The Future of History

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

You Should Never Judge a Book ...

... by its cover.

Oh, go on then - just this once you can make an exception.

This is the new cover for my book about Arthur, and I don't know about you but I think it's rather good.  No, better than that.  It's excellent.

Huge thanks to the team at The History Press.

Having a cover means that the whole thing feels that bit more real.  And, with any luck, this is just the sort of cover that will attract readers.

How about you?  Would you want to pick this up, leaf through, and hand over your hard-earned readies so that you could own a copy?

Let's hope so.

The book has already been described as "without doubt the best book I've read on the Arthurian subjects" and "not like any I've read before, a really good combination of readability and scholarly content".

An American postgraduate student, who has been reading the manuscript in preparation for his doctoral thesis, has had this to say about it:

"I must say that I am truly impressed with the amount of work that must have gone into this project.  I would also like to commend you for your style, thorough yet entertaining, complex but easy to read at once ... I also must say that I am going to have to read the text more than once.  It is so rich in detail that it will be impossible to digest it all in just a reading a reading or two.  This is good and is meant as another compliment.

"Your book should do well and will be a bit controversial, I imagine.  This will get it circulating! ... I also wanted to mention that I, on several occasions, was reminded of Frazer's The Golden Bough and Graves's The White Goddess while reading your book."

Well, between you and me, I don't really mind being compared with Frazer and Graves, two literary giants of comparative religion.

But whether or not everyone who dips into it feels the same way, I certainly believe that the cover lives up to the hype.

Anyway, enough blowing of one's own trumpet.  More new revelations on their way.  Keep watching this space, folks!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

War in the Borders

It's one of the last great secrets of World War II - how did Britain plan to deal with a German invasion?

The answer, at least in part, was by establishing a secret army in the aftermath of the evacuation of Dunkirk.  All over the country, individuals were surreptitiously recruited.  They were not allowed to discuss their recruitment or special training with anyone.  Most of them were intimately familiar with the land - farmers, gamekeepers and the like.  Many were already in the Home Guard.  Their extra training happened alongside their working lives and their Home Guard duties.

They became the ultra-secret Home Guard Auxiliary Units.  If the Germans had invaded, these men would have disappeared into their secret hideouts where weapons and explosives were already stockpiled.  Their task was to cause as much damage and disruption to the invasion force as possible.

Their life expectancy in the wake of an invasion was estimated at about two weeks.  Anyone who gave the game away would have to be killed.

Thankfully, the Auxiliers were never called upon to go underground and make use of their silent killing techniques and their demolition expertise.  They were not officially recognised for the sacrifices they had been prepared to make.  Many of them lived out the rest of their lives without ever mentioning the special duties they had been trained to carry out in the event of an invasion.

The first I heard about them was a few years ago when my wife's uncle had a phonecall from a historian who was researching the Home Guard Auxiliary patrols in Worcestershire.  Lo and behold, Uncle John's father had been an Auxilier (there was a photo of an ammunition dump on the family farm), as had several of the old boys of the village.  None of them had ever spoken about it.

Last week, I spoke to Tom Sykes,who founded the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART), a group of volunteers dedicated to discovering and publishing what they can about the Home Guard Auxiliaries.  As part of my research for a potential short film about the Auxiliers, he sent me a book which CART published last year.

Gone to Ground was written by Bill Watson, who grew up in the town of Duns in the Berwickshire region of the Scottish Borders.  As a teenager, Bill was recruited and became part of the Duns Patrol of the Home Guard Auxiliary.  In 1942 he joined the Scots Guards and was captured by the Germans in 1943.  He spent much of the rest of his life as a police officer in the Edinburgh and Borders region.  Bill died in 2004.

His semi-autobiographical novel is a fictional account of a German invasion of Britain.  His leading character, Bob Wilson, starts out as a seventeen year old who joins the Duns Patrol.  Unable to tell his parents or girlfriend what he is doing every night, he undergoes intensive training and then - when the Germans invade - he goes to ground with the rest of his six-man unit.

In all fairness, Bill Watson was not really a novelist.  And yet, the very artlessness of his writing helps to make Gone to Ground a fascinating and enjoyable read.  Bill had evidently spent a great deal of time imagining what a Nazi invasion of Britain would have been like.  He does nothing to downplay the horrors.  His training meant that he had a rare insight into the type of activities that he and his fellow Auxiliers would have been expected to undertake.  But for every German soldier killed by the 'Six Free Men', as the Duns Patrol like to call themselves, the occupying army takes a hideous form of revenge.  The local population are taken hostage.  Women are raped.  Men are tortured.  Every time the Duns Patrol strikes, a few of their friends and neighbours are executed.

Details of Bill's book, and the work of CART, can be found here:

Of course, all this has very little to do with Arthur.  But then, as I was reading the book I kept reminding myself that Arthur had fought in the Scottish Borders.  Among his enemies - and perhaps the greatest of those enemies - were those Germanic invaders, the Angles, who gave rise to a country called England and a language called English.

Bill Watson belonged to an extremely ancient tradition: those young men of Lothian who were ready to defend with their lives their British-held territory.  Arthur might have had to make do without explosives and machine guns, and maybe the Angles did not parachute in, but the battles that Bill Watson had trained for, and which he later imagined, were just the latest in a long line of skirmishes and actions which have taken place in the Scottish Borders over the years.

There have been plenty of battles across Britain, but historically-speaking few parts of the country have been as wartorn as the Borders and central belt of Scotland.  Had he been called on to disappear into the hills, emerging only to cause havoc for the invaders, Bill Watson and his team would have joined that long, long line of men who have battled for British freedom in the uplands of southern Scotland.

Bill vividly imagined what the effects of an invasion might have been.  Enslavement, rape, torture, execution, collaboration, resentment, resistance ... war is ever the same.  The freedom he fought for was much the same freedom as that which Arthur and his warriors fought for in that same part of the world.

If you buy a copy of Bill's Gone to Ground, 15% of the price is donated to the British Red Cross.  So please do so, if only to remember those who - like Arthur and his men before them - were ready to lay down their lives in the defence of freedom and Britain. 

Men like Bill Watson.  RIP.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

They'll Never Take Our Freedom!

But, gosh darn it!  They did.

1314.  Bannockburn.  A major victory for the Scots, under Robert the Bruce, in the Wars for Scottish Independence.

2014.  A majority victory for the Scots, under Alex Salmond, in the referendum for Scottish Independence.


The debate is hotting up, with the SNP First Minister of Scotland announcing that an independence referendum will be held in the autumn of 2014 and the Conservative-led government in Westminster will not be allowed to decide the question on the ballot form.  The British government, meanwhile, has said that Alex Salmond and the devolved Scottish Parliament does not have the legal right to hold a referendum, but Westminster might allow him temporarily to have that right.  They do, however, want a straightforward "Yes" or "No" ballot as soon as possible (i.e., before the Tories' unpopular austerity measures make matters even worse).

So there you have it.  The Scots do not have the legal right to decide whether or not they would be better off leaving the union unless London grants them that right.  Hmmnn.

And what has this got to do with Arthur?

Well, the Scottish National Party got a political boost when Mel Gibson's Braveheart came out.  It was set during the Wars of Scottish Independence and made the English king Edward Longshanks look like a right bastard.  It was Edward, of course, who stole the Stone of Destiny from Scotland (see my earlier post, "The Sword and the Stone").  For good measure, Edward also decided to make his own Round Table (because he couldn't steal the one in Scotland), but he missed the point: he thought it was a table.  The "Winchester Round Table" in Winchester Castle, which has nothing whatever to do with the historical Arthur, was almost certainly Edward I's invention.

Edward's son, also called Edward, lost the Battle of Bannockburn.  He fled to nearby Stirling Castle, seeking safety, but was denied admittance.  As a fourteenth-century Scottish poem states, the English king and his closest followers rode south from Stirling Castle, "right by the Round Table away".

It would be nice to think that the publication this summer of The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero will have a similar effect on the Scots as Braveheart did.  The difference being that William Wallace was no secret.  The Scots already knew that he had led their fight for freedom against the ever-acquisitive English.  The Hollywood movie just made him into a regular blue-eyed hero with a dodgy accent and paint on his face.

By way of contrast, few Scots currently realise that an even more famous hero than Wallace was also one of theirs.  Arthur, as most of us know, fought against the "English" (that is, the Saxons or - to be more accurate - the Angles).  But most of us have also been misled by successive storytellers and myth-mongers into believing that he was based in southern Britain.  As a result, the occasional revelation of an Arthurian connection with Scotland (e.g., the Yarrow Stone - see last post - or the Round Table at Stirling) has been poo-pooed by lots of people.  Most of them English.

The English have long tried to pretend that Arthur was theirs.  Not in the sense that Arthur fought on their side - of course he didn't, he was fighting against the Germanic invaders who became the English - but rather in the sense that he was born and buried in what is now England and he was sort-of an ideal Englishman.

By amassing a pile of evidence regarding the historical Arthur, it is possible for me state with certainty that he was a Scottish prince of mixed British and Irish blood.  He was born and buried in what we now call Scotland, and most of his battles were fought there.  He deserves to be commemorated as a Scottish hero, every bit as much as Wallace and the Bruce.

The process of dragging Arthur and his legends southwards began before Edward I stole the Stone of Destiny and created his own version of the Round Table.  That process amounts to an extraordinarily concerted act of cultural appropriation.  The Norman kings rather liked the sound of Arthur, so they took him, reinventing his legends to reflect a wholly ersatz Englishness.  That process has continued to this day.

Perhaps the recognition that one of the greatest heroes the world has ever known was commandeered by the English, and his Scottish roots denied, will have an impact on the referendum debate.  I'd like to think so.  When the people of Scotland realise that their Arthur was stolen from them and smuggled away into England, they might finally feel that enough is enough.

After all, it's one thing to have taken their freedom.  It's another thing altogether to have taken their history.  Surely the Scots will want it back.  And they'll have two years to make up their minds after The King Arthur Conspiracy is published.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Close, So Close

There's been a ripple of excitement out there in the twittersphere.  An amateur historian based in Edinburgh reckons he's found the last resting place of King Arthur.

But he hasn't.

Damian Bullen has announced that the Yarrow Stone, which was unearthed many years ago by farmers near the town of Selkirk in the Scottish Borders, marks the grave of Arthur.  He has arrived at this conclusion by re-interpreting the sixth-century Latin inscription on the stone.

The usual translation of this inscription goes something like this:-

Here is an everlasting memorial.  In this place lie the most famous princes Nudus and Dumnogenus.  Here in this tomb lie the two sons of Liberalis.

Bullen translates this, rather freely, to arrive at a different interpretation: 'Here lie two famous and very noble princes of Dumnonia, buried without possessions.'  One of these princes, he argues, was Arthur.

It's not the first time that Arthur has been located in the Scottish Borders, and it won't be the last.  The historical Arthur was indeed active in this area, and this should come as now surprise.  It was border territory even in Arthur's day.  Those forerunners of the English, the Angles, had occupied the east coast territory to the south of this spot.  Arthur's military task was to defend the British kingdom of Lothian, immediately to the north.

The precise area in which the Yarrow Stone was found was then the tribal territory of the Selgovae.  These 'Hunters' formed a sub-kingdom of the Gododdin federation of Lothian, and their tribal capital would appear to have been in the Eildon Hills.

One of the princes named on the stone was a historical chieftain of the Selgovae.  The Britons knew him as Nudd - a name which would have been Latinised as 'Nudus'.  Nudd was one of a group of cousins who ruled in what is now Lowland Scotland and who all belonged to the ruling dynasty of Strathclyde.  The tribal people of Strathclyde were known as the Damnonii.  Related to the Dumnonii of Devon and Cornwall, far away to the south-west, their tribal name suggests that they were 'of the deep'.

Nudd traditionally bore the epithet Hael, meaning 'liberal' or 'generous'.  This appears on the Yarrow Stone as 'Liberalis'.

And so a more likely interpretation of the stone's inscription might be something along the lines of:

Here an eternal memorial in the place of the most noble Nudd, prince of Strathclyde.  Here in this tomb lie the two sons of the Generous One.

No mention of Arthur (but then, there is no actual mention of Arthur in Bullen's translation, which assumes that Nudus meant denuded or stripped of wealth).  Rather, the stone marks the resting place of two sons of the generous Nudd, chief of the Hunters tribe of Selkirkshire.

However, before the excitement dies down completely ("sorry, guys - nothing to see here after all!") it is worth pointing out that Bullen is actually a lot closer than he perhaps realises.  No, the Yarrow Stone does not mark Arthur's grave.  But those buried beneath it were relatives of Arthur.

Nudd Hael was killed in about 559 - the year of Arthur's birth - as was Nudd's cousin, Clydno of Edinburgh, who was Arthur's maternal grandfather.  Arthur would later fight shoulder-to-shoulder with another of Nudd's generous cousins, Rhydderch of Strathclyde.  He received training at the hands of the Chief Bard Taliesin, who appears to have been a son of Nudd and whose poems record some of the activities of Arthur and his fellow heroes.  And there is some evidence that Nudd's daughter, the delightfully-named Tegau Golden-Breast, was the mother of Arthur's wife.

Nudd the Generous, then, was pretty much a grandfather of Arthur, and the two princes buried beneath the Yarrow Stone would have been in-laws of Arthur - effectively, his uncles.

As is so often the case, the announcement that King Arthur, or something to do with him, has been discovered provokes a few headlines and comments, only to fail the credibility test, and the fuss quickly fizzles out.  In this instance, though the central premise of Damian Bullen's claim doesn't really stand up, the fact remains that the Yarrow Stone is a valuable ancient monument with pronounced Arthurian connections.

It may not be Arthur's grave, but the tomb did hold members of his family.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Year of the Dragon

When I started this blog, my book about the historical Arthur was just weeks away from being published.  That's because I was preparing to self-publish the book.  Then the History Press ( got hold of it.  And now, the book's coming out this summer:

If you'd pre-ordered it over Christmas, you could have saved yourself five whole pounds!  But now, Amazon have reduced the cost of the hardback from a wallet-busting £20 to a much more reasonable £19.99.

Anyway, I've decided that the delayed publication of The King Arthur Conspiracy is probably a good thing, and here's why.  It's all to do with 2012, which is the Year of the (Water) Dragon.

There is a misguided notion that the world will end later this year - on 21 December, in fact - because that's when the ancient Mayan calendar comes to an end.  But that's not how the Mayans see it.

The ancient Mayans observed seventeen different calendars, each of which followed a different cycle.  A complicated and sophisticated method of overlapping all these different calendars allowed them to chart time accurately over a period in excess of 10 million years.  According to their calendrical measurements, something rather special will happen during the winter solstice at sunrise on 21 December 2012.

The world will not end.  Rather, it will be transformed.  The World of the Fourth Sun is at an end, and the World of the Fifth Sun will soon begin.  This is only a problem if you happen to be an unreconstructed materialist.

The Mayans believe that we are currently in a time of transition, exemplified by global unrest, environmental chaos and the realisation that financial markets are based on sheer fantasy.  The Mayans also believe that those among us who are too materialistic are desperately resisting any possibility of change.  Such people deny the reality of climate change and cling to their privileges and benefits at the expense of everybody else (or, as the Occupy movement might put it, the 1% is fighting to preserve the colossal wealth it has amassed by cheating the other 99% out of it).  The World of the Fifth Sun, which will come into being on 21 December, will be dominated by the fifth element known as Ether, which in some ways is nothing more than the spiritual equivalent of the elusive Higgs boson particle: it is the space between space, the energy that holds the universe together. 

Something rather special will happen on 21 December 2012 - something that hasn't happened in 26,000 years.  On that day, the Sun will rise to conjunct the intersection of the Milky Way and the plane of the ecliptic, forming a cosmic cross.  The Mayans suspect that this will be a catalyst for global change - the very thing that the materialists amongst us don't want to see.

The cosmic cross which will be formed at sunrise on the winter solstice is thought to be an embodiment of the Tree of Life, the Sacred Tree or World Tree - and that's where Arthur comes in.

Spending so long studying Arthur meant that I began to think a little like Arthur's people.  This was especially true of astronomy.  Arthur was named after a bright red star which reached its zenith at the moment of his conception.  Some years later, a comet appeared in the sky, heralding his father's accession to the throne of the Scots (the comet would not reappear in the skies until 1993/4).  Even the precise moment of Arthur's burial can be pinned down thanks to references in the poetry of the time to a certain astronomical phenomenon.  It's a fair bet that Arthur's people, stargazers as they were, would have had some sense of the importance of the cosmological event which will take place on 21 December this year.

As I explain in the book (did I mention that it's due out this summer?), the island on which Arthur was buried was the site of a World Tree.  The World Tree features in the cosmography of most cultures and religions - it is right there in the Bible, both as the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden and the 'holy rood' upon which Christ was crucified.  The World Tree connects the upper and lower realms which the material plane of existence, and so it functions as an omphalos or World Navel.  It is the birthplace of the world and the link between our world and the other worlds of the spirits and the dead.

In The King Arthur Conspiracy I argue that the island of Arthur's burial was recognised as a World Navel as far back as the time of Homer (who referred to it as the "Navel of the sea").  It was a site of extraordinary spiritual and cultural significance, a sacred burial place, and it remained in use as a sacred graveyard up until relatively recent times.  So significant was this island that an early saint of the Church was prepared to betray Arthur and to plot his death so that the island could become an exclusively Christian stronghold.

One of the downsides of this historical development is that the island's status as the Navel of the sea and site of the World Tree was largely forgotten.  I hope very much to rectify this when The King Arthur Conspiracy is published this summer (order it now on Amazon and get a 1p discount!).

This is what makes me just a little excited about the astronomical coincidence (?) of the cosmic cross occurring later this year.  If the conjunction of the Sun with the Milky Way and the plane of the ecliptic symbolises the World Tree, as the Mayans believe, then there could hardly be a better time to reveal to the world the former existence of a World Tree on the island of Arthur's burial.

Mayan elders believe that for the transition to the World of the Fifth Sun to be a smooth one, we must visit the sacred places of the Earth and pray for peace and unity.  We need to "reactivate the energy of these sacred places".  That is what I hope to have done with the book.  The island can be visited - there's a regular ferry service.  And by honouring the historical Arthur at the precise site of his burial (details in the book) and remembering the island's sacred heritage as the Navel of the sea, we can begin the task of welcoming in the World of the Fifth Sun.  A more spiritual, less materialistic age.

It's nice to think that my book will come out about six months before the start of a new world - a world predicated on the very principles which Arthur and his fellows would have supported (please, please, please don't keep pretending that Arthur was a Christian - it was the Church that destroyed him, then blackened his name, and then rewrote his legends to make him a Christian king!).  If 2012 really does see the beginning of a new age of spirituality, then I would like to feel that my book about Arthur's life and times might contribute to that.  If nothing else, it should reawaken interest in the pre-Christian history of the Isle of Avalon.

2012 will also be the Chinese Year of the Dragon - specifically, the Water Dragon.  Arthur was a Dragon (the word originally meant a "lord" or "champion").  His father was the Pendragon.  This is, in fact, a misnomer: pen draigen meant "chief of the sacred isle", and Arthur's father was indeed the lord and defender of the Navel of the sea and its sacred World Tree.  Arthur was also strongly associated with the element of water.  He was born, and he was buried, on an island.  In the book, I argue that his Druidic name was 'Alders' (Gwern).  The alder tree is especially fond of water.

So, all in all, 2012 feels like a good year for a book about the original, the genuine Arthur.  There hasn't been a year like it for 26,000 years.  The Year of the Dragon, and the beginning of the World of the Fifth Sun, is surely the perfect time to reveal precisely who the Once and Future King really was and why the island we came to think of as Avalon was so important.  Perhaps it can be again.