The Future of History

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Shakespeare's Face (3)

We're looking at Shakespeare's face - more specifically, at certain unusual features in the portraiture.  We're doing this for a reason: to try to determine whether or not the so-called Cobbe Portrait deserves to be considered an actual likeness of Will Shakespeare.

So far, we've looked at the inside edge of the left eye socket and the left cheek (previous posts), comparing the strange lines, scars and markings visible on the portraits, the death mask and the skull.  Today, we move up the head a little, to consider the left brow and outer edge of the left eye socket.

Here's a detail of the brow from the Cobbe Portrait:

Two things to note here.  First, there is some slightly odd shading around the corner of the eye and the outer edge of the eyebrow.  Secondly, above that, across the temple, there appear to be two grooves or shallow depressions (they look a bit like fingermarks descending the forehead above the corner of the left eye).  These are distinguishing features which, if the Cobbe Portrait really is of Shakespeare, should be visible in the other Shakespeare portraiture - and, potentially, on the death mask and the missing skull of Shakespeare.

Here's the same part of the face, taken from the Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare (National Portrait Gallery):

No doubt about it: there's something similar going on here.  Clearly, a depression of some kind is visible on the forehead, above the corner of the eye, and there is peculiar shading around the outer edge of the eyebrow.  In fact, look closely and you'll see thin but distinct jagged lines around the edge of the eyebrow, coming round to the lower side of the eye socket (one of these lines continues down the cheek - see previous post).

This detail from the Droeshout engraving (First Folio, 1623) clearly shows some kind of abnormality around the outside edge of the left eyebrow and the corner of the left eye.  And, if you look up a bit, there is also the suggestion of a depression or two running down the forehead above the eye.

We find much the same features on the Davenant Bust of Shakespeare (Garrick Club):

The depression(s) running down the forehead has/have clearly been replicated here, and there is some abnormality visible on the outside of the eyebrow: a peculiar hollow, just above the very end of the eyebrow, and the hint of a jagged line on the outer edge of the eye socket.

So - the Cobbe Portrait shares these features with the established Shakespeare portraiture.  I have argued in Who Killed William Shakespeare? that the Chandos Portrait, Droeshout engraving and Davenant Bust were all created using the death mask of Shakespeare (now in Darmstadt Castle) as a model, so we should now look at the left brow of the death mask:

There's clearly a depression or two of some sort coming down the forehead above the left eye.  There's also a dip or hollow above the very outer edge of the eyebrow - as with the Davenant Bust - and the trace of a jagged line running beneath the end of the eyebrow in towards the eye socket.  In other words, these features seem to have been faithfully reproduced in the Shakespeare portraiture - including the Cobbe Portrait - more or less as they appear on the death mask.

So the next question is - what does this part of the skull which resides in the crypt beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley church in Worcestershire look like?

The older photo of the Beoley skull (taken in about 1939) clearly shows a jagged end to the bone at the edge of the left eyebrow.  The damage to the eye socket/left eyebrow is even clearer in the more recent photo, taken in 2009:
The jagged edge of the bone at the end of the eyebrow creates both a kind of overhang and a sharp protruberance underneath.  Where the skin tissue relaxed to the side of this, the effect became one of a dip or depression immediately above or beside the end of the eyebrow.  Because the skin had relaxed, after death and before the death mask was made, the jagged outline of the broken bone here showed through, and was indicated on the portraiture, both as shading and as thin, ghostly lines.
Equally noticeable are the depressions in the skull above the left eye socket.  On the one hand, we see these as natural features - the two depressions running down the forehead, looking a bit like fingermarks - although there is also a distinctive scratch in the skull which forms a sort of elongated oval shape.  It is unclear whether this scratch was related in any way to Shakespeare's death.
What is evident, though, is that damage to the outside of the left eye socket, and the edge of the eyebrow, is readily apparent on the Beoley skull (identified in the 19th century as the "VERITABLE SKULL OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE") and also appears on the mask, now in Darmstadt, Germany, but similarly identified in the 19th century as the death mask of Shakespeare (the plaster of Paris mask was inscribed with the date "1616" and a little cross, to indicate that this was the date of the subject's death; William Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616).
Furthermore, these features - damage to the region around the end of the left eyebrow and left eye socket, and depressions running down the forehead above the left eye - were faithfully reproduced in the posthumous portraits of Shakespeare: the Chandos Portraint, the Droeshout engraving, the Davenant Bust ... and, it would seem, the Cobbe Portrait.
The left side of the face in the Cobbe Portrait does bear comparison with the better known Shakespeare portraits and the death mask and the skull (it should be noted that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which has happily accepted the Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare, refuses to acknowledge the death mask or the skull).  These comparisons show undeniable correspondences between the various representations of Shakespeare's left eye (inner eye socket, outer eye socket, eyebrow), Shakespeare's left cheek and the left side of his forehead.  The peculiar features visible in these parts of the portraits can be traced straight back to the death mask and the skull.
Next time, we'll consider another aspect of the Cobbe Portrait, to see if we can get closer to an understanding of its Shakespeare connections.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Shakespeare's Face (2)

A bit frazzled today, after yesterday's splendid hootenanny launching Who Killed William Shakespeare? at Waterstones Stratford-upon-Avon (of which I'll write more soon; for now, just the biggest thanks to Josie and the wonderful team at Waterstones, who were quite simply brilliant, and to everyone who came from far and wide to support us.  Thank you, guys!)

We're currently considering the Cobbe Portrait and its alleged depiction of one William Shakespeare, master poet, playwright and murder victim.  We're doing this by comparing specific details of the portrait - where there seems to be something a trifle unusual going on - with the same details from established Shakespeare portraiture, including a death mask and a skull (for more details of these items, buy the book!)

Let's keep it fairly simple today by just looking at the left cheek in the portrait.

Look closely at this detail of the left cheek from the Cobbe Portrait.  There appear to be two faint lines running down the cheek - a rather jagged one which crosses the cheek bone and descends to the corner of the mouth, and another a little further to the right.  Are these strange lines replicated on the other Shakespeare images?  Well, yes they are:
Here's the same part of the face, taken from the Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare (No 1 in the National Portrait Gallery's collection).  The lines are even more noticeable here - although, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever mentioned them before.  So what are they?  They don't look like scar tissue ...
The terracotta Davenant Bust of Shakespeare (Garrick Club, London) also seems to have something going on here - very similar thin lines running down the left cheek.  And if we look at what is probably the most famous image of the Bard:
... do we not also see hints of a line or lines running down the left cheek on the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio of 1623?  Evidently, this is a rarely acknowledged feature of the Shakespeare portraiture: a thin, jagged line, or more than one line, following a roughly perpendicular path across the cheek area, from below the left eye to the side of the mouth.
The death mask of Shakespeare, now in Darmstadt Castle, does appear to have something similar running down the left cheek:
What this might be, exactly, is unclear, but if we examine the same part of the face in the 3-D computer-generated model from the University of Dundee, which was based on the death mask:

... we certainly get the impression of a thin, jagged line running down the cheek, beneath the eye, and another, just to the right, across the hollow of the cheek itself.

So what are we looking at here?  As I pointed out, these do not seem to be scars, but they do seem to be present, one way or another, in the Shakespeare portraits and, indeed, on the Cobbe Portrait.  Let's assume, then, that all of the images we've considered so far had a common source, that source almost certainly being the death mask of Shakespeare.  Those lines being visible on the death mask, they were quite properly reproduced in the portraiture.
The skull at Beoley offers a clue as to what those lines might have been:
The zygomatic (cheek) bones of the skull are missing.  The maxilla (upper jaw) bone has been snapped, with the outside part of the maxilla also missing.  This gives the cheek area of the skull a pronounced jagged outline comparable with the lines on the portraiture which can be traced down from the eye socket to the corner of Shakespeare's mouth.
The older photo of the skull (taken in circa 1939) also shows the jagged outline of the broken maxilla.  Inevitably, if the maxilla had snapped, then it would have existed in two parts before the skin tissue decomposed and the broken off section of the maxilla bone became detached.
By the time the death mask was made (some 24-48 hours after death), the skin tissue of the face had relaxed, so that the outline of the broken maxilla became faintly visible.  The missing section of the maxilla would also have created an outline on the death mask, and this would have been slightly to the side of - and roughly parallel with - the jagged line made by the existing piece of upper jaw.
In other words, we would expect there to be two lines on the death mask if the maxilla was broken before or at around the time of death, and the two sections had separated under the tissues of the cheek.  Such breakages are a common feature of certain kinds of cranio-facial injury.
The Shakespeare portraits - including, it would seem, the Cobbe Portrait - replicate these vague lines running down the left cheek, which I suggest were formed by the jagged edges of the broken maxilla showing through the relaxed skin tissues as seen on the death mask.
Over the next few days, we'll look a some other striking features of the portraits, the death mask and the skull.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Shakespeare's Face (1)

This is the so-called Cobbe Portrait.  I've been a bit rude about it in the past - not the portrait itself, which is fine, but about the questionable claim that it is a portrait of Shakespeare.

I'm now thinking I might have been a little hasty.

The attribution, which the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford has acccepted gleefully, is troublesome.  For a start, the portrait bears more than a passing resemblance to Sir Walter Raleigh, as I have previously indicated.  And the colour of the (slightly wonky) eyes is not the same as those in the somewhat more famous Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare in the National Portrait Gallery.

Now, I'm not about to have a complete Damascene conversion.  But I have been looking a bit more closely at the Cobbe Portrait, and over the next few posts I shall share some of my observations.  It's too early to be sure, but it would only be scientific to compare the distinguishing features of this image and those of Shakespeare - including his death mask and skull.

We'll start with the left eye and, in particular, the inner edge of the left eye socket, beside the nose.

This is a close up detail of the left inner eye in the Cobbe Portrait.  There's a slightly odd effect going on here.  A bit of a blue blob running down the inside of the eye socket.  And a thin bluish line crossing this blob, running from the bridge of the nose to the corner of the eye.  The unusual shading seems to suggest some kind of defect or deformity to the inner eye socket.
Here's the same region of the death mask (currently in Darmstadt, Germany).  The line running from the bridge of the nose to the eyeball is clearer here, and it traverses what may be a scar on the inside of the eye socket.  The thin grey lateral slit is one of the more intriguing features of the death mask and - as I argue in Who Killed William Shakespeare?- a major clue to the cause of Shakespeare's death.
The scarring on the inside of the eye socket is clearly visible in this 3-D computer reconstruction of Shakespeare's face, based on the death mask, which was created by experts at the University of Dundee for a television documentary a couple of years ago.
The Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare also hints at something rather odd going on in the inner corner of the left eye.  Again, we have those strange dark shadings or markings, representing some form of scarring perhaps on the inside of the eye socket, and something of a dark line stretching from the bridge of the nose to the eyeball.
What could all these unusual markings mean?  The thin grey slit on the death mask - which appears to have been replicated on the Cobbe and Chandos Portraits - begs the question: what is this?  So the best bet is to have a look at the Beoley skull (identified in the 19th century as Shakespeare's) and see what's going on there.
This detail is from a photo of the skull which was taken around the start of the Second World War.  What is shown here is the inner corner of the left eye socket (nose to the left of the photo).  Look closely.  There are at least two puncture marks in the thin medial wall of the eye socket.  Something damaged the skull there, more or less in line with the strange markings or shading visible on the portraiture.
The second image comes from a much more recent photograph of the skull, taken just four years ago.  Again, we're looking at the left eye socket, with the nose on the left of the picture.  Look at the upper part of the inside of the eye socket - an unnatural fracture or aperture can clearly be seen.  This is immediately above the puncture wounds visible on the first image of the skull (above).  Again, we get the distinct impression that damage was inflicted to the inside of the left eye socket by some sort of sharp, pointed instrument.
Now, let's go back to the death mask - with its thin grey slit running between the bridge of the nose and the left eyeball.  This slit appears to have been replicated (as a bluish line) on the Cobbe Portrait and may form part of the dark shading on the Chandos Portrait.  Both portraits also indicate some sort of scarring or abnormality on the inside of the eye socket, in the very region which connects the thin grey slit with the visible damage to the inner wall of the eye socket on the Beoley skull.
These are not naturally occuring features.  Most people do not have blue lines or thin grey slits running from their nose to their eyeball, and the only reason why a skull would show puncture marks, holes and fractures on the inside of the eye socket is because injuries had been inflicted.  Evidently, then, the Cobbe Portrait appears faithfully to replicate an unusual feature present on the Shakespeare portraiture (and death mask) and in line with damage to the skull.
I'll examine other features of the Cobbe Portrait, comparing them with the equivalent features on the other portraiture and relics, over the next few days.  I'll also raise some issues regarding the provenance of the Cobbe Portrait and its beguiling quotation. 
And then, maybe, we can start moving towards a conclusion: is the Cobbe Portrait really another posthumous portrait of Shakespeare, identifiable by the same pathological features which link the skull, the death mask, the Droeshout engraving, the Chandos Portrait and the Davenant Bust?  Was I entirely wrong to criticise the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for their insistence that the portrait is of Shakespeare?  Did I - in fact - commit the same crime against knowledge as they themselves have been committing, making snap judgements without examining the evidence?
These are questions that you can help me answer as we look more closely at the damage that was done to Shakespeare's face.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Beoley or Not Beoley

To the lovely church at Beoley, yesterday morning, on a beautiful day, to film a piece for BBC local news.

And what a piece!  Video-journalist Ben Sidwell did us proud, and the editorial team at BBC Midlands Today introduced the piece with a neat little summary of Shakespeare facts.  Naturally, BBC balance had to insist on words like "alleged" a lot, but they gave us a fantastic hearing, and I can't complain.  Very chuffed with it.  (And a big shout out to Lucy from BBC Hereford and Worcester local radio, who also came along for an interview!)

Why Beoley?  Well, because there's a spare skull down there in the crypt beneath the Sheldon family chapel at Beoley church.  And in the 1880s, the local vicar published a very detailed and descriptive story explaining that this extra skull is William Shakespeare's.

Understandably, perhaps, the Old Guard sought to puncture the story.  I don't know what was said at the interview in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, but the bit that made it into yesterday's news item was essentially this:

The vicar of Beoley in the 1880s - one Rev Charles Jones Langston - only made up his story about Shakespeare's skull because he wanted to raise money to refurbish his church.  It's a good story, but it isn't true: it was just a fundraising exercise.

We'll briefly pass over any questions of the integrity and honesty of 19th century clergymen (even though the excuse given by the Shakespeare cogniscenti does seem to cast grave aspersions on Rev Langston's honesty) and take a quick look at the facts.

Langston's story, How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found, was published in 1884.  The following year, he oversaw the restoration of his church at Beoley.  And then he effectively retired, moving to Bath and referring to himself as "formerly Vicar of Beoley".  So he certainly did have a hand in the refurbishment of Beoley Church, although he didn't hang around afterwards to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

Now - Langston's story was privately published and sold for one shilling a copy.  I've not been able to determine how many copies he managed to shift, or what the initial overheads might have been, but I doubt he made enough profit to pay for the costs of a major church restoration.  He might have raised a bit, but there are currently no indications that he had hit on a real moneyspinner.

More importantly, though, Langston published the first half of his story (entitled How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen) in October 1879, when he was nowhere near Beoley.  He was based in Kent at the time.

In other words, FIVE YEARS before he published the second half of his story, describing the discovery of the "VERITABLE SKULL OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE" in the crypt at Beoley, he published the whole set up - the supposed theft of Shakespeare's skull from its Stratford grave and the failure of the conspirators to return it.

It's stretching credulity just a little to argue that Rev C.J. Langston only published his story to raise money for Beoley church when he published the first half of that story five years earlier, at a time when he was the rector of another parish in a totally different part of the country!

We might also note that at no point in his finished story does Rev Langston mention Beoley by name.  His story - detailed as it is - merely drops heavy hints.  And he avoided identifying himself as the author, describing himself simply as "A Warwickshire Man".

He had gone to an awful lot of trouble - both before and after he moved to Beoley - to weave an intricate and intriguing tale about the theft and discovery of Shakespeare's skull, but then neglected to name the church or the parish in which it was found or the fact that he was now the vicar of that church and desperately needed money to refurbish the place.  None of that was immediately apparent from his published pamphlet.

Is that the best way to raise money for your church?  And would the sale of some privately-printed pamphlets at one shilling each make much of a dent in the refurbishment bill?  Especially if you forgot to mention the name or location of the church or that you were the vicar?

The fact is, nothing points to the Stratford mob having considered Langston's remarkable story at all.  Ever.  They've never looked.  They told themselves, "Oh, he was just trying to raise some money for Beoley church", and left it at that.

Even though the likelihood that he raised much money is pretty small;

Even though he'd already published the first part of his story five years earlier, when he lived in another part of the country;

Even though he never mentioned Beoley in his story;

Even though it would have been - ooh, what's the word? - a little bit morally reprehensible to go around inventing stories about missing skulls turning up in your church just to raise a few quid.  Not really what we would expect of a pillar of the Victorian establishment.

No: the claim that Langston only told his story about Shakespeare's skull because he wanted to raise a bit of money is very lazy thinking.  It's yer typical "we're not prepared to consider or investigate this, so here's a pat and not very well-thought-out reason to believe that we're right and everyone else is wrong" fob off.  To which the only real response is: "Must try harder."

Meanwhile, plugging Who Killed William Shakespeare? on bestofstratforduponavon website, the local view of Shakespeare manages to poke through the blanket of obfuscation and denial imposed on it by outsiders (who consider themselves Shakespeareans).  I quote:

Born in Stratford upon Avon and considered to be one of the world's greatest writers there has long been hints of controversy and conspiracy surrounding the Bard's death.  Stirling's book sets out to answer some of these questions and perhaps offer a few different explanations!

That's from no press release that I know of.  The remarks are essentially those of the local community - the people of Stratford - who have always known that the standard accounts of Shakespeare's death don't stack up.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Lost in Translation

My first paid commission as a writer was to adapt the libretto of a Danish comic opera into English.

It was an odd commission.  For a start, I don't speak Danish.  And I was at drama school at the time.  In fact, I was touring Holland and Belgium, playing in a different venue in a different town every night.  Didn't leave much time.

One thing I did insist on doing was replicating the rhyme scheme of the original Danish.  The other translations I was given hadn't even tried to do that.

Oh, and it was a comic opera.  So a gag or two seemed requisite.

Anyway, that little trip down Memory Boulevard was inspired by one of this week's niggling little problems: interpreting the old British poems which deal with Arthur.  It's not the first time I've grappled with some of these, and I doubt it'll be the last.

The image from China (above) illustrates the problem (I won't show you how a Chinese menu managed to render Crispy Fried Duck into English - suffice it to say that it was an alarming, though very amusing, image).  If you take a word from one language and spin it into another, something weird might happen.  The Book of Heroic Failures mentions the gloriously bizarre English-Portugese phrasebook produced by Pedro Carolino in 1883.  Pedro didn't speak English, so his useful phrases have a peculiar charm of their own. 

An example - his sample dialogue, "For to ride a horse", has as its opening gambit:

"Here is a horse who have bad looks.  Give me another.  I will not that.  He not sall how to march, he is pursy, he is foundered.  Don't you are ashamed to give me a jade as like? he is undshoed, he is with nails up". 

Which would surely mark you out as a tourist.  (And who could forget the wonderful English-language notes accompanying a production of Carmen, which included the dramatic chorus, "Toreador, toreador, oh for the balls of a toreador"?)

Great fun.  But a problem, too.  For even the most earnest of scholars can come a cropper when trying to translate something which belongs to another time and place.

In one of my chapters of The Grail, recently posted on the Moon Books blog, I included a few lines from the marvellous Y Gododdin poem of Aneirin (circa AD 600).  I gave the three lines in archaic Welsh, followed by Skene's 19th century translation of those lines, then a more general 20th century translation, then my own translation.

Before long, an argument had arisen.  I had done it all wrong, apparently, by departing from the text set down by my betters.  On one point, one of my interlocutors was absolutely right - I had wrongly transcribed one of the original Welsh words, which has since led to three days of obsessive research and revision to try and pin down the meaning of one word.

One word.  Three days.  About a dozen variants played with and discarded.  And this word (it's only four letters, by the way - ceni, if you must know) had already been translated in wildly different ways by acknowledged experts.

Well, I've finally come up with what I believe it meant, and that's gone into my manuscript of The Grail (but it's not online - you'll have to wait for the book).  But it was all a wonderful reminder of the great big problems of translation.

Context.  If you don't know the context in which the original words were created, you're not likely to get the meaning right when you convert them into modern English.

Mindset.  Language is not just words, it's a way of looking at, understanding and interpreting the world.  It's a means of expression, and what is expressed is how a person - and a culture - comprehends the world around them.  A different culture means a different way of perceiving and relating to the world.  They way they expressed their thoughts made sense to them: it might make no sense at all if you just alter those words to their nearest English equivalents.

You don't have to go back to Welsh poems from 6th century Britain to encounter these problems.  For the first twenty years of my research into William Shakespeare, I suffered from a major handicap: I didn't really enjoy reading or watching his plays.  No, I'll go further: I found them mind-bendingly obtuse, obscure, verbose and impenetrable.  Not much fun at all.

Reading a Shakespeare play (or going to see one) felt a bit like going to the dentist.  It would no doubt be a horrible experience, but I'd be the better for having submitted to it.

What was wrong wasn't me.  It was what I'd been taught about Shakespeare - or, rather, what I hadn't been taught.  No one had given me the vital key to understanding Shakespeare's writings (the key, by the way, is the Reformation).  Once I found that key, everything changed.  Now I can read a Shakespeare play for pleasure.  I find his work fascinating, lucid, hugely emotional, terrifying, disturbing and - most of all - relevant.  He's remarkably clear, once you get your head round the context (his world) and the mindset (how he saw it).

The poetry of Arthur's age has been persistently misinterpreted because the scholars who come to it know a fair deal about the language it's written in, but very little about the context (and, I often feel, next to nothing about the mindset).  But that's what makes working on these poems so fascinating.  Not only are you solving puzzles, but you're learning all the time about the world these people lived in and they way they saw it.

A "straight" translation tends to come across as gibberish, which is then re-interpreted through some modern idea of what people might have believed back then (for example, an excellent poem which describes Arthur's funeral has often been interpreted, somewhat crassly, as an account of a raid undertaken into the Otherworld to steal stuff).  But whether we're reading Shakespeare or trying to get our heads round what the major poets of Arthur's day were saying, the least we can do is listen to them.  Don't try to force an interpretation onto them (as so many directors do with Shakespeare, and so many critics have done).  Don't say, "This word means that.  It can only mean that.  There is no other possible meaning."  Listen to them.

It might take days.  Or weeks.  Or months.  Or years.  But the rewards can be amazing.  As if another person's world has suddenly opened up to you.  And you can see things as they saw them.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Counting Down ...

Just one week to go until the official launch of Who Killed William Shakespeare? at Waterstones on Stratford High Street (6pm, Saturday 24 August 2013).

It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate location for the event.  The books have arrived, and the lovely staff at Waterstones are already setting up the display (hope to post a photo of same right here very soon).  The press are stirring.  Let battle commence.

If you'd like to be there at the Grand Book Launch, please do email me ( because we're rather keen to keep track of numbers.

Right.  Onwards and upwards ...

Friday, 16 August 2013

Models of Reality

Arthur Ellison (1920-2000) was a distinguished scientist, Emeritus Professor of engineering at City University, London, and a dedicated researcher of what we might call the paranormal.

He once carried out an experiment, arranging for a bowl of flowers to rise up into the air during a lecture he was giving.  He made sure to pay it no attention, carrying on with his lecture as if nothing was happening.  Then, his lecture over, he invited questions from the students.

Some of the students present pointed out that, midway through the lecture, the flowers had risen up into the air.  Nothing more than that, just a (slightly puzzled) observation.

Some students claimed that they had seen "spirit hands" lifting the flowers.

And then there were some students who, it turned out, had seen nothing.  There had been no unexpected floral levitations during the lecture.  Everything was, and had been, completely normal.

A very interesting - and telling - experiment!

Let us look briefly at the three different kinds of reaction.

The sensible, realistic and (one might say) scientific response was that of the students who had seen it happen but who declined to impose any sort of explanation on the phenomenon of the self-raising flowers.  They had witnessed it, and presumably they questioned it.  "Something happened just then.  I saw it happen.  Did you?  I don't know how or why it happened, but happen it did.  Just an observation.  Can anyone explain it?"

At first glance, the silliest response was that of the students who reckoned they'd witnessed some kind of spiritualist display.  There were no "spirit hands" involved.  The students had made that up.  We can think of them as the overly credulous sort - the kind who seek an exotic, reassuring explanation for anything.

But - think about it - was that reaction any sillier than the response of those who refused to admit that anything had happened?  Every student in the lecture theatre had seen the flowers rise up.  But some just refused to accept that they flowers had moved at all.  It's as if their brains had filtered it out of their consciousness.  Flowers don't spontaneously take to the air of their own volition; ergo, they didn't.

Rather than admit that something had happened - which required some sort of (preferably rational) explanation - these students simply denied that anything had happened.

Professor Ellison came to the conclusion that we all inhabit different "models of reality".  These are formed from birth onwards, and they affect every aspect of our experience and behaviour in the world.

These "models of reality" also explain why certain scholars and academics refuse to consider any evidence which challenges their preconceived notions.

On a couple of the Arthur-related websites with which I am familiar, there is a sort of resident intellectual bully.  When any question is asked, he tends to deliver a flat, unequivocal statement, often of the sweeping variety, and very often with little or no evidence to back up his judgement.  The result is that perfectly innocent and reasonable queries frequently receive answers which are, at the very least, misleading.  But this individual will brook no challenge.  His authority (in his own eyes, at least) is beyond question.  If he says it, it must be so.  His word is the law.

If you question him further, providing evidence in support of your argument, he quickly descends to abuse.  His main weapon is ridicule.  To put it in simple terms, if his first "I know everything, you know nothing" answer doesn't end the debate, then he gets a little peevish.  Very peevish, in fact.

Like many an academic, he veers towards the "I saw no flowers move" end of the spectrum.  Now, naturally, Arthur-related discussions do tend to attract a fair number of those who saw "spirit hands" at work - that is, people capable of dreaming up rather far-fetched explanations for this, that and the other.  But every now and then, an "I saw the flowers move" type of question comes along.  And our irascible friend instantly tries to shoot the issue down.  "No flowers moved!" he effectively yells.  "Flowers don't move!"

"I saw it.  It happened."

And then things start getting abusive.

This, my friends, is precisely how proper, open and free debate is stifled, smothered, by individuals who flaunt their credentials and use them like a cudgel.  It doesn't make them right (indeed, they're often very, very wrong), but they have decided what they believe and absolutely insist that everybody else must believe the same.  And when the flowers rise up into the air, such demagogues go into damage-limitation mode: "You're an idiot if you think you saw flowers rising up into the air!"

But rise they did.

Whether such people simply can't see the evidence before their eyes - their "model of reality" preventing their brains from even acknowledging that such evidence exists - or whether they are so committed to preserving their "model of reality", and imposing it on others, that they will defend it regardless, the outcome is the same.  If you don't accept their sweeping statements, you're a loon, no matter how much evidence you can produce to prove them wrong.

This attitude is poisoning the political debate, frustrating the pursuit of historical research, preventing understanding, damaging the future.  But it's the way things are done these days.  If you can't prove your point, make false claims, shout and scream, hurl abuse and play the man, not the ball.  You might not win the intellectual argument, but you'll convince a few, and only those who know for a fact that they saw the flowers move - and refuse to be bullied into pretending that they didn't - will stand up to you in future.

Maybe.  Then again, they might just wander off, intent on investigating why the flowers rose up into the air, leaving you to keep preaching to your little flock of "I didn't see them move either" acolytes.

Ask yourself: if you saw the flowers move, how would you react?

Would your "model of reality" allow you to admit what your eyes had seen?  Or would you attack and ridicule those who were honest enough to say that they saw the flowers move, even if they're not sure how it happened?

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Macbeth Died Today

He wasn't as bad as he's made out to be.

In fact, Macbethad son of Findlaech was one of Scotland's most successful kings.  He reigned for 17 years and was the first Scottish king to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, 'scattering money like seed' on the way, which can only have meant that his kingdom was safe enough for him to absent himself from it for two years.

He did not murder his predecessor, King Duncan, in a treacherous bedroom incident.  Duncan was a useless king, defeated by Macbeth in open battle.

Seventeen years later, on 15 August 1057, Duncan's son Malcolm slew Macbeth in the battle of Lumphanan in Mar.  The 'Red King', as the Prophecy of Berchan described him, was buried on the Isle of Iona - or, as Shakespeare put it:

'Carried to Colmekill,
The sacred storehouse of his predecessors,
And guardian of their bones.'

The Prophecy of Berchan offers a wholly different view of Macbeth from the one we're used to:

The Red King will take the kingdom ... the ruddy-faced, yellow-haired, tall one, I shall be joyful in him.  Scotland will be brimful, in the west and in the east, during the reign of the furious Red One.

Which raises the question, why do we imagine him to have been a murderous tyrant?

Fiona Watson, in her 'True History' of Macbeth, suggests that it started with the Church.  For reasons to do with establishing the right of succession, the medieval Church chose to blacken Macbeth's name (it wouldn't be the first time, or the last, the Church rewrite history to suit its agenda).  But the blame should also lie at Shakespeare's door.

Although ... Shakespeare seldom, if ever, wrote history as History.  Take his famous portrayal of Richard III: it's hardly accurate, in strictly historical terms, but it served the purposes of Tudor propaganda, because in order to strengthen their rather dubious claim to the throne, the Tudors (Henry VII through Elizabeth I) found it expedient to misrepresent King Richard as a deformed monster.

If anything, though, Shakespeare's Richard 'Crookback' is more a portrait of Sir Robert Cecil, second son of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, Lord Treasurer, chief minister and most trusted advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.  Robert Cecil matched Shakespeare's depiction of Richard III to a tee - he was stunted, dwarfish, hunchbacked and splay-footed:

Backed like a lute case,
Bellied like a drum,
Like jackanapes on horseback
Sits little Robin Thumb

in the words of a popular rhyme of the day.

Cecil also conformed to Shakespeare's presentation of Richard III's personality - feverishly industrious, devilishly devious, two-faced and dangerous, the younger Cecil fitted the description.  He was groomed by his father to take over as Elizabeth's most trusted secretary, and her successor became utterly dependent on him, much to the nation's distress.

That successor was, of course, King James VI of Scotland, who liked to trace his ancestry back to Macbeth's legendary companion, Banquo.

Shakespeare, however, recognised him as a true 'son' (Gaelic mac) of [Eliza]beth.  He was every bit as unprincipled and intolerant as Elizabeth had been, and after appealing to James's conscience in several pointed plays (Hamlet through to Othello), Shakespeare finally gave up on the Scottish monarch.

The last straw was the execution of Father Henry Garnet, superior of the Society of Jesus in England, in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot.  Shakespeare took this as the inspiration for the opening scenes of his Tragedy of Macbeth, with the saintly Garnet taking the role of King Duncan and James himself characterised as the once-noble Macbeth ('Son of Beth'), whose lust for power turned him into a 'bloody tyrant', a 'butcher' with 'hangman's hands'.

So Shakespeare's portrait of Macbeth had little to do with the original - who died on this day 956 years ago - and much to do with the reigning king, James I of England and VI of Scotland.

Time, you might say, for Macbeth to be rehabilitated - like King Richard III, in fact, who wasn't that bad either.

And while we're at it, maybe we should acknowledge that Shakespeare's historical characters weren't necessarily based on the originals, but on the dangerous, treacherous, self-serving and deceitful men of power of his own day.

(Plenty more on this, folks, in Who Killed William Shakespeare - get hold of your copy now, before everyone jumps on the bandwagon!!)

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Anne Whateley

We've known for a long, long time that William Shakespeare somehow received permission to marry two women.

On Tuesday, 27 November 1582, the consistory court of the Diocese of Worcester issued a special licence allowing 'Willelmum Shakpere' to wed 'Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton'.

Shakespeare was aged just 18 at the time.  He was, therefore, a minor, theoretically dependent on his father's permission to take a wife.  The special licence was needed because the Advent season was fast approaching, when the Church forbade weddings.

The very next day - Wednesday, 28 November 1582 - two Stratford farmers, friends of the late Richard Hathaway of Shottery, made the 40-mile round trip to Worcester and laid down a substantial bond of £40 to ensure that Will Shakespeare married 'Anne Hathwey of Stratford ... maiden'.  The bond was required to indemnify the Bishop of Worcester against any legal problems arising from this marriage.

Shakespeare, of course, married Anne Hathaway, who was anything but a 'maiden' at that time (she gave birth to their first daughter six months later).  So who was 'Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton' - the first woman Shakespeare was given the bishop's permission to marry?

The official line, laid down by Professor Samuel Schoenbaum, is that she didn't exist.  There was a William Whateley, vicar of Crowle, at the consistory court that day, and the dozy clerk simply muddled up the names of 'Whateley' and 'Hathaway'.  So, nothing to see here, move along please ...

Only it isn't that simple.  For a start, the 'it was all a clerical error' argument always makes me suspicious whenever a historian advances it.  The sense I get is that, basically, we don't know the answer to this one, so we'll assume somebody got it wrong.  (There's a similar claim that the island of Ioua became 'Iona' in the 18th century because someone couldn't tell the difference between the letters 'u' and 'n' - that argument doesn't wash either.)

All the same, Sam Schoenbaum's insistence that 'Anne Whateley' was just a slip of the pen has dominated the matter for years.  We must all believe, apparently, that there never was an Anne Whateley.

Quite how the clerk also managed to mistake 'Stratford' for 'Temple Grafton', which is four miles away from Shakespeare's hometown, is never explained.

Well, as I explain in Who Killed William Shakespeare?, Anne Whateley did exist.

Pictured above is the first page of the Ultimo testimentii John Whateley de Hendeley in Ardena.  John Whateley was a draper of Henley in Arden, eight miles north of Stratford.  His will was probated in 1554 - ten years before Will Shakespeare was born.

Named in Whateley's will are his five sons and four daughters.  One was George Whateley, a woollen draper based in Stratford-upon-Avon.  George Whateley served on the Stratford Corporation with Will Shakespeare's father; he married his second wife in Stratford in May 1582, just a few months before John Shakespeare emerged for his self-imposed seclusion to vote against Whateley becoming the bailiff or mayor of Stratford.

George Whateley was a Catholic: he funded two of his brothers, John and Robert, to work as underground priests in Henley (the first of these had previously been vicar of Crowle; he resigned his post and left the Church of England, allowing William Whateley - his more conformist nephew - to take over).

John Whateley's will also names 'Agnes my daughter', who was still living with her mother when the will was drafted, and so was probably unmarried - and possibly very young - at the time.  There is a clue in the will as to who might have been the godmother of Agnes Whateley: one Agnes Fairefox of Barford, a few miles upriver from Stratford.

The names 'Anne' and 'Agnes' (pronounced 'Ann-es') were used interchangeably.  Anne Hathaway was named in her father's will as 'Agnes', and so it is a near certainty that the Agnes named in John Whateley's will would also have been known as Anne Whateley.

What this tells us is that there was an Anne Whateley in the Stratford area.  She was the sister of one of the colleagues of Shakespeare's father, who was also a near-neighbour to the Shakespeares.

Stratford tradition has long held that Anne Whateley resided in Hillborough Manor - 'haunted Hillborough' - which fell inside the parish of Temple Grafton.  Like so many a jilted bride, she lived on as a ghostly 'White Lady', a designation which might also indicate that she was an Augustinian nun.

Nuns were forbidden in Elizabethan England.  But then, so were priests - and two of Agnes's brothers worked secretly as priests in Henley in Arden.  It is possible that Anne or Agnes kept up the family tradition and served as a secret nun in the secluded manor of Hillborough.  The manor house belonged to the Huband family (Shakespeare would buy land off Ralph Huband in 1605), while the manor itself was in the hands of the ardently Catholic Sheldon family of Beoley.

It is interesting to note that Shakespeare, in his curious poem A Lover's Complaint, indicated that one of his early achievements had been to seduce a 'sacred nun', a 'sister sanctified of holiest note'.  It is also noteworthy that John Aubrey wrote, later in the 17th century, that Shakespeare left '2 or 300 pounds per annum to a sister' in his native county.  No such amount is mentioned in Shakespeare's will - and nothing like 2-300 pounds was left to his only surviving sibling, Joan Hart - so maybe there was another kind of 'sister' (an Augustinian 'White Lady', perhaps) to whom Shakespeare left a generous bequest.

The Sheldon link between Temple Grafton and Beoley is of major importance - for it was to Beoley that Shakespeare's skull was taken (see Who Killed William Shakespeare?, and it is also at Beoley that we come across some very intriguing Whateley connections!

So - Anne Whateley did exist.  She was not just a slip of the pen.

Now scholars will have to come up with a new explanation for why the young William Shakespeare was granted permission, on consecutive days, to marry two different women - and why pressure was put on him to marry Anne Hathway, when he was already contracted to marry his 'sacred nun'.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Arthur, the Grail, and Independence

It seems that next year's Scottish independence referendum, timed to take place in the 700th anniversary year of the Battle of Bannockburn, has been inspiring film makers.

Two projects - both about William Wallace - are in the pipeline; one, I believe, by Scottish Television, and the other by Sir Ridley Scott.

And why not?  It's a great story, and even if Mel Gibson's Braveheart played fast and loose with historical facts, it makes a great film.  We'll not make too much, at the stage, of the fact that the name Wallace derives from the same Anglo-Saxon root - wealas, meaning 'foreigner' - as 'Welsh', so that whatever his Scottish ancestry, William Wallace was actually a Welshman, a Briton.

But then, maybe we should celebrate Wallace's Welsh - i.e., British - roots.  After all, his heroic attempts to free his country from foreign (English) oppression came a full 700 years after an earlier Briton - who was also a Scot - fought so hard to stop the original English from taking over the Island of Britain.

That earlier hero was Arthur, and if you think he wasn't of Scottish blood - if you think he cannot have been a Scottish prince - then you've been brainwashed by propaganda.  To put it very simply, the English stole the cultural heritage of the Scots (and the 'Welsh' Britons) and pretended that it belonged to them.  It's as if the Brits decided that they liked the story of Shaka Zulu so much, they insisted on rewriting it in such a way as to make out that Shaka was born in Surrey.

If I might crib from the notes I made for my talk at Pagan Pride the other weekend:

King Arthur is a medieval myth.  There never was a 'King' Arthur - the word 'king' didn't exist when Arthur was around.  The earliest native sources refer to him as ymerawdwr, a Welsh variant of imperator or 'emperor'.  The idea that he was a 'king' didn't come till much later, along with the preposterous claims that he was a 'Christian' and that he was buried at Glastonbury.  Just one lie after another, I'm afraid, and mostly emanating from the medieval Church.

In fact, when the Cistercians gained a foothold in Scotland, alongside the Knights Templar, they began to rewrite the Grail stories with more than a few references to Scotland.  Those references were later exchanged for 'Glastonbury' by propagandists working for the Benedictines, who were the Cistercians' main rivals.

The first Arthur on record was a Scot.  Well over 100 years before the first 'recognised' reference to Arthur - in the History of the Britons (circa AD 829) - the Life of St Columba by Adomnan of Iona referred to a son of the then King of the Scots, Aedan mac Gabrain.  This son was called Artur or Artuir, and he was destined to die in battle.  The Irish annals indicate that he died in about 594, fighting against the Picts of Angus.

What is more, the early British literature abounds with references to Arthur in a northern context.  There is, for example, Aneirin's Y Gododdin poem (circa AD 600), which is regularly mistranslated by scholars in order to make it appear that Arthur wasn't involved in Aneirin's catastrophic battle in North Britain.  There are also the poems of Taliesin, the Chief Bard of Britain, who flourished in the second half of the sixth century, primarily in North Britain, and wrote of Arthur as a contemporary.  Taliesin, like Aneirin, also praised certain conteemporaries of Artur mac Aedain, such as Peredur - i.e. Perceval; Owain - i.e. Yvain; Cynon - i.e. 'Kentigern'; and various others.

The poems of Myrddin Wyllt - later identified as 'Merlin' - belong to North Britain in the late-sixth century.  The individuals named in medieval lists of the Pedwar Marchog ar Hugain Llys Arthur ('The 24 Horsemen of the Court of Arthur') were predominantly sixth-century figures based in North Britain, as are the individuals encountered in one of the earliest ecclesiastical sources to mention Arthur (Caradog of Llancarfan's Life of St Cadog - Cadog having been one of Arthur's knights), and the battles cited as Arthur's 12 great victories in the History of the Britons can all be traced to locations in Scotland, several to historically-attested battles involving the family and contemporaries of Artur mac Aedain.

I could go on.  In fact, I am - in The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion, which is exploding the silly medieval myths about cups of the Last Supper and Arthur hanging around Glastonbury (or you could try The King Arthur Conspiracy, which has been praised by those who came to it without prejudice and preconceptions).  But for now, the point is this:

Only English racism (sorry; let's say "nationalism", along with a touch of "xenophobia", a dash of "imperialism" and a healthy dose of "superiority complex") continues to try to pin Arthur and his legends to southern Britain.  Only English racism - and Christian dishonesty - continues to insist that he must have been a fifth-century warlord of the south ... even though not a single shred of evidence has ever appeared to indicate who such an Arthur might have been.

Most of them refuse even to discuss THE FIRST ARTHUR ON RECORD, and when pushed will come up with some ludicrous gobbledegook along the lines of: "Well, Arthur son of Aedan - the first Arthur to appear in any literary source - MUST have been named after an earlier, decidedly more English Arthur, about whom we know absolutely nothing."  You've got to be pretty far gone if you have to make claims like "the earliest on record must have been named after someone even earlier who probably didn't exist".  But this is the reason why scholars persist in mistranslating the relevant lines in Aneirin's elegaic Y Gododdin poem - anything to hide the glaringly simple fact that Arthur was a sixth-century prince of the North.

Even Geoffrey of Monmouth, who cobbled together the nonsense about Arthur at Tintagel in Cornwall - even he knew that Arthur had fought at Dumbarton, and around Loch Lomond, and that he met his end fighting against 'Scots, Picts and Irish ... some of them pagans and some Christians.'

Artur mac Aedain died fighting against the Picts (and others).  Before long, I'll be explaining what the Pictish symbol stones of Angus can tell us about that battle.  According to the Irish annals, the battle was fought in 'Circin' - that is, Circenn, the Pictish province we now know as Angus.

Circenn - from cir, a 'comb', and cenn, 'heads'.  The Picts of Circenn modelled their appearance on the boar, and shaved their heads in such a way as to mimic a boar's crest or 'comb'.

Of course, we all know that 'King' Arthur died fighting at Camlann.  But where was 'Camlann'?

Well, much of southern and central Scotland was invaded by the Germanic Angles, once Arthur had been destroyed.  So that by the seventh century, a great part of Scotland was speaking a Germanic tongue.  This evolved separately from English to become the 'dialect' known as Lowland Scots.

Hence, Camlann - from cam, a Scots word meaning 'comb', and lann or laan, a Scots word meaning 'land'.  And - surprise, surprise - the Pictish standing stones of 'Comb-Land' even show us images of the Grail and the death of Arthur's queen (who was buried, as the Scots have maintained for centuries, close to the site of the last battle).

Arthur was killed in the land of the 'Comb-Heads', otherwise the 'Comb-Land' or Camlann.  And he died desperately trying to defend his people - the Scots, and the Britons of the North - against the encroaching Angles.  The very people who, many years later, would steal his legend and pretend that it was theirs.

So, two major productions about William Wallace in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum.  Not necessarily a bad thing.

But one of them, at least, should have been about Arthur - a true Scottish hero, betrayed by generation after generation of Englishmen.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Extras (2)

I found this while wandering down Internet Lane the other night.

Click on the link below and then scroll down to "Will's Treason" by yours truly.  That'll take you to three sample chapters from what could be considered an early draft of Who Killed William Shakespeare?

These chapters were uploaded onto the Authonomy website in 2009.  Other writers from around the world were able to read the chapters and then post their comments.  I never took these chapters down, so the comments still exist.  Somehow or other, "Eponymous Rox" found the chapters and linked to them on her (his?) website - et voila!!

Think of this, if you will, as a sort of taster.  Or, in the spirit of the DVD extra (see previous post), as a sort of demo recording for the future album.

There, now.  Don't say I'm not treating you!

(Oh, and my folks dropped by earlier today, so I was able to present them with a signed copy of the book, which is dedicated to them both.  Nice feeling.)

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Extras (1)

I'm conscious that, in this day and age, DVDs and even CDs tend to come with a range of "extras".

You know the sort of thing: deleted scenes, director's commentary, original theatrical trailer ...

So, in the spirit of modern marketing, I've decided to celebrate the publication of Who Killed William Shakespeare? by posting a couple of "extras" here on the blog.

First up - if you have a few readies to spare, why not treat yourself, or someone you love, to a limited edition bronze bust of the Bard himself?  Each one of these items is named after one of Will's plays (thereby limiting the number in existence), so each one is entirely unique.

Click below to visit the SHAKESPEARE ART website.  It's a family thing: I've got my Art and Will site, while my brother has his Shakespeare Art site, with a whole gallery of original artworks pertaining to Shakespeare's Warwickshire.  Why not have a browse?

Monday, 5 August 2013

Book of the Month

Nobody's seen it, yet - but Who Killed William Shakespeare? has already been recommended as a Book of the Month:

Just thought I'd share that with you (*smiley face*)

The Grail - Arthur and Merlin

I expect to post a blog or two very soon about the Pagan Pride festival this past weekend.  Both about the day itself - which was lovely - and a short of precis of the hour-long talk I gave on the subject of "Arthur and the Grail", based on the notes I'd made beforehand, and which I proceeded to ignore when I got caught up in the excitement of the moment.

It's turning out to be quite an exciting time.  Today I had confirmation that the hardback first edition of Who Killed William Shakespeare? has made it from the printers to the distribution depot, so it's pretty much out there.

And Moon Books have just uploaded the latest instalment of my book on The Grail, which you can read here:

As usual, the chapter comes complete with the latest eyecatching interpretation from the skilful hand of Lloyd Canning (who now has a Facebook page for his artwork - look up "Lloyd Canning's Art").

So it's all happening - and lots more yet to come!  I'll do my level best to keep you posted.