The Future of History

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A Rainy Day in Stratford

Good old Stratford-upon-Avon!  How many hours have I spent in thee?

We don't often get to go there as a family these days.  But the prospect of a bit of shopping and a very good 3-course late lunch persuaded our daughter that it might be worth joining us - even if we did walk into Bella Italia looking rather like we'd swum there.

The manager of the Shakespeare Hospice second-hand bookshop was remarkably helpful (I came away with a book of 1500+ pages, The Connoisseur's Complete Period Guides to the houses, decoration, furnishing and chattels of the classic periods - one that Richard and Judy appear mysteriously to have overlooked - for all of £2.50).

But, best of all, we had a short but lovely meeting with the manager of Stratford Waterstones.  Very soon, I hope to announce the date of the book launch. Yes - Who Killed William Shakespeare? will have its official opening ceremony at Waterstones on Stratford High Street sometime in August, followed by another day of book signings for those who found the razzle-dazzle of the actual launch a little unnerving.

We're very excited and looking forward to it enormously.  And we hope you are too.

Friday, 24 May 2013

History in Aspic

Shh!  Listen carefully ...

Can you hear that?  It's the sound of doors slamming.

I blogged a few days ago about history's High Priesthood.  Now, I won't say that I had my finger on the pulse, because as far as academic historians go that pulse is no longer beating.  But I was, I think, on the ball.

A rather good documentary about Anne Boleyn last night has led to howls of protest from "proper" historians, who have claimed that it was "unbalanced".  In fact, it was remarkably balanced, giving equal weight to various theories about Anne's downfall.  But no - it was "unbalanced" because it dared to interview some women (Shock! Horror!) who were also (wait for it) novelists.

In other words, by exercising an admirable degree of balance, the programme became "unbalanced" because it heard from more than one side (a bizarre new definition of "unbalanced").

History, it would appear, has become a closed shop.  Those doors we hear banging are the old guard having a sulk.  They are scuttling behind their barricades and refusing to come out until we apologise and admit that they - and they alone - are the experts in these things.

Not so long ago, the same community of "proper" historians had a similar hissy fit over the TV documentary which revealed that the bones of King Richard III really had been discovered underneath a car park in Leicester. It struck me as odd that such a fascinating historical discovery should have ruffled their feathers, but put it down to professional jealousy.  Those "proper" historians hadn't found Richard and they were rather miffed that somebody else had.

But it wasn't as simple as that.  The "proper" historians might have found King Richard's bones if they'd tried, but they didn't bother.  A Puritan propagandist - John Speed - had written some rubbish about Richard's remains being thrown in a river, and that was good enough for them.  They simply did not have the curiosity to go and look for themselves.

They had decided what "history" was and got a bit narked when someone proved them wrong.

I'm anticipating a similar response from the "proper" historians to my Who Killed William Shakespeare?  Those who made no effort to track down the evidence will be outraged that an "amateur" has done what they couldn't be bothered to do.

And there it is in a nut-shell. They are the "professionals".  Anybody else - no matter how extensive their research - is an "amateur".

Branding somebody an "amateur" means that you can dismiss their research and their arguments.  But this is being taken way too far.  Not only is the academic establishment laying claim to some sort of monopoly but it is actively obstructing genuine research.

Or, if you prefer, a clique has decided what the truth about history is and who is entitled and qualified to tell it.  Theirs is a history preserved in aspic.  What is more, because they have so stubbornly resisted looking at a great deal of actual evidence, their official account is often inadequate and inaccurate.  Although, what it lacks in veracity or accessibility it more than makes up for in its political conservatism.

But they are the "professionals" so let no one gainsay them!

Welcome to the new Dark Ages, folks, where only the official line is permissible (even when it is demonstrably wrong) and any research which is not carried out by the Anointed Ones is "amateur" and can be safely ignored, regardless of how accurate and relevant it is.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Breaking News

A headline in The Scotsman newspaper:


Now, if I were a cynic I would tempted to respond with a headline of my own.  Something like:


But I'm not a cynic - no, really I'm not - so I won't.

The news piece in The Scotsman announces that two geophysical surveys have been carried out on the east side of the Isle of Iona (for the sake of reference, Iona is about one mile across).  These surveys have identified burial sites near the site of the present village hall and beside Martyr's Bay (where the photo, above, was taken).

It's been known for a long time that there were burials near Martyr's Bay.  One site was Clach nan Druineach - probably the "Burial Ground of the Craftsmen" - just to the west of Martyr's Bay.  There is also the peculiar mound known as An Ealadh at the head of Martyr's Bay (An Ealadh means, simply, "The Tomb" - the corpses of kings and lords which were ferried across to Iona for burial were first laid upon, and then carried three times around, this odd little mound).  I discuss this particular mound in The King Arthur Conspiracy.

Previous excavations had revealed something of a mass grave here.  The fact that the bones of an individual from the Middle Ages were discovered underneath bones dating from the 5th or 6th century suggested that there had been a kind of large-scale reburial of human remains at this spot.  Now, a possibility along these lines was something I mooted in The King Arthur Conspiracy - that Arthur's head, originally interred on the far side of the island, was exhumed and reburied in An Ealadh

It may be, then, that there was some significance to the use of An Ealadh as a sort of dumping ground for remains found in different parts of the island.  Whoever was buried there (quite a few people, over the centuries) formed something of a spiritual welcoming committee.  A Gaelic dictionary even defines ealadh as "a tomb; the place on Iona where the dead were placed on landing."  In other words, the newly-arrived corpse was placed on top of what was essentially a pile of corpses before it was carried along the processional Street of the Dead to the burial ground near the abbey.

All very exciting, I'm sure you'll agree.  But perhaps the real question is: why that headline?  Iona always was an ancient burial site.  That was what it was for.  Indeed, I'm raising the question in the present chapter of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion whether the early name for Iona - Ioua - might not be a Latinisation of I-uaighe, the "Island of the Grave".  If it was, then the grave in question was almost certainly a chambered burial cairn on the west side of Iona.  Practically all other burials were incidental.

Still, why should it come as a shock that Iona might have been an "ancient" burial site in use BEFORE St Columba arrived to found his monastic settlement there?

Well, partly, because the Church doesn't like to admit that Iona even existed before St Columba found it.  But it did exist.  In fact, it has existed a lot longer than most land masses on the earth's surface.  Iona is mostly made up of Lewisian gneiss - the first rock to form on the Earth's crust.  It is very, very old indeed.

And the evidence suggests very strongly that Iona was seen as a prime location for burial many years before St Columba arrived.

The problem, as so ever, is that history - our knowledge of the past - is constantly being blurred by the claims of special interest groups (in this instance, the Church).  Church history insists that St Columba was the only thing that ever really happened on Iona.  Anything else - and certainly anything beforehand - is of no interest or relevance.  And so the actual history of Iona is repeatedly being discovered and just as repeatedly covered over and forgotten again.  (A bit like the piece in The Scotsman, which veers away from the burial sites to talk about the 1450th anniversary of St Columba's arrival on Iona.)

We know that Iona was an ancient burial site.  We've known it for a very long time.

But the Church, in this instance, is still stuck in the Middle Ages, and it doesn't want us to know what we already know.

Hence the headline.  "THE ISLE OF IONA IS WHAT IT ALWAYS WAS - New evidence confirms what we already knew but had been obliged to forget because the Church prefers its own version of history."

Okay, so.  Now.  Can we please investigate the really important grave, guys?  The one on the west side of Iona.  That, I reckon, will tell us a lot about the history of the island before the Church tried to remove all memories of the past.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Making Sense of "Y Gododdin"

I'm working ahead on the Grail book (The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion, being published in monthly instalments on the Moon Books website/blog).  Basically, the proofs of Who Killed William Shakespeare? will be arriving soon, so I'm making sure that the Grail book is advanced enough that I won't fall behind deadline with it when I take a couple of weeks out to focus on the story of Shakespeare and his skull.

So I've been reviewing the historical sources for Arthur.  I've looked at what many scholars consider to be the sole historical sources, and then I've explored the others.  The latter have a great deal to tell us about Arthur but are usually ignored.

They are ignored for one of two reasons:

1) scholars have not understood the context of the sources and have therefore wrongly assigned them;

2) scholars don't want to entertain the merest possibility that Arthur wasn't a Romanised Christian operating in southern Britain in the late 5th/early 6th centuries.

Evidence which does not support the latter view tends to be discounted as inadmissable.  If it is considered at all.  But basically, it does not correspond to the Arthurian stereotype.

In fact, there is no evidence at all for an Arthur active in the south.  None.  Not a shred.

There is, however, plenty of evidence to link him with the North.  And not in the early 6th century, but in the last quarter of that century.

Take Y Gododdin.  This was composed by Aneirin, a princely poet of North Britain, and was probably first sung in or near Edinburgh in about the year 600.

Of the two surviving versions of Y Gododdin (the "title" refers to the warriors of Lothian, of which the capital was Edinburgh, the site of Arthur's Seat), the oldest includes a direct reference to Arthur.  Here it is in the original Old Welsh:

Gochore brein du ar uur
Caer cein bei ef arthur
Rug ciuin uerthi ig disur ...

(These are the last words to appear on the page of the Y Gododdin text in the photo above).

This was translated by W.F. Skene in the 19th century thus:

Black ravens croaked on the wall
Of the beautiful Caer.  He was an Arthur
In the midst of the exhausting conflict ...

Skene's translation gives the impression that a certain warrior of the Britons was so impressive that he was "an Arthur".  That was too much for some scholars, who have tended to translate the original passage along the following lines:

He glutted black ravens on the rampart
Of the fortress, though he was no Arthur
He did mighty deeds in battle ...

So, the warrior in question was "no Arthur".  He was good, but he wasn't that good.  And the implication appears to be that "Arthur", whoever he was, was a sort of yardstick by which warriors were measured (and apparently found wanting).  It follows that this original Arthur had belonged to another time and place.  It is as if we might say of someone today, "He was a great president, though he was no Lincoln."

I've long had a problem with this familiar interpretation of Aneirin's lines.  Not least of all because I couldn't see where the negative element in the lines came in.  I couldn't understand where the scholarly translators had found that negative.  If the lines did in fact mean "he was no Arthur", you'd expect something in the original words to indicate "no" or "not".  But that negative is nowhere to be seen.

Unless the scholars were interpreting the Welsh word cein by way of the Germanic kein.  Which would be a peculiar thing to do.  Like using a Danish dictionary to translate a statement in French.

Here's what I make of the lines, from the Old Welsh original:

Black ravens sang [praises] over the man-servant
Of Cian's fortress; he blamed Arthur,
The dogs cursed in return for our wailing ...

Okay, that's a very different interpretation.  It assumes that Gochore relates to the archaic Welsh gochanu, "to sing, to praise", and that uur should not be read as mur ("wall") but as [g]wr ("vassal").  There is a translation in there which comes by way of Irish/Scottish Gaelic: cein, a variant of the genitive form of Cian, a personal name.  But then, Welsh and Gaelic are related - as Celtic languages - while English is a Germanic language and is unlikely to offer many clues as to the meaning of Y Gododdin in its original Welsh.

The half-line bei ef arthur comes out as "he blamed Arthur" (Welsh beio, "to blame", "to accuse", with ef being the third person masculine pronoun, "he").

Now, this interpretation brings Arthur somewhat closer to the action.  Whatever had happened, the individual being described by Aneirin at this stage in his elegy "blamed Arthur" for it.  The "Black ravens" were warriors (they appear elsewhere in Arthurian literature, as in the Dream of Rhonabwy, a story from the Mabinogion, in which Arthur's soldiers attack, and are they attacked by, the "ravens" of Owain son of Urien).  They were singing and wailing.  A funeral ceremony is suggested.  But somebody there blamed Arthur.  The "dogs" who cursed the warriors in response to their songs of praise appear to have taken the side of whoever it was who blamed Arthur for whatever it was that had happened.

Arthur, then, was not some heroic figure of legend or distant memory.  He was, according to one view, the cause of the military catastrophe, the devastating defeat, described by the poet Aneirin.  Whatever had gone wrong at that final battle - which saw the effective annihilation of the army of Lothian - Arthur was held responsible for it (at least by the individual who had his cursing "dogs" with him).

There is more that I could say about the scenario as hinted at in those few words from the ancient Welsh poem.  A description, along with partial explanation, is given in my book The King Arthur Conspiracy, and was partly drawn from the poetry of Taliesin, a contemporary of Arthur who also warrants a mention in Y Gododdin.

The point to make here, though, is that consistently translating the Y Gododdin lines through mere guesswork (inserting negatives which aren't there, for example) leads to gross misinterpretations.  And those, in turn, distance us from Arthur by excluding - and/or misrepresenting - the available evidence.

The only real reason why scholars have misinterpreted the lines, making out that they mean something very different to what they actually say, is because they don't want to countenance an Arthur of the North.

Whereas the North is, in fact, precisely where Arthur is to be found.  In the company of those other warriors named in Y Gododdin who are also named in the legends of Arthur.

So please, folks, can we stop pretending that Arthur's contemporary poets said something which they manifestly didn't?  We cannot ignore, dismiss or disallow a vitally important poem like Y Gododdin just because we're not prepared to translate it properly.

Unless, of course, the plan is to avoid identifying Arthur.  And why, I wonder, would anyone want to do that.


NB: It has been pointed out to me, quite rightly, that the actual words in the Y Gododdin text are caer ceni bei ef arthur.  I had, at the time, gone with Professor W.F. Skene's interpretation, substituting cein (cain - 'fair', 'beautiful') for ceni.

The meaning of ceni is unclear.  It could relate to caen, plural caenau, or cen, indicating a 'layer' or 'coating'.  Caer ceni might therefore be the 'layered fort'.  There is also cyni - 'anguish', 'adversity' - suggesting a 'Fort of Distress', which would be appropriate.

Another possibility, though, is that ceni was a sort of loan word from the Irish.  The Gaelic ceann - genitive and plural cinn - derives from the Old Irish cenn, a 'head', 'chief', 'commander', 'headland', 'point' or 'extremity'.  The suffix i might therefore be recognised as I, the Gaelic name for the Isle of Iona, where (I believe) Arthur was buried.

This offers a couple of possible interpretations for the Y Gododdin lines:

"Black ravens sang [praises] over the man-servant
Of the fortress of the Chief-of-Iona/Far end of Iona.  He blamed Arthur ..."


"Black ravens sang [praises] over the man
Of the fortress.  The Master-of-Iona, he blamed Arthur;
The dogs cursed in return for our weeping ..."

Getting this right is important, of course.  The art of translation demands both accuracy and an awareness of context.  Understanding Y Gododdin, or any other poem of time, requires more than just a rendering of the old Welsh words into new English ones - for that, on its own, can be misleading.  We need to understand, as far as possible, the circumstances in which the poem was composed.  It is this lack of understanding which, I would say, has led scholars to try and interpose a distance between Arthur and Y Gododdin.  Remove that artificial distance, and the poem begins to yield up its treasures.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The High Priesthood

David Starkey has appeared in the Telegraph newspaper, slamming historical novelists who - he feels - have no "authority".

Odd ... doesn't an author automatically have authority?  Isn't that what being an author means?

Anyway, why should we be bothered about what David Starkey says?  He just seems to be a bit miffed because the BBC has produced a documentary about Anne Boleyn, to which Starkey has contributed.  But so have Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory.  They might be award-winning and extremely successful novelists specialising in Tudor history (which Starkey reckons is his preserve), but Starkey doesn't rate them.

Now, there are two ways we could look at this.  Starkey had the bad grace to dismiss the work of Mantel and Gregory as "chick lit", which it isn't. So the problem might well be that David Starkey just doesn't like women very much - especially gifted and intelligent women who take their historical research seriously and sell more books than he does.

But I think there's more to it than that.  It has to do with the "High Priesthood" of historical studies.  This is a (largely) self-appointed elite which likes to pretend that it has all the answers.  If you want to know about the Tudors, Starkey's your man.  Whatever you do, don't go talking to anybody else about them (least of all a woman).

So what, we might ask, is the worst that could happen if somebody was imprudent or wayward enough to consult someone other than David Starkey?  After all, Hilary Mantel and Philippa Gregory have immersed themselves in the period in question, living imaginatively in Tudor times and recreating that world in painstaking detail.  What could possibly be so WRONG about picking their wonderful brains?

The answer might well be that you would glean information and opinions which have not been authorised by Mr Starkey.

David Starkey insists (in the Telegraph) that high profile historical novelists "have no authority when it comes to the handling of historical sources" and he'd rather they "stayed off my patch as a historian."  Harsh words, you might feel, and utterly unwarranted.  Not least of all because Starkey's own view of history - and the Tudor period in particular - is so relentlessly reactionary.  He is the Conservative Party's idea of a historian - imperialistic, bombastic, borderline racist and sexist, a man who actually believes that Henry VIII was our best monarch (and not an obese, syphilitic monster with some pretty alarming personality defects).

Maybe this brings us a little closer to the heart of the matter.  If David Starkey is going to succeed in hoodwinking us all into buying into his extreme right-wing approach to British history, he has to stop us hearing from such novelists as Mantel and Gregory who give us a pretty crisp idea of what the key figures of the Tudor period might have been really like.  After all, it's easy to say that Henry VIII or his daughter, Elizabeth I, were marvellous monarchs.  But once a little bit of research is carried out, and you begin to suspect that the one was mad and the other was profoundly neurotic, his simplistic "Rule, Britannia!" view of the Tudors starts to look a little bit shaky. 

Or worse - it starts to look plain WRONG.  We might begin to wonder whether the version of events which David Starkey was so eager to promote is a little (how shall we say this?) misleading.  It is an entirely one-sided view.  An extremely political view.  Not history, as such, so much as propaganda.

The past is of enormous importance.  If we don't understand the past, we cannot truly understand the present (and ourselves) and we can't really figure out what kind of trajectory we're on.  But whoever controls the present tends to control the past - and for the last thirty or forty years, the past (like the present) has been controlled by the ideological reactionaries, the neo-liberals, the right-wing fundamentalists.

What this means is that the David Starkey school of history has been given a prominence that it does not rightly deserve.  It suits the Michael Gove idea of history ("facts" ruthlessly pruned of context and regurgitated in order to produce a generation of flag-waving drones).  And it can only be sustained by the systematic exclusion of whole reams of facts, vast piles of historical evidence, which doesn't support such a biased, revisionist interpretation.

In other words, the Conservative school of history doesn't hold sources to be quite as sacrosanct as David Starkey pretends.  It is extremely selective in its use of sources.  Basically, only those sources which support its rightward-leaning stance are admitted.  Anything (nay, everything) else is ignored.

Which is why we mustn't be allowed to hear from people who aren't David Starkey - because they might not play by the rules of the reactionary and revisionist "history-as-we-want-it-to-be-not-as-it-actually-was" school of historiography.

All this is absolutely pertinent to my forthcoming publication.  Twenty-five years of research went into the writing of Who Killed William Shakespeare?  It wouldn't have taken that long - indeed, it wouldn't have needed to be written at all - if historians hadn't been so adept at hiding the evidence which doesn't suit their particular prejudices.  The image of William Shakespeare which has been sold repeatedly, over and over again, in a succession of identikit biographies, comes straight from the David Starkey school.  It is based on the most selective choice of sources. 

The greater part of the available historical information about William Shakespeare doesn't really make it into the "authorised" biography because it doesn't fit the approved portrait of Shakespeare as a talented (and thoroughly patriotic) Mr Nobody.  And so a cabal exercises supreme control over what we are allowed to know and to think about Shakespeare, because any deviation from the consensus threatens to blow the lid on what Shakespeare's life and times were really like.

David Starkey - with his sanitised, God-Save-the-Queen approach to the Tudors - comes from the same school of historical make-believe as the High Priests of Shakespeare Studies.  It is important to such people that their view is the only one available - even if it doesn't make sense!  Like the Church in the Middle Ages, it approves publications which bear no relation whatsoever to evidence-based reality while condemning anything and everything which doesn't square with its own narrow ideological view.

In that regard, David Starkey's pompous little gripe about historical novelists is entirely in keeping with a historiographical movement which has devoted huge amounts of time and energy to completely rewriting the past in order to make it fit into an idealised kind of reactionary nationalism.

Talking to other people - especially articulate and imaginative writers - about the subject can only upset the demagogues like Starkey and the Shakespeare clique.  Because you might just find yourself looking at their beloved subjects from a more sane and realistic point-of-view.

Friday, 10 May 2013

God's Little Joke

Pretty soon, I should have a new front cover design for Who Killed William Shakespeare? to show you.

All being well, it'll include something you've almost certainly never seen before - the actual skull of William Shakespeare.

In my analysis of that skull I describe something which certain physicians like to refer to as "God's little joke".  It's a part of the brain called the pterion, and you do not want to damage it.  Believe me, you don't.

But for now, I'm posting another example of God's exquisite, if rather mischievous, sense of humour.  The gravestone (above) is the last one you pass before you enter the church in which Shakespeare's skull has rested for many, many years.  In other words, this gravestone stands about as close to the church porch as you can get, almost as if it's guarding the entrance to the place where Shakespeare's skull is kept.

The gravestone commemorates one Ben Johnson.

Really, you couldn't make it up!

Have a great weekend, folks. 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Of Dire Combustion and Confused Events

How many barrels of gunpowder would it take not to blow up Parliament?

It's an interesting question, and one which historians who assume that there was a genuine Gunpowder Plot tend to ignore.

Here's what we know: just after midnight, on the morning of Tuesday, 5 November 1605, a tall, auburn-haired Yorkshireman was arrested in, or near, a ground-floor cellar underneath the Parliament building in Westminster.  Within hours, the authorities were anxiously hunting several men who were believed to have been complicit in a conspiracy to massacre the Lords, Bishops and members of the royal family during the State opening of Parliament later that day.

The fact is that Parliament hadn't been dissolved, so there was no actual need for an official, royal opening ceremony.  But that is by the bye.  Guy Fawkes was caught, and within a few days the rest of his co-conspirators had been captured or killed.

But how much gunpowder had been stored in the infamous vault?  The received wisdom is that 36 barrels of gunpowder were found.  So there's your answer: 36.

Except that the figure of 36 was only settled on by the government after various other figures had been bandied about.

Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, was King James's Secretary of State.  He led the investigation into the 'powder treason'.  According to Cecil, who would have known as much about the conspiracy as anybody, there were 'two Hogsheads and some 32 small barrels' of gunpowder recovered from the scene.  That's two less than the official account.

Guy Fawkes ought to have known how many barrels there were.  He was a professional soldier and munitions expert who had been guarding the vault and whose task it was to light the fuse.  In a statement dated 20 January 1606, Fawkes confessed to having secreted 'twenty whole barrels of gunpowder' in the vault.

That's not as many as the government would claim.  So was Fawkes lying?  Unlikely: he was the sort to take an oath seriously.  Besides, why would he have lied?  What good would it have done him?  He was going to die anyway.

Could it be that even Guy Fawkes had no idea how many barrels of gunpowder there were - or how many the government wanted there to have been?

After all, a well-placed source had remarked, a week after the 'plot' was discovered, that 'it is now confidently reported that there was no such matter, nor anything near it more than a barrel of powder found near the court'.

So, in fact, nobody seemed quite sure how much gunpowder was stockpiled, ready to blow Parliament to kingdom come.  Historians who confidently aver that militant Catholic fanatics had acquired 36 barrels of gunpowder are merely repeating the government propaganda of the day.

Gunpowder had been proclaimed a government monopoly in 1601.  It was stored in the Tower of London.  A quantity of gunpowder was indeed returned to 'His Majesty's Store' from the 'vault of the Parliament House' on 7 November 1605 - two days after Fawkes was arrested.  More than 800 kilogrammes was received and officially registered as 'decayed'.

In other words, the constituent elements of the gunpowder which was returned to the Tower of London had separated.  Which meant that the gunpowder was absolutely harmless.  It would never have exploded.

One man later kicked up a bit of a stink, threatening the government with legal action if they refused to let him investigate the disappearance of so much gunpowder (close to a metric ton!) from the Tower.  He was eventually given leave to look into the matter - with one proviso: his inquiry was not to extent beyond 1604.  It would seem, then, that the government was keen to avoid anyone looking too closely at how the Gunpowder Plotters had got hold of their gunpowder.

The individual who demanded an investigation was the nephew of William Parker, Lord Monteagle.  It was Monteagle who received a mysterious, cryptic letter warning him of the plot, which he took straight to Sir Robert Cecil.  Officially, that's how the government got to know about the plot, and thanks to Monteagle the authorities were able to seize Fawkes in the nick of time.  Monteagle duly became a national hero.

But Monteagle knew all about the plot already.  He had spent much of the previous summer hanging out with Robert Catesby, the plotters' ringleader, and trying to trick the Superior of the Jesuits in England, Father Henry Garnet, into authorising the plot.  Monteagle's name was judiciously removed from the confessions made by the plotters.  They had thought that he was on their side, and had no idea that he was really working for Sir Robert Cecil.

Now, here's where the fun really starts.  The government's store of gunpowder, held in the Tower of London, was the responsibility of the Lieutenant-General of Ordnance, a man called Sir George Carew.

Carew had married Joyce Clopton of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1580.  On 4 June 1605, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Carew of Clopton.  Clopton House, a mile outside Stratford, became his.  But he did not take up residence immediately.  Rather, he left a local agent - Robert Wilson of Stratford - in charge.  Wilson let Clopton House to a wealthy young horse-breeder from Suffolk, whose name was Ambrose Rookwood.  Rookwood had been recruited by the chief plotter, Robert Catesby, in the autumn of 1604 and asked to procure a quantity of gunpowder.

That summer - 1605 - Rookwood moved into Clopton House, along with John Grant of Snitterfield and Robert Wintour of Huddington.  Clopton House was rapidly converted into a well-armed stronghold by these three gunpowder plotters.  The magistrates of Stratford raided Clopton House at dawn on the morning of 6 November, but by then the plotters were gone.

So, the chain of events went something like this: Catesby contacted Ambrose Rookwood in autumn 1604, asking him to get hold of some gunpowder.  The man responsible for the government's monopoly of gunpowder was Sir George Carew, a close friend of Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of State.

The government later refused to allow an investigation into the disappearance of gunpowder from Sir George Carew's care after 1604.

In June 1605, Sir George Carew inherited Clopton House, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon.  Within weeks, Ambrose Rookwood moved into Clopton along with two other plotters.

(Somebody else who was nearby was William Shakespeare, who bought 'one half of all tithes of corn and grain arising within the towns, villages and fields of Old Stratford, Bishopton and Welcombe' in July 1605.  He therefore owned certain rights to the fields immediately around Clopton House at the very time when the house was becoming a gunpowder plotters' hideout.)

The point, of course, is that the questions of how much gunpowder the plotters had actually acquired, how they acquired it and whether it would have exploded cannot really be definitively answered.  But we can propose some probable answers, based on the information that does exist:

1) the plotters did acquire some gunpowder, but almost certainly nothing like the 36 barrels claimed by most historians;

2) they got this powder from Sir George Carew, Lieutenant-General of Ordnance, who was working closely with Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of State (and fanatical hater of Jesuits), and whose house near Stratford-upon-Avon was then leased to the plotters;

3) the gunpowder was 'decayed', and so the Lords, Bishops and royals were never at any real risk at all.

William Shakespeare knew that the official account of the Gunpowder Plot was sheer propaganda put out by Sir Robert Cecil and aimed at discrediting the Catholics and, particularly, the Jesuits.  That's why he wrote Coriolanus.

But, sadly, too many historians are only too happy to repeat the propaganda and ignore the anomalies and discrepancies in the government's accounts, as well as what Shakespeare (who knew some of the plotters) had to say about it all.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Historical Novel Society Review

My publisher's sales office in Chicago have sent this through.  It's a very positive review from the Historical Novel Society:

You could click on the link, or I'll save you the effort.  Here's what they wrote ...

"In The King Arthur Conspiracy, Simon Stirling traces the legend of the British king back to Scottish and Welsh early literature to uncover or rediscover the 'real' Arthur.  Relying on new translations as well as songs and poetry, Stirling makes a good case for the man, Arthur, being a Scottish prince who led the fight against invading Germanic tribes including the Jutes, Angles and Saxons.  This is a meticulously researched book drawing on an impressive array of sources.  It includes many old legends, including Beowulf.  By tying together these sources, Stirling makes his case.  This scholarly book would be useful to anyone making a deep study of the Arthurian legend and is a fine addition to the canon of books about the once and future king."

So - that's a big thanks to the Historical Novel Society!

Oh, and the Pendragon Society have named The King Arthur Conspiracy as their Book of the Week.  A very big thanks to them, too.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Beltane Greetings!

Well, it's a beautiful day here in the English Midlands.  And, with impeccable timing, Moon Books have posted the fourth chapter of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion on their website.

As usual, this comes with a fantastic bespoke image created by the hugely talented Lloyd Canning (see right).

You can read the latest chapter here:

And please feel free to comment.

In the meantime, the blessings of Beltane and the beginning of summer to one and all!