Monday, 9 September 2013
Flodden Field, or: Arthur's Ghost (again)
Towards the very end of The King Arthur Conspiracy I refer to this battle and, in particular, to a curious incident which took place beforehand.
James IV was probably the last Gaelic speaker to rule over Scotland. Legends tell of him disguising himself in order to mingle with the ordinary citizens and find out what their lives were really like - something which William Shakespeare seems to have picked up on and reminded James VI of Scotland and I of England when he wrote Measure for Measure (the Duke in that play is clearly based on King James; Shakespeare apparently wanted to draw his sovereign's attention to what a popular monarch his predecessor had been).
The fourth King James of Scotland was also rather chivalrous. This proved to be his downfall. He gave King Henry VIII of England a couple of weeks notice that he was about to invade. Which was very decent of him. But it meant that the English were prepared. The chivalry, it would seem, went only one way.
Just before he set out to meet his destiny on an English battlefield in 1513, James IV went to church in Linlithgow. Sometime later, George Sinclair, professor of philosophy at the University of Glasgow, described what happened there.
The king was "at his Devotions" when an "Ancient Man came in, his Amber coloured Hair hanging down upon his Shoulders, his forehead high, and inclining to Baldness, his Garments of Azure colour, somewhat long, girded about with a Towel, or Table-Napkin, of a Comely and very Reverend Aspect."
The "Ancient Man" approached the king and addressed him thus:
"Sir, I am sent hither to entreat you, to delay your Expedition for this time, and to proceed no further in your intended journey: for if you do, you shall not prosper in your enterprise, nor any of your followers. I am further charged to warn you, not to use the acquaintance, company, or counsel of women, as you tender your honour, life, and estate."
Naturally, the bystanders were intrigued by this person and many were eager to speak with him after the service. But the "apparition" disappeared, "having in a manner vanished in their hands".
The "apparition" clearly cut a striking figure. The description of the Ancient Man's hair seems authentic enough: the high forehead, "inclining to Baldness", with the hair flowing long at the back of the head, is instantly reminiscent of the Druidic tonsure, which was also adopted by the early Christians of the Celtic Church. In contrast to the Roman tonsure of St Peter (the familiar shaved crown of the medieval monk), the Celts shaved their foreheads from ear to ear; the hair at the back of the head was allowed to grow long.
The lengthy "Azure" garments are also reminiscent of an early-5th century description of the Ancient Britons. The court poet Claudian described a personified Britain as wearing the skin of some Caledonian [i.e. Scottish] beast, "her cheeks tattooed, and an azure cloak, rivalling the swell of ocean, sweeping to her feet".
So this phantom "Ancient Man" was ... well, pretty ancient, really. And, as I suggest in my book on the original Arthur, he was possibly still trying to defend his homeland and his people against the English, just as Arthur himself had striven to hold back the tide of the Anglian advance. Even his remarks about trusting women have a poignancy about them (Arthur, his comrades and his people, were ultimately ruined by the perfidy of a woman - namely, his wife).
We'll never know, of course. But I do find it telling that the last Gaelic-speaking King of Scotland, and the last British monarch to die in battle, was warned by an "Ancient Man" not to put himself so recklessly in jeopardy. A Gaelic-speaking war-lord who also died in battle, perhaps? One who returned from the spirit world because the same fatal mistakes were about to be made?
But he was ignored. And on 9 September 1513, King James's army of 30,000 Scots was routed at the Battle of Flodden Field. The "rent surcoat of the King of Scots stained with blood" was sent to King Henry VIII as a trophy.
Nearly a thousand years had passed since Arthur fell victim to similar circumstances. King James really should have heeded his ancestor.