The Future of History

Monday, 29 October 2012

Not Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, here is where history shows her quirky side.

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

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

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

Friday, 19 October 2012

Dating Arthur's Battles

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

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

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

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

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

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

So - when did this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Arthur's Last Battle - More Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Battle of the Broken Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 October 2012

House of Arthur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Somerset Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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