Loch Leven in Fife is a high ridge known as the Sleeping Giant, although it's proper name is Benarty Hill (locally, this is interpreted as "Arthur's Ridge").

Although Loch Leven appears to share its name with the River Leven, which runs from Loch Lomond into the River Clyde near Dumbarton, quite some distance to the west of Fife, the two Levens do not seem to have the same derivation.  In Gaelic, the River Leven is Uisge Leamhna - the "Elm-Water".  Loch Leven, on the other hand, is Loch Liobhann, which has no obvious meaning.  I suggest in The King Arthur Conspiracy that it was originally Loch Leomhainn - the Lake of the Lion.  The Lion, in this instance, being Arthur himself, who is styled "Lion" on several occasions.

It is interesting, then, to discover that, until a couple of hundred years ago, the sea-loch in south-west Mull along which Arthur's head was transported to its last resting place on Iona - the water overlooked by the place where Arthur's headless body was buried, and the shores of which are haunted by a headless horseman on a Dark Age war-pony - was known as the Leffan or Loch Leven.  It is, in effect, another "Lake of the Lion", just like the one where I believe Arthur was born.

But here's a funny thing.  Donald Munro, Dean of the Isles, recorded in 1549 the fact that the early Scottish kings were buried on the Isle of Iona "because it was the most honourable and ancient place that was in Scotland in their days".  Dean Munro also referred to a stretch on water in Mull as Lochefyne, which, from his description, can only have been Loch Scridain (formerly, the Leven or "Lion Lake"), which opens into the sea opposite the tiny Isle of Iona.

There is another Loch Fyne in western Scotland.  On its eastern shore lies the bay of Strachur, the traditional base of the Clann Arthur, an ancient family which traces its descent from Arthur.  The Celtic placename expert W.J. Watson noted that two ancient Scottish documents refer to a "powerful Lion of Loch Fyne" and "The chief-hero of Loch Fyne".  The Gaelic term cura - a "protector" or "guardian" (Early Irish caur; Welsh cawr, a "hero", "champion" or "giant") - appears to explain the meaning of Strachur (Strath Churra, the "glen of the champion"), where Arthur's family took root.

Loch Fyne is Loch Fine in Gaelic - it means "Lake of the Kindred" or "Family".  The kindred, in this sense, was quite possibly Arthur's "war-band" (the Welsh teulu, pronounced "tey-li", can mean a war-band or a family), which we came to think of as the noble warriors of the Round Table.  And so it is intriguing to discover that, in addition to the "Lake of the Kindred" in Argyll, where Arthur's family was based in the Glen of the Champion, there was also a "Lake of the Kindred" in Mull, where Arthur's body was buried.

Returning to the Mull legend of the phantom headless horseman, we find that a fortified "crannog" or artifical island in Loch Sguabain, beyond the head of Loch Scridain (or Leven, or Fyne), was named after this legendary horseman who lost his head in a battle against his uncle (a battle caused, moreover, by the intemperate behaviour of his wife, known in the Mull legend as the "Black crane").  If, as I argued in my last-but-one blogspot, the legendary "Ewen of the Little Head" was in fact Arthur son of Aedan, whose body was buried close by, then it is striking to find that we have two dwellings associated with Arthur (the progenitor of the MacArthurs, and of the "Sons of the Lad of Aedan") which lie in very close proximity to lakes named after a famous "family" - the one connected with a "powerful Lion" and "chief-hero", the other also named Leven ("Lion-lake") and haunted by a headless horseman who, as well as being buried nearby, was also (re)buried on the Isle of Iona.

Equally impressive, the crannog with its fortified dwelling (the "Castle of Ewen of the Little Head") lies in Loch Sguabain, a little inland lake which appears to take its name from another legendary figure, a giant called Sguaban.  In a manner typical of giants everywhere, Sguaban seems to have spent some of his time hurling boulders at other giants.  As we have noted, however, the Welsh word for a "giant" is cognate with the Gaelic word for a "hero" or a "champion".  For that reason, I prefer to use the word "champion", rather than the woefully misleading "giant".

Still, the lake in which the "Castle" of the headless horseman sits is named after a "giant" - akin, one might feel, to the "chief-hero" and "powerful Lion" of the other Loch Fyne.

In The Celtic Placenames of Scotland, W.J. Watson observed that there are now no traces of Loch Scridain in Mull having been known as Loch Fyne ... except for a place, close to the mouth of Loch Scridain, near where it opens into the sea by Iona.  It was called, in Watson's day, Aird Fineig ("Ardfenaig" on today's map), which appears to mean a height or promontory of the fiann - a regular band of warriors (the similarity of fine to the early form fian, and its genitive feine, should be instantly apparent, the "family" of Loch Fyne also being, essentially, Arthur's war-band).  This "promontory of the war-band" lies immediately beneath Beinn Aird nan Giullan, the "Mount of the Promontory of the Lad".

In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I argue that the ship which picked up Arthur's funeral party on the shore of Loch Scridain disembarked briefly, very near the Aird Fineig promontory of the war-band, to deposit Arthur's damaged sword in a lake.  The lake itself is known as Loch an Dreaghain, the "Lake of the Dragon" or "Champion", which is little more than a kilometre over the rough ground of the Ross of Mull from the last surviving reminder that Loch Scridain was once the "Lake of the Kindred", the onetime home, and still the haunt, of Artuir mac Aedain, the original Arthur.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Second Battle of Badon

Even though the first Arthur to appear in the historical records was Artuir mac Aedain (Arthur son of Aedan), there seem to be two main reasons why some people refuse to accept that he was the original Arthur.

The first reason is emotional.  Quite simply, a lot of people want Arthur to fit in with some imperialistic paradigm.  We know he can't have been English (although it could be said that plenty of Arthur enthusiasts would like to imagine that he was), so we'll plump for the next best thing: he was Roman.  Certainly southern British.  And absolutely NOT a Scot of Irish heritage.  No, anything but.

However, it's fairly obvious that this emotional attachment to a sort of prototype-Englishman Arthur has no historical support.  It's little more than a nationalistic impulse, insisting that Arthur was anything but Scottish.  So, in order to advance the claim that Arthur son of Aedan must have been named after an unknown earlier Arthur, scholars point to the Annales Cambriae or Annals of Wales.

The Annals of Wales were compiled in the 10th century.  They start in about the year AD 447, which in the Annales Cambriae is designated "Year 1".

The entry for "Year 72" reads "The battle of Badon in which Arthur bore the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights, and the Britons were the victors."

The entry for "Year 93" reads "Gueith [Battle of] Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut perished; and there was plague in Britain and Ireland."

Taking the year 447 as the starting point, these entries are usually adjusted to read AD 518 for "Year 72", the "battle of Badon", and AD 539 for "Year 93", the "Battle of Camlann".

Arthur son of Aedan was, by my reckoning, born in 559.  He fought his last battle in 594.  So, evidently, he can't have been the original Arthur, right?  Because the Annals of Wales clearly date Arthur's battles to AD 518 and 539.

But here's the thing.  My researches, published as The King Arthur Conspiracy, led me to the conclusion that Arthur's first battle was fought in AD 573.  The gap between his first battle and his last, fought in 594, was 21 years - which is exactly the same as the gap between the two battles ascribed to Arthur in the Annals of Wales.

In fact, the year of Arthur's first battle (573) is given as "Year 72" in the Annales Cambriae, while the date of Arthur's last battle (594) is given as "Year 93").  It's as if the chroniclers of Wales were 501 years out.  Indeed, just place the digit 5 before both years given in the Annals of Wales, and you arrive at pretty much the exact dates of Arthur's first and last battles.

Still, there's a discrepancy.  For Arthur's battle of Badon, the Welsh annalists indicate the year 518; for his catastrophic Camlan conflict, they indicate 539.  The dates, according to my scheme, were actually 573 and 594 respectively.  The actual difference between my dates and those given in the Welsh Annals is 55 years.

Now, we know that the Welsh annalists were not working with the Anno Domini system, although that dating system was already in existence.  But they did draw much of their information from the work of the Anglian historian, Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People was written in AD 731.  And Bede did use a version of the Anno Domini dating system.

The problem with the Anno Domini dating system is that you have to agree where to start.  Let us suppose that a Welsh annalist, many years after the events, wished to record the dates of Arthur's first and last battles, which he knew had been fought in 573 and 594 (i.e., 21 years apart).  The said annalist is working with a chronicle which actually uses the year 447 as its starting point, probably because that was the year in which the Anglo-Saxons first invaded Britain.  However, the annalist also knows that Bede used a different dating system, and so he wishes to convert the dates for Arthur's battles into something which fits both Bede's Anno Domini system and the system used by the Welsh annalists, working forwards from AD 447.

The first chapter of Bede's magnum opus comprises a geographical description of the Island of Britain.  The second chapter provides the first date:

Britain remained unknown and unvisited by the Romans until the time of Gaius Julius Caesar ...

Julius Caesar led the first abortive Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC.  This - as far as Bede, the Church, and many others since were concerned - was the beginning of British history.  Nothing really happened before that date.  55 BC was Britain's Year Zero.

So let's say that the Welsh annalist, working in the tenth century, chose the year 55 BC as the start of British history.  He knew that the Annals of Wales began in 447 AD ("Year 1"), but if he was starting his count from 55 BC, that would actually be designated 502.

Following the same logic, the annalist worked forwards from his revised starting date, adjusted to account for the beginnings of British history in 55 BC.  "Year 72" would therefore be AD 573 - the date of the historical Arthur's first battle.  And his last battle would have been fought in AD 594 - or "Year 93" in the annalist's system.

Only by assuming that all of the dates given in the Annals of Wales should be dated from AD 447 - the year of the Saxon invasion - do we arrive at the familiar dates of 518 and 539 for Arthur's battles.  But if the interpolations, made more than 300 years after those battles were fought, were based on a misunderstanding of Bede's AD dating system (the mistaken belief that 55 BC was the start of British history) then the dates given in the Annales Cambriae perfectly match my dates for Arthur's first and last battles, which were (as the Annals of Wales indicate) fought 21 years apart, in 573 and 594.

The Annals of Wales also indicate that there was a second battle of Badon.  This is dated to about the year AD 666.  The entry reads:

The first celebration of Easter among the Saxons.  The second battle of Badon.  Morgan dies.

The important point here is the last statement: "Morgan dies".  As I show in The King Arthur Conspiracy, Arthur's main rival in his last battle was Morgan Mwynfawr - "Morgan the Wealthy".  He was a Man of the North and is also mentioned in a medieval list of the "Four-and-Twenty Horsemen at the Court of Arthur".

But two things stand out, here.  The first is the date.  AD 666, or thereabouts, is way out.  What went wrong, though, is suggested by the first part of the entry ("The first celebration of Easter among the Saxons.")  In the Celtic Church, Easter was calculated on the basis of an 84-year cycle.

At the Synod of Whitby (AD 664), the Northumbrian (English) Church chose to abandon the Celtic dating system for Easter in favour of the Roman system.  The reference in the Annals of Wales, then, is to the adoption of the Roman dating system by the English Church ("the Saxons").  But at this point, a mistake seems to have crept in, probably as a result of confusion over the Easter Annals used by the British (Celtic) Church.  The 84-year Easter cycle, as used by the Celtic Church, indicates that AD 666 was the 33rd year of its cycle.  The 33rd year of the previous cycle was AD 582 - which is the date I give for Arthur's battle of Badon.  The reference in the Annals of Wales to the "second battle of Badon" at which "Morgan dies" would appear to be a mistake, based on a misreading of the 84-year Easter cycle and the first battle of Badon fought by Arthur (at which Morgan didn't die).

So what was this "second battle of Badon" - which was, in fact, a mis-remembered reference to Arthur's last battle?

In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I locate Arthur's battle of Badon (fought in AD 582) at Badandun Hill in Angus, on the edge of the Cairngorm mountains.  Arthur and his men attacked a patrol of Pictish warriors in the valley of the River Isla, in the shadow of Badandun Hill.

Arthur's last battle - commonly known as Camlan - was also fought in Angus, and in the valley of the River Isla.  It was, arguably, the "second battle of Badon", and Arthur's main rival at this battle was Morgan.

The "Badon" term survives to this day in the Highland region of Badenoch.  This area, the boundaries of which have always been rather unspecific, is thought to take its name from the Gaelic Baideanach, meaning "drowned land" (figuratively, "overwhelmed") - from the Old Celtic badio, a "bath".  But I suspect that this derivation is wrong.  "Badon" here actually derives from the Welsh (i.e. British) word baedd, meaning a "boar".  The Pictish warriors against whom Arthur was pitted in both of his "Badon" battles (Badandun Hill in 582 and Strathmore/Arthurbank in 594) were known as "boars".  The Pictish region in which these battles were fought was known as Circenn - from cir, a boar's crest or comb.  In the ancient Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, Arthur has to hunt down two terrible boars, and these two boar-hunts correspond to his first and second "Badon" battles, the one against Galam Cennaleth of the southern Picts in 582, the second against Morgan the Wealthy, nominal leader of the southern Picts, in 584.

Both of these battles were fought in Circenn, the "land of the boars", which was remembered as "Badon" (from the Welsh baedd, which became the Gaelic Baideanach - "Place of Boars").

So - up to a point, the Annals of Wales are right.  Arthur's first and last battles were fought 21 years apart, in 573 and 594.  And two "Badon" battles were fought - the latter seemingly resulting in the death of Arthur's enemy, Morgan.  Admittedly, we have to adjust the dates given in the Annals of Wales - the first two to account for a misunderstanding of Bede's Anno Domini dating system and Julius Caesar's first incursion into Britain as the start of British history, and the "second battle of Badon" date to account for the 84-year Easter cycle.

Once we've done that, we find that the Annals of Wales actually square with the dating of Arthur's battles in The King Arthur Conspiracy and the locations of the two major battles fought by Arthur in the Pictish province of Circenn - the Boars' Land, or "Badon".

There was no earlier Arthur.  The real "King Arthur" was Artuir mac Aedain.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Arthur's Ghost?

In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I describe a crisis apparition which is said to appear whenever a senior clansman of Arthur's descendants, the Campbells (a cadet branch of the Clann Arthur), is about to die.

The apparition takes the form of an ancient galley, which appears over Loch Fyne, close to the site of Arthur's settlement at Strachur (the original base of the MacArthur clan) and then sails westward, over the land, towards the place of Arthur's burial.

The last reported sighting of the ghostly galley of Loch Fyne was in 1913.  Reputedly, three men are visible on its deck.  According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, three men crewed the ship which carried Arthur's mortal remains to the Isle of Avalon.

Another crisis apparition is worthy of mention here - because it is not included in The King Arthur Conspiracy.  This is the "best-known and most dreadful spectre in the West Highlands".  It's the phantom of a headless horseman which haunts the Glen More region of the Isle of Mull.

The spectre was last seen, apparently, in 1958.  It is associated with the Clan Maclaine of Lochbuie, and its appearance heralds the death of a senior member of the clan.  Distantly related to the neighbouring Macleans of Duart, the Maclaines give the Gaelic version of their name as Mac'ill-Eathain.  Translated into English, this would be "Son of the Lad/Servant of Aedan".

Aedan (the name of Arthur's father, Aedan mac Gabrain) is a version of the Irish Aodhan, meaning "Little fiery one".  It was originally pronounced something like "Eye-than" and appeared in Welsh as Aeddan.  A later variant was Eathan, from which the Maclaines and Macleans take their clan name.

The phantom headless horseman of Glen More is known as Eoghann a' Chinn Bhig ("Ewen of the Little Head").  The name Eoghan appears to have meant "well-born" (literally, "yew-born"), and variants of the name crop up frequently in the early Arthurian literature.  Two historical rulers of the British kingdom of North Rheged - both of them contemporaries, kinsmen and comrades of Arthur - bore the names Urien and Owain, each of which compares with the Gaelic Eoghan.

Towards the end of The King Arthur Conspiracy, I trace the descendants of Arthur to the Isle of Ulva, off the west coast of the Isle of Mull. The Clan MacQuarrie claims its descent from one Guaire son of Aedan.  Mentioned in Adomnan's Life of St Columba (circa 697 AD), this Guaire was the strongest or most valiant layman in the Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata.  Arthur's father, Aedan, was ordained King of Dal Riata by St Columba in 574 AD.  The name Guaire appears to be related to the Gaelic cura, a "protector" or "guardian".  I noted in my book that the main village of the MacQuarries on Ulva was Ormaig, where a piper named MacArthur founded a famous piping school.  The ancestral burial ground of the MacQuarries, close to the village of Ormaig, is known as Cille Mhic Eoghainn ("Kilvikewan'), the "Chapel of the Son/Sons of Ewen".

In addition to relating to the yew-tree, the name Eoghan might also have been associated specifically with another island which lies off the west coast of Mull.  The Isle of Iona was known, as late as the 9th century AD, as Eo.  It was the "Island of the Yew".  Adomnan, who tells us about the death of Arthur in battle, referred to it as "the yewy isle" (Ioua insula).  This was almost certainly because the sacred isle of Iona was considered an omphalos or "World-Navel", and was the site of the "World-Tree".  This tree appears to have been known as Eo or Io - both meaning "yew".

In the context of Mull and its outlying islands - Ulva and Iona - it is possible, then, that the name Eoghan could mean "Yew-born" or "Born of Iona" or, indeed, both, Iona being the island of the sacred yew or World-Tree.  Variants of the name were applied to some of Arthur's closest associates, and possibly to Arthur himself.

It is unclear exactly who Eoghann a' Chinn Bhig - Ewen of the Little Head - was, or when he lived.  What we do know, however, is that he was a "Yew-born" youth of the Clan Maclaine, the Sons of the Lad (or Servant) of Aedan, the Aedan in question quite possibly being Arthur's father, Aedan mac Gabrain.  In Hebridean tradition, the father of Arthur is sometimes identified as Iuthar (the MacArthur clan call him Iobhair), which also derives from iubhar, the Gaelic name for the "yew", and athair (Old Irish athir), "father".

The story of Ewen of the Little Head goes like this.  Ewen had married a difficult, demanding woman who became known as Corr-dhu, the "Black Crane" (the crane was held sacred by the Druids, who believed that the letters of their alphabet were inspired by the shapes made by a crane's legs in flight; the tendency of Celtic seers to stand on one leg when making prophesies probably owed something to the crane).  His wife insisted that Ewen demand more land, and eventually Ewen found himself in dispute with his uncle.  Battle loomed.

On the eve of the battle, Ewen encountered a bean-nighe or Washer at the Ford.  These supernatural washerwomen were adept at predicting death and disaster.  Again, in The King Arthur Conspiracy, I indicate that Arthur's half-sister Muirgein ("Morgana") fulfilled the role of a Washer at the Ford.

Ewen demanded to know what the outcome of his battle with his uncle would be.  The Washer made a strange prediction.  If, on the morning of the battle, Ewen's wife provided him with some butter for his breakfast, without having to be asked, then Ewen would triumph.  If no butter appeared at the breakfast table, Ewen would die.

Naturally, there was no butter for breakfast.  Ewen went into battle mounted on his pony - generally described as a small black steed with a white spot on its forehead.  It is said that the prints left by this pony's hooves are not like those of normal horses.  Instead of being horseshoe-shaped, they are round indentations, "as if it had wooden legs".  This is probably because, in Arthur's day, the familiar horseshoe had not been invented.  His own war pony would have been shod with "hipposandals", a kind of iron plate or oval-shaped cup of metal which protected the sole of the hoof.  These had been introduced into Britain under the Roman Empire.

The battle ended when Ewen's head was removed from his body by a single sword stroke.  His headless body remained on his horse, which bolted.  The horse finally came to the Lussa Falls in Glen More, where Ewen's body fell from its back.  Ewen's headless body was reputedly buried there, before it was removed to the Isle of Iona.  The site of his initial burial was close to the well-defended artificial island or "crannog" in Loch Sguabain (see photo at top of this post) which is still known as Caisteal Eoghainn a' Chinn Bhig ("Ewen of the Little Head's Castle").

Such ancient crannogs were very much a part of Arthur's world (there is one in Loch Arthur, near Dumfries).  Otherwise, there are intriguing similarities in the Mull legend and the story of Arthur.  Like Arthur, Ewen was married to a difficult woman who seems to have kept on at her husband to demand more land.  It was she who caused the battle at which Ewen died - just as Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar was held to blame for his last battle.  In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I point out that Arthur's worst enemy in his final campaign was his uncle, just as Ewen went into battle against his uncle.  And the prophecy of the Washer at the Ford (who so resembles Arthur's half-sister) indicated that success or disaster was dependent on the appearance of butter on the morning of the battle.

In one of the most revealing accounts of Arthur's last battle, as given in the Welsh tale of The Dream of Rhonabwy, we find that the battle was caused when Arthur's messenger deliberately relayed false, antagonistic messages to Arthur's opponents.  The individual concerned (who is identified in The King Arthur Conspiracy) explains that, because of his provocative behaviour, he is known as Cordd Prydain - the "Churn of Britain".

Butter, of course, comes from a churn.  And according to the Churn of Britain in The Dream of Rhonabwy, the troublemaker made himself scarce before the last day of the battle.  It was not a lack of butter that morning which signalled disaster - it was the absence of a "Churn"!  And because the "churn" in question was in cahoots with Arthur's troublesome wife, the churn's absence on the morning of the battle could be blamed on Gwenhwyfar, or the "Black Witch", as she is known in another Welsh tale.

The ghostly ancient galley which appears over Loch Fyne whenever a senior member of the Clan Campbell dies is a crisis apparition based - I suggest - on the ship which carried the wounded Arthur from Loch Fyne to the place of his burial.  In The King Arthur Conspiracy, I explain how the ship, which was bound for the Isle of Iona, put in at Carsaig on the Isle of Mull.  Arthur's body was carried up into the hills of Brolass.  He was decapitated and his body buried at Sithean Allt Mhic-Artair ("Spirit-hill of the Stream of the Sons of Arthur") above the hamlet of Pennyghael ("Head of the Gael").  His head was then carried to the Isle of Iona for burial.

It is odd, then, to discover that the glen immediately to the east of Pennyghael is haunted by a headless horseman.  The description of Ewen's pony corresponds to the exact sort of mount which Arthur and fellow horsemen or "knights" would have ridden into battle.  And so, just as the imminent death of one of Arthur's Campbell descendants causes a crisis apparition to appear over Loch Fyne, so the death of another clansman from another line - the Maclaines, or the Sons of the Lad of Aedan - provokes another crisis apparition: that of a headless horseman.  Arthur's headless body was buried by a stream on Mull, just as Ewen's headless body was supposedly buried beside the Lussa Falls nearby.  And Arthur's head was carried to the adjacent Isle of Iona, as were Ewen's disinterred remains.

In the 19th century, visitors to the Isle of Iona were shown what was said to have been a carved stone commemorating Ewen of the Little Head.  This was probably the Maclean's Cross (above), a 15th century carved stone, produced on Iona, which has the image of a mounted horseman on its base.  It stood beside the medieval Street of the Dead.  And in The King Arthur Conspiracy I indicate where, on the Street of the Dead, Arthur's head was finally laid to rest.

Could it be that the infamous headless horseman who haunts the route across Mull to the Isle of Iona was not an obscure member of the Clan Maclaine, but none other than that greatest of all heroes, Arthur son of Aedan?  I think it might be, and that this is just one of the many Scottish traditions relating to Arthur, the Scottish prince who became a mythical hero.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Occam's Razor

Well, it was only to be expected.  My article on Arthur and the Church, which was published in the August 2012 issue of History Today magazine, prompted a response.  A letter came in which, lucid and reasonable though it was in many ways, repeated two of the most common misconceptions about King Arthur.  The first being that he was a king.

Thus, the correspondent pointed out that Artuir mac Aedain (the original Arthur - read The King Arthur Conspiracy to find out more) was only "a minor prince, not a king".

In fact, the legendary Arthur was never a king.  Not until the later storytellers got to work on the tales.

For a start, the word "King" didn't exist; besides which, it is of Germanic origin, and would have meant nothing to Arthur and his people.  But Arthur's contemporaries didn't even claim that he was the Celtic equivalent of a "king".

Take Nennius, the name commonly applied to the author or compiler of the Historia Brittonum ('History of the Britons'), who provides us with one of the earliest historical references to Arthur.  According to Nennius, the "maganimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons ...

And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander [dux bellorum- 'duke of battles'], and was as often conqueror.

Now, most people would agree that you can't get much more noble than a king.  And yet Arthur, according to one of our earliest sources, was far from being the noblest in his alliance.  There were "many more noble" than he was.  Wouldn't that, in itself, suggest that Arthur was not a king - rather, kings served with him, and probably under him, but Arthur himself was something else?  A military commander or dux bellorum.

And, indeed, we find in the early literature - most of it Welsh, but that includes poetry emanating from what is now southern Scotland - that Arthur is not called "king".  The word used for him is ymerawdwr or "Emperor".

Unlike "king", which is of Germanic orginin, and therefore came in with Arthur's enemies, the "Emperor" title was a legacy of the Roman occupation of Britain.  The Latin imperator was usually applied to a successful military champion or general.  In the early poems and tales, Arthur is repeatedly referred to as the "Emperor Arthur".  Not a king.

And so, the simple fact that Artuir mac Aedain was a prince, and not a "king" as such, is irrelevant in terms of the quest for the historical Arthur.  Anyone looking for a historical King Arthur will fail, because there weren't any.  To go looking for a king is to go looking for the wrong thing altogether.  He was not a king.  He was a military commander, one who was less noble than many of those he led.

Having made the rather common mistake of assuming that Arthur must have been a king (because, much later on, storytellers started referring to him as "King Arthur"), the correspondent to History Today magazine then invoked Occam's razor.

Named after the 14th-century English friar, William of Occam, the famous "Occam's razor" principle argues that the best theory is the one which relies on the fewest assumptions.

The letter-writer claimed that, according to the rules of Occam's razor, the original King Arthur was probably an earlier hero after whom Artuir mac Aedain ("a minor prince, not a king") was named.

This is, in fact, the standard argument flung at anyone who points to Artuir mac Aedain.  Artuir cannot have been Arthur (presumably, because he was of Scottish descent, and therefore not quite "English" enough to have been a proper Arthur), and so he must have been named after an earlier Arthur, who has since been completely forgotten.

Artuir mac Aedain is, without doubt, the earliest historical individual to appear in the records with the name Arthur (Artuir being a Gaelic approximation of the British/Welsh Arthwr).  So, the claims of an earlier Arthur - about whom nothing is known - fail the first Occam's razor test, because they require an assumption.  We know that Artuir mac Aedain existed, because he appears in the Irish Annals and the Life of St Columba, written in about 697 AD.  The assumption that he must have been named after an earlier, more famous Arthur, is just that - an assumption.

The fact that many of the individuals who followed "King" Arthur into the legends were contemporaries, kinsmen and near-neighbours of Artuir mac Aedain would also require some sort of explanation from the advocates of the unknown Earlier Arthur.  At which point, Occam's razor gets thrown out of the window.  The standard response is - there was an earlier Arthur, whom nobody can identify, and then, some years later, along came another Arthur (Artuir), named after the first, who happened to be around at the same time as several Arthurian heroes were active in North Britain.

See the problem here?  The Occam's razor principle actually supports Artuir's candidacy for the role of the historical Arthur - because many more assumptions have to be made in order to advance the claim that he was named after an earlier Arthur, who everyone then forgot all about!

Whoever this "earlier Arthur" might have been, he certainly didn't trouble the historical records.  The first Arthur on record is Artuir mac Aedain, and it was during, and shortly after, his lifetime (roughly, 559 - 594 AD) that the name Arthur started to become popular.

And whoever the mythical Earlier Arthur was, he can't have achieved very much.  The best that could be said of him was that he managed to hold the encroaching Saxons back for a while, giving the Britons a breathing space, but it made no difference because the Saxons won in the end.

Now, I don't know about you, but any hero or military champion - whether a "king" or not - whose claim to fame was that he achieved a temporary victory, is not necessarily going to be remembered for all time.  One who scored several victories, leading to the near-annihilation of the foe, only to be betrayed, and whose death spelled the end to an independent Britain - well, someone like that might be remembered.  But a mysterious stranger who won a short-term victory and then vanished, leaving not a trace ... hmmnn, not so sure.

The only thing that the advocates of the Earlier Arthur school have to stand upon is a couple of later interpolations in the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), which offer the dates of 518 and 539 for the Arthurian battles of Badon and Camlan.  Neither of these dates fell within the lifetime of Artuir mac Aedain.  Neither date matches any known battle.  Both dates are essentially meaningless.

St Gildas, sometime around the middle of the sixth century, referred to a "siege of Badon Hill" as having been fought in the year of his birth.  This siege was a success for the native Britons, and brought about a temporary peace with the Saxon settlers which lasted up until the time when Gildas wrote his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ('Of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain').

According to the Welsh Annals, Arthur carried "the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and nights on his shoulders" at the Battle of Badon.  This would have made him just the sort of person St Gildas would have liked - a Christian.  And yet, Gildas made no mention at all of any Arthur and gave no hint that a catastrophic battle like Camlan had taken place since - which it must have, if Gildas was born in the year of the Badon siege and was writing prior to 550 AD.  But no, Gildas says nothing about Arthur or Camlan.  Quite simply, there had been no Battle of Camlan during that time.  Arthur had not even been born.

Once again, the advocates of the completely-vanished, completely-unidentifiable Earlier Arthur make the assumption that the "siege of Badon Hill" mentioned by St Gildas was the same as the "Battle of Mount Badon" which Nennius, writing nearly 300 years later, ascribed to Arthur, the "duke of battles".

So, again, we find that the Earlier Arthur theory fails the Occam's razor test.  It requires, quite simply, far too many assumptions, the main one being that somebody called Arthur appeared, did something that was only temporarily relevant and successful, and then vanished without a trace, before - some time later - the first historical Arthur appeared and the name suddenly became popular.

Seriously - if you're going to use Occam's razor, use it properly.  The least number of assumptions - and therefore, the better theory - suit the argument that Artuir mac Aedain was the original Arthur.  He is the first Arthur on record.  He was a contemporary of other Arthurian heroes.  He died in a battle which we can date to 594 AD.  He wasn't a king - but then, neither was Arthur. 

And when he died, Britain fell.  Simples.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Unearthing the Past

Three cheers for The History Press!!!  For it was they who published The Last Days of Richard III by John Ashdown-Hill.

Dr Ashdown-Hill's years of research into the much-maligned King Richard III, and what happened to his body after he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, has borne fruit today.  Archaeologists, digging underneath a car park in Leicester, have discovered a human skeleton.  The skeleton revealed a disorder of the spine (famously, Richard III was supposed to have been deformed).  There was a barbed arrowhead found between the vertebrae, and damage to the skull consistent with his having been killed in battle.

It should be possible to prove, by means of DNA, that this skeleton was indeed that of Richard III, the not-so-bad-after-all king who was the victim of a cynical Tudor campaign to blacken his reputation.

Exciting stuff.  And great news for my publishers.  After all, wouldn't it be marvellous if they gained an international reputation for publishing books which really do uncover the past and help to resolve its mysteries?  Maybe one day we will see the excavation of sites identified in The King Arthur Conspiracy, also published by The History Press this year - including the site of Arthur's last battle and his burial mound on the Isle of Iona.

The fabulous news to emerge today from Leicester also has a bearing on my current project, Who Killed William Shakespeare?  It was, of course, Shakespeare who popularised the Tudor image of Richard III as a cruel, corrupt, rapacious villain (although, truth be told, I believe Shakespeare's depiction to have been based on Robert Cecil, a very influential, self-serving individual whose own deformities - splay-foot, hunchback - were replicated in Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard 'Crookback').

More pertinently, the difficulty in locating the grave of Richard III owed much to a Puritan map-maker and pamphleteer named John Speed.  Speed completely failed to identify Richard's grave, partly because he looked in the wrong place.  He mistook the Greyfrairs in Leicester for the Blackfriars.  Because he couldn't find the grave, Speed came up with a story that the grave had been emptied and the body dumped in a local river.

Speed was only doing what certain kinds of historian tend to do when they can't find what they're looking for - they make something up.  Something similar happened with the first 'Anne' to whom Will Shakespeare was betrothed: because a leading scholar failed to track her down, he insisted that she must have been a spelling mistake.  It is unfortunate that these guesses can all too easily became the 'truth', until somebody actually comes up with the goods.

John Speed, it would seem, was wrong.  Not only had he misidentified the last resting place of Richard III, but he had also preserved a false story of what happened to King Richard's remains.

Speed also traduced William Shakespeare: in 1611, he branded Father Robert Persons, the Jesuit rector of the English college at Rome, and Will Shakespeare as -

this Papist and his Poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning, and the other ever falsifying the truth.

In fairness, John Speed might not have been making that up - there were many connections between Shakespeare and the Jesuits.  But the publication of this smear in Speed's Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine must have precipitated Shakespeare's retirement from the public stage in that same year.

The news from Leicester is exciting and encouraging.  It reassures us that things need not remain hidden for ever.  Just because a Puritan historian tried to cover his own tracks, doesn't mean that the truth will not out in due course.  And now, it would appear, is the time when things long hidden and covered up can finally be brought to light.

My book, Who Killed William Shakespeare?, will not be published (by those clever folks at The History Press) until next summer, but I am already hopeful that we can reveal something every bit as exciting as the remains of Richard III, if not more so.  These, again, are human remains.  The skull of William Shakespeare, no less, which might not be in his Stratford grave after all.

And, inspired by the example of Dr John Ashdown-Hill and his excellent work on Richard III, perhaps we can look forward to the excavation of the burial mound on Iona where, as I argue in The King Arthur Conspiracy, the original Arthur was laid to rest.

Let's hope, then, that the researcher and the archaeologists who have - apparently - discovered the grave of Richard III and unearthed his remains have started a trend.  The bringing to light of things long hidden.

And let's hope that The History Press can keep up its enviable track record of publishing the books which lead to discoveries like that one!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

If history has taught us anything, it's that making predictions is a bit of a fool's game.  But there's one prediction that, I think, can be made.  Change is coming.  This century will not look very much like the last one.  And that, for some people at least, is a problem.  Some people do not handle change, or the prospect of change, very well at all.

Take one of the most pressing and urgent issues facing humanity: climate change. Contrary to what some people would have you believe, there is little or no disagreement among scientists that climate change is happening and that mankind's activities are largely to blame.  However, some people see the implications of this as an infringement of their personal liberties, their beliefs in the infallability of the free market, their 20th century convictions.  The scientific data comes as a threat to their beliefs, their worldview.

When evidence, or data, or a theory, or a new idea comes along that challenges your deeply held convictions, you tend to experience something called "cognitive dissonance".  It's basically the inability to hold two opposing views at once.  There's your settled worldview, and then there's the new information.  You can't accept both (they're mutually contradictory), so you attack the new information.  And its source.  You make out that the scientists are in disagreement with each other, when they're not.  And then you reject science altogether.  You make faith the cornerstone of your thinking and reject all the evidence which shows your faith to be misplaced.

The problem is exacerbated by a trend that has been apparent over the past few decades.  It can best be described, perhaps, as a shift to the right (politically speaking).  One of the results of this shift is explored in a new independent movie, Compliance.  Basically, many people have been all too willingly placing far too much unquestioning faith in authority.  We have all been following unworthy leaders without daring to question what they say.

The institutions which should be challenging political authority - namely, the media (i.e. journalists) and academia - have failed to do so.  This is partly because success in those fields has come to be reliant on a willingness to comply, to conform, to accept and repeat hand-me-down beliefs.  Those academics and journalists who should have been questioning a rather threadbare and faith-based political philosophy have themselves been caught up in that same philosophy.  They cannot question, because they have been imposing their own belief systems on the students and readers, and demanding that those same students and readers comply and conform.

With regard to my recently published book about the historical Arthur - The King Arthur Conspiracy (published by The History Press) - it has been interesting to note that the most positive feedback has come from educated readers and academics who haven't subscribed to some formulaic notions along the lines of a consensus.  The most savage attacks have come from those who fear to question the consensus which has built up over recent decades (in line with the general shift in the direction of reactionary thinking and compliance with authority figures).

Or, if you prefer, the free-thinkers like the book.  Some of them love it.  But those who are trammelled in their thinking, and who cannot adjust to new information, have attempted to undermine it.  That is, they have experienced cognitive dissonance (information and ideas which do not square with their preconceived notions) and so they fight back, dismissing the message and vilifying the messenger.  Unsurprisingly, most of these readers subscribe to a rather imperialistic notion of King Arthur and resent the very idea that he might have been of Scottish descent.  There have even been veiled suggestions that The King Arthur Conspiracy was written purely to cash in on the debate surrounding Scottish independence - a suggestion which reveals the latent nationalism behind the 'consensus' view of Arthur.

The same problems hover around William Shakespeare.  Back in the 19th century, there was a great deal of scholarly interest in a death mask which was believed to be of Shakespeare:

The current consensus in Shakespearean circles, however, is that it is not Shakespeare's death mask.  The leading British authority on Shakespeare is usually pretty scathing of any suggestion that it might have been.  The thinking here seems to be something along the lines of: "If the death mask was Shakespeare's, I would be interested in it.  But I'm not interested in it, so it can't be of Shakespeare."

The death mask has been in Darmstadt, Germany, for many decades now, British interest in the mask seemingly vanishing at around the time of the first World War.

But, as I explain in my next book, minutely detailed scrutiny of the death mask and various acknowledged portraits of Shakespeare reveals something very interesting.  The chances of the death mask NOT being of Shakespeare are miniscule.  There are, quite simply, far too many unusual correspondences, too many unique features in common, for it to have been anybody else's.  To put it simply, this is the death mask made of William Shakespeare in 1616.  So why does the country's leading authority on all things Shakespearean reject the very possibility that it might be?

It's that same old problem of cognitive dissonance.  During a period of right-wing political retrenchment, of reactionary thinking, faith-based certainties and authoritarian judgements, an academic consensus surrounding Shakespeare has emerged (in its way, it's not too dissimilar to the nonsensical scholarly consensus surrounding Arthur).  Because the death mask does not fit into the model of Shakespeare that these academics have developed, embraced, and sought to impose on students and readers, then the death mask has to be rejected.  A proper study of the death mask would prove that it is almost certainly Shakespeare.  But the leading academics of the past few years don't like that idea, so it is consigned to oblivion.

Unfortunately - as with Arthur - this means rejecting all sorts of evidence out of hand and mercilessly abusing those who find such evidence.  The academics, you see, have spoken.  Arthur could not have been Artuir mac Aedain; the death mask cannot have been Shakespeare's.  These standpoints fit comfortably in with the current academic consensus (that is, voicing them means that you stay on the right side of the bigger boys, and don't face the wrath of the authoritarians), but they do nothing whatever for our understanding of Arthur or Shakespeare.

Part of the change that is coming, then, is that the intolerant academics who have dominated their fields for so long will be toppled.  Their beliefs - which they have insisted on everybody else paying lip service to - cannot be sustained in the face of the evidence.

But they'll fight tooth and nail, all the way.  Because for them - as with the climate change sceptics - it's not a matter of evidence.  It's all about belief.