The Future of History

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

New Contract

Apologies for the infrequency of the posts!  Things are a little hectic, just now.  The proofs for The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero are expected shortly.  First press releases went out yesterday and there was an instant flurry of interest and excitement.  Three months still to go before publication!

In the meantime, I've just signed a contract with The History Press for my second book.  It's provisionally titled Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means and it should be out in 2013.  But what with beavering away on the manuscript for that one, and preparing to go through the proofs for the other one with a fine tooth comb, I'm afraid it's a case of pedal to the metal and nose to the grindstone.

Lots of thrilling things to share with you, but not much time to do it in.  But fear not: someday soon, this blog will (hopefully) be going a bit wild with news, updates, insights, breaking developments and oodles of controversy.

So - please stay tuned!!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

He Should Be Stopped

How lucky am I, living so close to Stratford-upon-Avon?  It's a bus ride away - and a very pretty bus ride at that.

On Wednesday I hopped on the bus to go to the Shakespeare Centre on Henley Street, next to the Birthplace, to hear Ian Donaldson give a talk about his biography of Ben Jonson.

Donaldson's Life of Ben Jonson is the first proper biography of Will Shakespeare's greatest literary rival in some thirty years.  It's also an excellent biography: detailed, reasoned and readable.  And Ian Donaldson spoke very entertainingly about it.

Seeing as he was in Stratford, he concentrated on the various stories, legends, anecdotes and myths surrounding Jonson and Shakespeare.  There is, for example, a tradition that it was Shakespeare who gave Jonson his big break in the theatre.  Modern biographers don't care very much for these 'traditions', which is a shame because the people who originally passed them on might have been trying to tell us something.  We ignore them at our peril - if, that is, we're keen on knowing what was really going on.

Ian Donaldson also ran through some of the dramatic exchanges between the works of Shakespeare and Jonson.  Thus, in the original version of Jonson's Every Man in his Humour (which Shakespeare acted in), there is a jealous husband named Thorello.  This seems to have inspired the jealous husband in Shakespeare's Othello.  The crucial handkerchief of that play reappears in Jonson's Volpone (which seems to have been written as an answer to Shakespeare's Timon of Athens).  Donaldson also suggested that The Tempest was Shakespeare's response to Jonson's The Alchemist.  And so on.

One thing that modern critics turn a rather blind eye to is the long-running tradition of bitter and nasty rivalry between the two poet-playwrights.  Right through the 18th century it was widely accepted that Ben Jonson had attacked Shakespeare on every available occasion.  Today, though, the claim is made that they were good friends who indulged in a little gentle mockery from time to time but who admired each other enormously.  Ben's contributions to the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays in 1623 are cited as proof of his great love and utmost regard for Shakespeare's work.

This is unreasonable.  It overlooks a basic fact: that Jonson seldom praised any other human being unless he was after something.  Other poets of the time seem to have been in little doubt that Jonson's comments on Shakespeare were false, inspired by envy.  But, once again, it seems that contemporary evidence is overlooked by modern commentators.  Poets of the period didn't trust Ben Jonson.  So why should we?

When Jonson was 'helping' the long-term colleagues of Will Shakespeare - Heminges and Condell - to put together the First Folio of 1623, they seem to have had a disagreement about Shakespeare's merits.  The players remarked that Shakespeare 'never blotted out a line' (and they said as much in their dedicatory preface to the First Folio).  Ben Jonson snapped back, 'would that he had blotted out a thousand.'

The players didn't like this.  But Jonson later explained himself.  Shakespeare, he wrote, 'was (indeed) honest, and of an open and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein he flowed with that facility, that it sometime was necessary he should be stopped.'

Adding a classical touch, Jonson then quoted Augustus Caesar: Sufflaminandus erat ('the brakes had to be applied').

Quite how chilling these remarks really are can best be shown by comparing them with the conclusion to a long note made by a secret service agent in 1593.  The Baines Note, as it is known, listed a host of accusations about another playwright, Christopher Marlowe, who, it was said, was a blaspheming atheist who enjoyed tobacco and boys.  The incriminating memorandum ended: 'I think all men of Christianity ought to endeavour that the mouth of so dangerous a member should be stopped.'

And it was.  Marlowe was murdered on 29 May 1593.  It is commonly believed that he died in a tavern brawl.  But it was hardly a brawl and it certainly wasn't a tavern.  It was the home of a respectable widow with connections at the highest level of the Elizabethan State.

Returning to Shakespeare's Othello, we find that when Desdemona is desperately trying to protest her innocence, she begs her husband to call Michael Cassio, who can explain the truth of the situation.  Othello's response is: 'No, his mouth is stopped.'  Othello mistakenly believes that Iago has killed Cassio.  Hence, 'his mouth is stopped' - like a wine bottle is stopped with a cork.

Jonson's remark that Shakespeare wrote so freely that 'sometime it was necessary he should be stopped' hasn't received much attention from critics.  Broadly, they presume that Will occasionally needed someone to intervene and calm him down, to bring a little discipline to his writing.  That's how much Jonson admired Shakespeare - he thought he wrote too much!

But, realistically, Jonson's remark has nothing innocent about it.  The contemporary meaning seems to have been pretty clear.  'His mouth is stopped' - Othello believes that Cassio is dead.  'The mouth of so dangerous a member should be stopped' - someone needs to make Marlowe shut up, permanently.  'Sometime it was necessary he should be stopped' - sooner or later, Shakespeare was bound to go too far; he had to be silenced.

And so Shakespeare was 'stopped' - just like Christopher Marlowe.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Tunnel Vision

First of all - apologies, folks, for the lack of recent posts.  I'll soon be announcing some exciting news about my Shakespeare project.

But Arthur comes first.  Literally; The King Arthur Conspiracy - How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero is due out this summer.  I'm expecting the proofs to arrive in a matter of weeks.

Of course, there are many who will scoff at the very idea of a Scottish 'King' Arthur.  It's considered heretical in some quarters even to mention the possibility that Arthur was a Scot.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with history, though - only with the prejudices of the self-proclaimed Arthurian "experts".

Let me show you how it works.  We'll start by looking at the early sources for the legends of Arthur.

Gildas Sapiens ('Gildas the Wise', or St Gildas) wrote his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae - 'On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain' - sometime around the year 550.  His open letter is something of a cornerstone in Arthur studies, even though Gildas made no mention at all of anyone called Arthur.  He did, however, refer to a 'siege of Badon Hill' (obsessionis Badonici montis), which took place in the year of his birth.  Scholars have failed to agree on when that might have been or where the siege might have taken place, but they generally assume that Arthur was there.

Nennius is the name given to a Welsh monk who compiled a 'History of the Britons' - Historia Brittonum- in about 820.  Nennius didn't just mention Arthur: he described him as dux bellorum ('Duke of Battles') and listed twelve victories which Arthur achieved against the Saxons.  The twelfth of these was fought on 'Mount Badon'.  There is no particularly good reason to think that the battle on Mount Badon referred to by Nennius was the same as the 'siege of Badon Hill' mentioned earlier by Gildas, but in the main scholars have leapt to that conclusion, and by doing so have confused matters no end.

Bede was a Northumbrian churchman who wrote the seminal 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People'.  Note that Bede's people were 'English' - the Angles, in other words, who were Arthur's enemies.  The Anglo-Saxons were not very fond of recollecting their defeats in battle.  Bede does not mention Arthur.

Annales Cambriae - the 'Annals of Wales' - were compiled by monks towards the end of the tenth century.  They are another source of rampant confusion.  Many years after the events, two entries were interpolated into the annals, and they both stick out like sore thumbs:

518 - The Battle of Badon in which Arthur carries the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and nights on his shoulders and the Britons were victors

539 - The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medrawt fell; and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

Neither of those dates are in any way relevant to the historical Arthur.  They were invented, retrospectively, by Christian scribes.

And that, as they say, is that.  Everything else is medieval fantasy or guesswork.  These are the official early sources for Arthur - Gildas, Nennius, Bede and the Welsh Annals - and only two of those four even mention him by name!

Except that those are not the only documentary sources for the historical Arthur.  Far from it.

There is, for example, the Vita Sanctae Columbae ('Life of St Columba'), written by of Adomnan of Iona in about 697, one hundred years after the death of Columba.  Adomnan described the occasion when St Columba ordained Aedan mac Gabrain King of the Scots.  This happened in 574, and several sons of Aedan were there.  When Columba was asked which of these sons would follow his father onto the throne - would it be Artuir, or Domangart, or Eochaid Find? - the Irish saint answered, 'None of these three will be king; for they will fall in battles, slain by enemies.'

That is the first reference anywhere to a prince named Arthur (Irish, Artur or Artuir).

Adomnan added, naturally, that the Irish saint was right: Arthur and Eochaid Find were later killed in a 'battle with the Miathi' or southern Picts.  The precise location of this battle can in fact be pinpointed.

The Vita Sanctae Columbae was written on the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  Columba's monastery was also the source for much of the information recorded in the Irish Annals.  Monasteries kept books in which they calculated the date of Easter each year, and the monks would occasionally add snippets of information relating to the important events of that year.  These were later transcribed into the various annals of the Irish Church, which took the snippets from the Easter Tables compiled on the Isle of Iona.

The Annals of Tigernach record the deaths of four sons of Aedan mac Gabrain - 'Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Find & Artur' - in a battle fought in 594 in Circenn, a Pictish province roughly contingent with modern-day Angus and Kincardineshire.

The Annals of Ulster date this same battle to 596 and mention only the deaths of Bran and Domangart.  Adomman, in his 'Life of St Columba', indicated that Domangart had actually died in a separate 'battle in England'.

So - three authentic early sources, two of which mention an Arthur by name.  Both tend to be completely ignored by Arthurian "experts", who simply don't want to admit that Arthur wasn't a man of southern Britain.

And then there's the poetry.  Y Gododdin ('The Gododdin'), for example, is a long and bitter elegy written in honour of the British and Irish warriors who perished in a catastrophic battle.  The poem was composed by Aneirin, a British poet-prince, sometime around the year 600, probably at Edinburgh (the Gododdin were the Britons of Lothian).  One of the two surviving versions of Y Gododdin mentions Arthur by name (in fact, the entire poem refers to Arthur by a variety of names and descriptions).

Again, scholars have got themselves hopelessly confused over Aneirin's poem, which happens to mention Catraeth (Cad - battle; traeth - shore).  The Welsh name for the North Yorkshire town of Catterick is Catraeth.  So, putting two and two together - much as they have done with the two separate references to battles of 'Badon' - the experts have pronounced that Y Gododdin must be about a British disaster at a battle which never happened somewhere near Catterick.  If the Angles had succeeded in wiping out the army of Lothian, they would have crowed about it.  But they never even mentioned it, partly because there was no British defeat at Catterick.  The poem in actuality describes Arthur's last battle - some of his friends and close relations are named, as are the landmarks which point to the precise location of the conflict, where Arthur and so many of his heroes fell.

Aneirin nods to Taliesin in his Y Gododdin poem.  Taliesin is perhaps one of the most vital sources for information about Arthur, not least of all because Taliesin knew him.  Arthur's name, and its variants, crops up repeatedly in Taliesin's poetry, alongside those of the other heroes who fought at the last battle and accompanied Arthur into the legends.  Taliesin's surviving poems are gathered together in several Welsh manuscripts of the Middle Ages.  The fact that they were transcribed - and probably 'improved' - by medieval monks does not mean that the originals weren't composed at the time of Arthur.

In his youth, Taliesin was associated with Maelgwyn of Gwynedd, who came in for ferocious criticism by St Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.  The Welsh Annals indicate that Maelgwyn died of the 'yellow plague' in either 547 or 549.  Evidently, Gildas must have written his scathing open letter before the death of Maelgwyn.  But Arthur son of Aedan - the first Arthur to appear in any historical records - was not born until 559.  Doesn't that explain why Gildas failed to mention Arthur's name?  And why the 'siege of Badon Hill' spoken of by Gildas had absolutely nothing whatever to do with Arthur?

Like his fellow bard Aneirin, Taliesin spent most of his life in the Old North - the region which, in current terms, encompassed northern England and much of Scotland.  For that reason, as much as anything, scholars try to avoid including the poetry of Taliesin and Aneirin among the early historical sources for Arthur.

After all, we can't have anybody wondering whether Arthur might also have been based in the Old North, can we?  Even though so many of the legends in their earliest forms repeatedly have Arthur going 'into the north'.  No, we can't have that.

So, where does all this get us?  Well, what it means is that there is a great deal more in the way of early historical source material for Arthur than most scholars are prepared to admit.  And, in stark contrast to the sources that they do admit exist (and which they argue and fuss over endlessly), these other sources actually do mention Arthur.  Indeed, they tell us rather a lot about him.  They even allow us to reconstruct the circumstances of his last battle - fought in Angus in 594 - and to piece together a great deal more than that about his life and times.

But we do have to acknowledge that these sources exist, and that they relate to the historical Arthur (and not just to some random individual named after an earlier, more 'English' and thoroughly unidentifiable 'King Arthur'), before we can listen to what they have to say.

The majority of the self-styled Arthur "experts" don't want to listen to them, however, and so they pretend that they can't see them.  They know they're there.  But all the same, they don't want to look.

If they did, they might just find out who the real Arthur was.