The Future of History

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.