The Future of History

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.

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