The Future of History

Monday, 1 December 2014

THE GRAIL ... Coming Soon!!!

A sneak preview, friends, of The Grail, coming soon from Moon Books.

Publication in March 2015.

Looking good, isn't it?

I've set up a Facebook page for the new book (click on "Facebook page" to go straight to it) and I'll keep you updated as the launch date draws nearer.

Meantime, work proceeds on Shakespeare's Son - my "Life of Sir William Davenant" - which has been keeping me pretty busy.  And hoping to have some interesting news pretty soon regarding Shakespeare's skull.

Plenty more to come, folks!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Pagan Pages

Just been told that an interview with me is now up on the website.

So, with thanks to Mabh Savage, I give you ... The Pagan Pages Interview with Author Simon Stirling.  I think it's a good one.


Monday, 27 October 2014

The Faces of Shakespeare

Morning, all!

I'll be on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire local radio this morning, talking about the story of Shakespeare's skull.  There have been developments in that arena, but I can't go public with them just yet.

HOWEVER ... Goldsmiths, University of London, have just published their GLITS e-journal for the past year, and my illustrated paper on The Faces of Shakespeare - Revealing Shakespeare's Life and Death through Portraits and Other Objects is the second item on the menu.

Here's the link to my paper in the Goldsmiths GLITS journal.

More to come later.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Matter of Scotland

The Scottish Statesman, a new online newspaper for Scotland, launched today.

Here's my first contribution.  It's about Arthur in Scotland, and the English approach to history.

More news to come ...

Monday, 15 September 2014

That Eureka Moment

Here's me - in some very distinguished company - helping to celebrate The History Vault's first year of fantastic activity.

Really glad to have been part of it.

Here's the link - please click and read.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Gunpowder Treason - a 400 Year Old Lie

96 people died at the Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989.  Even as the full scale of the disaster was becoming apparent, the authorities - police, politicians, the press - were concocting a story about it.  It was all caused by drunken football fans, they said.  Those same fans had picked the pockets of the dead and urinated on the paramedics who were trying to help.

We now know that that story was a pack of lies, although it took more than two decades for the truth to come out.  But what had happened was a political elite, composed of extremists, had cooked up and spun a false yarn designed to demonise a perceived enemy.  That enemy was, (a) football fans, who were seen as hooligans, and (b) the people of Liverpool, who remained obstinately opposed to the socio-economic insanity of Thatcherism.  The disaster provided an excuse for the State to denigrate those who seemed unable to fight back while, at the same time, covering up its own incompetence.

So what has that got to do with the Gunpowder Plot?

Well, we now know the truth about Hillsborough, 25 years ago, and few commentators would have the gall to repeat the lies told by the police and the government back then.  We do not, however, know the truth about the "powder treason", 409 years ago, because historians insist on repeating the lies.

The Radio Times reports that BBC2 has "just given the green light to Gunpowder 5/11: the Greatest Terror Plot".  "It's a total retelling," says the writer, "which uses the interrogation of Fawkes's number three, Thomas Winter, who gave away the whole story."

Okay, before we go any further ...

Fawkes was not the ringleader.  That was Robert Catesby.  Guy Fawkes was essentially a hired hand.  Arguably, Thomas Wintour was Catesby's number three.  But did he give away the whole story?

"We restage the interrogation and get inside the plot, which was huge", continues the writer, Adam Kemp, breathlessly.  Restage the interrogation, hunh?  That'll be interesting.  I can only assume we will mention the fact that Thomas Wintour had been shot in the shoulder when he and his comrades were finally cornered by a local posse.  Whether he would have been capable of composing his ten-page confession in neat handwriting is open to doubt.  But the signature on the confession - a rather bold "Thomas Winter" - wasn't his own.  He spelled his name "Wintour".

Note that Adam Kemp referred to "Thomas Winter".  He's using the name used by the Jacobean government, not the individual whose name it actually was.  Which means that his "total retelling" will, in all probability, be exactly the same version of events as that which was cooked up at the time by government ministers.  It won't be a "total retelling" at all.  Just another re-tread.

He goes on: "They would have got everyone under one roof, the royal family and the entire governing elite and bishops.  There is truly nothing that can come close.  It really was big,"

Yes, it was.  It would have been enormous.  If it had happened.  And yet, truth be told, there never was even the slightest risk that the king and his lords would be blown to smithereens.  Not a chance in hell.

Let's start with the gunpowder.  It was sourced from the Tower of London, where the government (which had the monopoly on gunpowder) kept its supply under the supervision of Sir George Carew.  Carew, a government insider, had just become Baron Carew of Clopton.  He somehow managed to let Clopton House, his estate just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, to the gunpowder plotters.  Nobody seems to have thought that was odd.  But the government resolutely blocked an investigation into how the gunpowder had been removed from the Tower.

How much gunpowder was there?  Good question.  A credible source said one barrel.  Guy Fawkes confessed to secreting twenty barrels in the Parliament building.  Sir Robert Cecil, who knew more about the plot than anybody, wrote of there having been 34 barrels.  The figure eventually settled on was 36 barrels.

So nobody was quite sure how much gunpowder had been involved, and no explanation was ever given for its mysterious disappearance from the government's store.  A large quantity of gunpowder was returned to the Tower a couple of days after Fawkes's arrest and was registered as "decayed".  Its constituent elements had separated.  It would never have blown up anything, let alone the royal family and entire governing elite.  There wouldn't even have been a puff!

Reliable witnesses saw the real ringleaders - Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy - emerging from Sir Robert Cecil's house in the early hours of the morning, just days before the plot was discovered.  That's like the perpetrators of the 7/7 London bombings being spotted sneaking out of 10 Downing Street a few days before they detonated their rucksacks on crowded tubes and buses (except, of course, that the gunpowder plotters explosives were "decayed" and weren't going to blow up).  Thomas Percy himself was a government insider, in the king's service at the time.  His job was to make sure that the plot proceeded and to implicate his kinsman, the Earl of Northumberland, whom Sir Robert Cecil has sworn to destroy.

Catesby, on the other hand, spent much of the year leading up to the plot's discovery trying to trick Father Henry Garnet into condoning the plot.  The government repeatedly delayed the opening of Parliament so that Catesby would have more time to incriminate Garnet.  Catesby was aided in his attempts to entrap Garnet by William Parker, Lord Monteagle.  Monteagle was eventually credited with exposing the plot and rewarded handsomely - every mention of him in the plotters' confessions was redacted.  Both Catesby and Percy, who had engineered the plot, were killed, rather than taken alive, on the instructions of Sir Robert Cecil.

The simple fact is that the Gunpowder Plot never really was.  True, some of its members were ardent Catholics who joined what they believed would be a blow for freedom.  But the main players were government stooges (William Shakespeare - who was alarmingly close to the events - made this clear in his plays, Macbeth and Coriolanus).  In other words, the Gunpowder Plot was pretty much the same as every other plot of its time.  These supposed "plots" were "discovered" on a more-or-less annual basis, and they all followed the same pattern - a good example being the Babington Plot of 1586.  A Catholic patsy was lured into a fake conspiracy by government agents, who then "discovered" the plot which they themselves had manufactured.  There was massive publicity, and the Protestant extremists at the heart of the government got to enact the policies which they'd been hankering to put into place: the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots - a Catholic contender for the English throne - or the execution of Father Henry Garnet, Superior of the Jesuits in England.

The constant repetition of the government's lies about the Gunpowder Plot is an offense to history.  It amounts to a 400-year propaganda campaign, and it speaks volumes that British historians would rather regurgitate the falsehoods about Catholic militancy than investigate the truth about Protestant duplicity.

The Gunpowder Plot is more than just an iconic incident-that-didn't-happen.  It led to the English Civil War; John Pym and John Milton were obsessed with it.  Like so many others in those paranoid times, they had swallowed the lies spouted by the likes of Sir Robert Cecil (for his own personal gain).  So successful were the propagandists in broadcasting the cooked-up story of the Gunpowder Plot, it fuelled the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the fanatics for decades.  Arguably, it continues to fuel our irrational fears of some nefarious, fanatical "enemy within" which is "out to get us" because it "hates our freedom".  That sort of nonsense has been doing the rounds since the Gunpowder Plot, and it's precisely why the plot was invented.  Fear is a useful tool of government.

Historians repeat the Gunpowder Plot lie for a simple reason.  Englishness has always been difficult to define.  It's easier to explain what being "English" means in terms of what it is not - Catholic, Jewish, Irish, Scottish, French, etc. - than in terms of what it is.  That is why the English lay claim to a "tolerance" and a sense of "fair play" which they so seldom exhibit.  If they were honest with themselves, they'd have to say that the simplest way to be "English" is to hate, fear and abuse anyone who isn't.  But that problem created its own national myth, embroidered by generations of Whig historians anxious to justify every atrocity and outrage of our past as a necessary part of our Manifest Destiny.  The State had to persecute Catholics because the Catholics wanted to blow up the State (even though they never did; never actually came close).  To be English is to be Protestant.  The Catholics were, ipso facto, the enemy - like those football supporters who died at Hillsborough.  They were "not on our side", so they could be slandered.

It really is time to put the lie of the Gunpowder Plot to bed.  And I doubt very much indeed that the BBC's Gunpowder 5/11: the Greatest Terror Plot will even try to do that.  No.  Just going by the title alone, it seems most likely that it'll be yet another repetition of the old, old lie, designed to excuse the most vicious persecution of English citizens who happened to be Catholic. 

Such a slavish acceptance and repetition of past propaganda isn't history, though.  It's telling fairy tales for political purposes.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The X Factor

I treated myself, the other day.  I bought a copy of Allan Campbell McLean's The Hill of the Red Fox.

It must be 35 years since I borrowed that book from my local library in Birmingham.  Time spent on holiday in Scotland had planted a deep-rooted fascination, bordering on thirst, for all things Scottish.  The Hill of the Red Fox, which sits comfortably alongside Stevenson's Kidnapped and Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps, was one of the stories which allowed me to keep in touch, as it were, with western Scotland when I was back home in the West Midlands.  It also inspired my interest in the Gaelic language (there is a little glossary of Gaelic terms in the back, and this fascinated me as a kid - the Gaelic has a dignity, a romance, and a connection with nature that English seldom matches).  When the chance arose, I opted to take Gaelic Studies at the University of Glasgow, largely because of the glossaries I had previously found in such books as The Hill of the Red Fox.

Rooting around a charity bookshop in Evesham, a day or two after I'd read The Hill of the Red Fox, I came across an old copy of another novel by Allan Campbell McLean.  The Year of the Stranger.  I'm reading it now.

Like The Hill of the Red Fox, it's set on the Isle of Skye.  But whereas the former novel takes place during the Cold War 1950s and involves espionage, murder and nuclear secrets (all grist to my adolescent mill, back in the late 70s), The Year of the Stranger takes place in the Victorian era.  And it paints a perfectly clear picture of the gross injustices of aristocratic rule in the Highlands and Islands.

There's a referendum coming up.  The people of Scotland have a choice - do they want independence, or are they anxious to remain in the United Kingdom?  I don't have a vote, although I wish I did.  The vote will take place the day before my 12th wedding anniversary.  I married a woman who is half-Scots.  We were married on the Isle of Iona.  I can think of no more exciting anniversary present than a resounding YES to Scottish independence.

There are many, many reasons why it's a good idea.  Some of them are to be found in The Year of the Stranger.  It's a reminder that, after the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, the people of Scotland pretty much lost every last one of their rights.  They were cleared from their native lands, forced out of their homes to make way for sheep (a lucrative business, but one that destroyed the ecology of the Highlands) or simply to provide an absentee landlord and his wealthy friends with even more empty land to call their own.  Servile deference was demanded by the anglicised gentry.  That deference was not just demanded - it was imposed by force.  While the aristocracy turned Scotland into their own exclusive playground, those to whom the land had belonged were shipped off to America, Canada, Australia, in their thousands.  Those who remained behind had no choice but to tug their forelocks and grovel to the latest outsider who called himself their landlord.  A terrible punishment awaited those who resisted.  The fish in the rivers belonged to the aristocracy; the deer on the hills were theirs.  They owned - or believed that they owned - everything.

The spirit of the Highlanders was all but broken.  Many went off to fight in Britain's wars (sustaining a disproportionate amount of casualties, compared with the rest of the UK).  Those at home found themselves oppressed, not just by the aristocrats, who could buy the law, but also by religious extremists, who forced their neighbours into ever more demoralised forms of mental straitjacket.  As always, aristocracy and religious zealotry went hand in hand.  The once-proud people learned to live in fear of their outlandish landlords and their crazy preachers.  They had become little more than slaves.

It took the 20th century to pull Scotland - and the rest of the UK - out of that moral, political and economic insanity.  Votes for all, regardless of income and gender; universal education; welfare; healthcare; collective bargaining.  Gradually, civilisation dawned.  But all that has now been undermined.

Tom Devine, probably the most respected historian in Scotland, explained why it was time to vote YES to independence.  The union was of benefit (he feels) from the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 up till the Thatcherite revolution of 1979.  But that's when union with England ceased to be of any real advantage to the Scots.  The neoliberal agenda being so ruthlessly pursued by successive British governments is nothing more than a determined attempt to turn back the clock.  While the stark picture of gross economic, political and legal inequality as presented by Allan Campbell McLean in The Year of the Stranger strikes us today as quaintly barbaric, be in no doubt that to those who currently hold power in Westminster, that sort of rampant injustice makes perfect sense.

Social and economic progress was turned around in 1979.  Margaret Thatcher's simplistic economic policies were an absolute disaster - and yet the receipts from (Scottish) North Sea Oil and Gas propped up the nation's finances, so that things didn't look quite as bad as they really were (and there was always the press to mislead us as to what was really going on).  But if the natural wealth of Scotland bailed out Thatcher's failed experiments, it was the Scots who paid the greatest price - their industry practically destroyed.  Nuclear weapons?  The English wouldn't want them anywhere near their coastal towns.  Put them within 25 miles of the most densely populated area in Scotland.  Oh, and the poll tax that nobody wanted?  That was visited on the Scots a full year before they tried it out in England.  Scotland's wealth subsidised Westminster, but rather than show the slightest gratitude, Tory commentators chose to brand the Scots "scroungers" and "subsidy-junkies".  That is what colonisation looks like.

If Scotland chooses not to free itself of the shackles of aggressive, patronising, condescending, grasping Westminster rule, it will live to regret it.  Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world, and yet hundreds of thousands of its children are falling into poverty as a result of Tory ideology (there is only one - ONE - Tory MP in Scotland).  A person from Aberdeenshire, when asked to explain why she is voting YES, said, "When I look out to sea, I see nothing but oil-rigs.  When I look inland, I see nothing but food-banks."

And that, folks, is your warning.  History is repeating itself.  A corrupt and self-serving aristocracy is seeking to take us back to those dark days in which we all had to doff our caps to the idiots who lorded it over us; that, or we starved.  They could take our homes, throw us out into the cold, send us overseas, deny us our rights and use lethal force against us.  Their obscene wealth was stolen from the millions who actually earned it.

England can, if it chooses, wrap itself up in the Downton Abbey lies about the past and carry on down the road towards government by half-baked toffs and their vicious minions, or the only apparent alternative, which is arse-about-face UKIP-style fascism.  But if the Scots want to avoid the iniquities of history being revisited upon them, they need to take the chance that is now on offer.

For one thing is clear.  Those who cling to the idea of the union do so for one of two reasons.

The first is that they are the very aristocrats who believe that they own Scotland (and its people, and its natural resources) and who insist on maintaining their privileges, no matter what it takes.

The other is that they have some vague hope that somehow, the Scots and the English and the Welsh and the people of Northern Ireland will someday turn the neoliberal juggernaut around and get us back on the road to democracy and decency.  But that ain't gonna happen.  The English are too busy blaming everybody else in the world for their mistakes to wake up to the very real trouble they're in.  The Scots are already awake.  The YES campaign is by far the biggest, broadest, most inclusive and engaged grassroots campaign I've ever seen: a genuine movement of the people.  It's not about nationalism.  It's about reality.  They know that the union is finished, and that Thatcherism killed it.  They see democracy slipping ever further and further away, as the gentry comes marching back to lay claim to what it never earned.  The NO campaign has behaved as the defenders of privilege always do: telling lies about what is in the people's best interests and issuing one threat after another.  A conniving minority is also out there, doing the gentry's dirty work, like the hated factors of old.

There's still time to read The Year of the Stranger before the referendum.  Which means there's still a chance to remind ourselves what rule by those-who-believe-they're-born-to-rule tends to mean.  It wasn't always thus in the Highlands and Islands.  But the Treaty of Union imposed the worst kind of patrician government-by-force on a proud and independent-minded people, and those people were worn down, beaten, cheated by magistrates, bullied by a greedy gentry and terrorised by paranoid ministers.

And that's where we're heading again, unless the Scots display their natural courage, intelligence and sense of social justice, and set themselves free.  It only takes an 'X' in a box to rid the land of the fear of the landlord and his factor, and to show the world the way forward again.

Alba gu brath!!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

More About Arthur and Alyth

 "Reekie Linn Waterfall, Angus" by stephen samson - Geograph Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -,_Angus.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Reekie_Linn_Waterfall,_Angus.jpg
A day or two ago, I blogged about Alyth, the scene of Arthur's last battle.  But there's much more to say about the subject, and so I'm writing this post as a sort of instant sequel.

Not all of the ancient stories about, or inspired by, the historical Arthur use the familiar name of the hero.  Two alternative titles or designations which recur in this context are: Bran ("Raven") and Llew (Welsh: "Lion") or Lleu (Welsh: "Light"), the latter also occurring as Lliw or Llyw (Welsh: "Leader"), possibly from the Irish luige, Welsh llw, an "oath".

So let's look at some of the stories which give one or other of these names to their oh-so Arthurian heroes.

Le Chevalier Bran

Among the earliest sources for the "battle of Circenn" in which Arthur died, the Irish Annals of Tigernach name Bran as one of the sons of Aedan, King of the Scots, who fell alongside Artur/Artuir.  The Annals of Ulster name Bran instead of Arthur.  Adomnan's Life of Columba names Arthur instead of Bran.

In Welsh legend, Bran, the "Blessed Raven", was the "crowned king of the Island of Britain" who fell through the treachery of an Irish king named Matholwch ("Prayer-Sort").  The final battle involved a marvellous cauldron of rebirth, which had been Bran's gift to Matholwch.  Along with Bran, who had been fatally wounded by a poisoned spear, there were just seven survivors of this epic battle.  There were also seven survivors of Arthur's last battle, according to the contemporary poet and eye-witness, Taliesin.

Meanwhile, the "Horn of Bran the Hard from the North" was one of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain ("which were in the North"), the other treasures having belonged to the contemporaries, relatives and near-neighbours of Arthur son of Aedan.  A later tradition holds that Arthur had a hound called Bran.  The name evolved into the "Brons" of Arthurian romance.

Bearing all that in mind, I was fascinated to come across an old Breton folksong entitled Le Chevalier Bran ou le Prisonnier de Guerre ("The Horseman Bran, or the Prisoner of War").  Published in 1842, this song begins:

A la battaile de Kerlouan
Fut blesse le chevalier Bran!
A Kerlouan, sur l'ocean,
Le petit fils de Bran le Grand!
Prisonnier, bien que victorieux,
Il dont franchir l'ocean bleu.

["At the battle of Kerlouan, the horseman Bran was wounded!  At Kerlouan, by the sea, the grandson of Bran the Great!  Captured, even though he was victorious, he was taken across the sea."]

There is much that can be said about this intriguing song, with its distinct Arthurian overtones - for example, the song tells of an oak-tree which stands in the field of battle, at the spot where "the Saxons were put to flight when Even suddenly appeared", Even probably being Owain (French "Yvain") who distinguished himself at Arthur's last battle, as we know from Aneirin's epic Y Gododdin poem.

However, for now we need only concentrate on two aspects of the Breton song.  The first is that le chevalier Bran was the grandson of Bran le Grand.  The grandfather of Arthur son of Aedan was Gabran, the Scottish king who gave his name to the region of Gowrie, in which Arthur's last battle was fought.

What, then, of Kerlouan, where the horseman Bran was wounded and taken away as a "prisoner of war"?  At first glance, it appears to refer to the commune of Kerlouan in the Finisterre department of Brittany.  But this place-name almost certainly travelled with the British refugees who fled to Armorica, the "Lesser Britain", when their Lothian homelands were conquered by the Northumbrian Angles in circa AD 638.  The ker element is cognate with the Welsh caer, meaning a "castle", "stronghold" or "citadel".  The louan element refers to St Elouan, otherwise Luan, Llywan, Lua, Lughaidh or Moluag ("My-Luan").

St Elouan or Louan was an obscure saint, said to have been contemporary with St Columba (and, therefore, with Arthur son of Aedan) and to have brought Christianity to the northern, Highland Picts, while Columba spread the Gospel among the southern, "Miathi" Picts (Arthur son of Aedan died, according to the Life of Columba, in "the battle of the Miathi").

The only place where St Elouan or Louan is still venerated as "Luan" is at Alyth, near the site of Arthur's last battle.  The Church of St Luan now stands on Alexander Street.  The Alyth Arches are all that remain of an earlier church, dedicated to St Luan, which supposedly occupies the site of an even earlier chapel.  Alyth, then, has a strong claim to have been the "Stronghold of Luan" or Kerlouan where Arthur/le chevalier Bran was grievously wounded and carried away "across the sea".  Any resemblance to the Caerleon which recurs in Arthurian tradition as an early form of Arthur's legendary court (later "Camelot") is probably not coincidental.

Llew Skilful Hand

Llywan is the Welsh form of Luan/Louan.  In the ancient Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen (which, as I stated in my previous blog post, offers a potted account of Arthur's career, including the violent seizure of a magical cauldron), the treacherous king-turned-boar is finally driven into a river near Llyn Lliwan ("Lake Louan"), which was somewhere near Tawy (the Tay).  This lake appears to be remembered on the map of the Alyth area as the Bankhead and Kings of Kinloch, adjacent to Arthurbank beside the River Isla.  The marshy ground in the river's floodplain was once known, perhaps, as Loch Luan, a name preserved in the spot, near Meigle, known as Glenluie.

The name of this lake recalls Llew, Lleu or Lliw - as Aneirin sang in his Y Gododdin elegy for the northern warriors who fell in Arthur's last battle:

No one living will relate what befell
Lliw, what came about on Monday at the Lliwan lake.

Apart from the tales of his Irish counterpart, Lugh Long-Hand, the most famous of the British legends concerning Llew or Lleu is that found in the Welsh "Mabinogion", in which a great hero known as Llew Skilful Hand is tricked by his treacherous wife into standing on the edge of a cauldron by a riverbank, where he is speared by his wife's lover (the poisoned spear took a year to make because it could only be worked on during the Mass on Sundays).  The name given for the river on the banks of which Llew was speared is "Cynfael".

Now, bear with me here.  The bloody boar-hunt in the legend of Culhwch and Olwen which culminates with the destruction of the Boar-King in the river near Loch Tay and the "Lliwan lake" is, in fact, the second of two dangerous boar-hunts which took place "in the North".  The first concerned another Boar-King - or, to be more accurate, another king of the Miathi Picts, who modelled their appearance on the boar, hence the Gaelic and Scots names for their territory in Angus: Circenn ("Comb-heads") and Camlann ("Comb-land").  The death of this previous Boar-King of the Miathi Picts can be dated to circa AD 580, some 14 years before the final battle.

His name was Galam, although he went by a couple of epithets.  The Annals of Ulster record the death of "Cennaleth, king of the Picts" in 580.  The Annals of Tigernach refer to the death of "Cennfhaeladh king of the Picts" in the year 578.

These epithets reveal the location of Galam's power-base in Angus as king of the Miathi Picts.  Cennaleth translates as "Chief of Alyth".  Cennfhaeladh could indicate a "Shaved-head", as in the boar tonsure sported by the Miathi warriors, or the chief of a "high, rounded hill", such as that which looms over the town of Alyth in the vale of Strathmore.  The proper pronunciation of Cennfhaeladh would be "ken-eye-la".  This suggests that the name of the River Isla, which flows past Alyth and Arthurbank, derives phonetically from Cennfhaeladh.  It also suggests that the Cynfael river, on the bank of which Llew Skilful Hand was treacherously speared by his wife's adulterous lover, was really the Cennfhaeladh or River Isla, on the bank of which Arthur was mortally wounded.

Arthur and his men defeated Galam Cennaleth ("Chief-of-Alyth"), otherwise Cennfhaeladh, in about 580 at the "Battle of Badon" (Gaelic Badain, the "Tufted Ones"), fought a little further up the River Isla at Badandun Hill.  Galam's Miathi warriors later joined forces with Arthur's nemesis, Morgan the Wealthy, and the final conflict was fought beneath Barry Hill and the Hill of Alyth, on the banks of the River Isla or "Cynfael".

Seekers of the Grail - which in its earliest form was a magical cauldron - might care to investigate the legend of "Sir James" and his cauldron of enlightenment, a legend centred on the Reekie Linn waterfall, behind the Hill of Alyth (see top of this post).  It's quite an eye-opener.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Naming the Goddess

Coming soon, from Moon Books - Naming the Goddess ( details here)

I contributed the chapter on "Christian Wisdom, Pagan Goddess: Reclaiming Sophia and the Saints from the Judeo-Christian Tradition".

Looking forward to reading the book as a whole!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Alyth, the Scene of Arthur's Last Battle

While I work on Shakespeare's Son - my biography of Sir William Davenant, a man of whom I'm becoming increasingly fond - The Grail continues to make its way through the publishing process, courtesy of Moon Books.  So, by way of a sneak preview, in this post I shall offer up some of the evidence for the location of Arthur's last battle.

The Battle of Circenn

You probably think Arthur's last battle was fought at a place called "Camlann".  I've been unable to find any reference to that place-name before the Middle Ages.  The very earliest mentions of anyone called Arthur in the records indicate that he died in a battle fought in Angus, Scotland.

Adomnan of Iona's Life of Columba (circa 697) tells us that Artur son of Aedan was present when his father was "ordained" king of the Scots by St Columba in AD 574.  The saint predicted the fates of Aedan's sons, announcing that Artur would "fall in battle, slain by enemies".  Adomnan assured his readers that this prophecy came true when Artur and at least one of his brothers was killed in a "battle of the Miathi".

The Miathi, or Maeatae, were a Pictish tribe: essentially, they held the low-lying lands to the south and east of the Highland massif.  Another Latinate term for these people was Verturiones.

The Irish annals, which drew at least some of their information from the records kept by Columba's monks on the Isle of Iona, specify that Artur son of Aedan died in a "battle of Circenn".  This refers to the Pictish province which was roughly contiguous with today's Angus and the Mearns.  The term Circenn combined the Gaelic cir, meaning a "comb" or "crest", and cenn, "heads".  Circenn, then, was the land of the Comb-heads.  This tells us that the Miathi Picts modelled their appearance on their totem beast, the boar (rather like their compatriots in the Orkneys, the Orcoi, from orc - a young boar).  Indeed, it is possible that the Latinate name for the Verturiones tribe combines verres and turio and indicates the "offshoots" or "offspring" of the "boar", while the very term "Pict" (variant, "Pecti", "Pecht") quite possibly derived from the Latin pecten, a "comb".

Now, let's look at "Camlann" - the traditional name for Arthur's last battle.  Its first appearance in the records comes in an entry interpolated into the Welsh Annals, where it refers to a gueith cam lann or "strife of cam lann".  By the time this came to be written down, the region in which Artur son of Aedan died was speaking a version of Northumbrian Old English which became the dialect known as Lowland Scots.  In that dialect, cam lann would mean "comb land".

In other words, "Camlann" is merely an anglicised version of the Gaelic Circenn, the land of the "Comb-heads" in which the first Arthur on record fell in a cataclysmic battle.

Culhwch and Olwen

One of the oldest of the Welsh (i.e. British) tales to feature Arthur is that of Culhwch ac Olwen.  It forms a sort of mythologised, potted account of Arthur's career, culminating in the desperate and bloody hunt for a king who - for his sins - was turned into a boar.  This hunt begins with a violent amphibious landing, at a site which can be identified as Cruden Bay, on the Aberdeenshire coast, after which Arthur is met by the "saints of Ireland" who "besought his protection".  The dreadful Boar-King is challenged and chased from Esgeir Oerfel, the "Cold Ridge" of the Grampians, the Boar-King making his way across country towards Llwch Tawy (Loch Tay) before he is intercepted by Arthur and his men and driven into a river.

In The King Arthur Conspiracy I identified the treacherous Boar-King as Morgan the Wealthy, a renegade British prince who abducted Arthur's wife, Gwenhwyfar, and escaped into the land of the Miathi Picts (his bolt hole appears to have been the fortified Hill of Tillymorgan in Strathbogie).  The site where Morgan finally came to grief is marked by the "Morganstone" on the west bank of the River Ericht, a short distance to the west of the Hill of Alyth in the great vale of Strathmore in Angus.

Arthurian Connections with Alyth

Before we proceed, let us consider some ancient references to Arthur and his family in the context of Alyth and its immediate vicinity.

In addition to having a son named Artur or Artuir, King Aedan of the Scots had a daughter called Muirgein.  According to Whitley Stokes, editing and translating the Martyrology of a 9th-century Irish monk called Oengus, Muirgein daughter of Aedan was born "in Bealach Gabrain".

The inability of certain scholars to find a "Bealach Gabrain" in Scotland has led some to argue that Muirgein daughter of Aedan was utterly unconnected with Artur son of Aedan.  But place-names evolve.  The Gaelic term bealach, meaning a "pass" or "gorge", usually appears as "Balloch" on today's maps.  There is a "Balloch" which runs along the feet of Barry Hill and the adjacent Hill of Alyth in Strathmore.

Furthermore, this "Balloch" or bealach was in a region named after the grandfather of Artur and Muirgein.  Gabran was the father of Aedan.  He ruled the Scots for twenty years until his death in about AD 559 and gave his name to the region of Gowrie (a corruption of Gabran).  The "Balloch" near Alyth was in Gabran's land (Gabrain) and lies close to the town of Blairgowrie, which also recalls the name of Arthur's grandfather.  The "Balloch" at the foot of the Hill of Alyth was almost certainly the "Bealach Gabrain" or "pass of Gowrie" where Arthur's (half-)sister, Muirgein daughter of Aedan mac Gabrain, was born.  To pretend that the Balloch of Gowrie could not have been "Bealach Gabrain" because they are not spelled the same way these days is tantamount to claiming that Londinium and London could not have been the same place.

So Arthur's sister, Muirgein (latterly, Morgan le Fay), was born near Alyth.  Writing in about 1527, the Scottish historian Hector Boece also indicated that Arthur's wife was buried at Meigle, which is just a mile or two south of Alyth.  Hector Boece's local tradition recalled Gwenhwyfar as Vanora (via Guanora) and claimed that she had been held hostage in the Iron Age hill-fort atop Barry Hill, adjacent to the Hill of Alyth, before she was executed and buried in what is now the kirkyard at Meigle.  A carved Pictish standing stone, now on display at the Meigle museum, reputedly depicts the execution or burial of Arthur's wife.

Y Gododdin

One of the best sources of information about Arthur's last battle is the ancient epic, Y Gododdin.  This was composed and sung by Aneirin, a British bard of the Old North, and can be dated to circa AD 600 (the date of Arthur's last battle is given in the Irish annals as, variously, AD 594 and 596).

Unfortunately, the relevance of Aneirin's elegiac tribute to the warriors of Lothian (the "Gododdin") has been missed by scholars who want to believe that the poem bemoans the destruction of a British war-band from the Edinburgh area which had the misfortune to be wiped out at a mythical battle fought at Catterick in North Yorkshire.  No evidence exists that any such battle was fought.  The Angles (forerunners of the English) preferred not to recollect their defeats but were happy to remember, and to boast about, their victories.  If the Angles of Northumbria had indeed obliterated a British band of heroes from Lothian at Catterick, we might assume that they would have remembered doing so.  And no scholar has yet explained the presence of "Irishman and Picts" at this imaginary battle in Anglian territory.

A verse or two of Y G[ododdin, added at a later date than the original composition, described a battle fought in Scotland (Strathcarron) in AD 642 and the death in that battle of a Scottish king who just happened to be a nephew of Artur son of Aedan.  This interpolation does at least suggest that the subject of the original poem was a battle fought in roughly the same area (Scotland) by the family of Artur and his father Aedan.  The Y Gododdin poem also mentions various famous warriors who appear in the early accounts of Arthur's career and who were contemporary with Artur son of Aedan.

One surviving version of Y Gododdin even mentions Artur/Artuir by name:

Gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef Arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur ...

Confused by the misidentification of the battle sung about by Aneirin in Y Gododdin, and the assumption that Arthur himself could not have been present at that battle, scholars have persistently mistranslated this verse - mostly in an attempt to render the second half of the second line, "He was no Arthur".  But Aneirin's verse should properly be translated thus:

Black ravens [warriors] sang in praise of the hero [Welsh, arwr]
of Circenn [transliterated into Welsh as "caer ceni"].  He blamed Arthur;
the dogs cursed in return for our wailing/lamentation ...

Aneirin indicated, in his Y Gododdin elegy, precisely where the final battle took place:

Eil with gwelydeint amallet
y gat veirch ae seirch greulet
bit en anysgoget bit get ...

Which translates as:

Again they came into view around the alled,
the battle-horses and the bloody armour,
still steadfast, still united ...

The "alled" was Aneirin's Welsh-language attempt at the Gaelic Allaid - also Ailt - or the Hill of Alyth.

Breuddwyd Rhonabwy

The extraordinary medieval Welsh tale of The Dream of Rhonabwy actually provides a description of the scene in the hours before Arthur's last battle was fought.  The visionary seer, Rhonabwy, finds himself crossing a great plain with a river running through it (Strathmore).  He is met by a character call Iddog, "Churn of Britain", who admits that it was he who caused the cataclysmic "battle of Camlan" by betraying Arthur.  In company with Iddog, Rhonabwy approaches the "Ford of the Cross" (Rhyd-y-Groes) on the river.  A great army is encamped on either side of the road and Arthur is seated on a little flat islet in the river, beside the ford.

The topography precisely matches the detail from a 19th-century Ordnance Survey map of the area around Alyth seen at the top of this post.  On the right-hand side of the detail is the ridge known as Arthurbank, which lies along the River Isla, opposite the junction of the River Ericht with the River Isla (a few miles down the Ericht from the site of the Morganstone).  A little flat islet lies in the River Isla, close to the Arthurbank shore, and a ford runs alongside this little islet, exactly as described in the Welsh account of Rhonabwy's dream.

Aneirin also mentioned this ford in his Y Gododdin poem as rhyd benclwyd - the "ford" of the "grey" or "holy mount".  There is, indeed, a Greymount marked on the map, a short distance to the north of the ford on the Isla.  In his Agriculture of Perthshire, published in 1799, the Rev. Dr Robertson described the discovery of a "large Druidical temple" at Coupar Grange, adjacent to this ford.  A standing stone found in this "temple" would no doubt have been rebranded a "cross" by the early Christians, so that the ford across the Isla, beside the little flat islet, would have become known as the Ford of the Cross (Rhyd-y-Groes), as described in The Dream of Rhonabwy, or the "Ford of the Grey/Holy Mount" (rhyd benclwyd) as described by Aneirin.

Until the late 18th century, an Arthurstone stood at the south-eastern edge of the Arthurbank ridge (its presence is still marked on the map).  This Arthurstone corresponds to the Morganstone, a few miles away up the River Ericht, and marks the spot where Arthur fell in his battle with the Boar-King of the Miathi Picts in the land of the "crested" Comb-heads, Camlann.

The Head of the Valley of Sorrow

After the battle, Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar was executed and buried only a mile or so away at Meigle.  The legend of Culhwch and Olwen (which, interestingly, features a treacherous individual identified as Grugyn, who also appears in Aneirin's Y Gododdin) tells us that, after the battle at the river with the dangerous Boar-King, Arthur and his heroes once more "set out for the North" to overcome a fearsome witch.  She was found inside a cave at Penn Nant Gofid - the "Head of the Valley of Sorrow"- on "the confines of Hell" (which we can interpret as the edge of the territory controlled by those boar-like Miathi Picts).  The Welsh gofid ("sorrow/trouble/affiction/grief") appears to have been something of a pun, for another Welsh word for sorrow or grief is alaeth (compare Ailt, Allaid and Alyth, the "Head of the Valley of Alyth" being the very hill on which Arthur's wife is rumoured to have been held prisoner before her execution and burial nearby at Meigle).

In the Welsh tale, this witch is known as Orddu (that is, Gorddu - "Very Black"). A similar legend from the Isle of Mull, whose Arthurian associations have been overlooked for far too long, names the troublesome wife as Corr-dhu ("Black-Crane").

We might also note that the 9th-century Welsh monk known as Nennius described a "wonder" of Scotland in the form of "a valley in Angus, in which shouting is heard every Monday night; Glend Ailbe is its name, and it is not known who makes this noise."

Nennius's Glend Ailbe seems to be a corruption of the Gaelic word for a valley (glen) and the River Isla, or perhaps the Allaid or Hill of Alyth, which dominates the vale of Strathmore.  The mysterious shouting in this "Valley of Sorrow" was reputedly heard ever Monday night.  And we know from Aneirin's eye-witness account of Arthur's last battle that it came to an end on a Monday.

This is just some of the evidence for Arthur having fallen in the vicinity of Alyth.  There is plenty more to come in The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion - including descriptions of the Pictish symbol stones, found close to the site of that battle, which actually depict the Grail in use!

I'll let you know when the book is about to be published.

Friday, 8 August 2014

A Warning to the Curious ...

... or "How History Works" (Part II?).

I was flicking through this book the other day.  It's on sale at Tudor World in Stratford, where I'm currently doing the odd Shakespeare Tour and Ghost Tour (and great fun they are, too).  What's more, the "Horrible Histories" Gruesome Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon is actually dedicated to the owner, and the phantom residents of, the Tudor World property.

I admire Terry Deary's achievement.  His entertaining brand of History-Without-The-Dull-Bits appeals to young and old, no doubt to the despair and disapproval of the more academic types out there.  And he does a good job of digging up those obscure facts and stories which tend to be omitted from the standard accounts.  In that respect, his Gruesome Guide to Stratford is probably a helluva lot more interesting than the typical guidebook.

He even includes the story of Shakespeare's skull!  Yes, the local "legend" which I spent months researching for Who Killed William Shakespeare?  So, extra marks there for Mr Deary.  Except that he concludes his short account of Shakespeare's missing skull with the information that the skull was safely returned to the Stratford grave.

Almost every account I read of the legend of Shakespeare's skull, as originally recounted by "A Warwickshire Man" (Rev. Charles Jones Langston) in his 1884 publication, How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found, ends with the information that the missing skull was returned to Stratford.

This recurring "fact" intrigued me while I was researching the story.  You see, thanks to the infamous "curse" on Shakespeare's gravestone, the town of Stratford, and Holy Trinity Church, have always been rather diffident about opening up his grave.  So how, I wondered, had they managed to get the skull back into the grave, sometime in the late 19th century, without anyone noticing, and with no record surviving of the grave having been reopened?

It puzzled me for quite a while.  And then, while I was starting work on the manuscript for Who Killed William Shakespeare? - a breakthrough!  The skull is still inside the crypt at Beoley Church.  It was NEVER returned to Stratford. 

Various photos of the skull were taken at different times in the 20th and 21st centuries - on those rare occasions when the crypt was opened up for an architect's inspection - and those photos prove that the skull stayed exactly where Rev. C.J. Langston found it: in the vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel.

Okay, so ... Why do so many accounts of the story end with "The skull was returned to Stratford", when it quite evidently wasn't?

I've never yet managed to track down the source of that little bit of historical misinformation.  I don't know who first decided that the skull had probably been returned to its owner, or who first sneaked that falsehood into the legend.  But here's the thing: ever since that bit of false information was added to the story, it has been repeated, over and over again, whenever somebody stumbles across the legend, including, of course, Terry Deary, when he included the tale in his "Gruesome Guide" to Stratford.

I'm not attacking Mr Deary.  But I am questioning the way that, once a lie has been introduced into the historical account, it tends to stay there, repeated over and over again, until it becomes a "fact".

I've blogged previously about the will which names Anne/Agnes Whateley, the woman William Shakespeare was first given a licence to marry.  Because Samuel Schoenbaum failed to find that particular will, he concluded that Anne Whateley was a clerical error: she never existed.  And because Sam Schoenbaum said that, it became "The Truth"!  Anne Whateley: the woman who never was.  But she did exist.

The case of Anne/Agnes Whateley and the case of Shakespeare's skull are somewhat similar.  In both instances, something has been introduced to the approved story of Shakespeare which doesn't suit the peddlers of that orthodox account.  Whenever that happens, it seems, the race is on to quash that little problem.  With any luck, something will quickly get sneaked into the historical record which neutralises the threat posed by that rogue story.  So, Anne Whateley, we are led to believe, "did not exist".  The skull "was returned to Stratford".  Neither statement is true, and yet both have been repeated ad infinitum.

The skull story is particularly intriguing, in this regard.  Given that Stratford has, on the whole, sought (a) to ignore the story of Shakespeare's skull - and the actual existence of that spare skull at Beoley, and (b) to rubbish the story whenever someone mentions it, you do have to wonder.  If, as the Shakespeare folks in Stratford insist, the missing skull simply could not have been Shakespeare's, then why is it so important that we all believe it was returned to Shakespeare's grave after Rev. C.J. Langston discovered and identified it?  Isn't that a case of having your cake and eating it?  If it never was Shakespeare's skull, then there's no need to put out the false rumour that it was returned to Shakespeare's grave. 

I think the claim that the skull was returned to Stratford was a deliberate attempt to "close down" the story.  An interesting legend, yes, but no need to get excited because the skull came back to Stratford anyway.  Certainly, definitely, no need to probe any further.  Like the mysterious Anne Whateley, the skull doesn't exist.  At least, it doesn't as long as you don't go looking for it.

So, someone set a hare running.  To stop anyone from really investigating the strange tale of Shakespeare's missing skull - as told by that pillar of respectability, a Victorian clergyman - somebody made up the part about the skull having been returned to Stratford.  Which it never was.  But that's what you'll keep reading is what happened.

Unless you read Who Killed William Shakespeare? of course!

Seriously, though.  History is not, or should not be, a Wikipedia entry, which anyone can alter as they see fit.  The facts matter.  Anyone who "plants" a piece of misinformation - such as "the skull was returned to Stratford" - is deliberately misleading people.  And the people who seem most easy to mislead are historians, who keep repeating the lie, if only to make sure that you don't go getting any ideas.

Monday, 28 July 2014


I've been remiss.  Dreadfully so.

The only thing I can say in my defence is that I have been busy writing my biography of Sir William Davenant (Shakespeare's Son) and enjoying myself giving tours in Stratford-upon-Avon - some days, you might see me in doublet and breeches, leading a troupe of tourists or students from one Shakespearean site to another, whilst on Saturday evenings I guide intrepid visitors through the dark delights of Tudor World on Sheep Street, every Ghost Tour threatening to yield at least one supernatural experience.  So, yes, I've been busy.

Added to that, my paper on The Faces of Shakespeare is about to be published by Goldsmiths University; Moon Books will soon be publishing Naming the Goddess, to which I contributed a chapter, and my own The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion is currently passing through the Moon Books production process.  Oh, and I've also been quietly working on a project based on events in 1964-65 for a company set up by a very good friend of mine from my drama school days.

So I hope you'll forgive the radio silence.

Anyhoo - my great buddy and artistic collaborator on The Grail, Lloyd Canning, got a fantastic four-page spread in this month's Cotswold and Vale Magazine, including (as you can see) the cover shot.  Lloyd's amazing images really came out well in the magazine, and The Grail got a good mention (as well as my Who Killed William Shakespeare?), which means that we're all very chuffed.  A hearty CONGRATS to Lloyd for the well-earned and much-deserved publicity.

I'll try to post another update very soon.  I promise.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Call Ye Midwife

More from the wonderful world of Davenant research.

Liza Picard's book on Restoration London is a witty little treasure trove of stuff.  The book describes "Everyday Life in London 1660-1670" and it does so beautifully.  I was particularly struck by the section on the Medical Risks of Birth and Infancy.

Midwives, it seems, were generally in a hurry to get to their next patient.  If the mother's waters hadn't broken, the midwife wasn't going to hang around.  A specially sharpened fingernail, or the sharp edge of a coin, would slit the amniotic sac, and then the baby would be yanked out.

Such was the hurry that the midwife would be unlikely to wait for the afterbirth to be expelled.  That, too, would be grabbed and pulled out.

Midwifery was a pretty good way of killing baby and mother.  Bacteria would be transferred from one mother to another by the midwife who had just tugged baby and the afterbirth out of one womb before moving on to the next.

The skull in the crypt at Beoley Church, which I suggest in Who Killed William Shakespeare? was Shakespeare's, is rather interesting in this respect.  There is an oval depression, mid-brow, near the top of the frontal bone.  Heading down the left side of the temple, the skull is uneven, with a ridge sloping down across the brow and slight depressions on either side of it.
These features - the oval depression and the ridge - are visible in portraits of Shakespeare.  The "missing link" between the skull (which disappeared) and the portraits is almost certainly the "Death Mask of Shakespeare" in Darmstadt Castle:
The depression and ridge are present on the death mask (dated 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death), and since this was probably the model for most of the portraits, we see the same features in some of the more familiar images of Shakespeare.  They are present, for example, in the Cobbe portrait:
And, indeed, in the Wadlow portrait:

And on others.  These distinguishing features, along with other "defects" visible on the face, are what I now look for in order to determine whether or not an image of Shakespeare s genuine.
In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I focussed on the very noticeable depression high up in the middle of the forehead.  It can be seen very clearly on the Shakespeare bust in his funerary monument in Stratford Church:
In the well known Chandos portrait in the National Portrait Gallery:
And on the Davenant bust of Shakespeare at the Garrick Club:
Among others. 
But by focusing on that depression as one of the key indicators that the portraits were based on the death mask, and the death mask replicates the actual face of the man whose skull is in the crypt at Beoley, I neglected to consider the ridge and grooves to the side of the main depression.
I concluded - wrongly, I fear - that the depression was a sunken fontanelle, caused by malnutrition or dehydration in early childhood.
I now suspect, and I made the point in the paper on The Faces of Shakespeare, which I gave at Goldsmiths, University of London, a couple of months ago, that the depression near the top of the frontal bone and the ridge and grooves beside it are connected.  They are finger marks.
I had begun to think that the midwife had grasped his skull with her left hand during the delivery.  Her thumb had impressed itself into the soft bone of his cranium, and her first two fingers left their marks alongside.  The pattern of the depressions indicates that she gripped his skull a bit too tightly.  When the bones of his skull hardened, the finger marks remained; indeed, it may be that their presence caused the coronal suture to fuse a little oddly, leaving a sort of raised wiggly line running up from the sides of his head.
The description of midwifery practices given by Liza Picard in her book on Restoration London confirms the possibility, at least, that Shakespeare might have been forced out of his mother's womb by an over-enthusiastic or impatient midwife.  I've argued elsewhere on the blog that Shakespeare wasn't a very tall man (which is why his skull seems "undersized"), and it may be that he was from his mother's womb "untimely ripped". 
Quite simply, he wasn't ready.  But maybe the midwife had been called because the mother's health was at risk.  Or he was believed to be due.
Perhaps the woman nicked the sac with her jagged fingernail, reached in, gripped the skull with her left hand (the right hand underneath) and pulled.  There is no reason to assume that the midwifery profession had changed very much in the hundred years separating Restoration London from Elizabethan Stratford.
Shakespeare bore the marks of the midwife's fingers all through his life.  And they are still visible - on his portraits, on the busts, on the death mask ... and on the skull at Beoley.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How to Start a Civil War

In my research for my book on Sir William Davenant (Shakespeare's Son) I've been having to get to grips with a subject which has long intrigued me.

The English Civil War.

More than anything, I've been eager to understand why it happened.

Naturally, there were large-scale issues - such as the feeling, among many fanatics, that the English Reformation in the 16th century simply hadn't gone far enough.  The Church of England, as it was established under Elizabeth I, was really a sort of State broadcasting service.  It was neither too Catholic nor too Calvinist.  The more zealous Protestants wanted something far more extreme.

But that doesn't explain how the country slid into military conflict.  To understand that, we might look at just one small example of contemporary politicking.

In January 1644, a ship sailing from Dunkirk to Spain ran aground on the south coast of England.  Local troops seized what they could, including various "Popish pictures and superstitious Imagery".  One of these was a large picture which, it was said, depicted the Pope offering a sceptre to King Charles I of England, who declined it, offering it instead to his queen, Henrietta Maria, a Catholic.  The picture, therefore, showed that "Pope and Queene share the Sceptre of England between them".  It was a comment on King Charles I, who was then at war with his Parliament: the King was under his wife's thumb, and both of them were in hock to the Bishop of Rome.

No one seems to have asked themselves why such an image was on its way to an obscure Spanish church.  But one pamphleteer did enter the fray, pointing out that the figure supposedly representing Charles I was wearing the costume of an ancient Roman captain; that the "Pope" was clearly an ordinary bishop; that the distinctive spire in the background belonged to the cathedral of Cologne, and that the subject of the painting was quite obviously an episode from the life of St Ursula, whose martyrdom was depicted in the background.

A few were convinced.  But others continued to insist that the captured painting showed nothing less than the Pope in league with King Charles, who was further to be damned for listening too much to his French wife.  In short, it didn't matter what evidence was brought forth: the hard-liners saw what they wanted to see, and that was that.

Such things happen in febrile times.  Events are interpreted, not on the basis of fact or evidence, but on the basis of preconceived prejudices.  Once people are prepared instantly to believe that a painting of St Ursula is really a painting of the English king being wooed by the Pope and handing power to his queen, then all hope of reasonable debate is lost.

It's no coincidence that these things happened at a time when the printed word was being distributed like never before.  There is a similarity with our own times - the internet is not unlike the pamphleteering activity of the 17th century.  Anyone who has an opinion can voice it.  Many are using the opportunity deliberately to misinform others and incite political agitation.

We're fast heading into similar territory as that in which a painting of a sacred subject can become something altogether different - an indictment of the supposed faults of an English king.  Now, as then, people are filtering their interpretations of events through their own prejudices.  Whenever something happens, the facts are immediately "spun".  The event, and the motives of those concerned, are instantaneously reinterpreted through a veritable Babel of claim and counterclaim.  The result is a rush to judgement, as people too easily swallow the interpretation which suits their prejudices.  Pointing out the facts of the matter becomes a waste of time.  Battle lines have been drawn, long before any evidence actually comes to light.

The earliest known accounts of the Flood indicate that the gods decided to punish mankind because we had become "noisy".

Well, we're becoming noisy again.  Things got noisy in the early 1640s, and that led to a bloody civil war, the execution of a king, and a government of fanatics, which was nothing short of a military dictatorship.

So, there you have it: the English Civil War was caused, as much as anything, by people's willingness to believe nonsense rather than look at the facts.

If history teaches us anything, it's that when people prefer to be noisy than to take a breath, examine the evidence and come to a sensible, informed and considered conclusion, then something like a civil war can't be far away.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Crowd-funding - Can you help?

Rebecca Rideal runs the excellent History Vault website. 

On that site, she has published a five minute interview with yours truly, and my two posts about Shakespeare in love - The White Lady (about Anne, or Agnes, Whateley) and The Dark Lady, about Jane Davenant.  It really is an excellent historical website.

She also organises a monthly Historic Punch event in London's Soho.  So she takes her history very seriously.

Rebecca is looking for funding to cover the costs of her History PhD.  Now, I've something of an interest in this, because her thesis covers aspects of life in Restoration London, where I'm spending a lot of my time at the moment, working on my book about Sir William Davenant.

To raise the necessary finance, Rebecca has turned to crowd-funding, there being no viable alternative.  So I'm putting this post up in the hope that some benefactors out there will take the bait. 

It's a good cause - and Rebecca explains it all here.

If you can help at all, it will be very much appreciated.  Please click here for more information.


Monday, 2 June 2014

The Meaning of "Camlann"

I received a message from Moon Books today, telling me that the copyedited manuscript of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion is ready for me to check.

It seems unlikely that the book will be available before the Scottish independence referendum in September.  I'll be keeping a close eye on the referendum: the vote takes place the day before my 12th wedding anniversary, and having got married on the Isle of Iona to a woman who is half-Scottish, as well as having gone to university in Glasgow, my sympathies lie very much with the "YES" campaign.

I was also interested to note that Le Monde published this piece, indicating that the pro-independence campaign is gaining ground.  The reporter had been in Alyth, Perthshire, to follow the debate.  Alyth, as I revealed in The King Arthur Conspiracy, is where Arthur fought his last battle.

How do I know this?  Lots of reasons, not least of all the fact that the place is name checked in a contemporary poem of the battle.

But wasn't Arthur's last battle fought at a place called Camlan?

Well, for a long while I wasn't so sure.  Now, though, I know that it was - sort of - and I explain why in my forthcoming book on The Grail.  But as that may not be out before the referendum, I hereby present this information as a gift to the "YES" campaign and in honour of a warrior who gave his life fighting for Scottish (and British) independence.

Many commentators refuse to accept that the place-name "Camlan" isn't Welsh.  The fact that Camlan is the Gaelic name for the old Roman fortifications at Camelon, near Falkirk in central Scotland, means nothing to them.  Arthur's "Camlan" was Welsh, and that's all it could have been.

Very silly - and utterly useless, in terms of trying to track down the site of that all-important battle.  If it was a Welsh place-name, it would have meant something like "Crooked Valley", which really doesn't help us very much.

The first literary reference to "Camlann" comes in the Annales Cambriae ("Welsh Annals") which mention Gueith cam lann - the "Strife of Camlann".  However, that reference cannot be traced back to an earlier date than the 10th century, hundreds of years after the time of Arthur.  The contemporary sources make no mention of "Camlann", and so it may be that the name didn't come into use until many years after Arthur's last battle was fought there.

The earliest literary reference to anyone called Arthur concerns an individual named Artur mac Aedain.  He was a son of Aedan mac Gabrain, who was "ordained" King of the Scots by St Columba in 574.  Accounts of the ordination ceremony indicate that Arthur son of Aedan was present on that occasion, and that St Columba predicted that Arthur would not succeed his father to the Scottish throne but would "fall in battle, slain by enemies."

Those same accounts tell us that Columba's prophecy came true: Artur mac Aedain died in a "battle of the Miathi", which means that he was killed fighting the Picts of central Scotland. 

The Irish Annals, which were compiled from notes made by the monks of Iona, inform us that the first recorded Arthur was killed in a "battle of Circenn", fought in about 594.  Circenn was the Pictish province immediately to the north of the Tay estuary - broadly, Angus and the Mearns - which was indeed the territory of the "Miathi".

Circenn might have been Pictish territory, but the name of the province is Gaelic.  It combines the word cir (meaning a "comb" or a "crest") and cenn, the genitive plural of a Gaelic noun meaning "head".  An appropriate translation of Circenn would therefore be "Comb-heads".

The Miathi Picts, like their compatriots in the Orkneys, appear to have modelled their appearance on their totem animal, the boar.  This meant that they shaved their heads in imitation of the boar's comb or crest - rather like the Mohawk tonsure, which we wrongly think of as a "Mohican".  Indeed, whilst we assume that the term "Pict" derived from the Latin picti, meaning "painted" or "tattooed", there are grounds for suspecting that it was actually a corruption of pecten, the Latin for a "comb" (hence the Old Scots word Pecht, meaning "Pict").

So where does "Camlann" fit into all this?

After Arthur's death, much of southern and central Scotland was invaded by the Angles, those forerunners of the English.  As a consequence, the Germanic language known as Northumbrian Old English was established in southern and central Scotland by the 7th century.  It eventually became the dialect called Lowland Scots.

In the Scots dialect, came, kem and camb all meant "comb".  And lan', laan and lann all meant "land".

The land in which Arthur's last battle had been fought - that is, the Pictish province of Angus - was soon speaking an early variant of the English language, or Lowland Scots.  The fact that the Pictish province of Circenn was named after its "Comb-heads", those Miathi warriors who cut their hair to resemble a boar's comb or crest, meant that the place became known by its early English equivalent: "Comb-land" or Camlann.

This was not, of course, the name that Arthur and his warrior-poets would have used for the place.  But then, the term "Camlann" didn't appear in any literary source for at least another three or four hundred years.  By the time the Welsh annalist came to interpolate the "Camlann" entry into the Annales Cambriae, the location had become known by its Old English/Lowland Scots name.  But that name was merely a variant of the older Gaelic name for the province - Circenn, or "Comb-heads".

And that is where the first recorded Arthur fell in battle, as St Columba had predicted.  Not in England or Wales or Brittany, but in Angus in Scotland.

The province of the Pictish "Comb-heads".  The region known as "Comb-land", cam lann.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Dem Bones

I now have a copy of The Last Days of Richard III by my History Press stable-mate, John Ashdown-Hill.  This was the book which led archaeologists to the car park in Leicester where Richard's remains were buried.  I'm looking forward to reading it, when I take a break from my research into Sir William Davenant.

Today, I came across this: A Bone to Pick with the Bard - Richard III was NOT a Hunchback.  It's a piece in the Independent which indicates that Richard "Crookback" did not have a crookback after all!

William Shakespeare appears to get the blame for the fact that we all thought he did.

Well, that's not entirely fair.  Shakespeare was a poet-playwright, not a historian.  And he had to make do with the information that was available to him.

The Tudor kings and queens were always slightly aware that their claim to the English throne was rather shaky.  Henry VII became king when he defeated Richard III in battle.  So, in typical Tudor style, they made up a pack of lies about Richard.  And because many historians are lazy and credulous, we all believed the lies.

The question, then, is this: did Shakespeare really believe the Tudor propaganda?  Or was he actually up to something much more subtle and clever when he portrayed Richard III with a hunchback and a club foot?

After all, Richard III wasn't the only king he seemingly maligned.  Historically speaking, Macbeth was one of the most successful and popular kings in medieval Scotland.  Macbeth's predecessor, King Duncan, was useless; Macbeth defeated him in battle and then ruled for 17 years, during which time he made a pilgrimage to Rome (only a king who knew that his country was safe would disappear overseas for two years).  So, once again, Shakespeare drew a portrait of a king that was wildly inaccurate.

Unless ...

Unless we accept that Shakespeare wasn't really writing about Macbeth but about a different Scottish king.  The one who, at that moment in time, occupied the English throne.  James I.

In Shakespeare's tragedy, written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Macbeth is a brave and steadfast lord who turns to the dark side - ambitious and greedy, he commits murders and goes paranoid.

There are very good reasons - some of them outlined in my book, Who Killed William Shakespeare? - to suspect that Shakespeare thought of James I in just these terms.  He was a promising monarch who broke his promises, choosing to become a veritable "Son of" [Gaelic - mac] Elizabeth, hence "Mac-beth".  King James had dropped heavy hints that England's Catholics would be allowed a degree of tolerance.  He then fell into the traps laid for him by his egregious secretary, Sir Robert Cecil (photo above), and colluded in the government fiction that was the Gunpowder Plot.  The treacherous slaying of King Duncan in the play was really Shakespeare's horrified reaction to the barbarous execution of Father Henry Garnet, SJ, the real target of the Cecil-masterminded "powder treason".

Which brings us back to Richard III.  So King Richard didn't have a hunchback after all.  But Sir Robert Cecil did.  A rhyme of the time described him thus:

Backed like a lute case
Bellied like a drum -
Like Jackanapes on horseback
Sits little Robin Thumb.

He was also known as the "Toad", and Robertus Diabolus - Robert the Devil.

The Cecil family claimed that Sir Robert (the second son of Elizabeth's chief minister, Lord Burghley) had been dropped on his head at birth.  He was certainly stunted and deformed, with a "crookback" and a splayed foot.  Queen Elizabeth called him her "elf", and so in Shakespeare's Richard III he became the "elvish, abortive, rooting hog", the evil "toad" who plots against and kills anybody who threatens to frustrate his ambitions.

It is, in all fairness, extremely simpleminded to imagine that Shakespeare was writing specifically about King Richard.  In reality, he was turning the Tudor propaganda into a weapon against the Court of Elizabeth I.  It was not Richard who was hunchbacked and splay-footed - it was her dangerous "elf", that inveterate and industrious plotter, Robert Cecil.

King James inherited the English throne on Elizabeth's death in 1603.  He also inherited the loathsome Robert Cecil, whom he repeatedly promoted.  And just as Shakespeare had transformed Robert Cecil, for his sins, into the diabolical Richard III, so he turned James I into the tyrannical butcher, Macbeth.

Of course, Shakespeare was so good at what he did that we all made the mistake of taking his words at face value.  But then, historians have been so inclined to swallow Protestant propaganda whole that nobody seems to have questioned Shakespeare's portrayals.  Perish the thought that our greatest wordsmith might have exposed the brutal corruption at the heart of the governments of Elizabeth I and James I! 

No, no, no - far better to assume that Shakespeare really was describing the historical Richard and Macbeth than to acknowledge who the real targets of his quill might have been.  Because that would require us to admit that dreadful people did dreadful things, ostensibly to turn England into a Protestant country, but really to make themselves incredibly rich.  And we really don't want to admit that, do we?

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Pure Honey

Just found out today that one of the most popular posts ever on the excellent Historical Honey website was this one - All is True: Fire at the Globe Theatre - which was the first post I wrote for them last year.

Pretty pleased with that!

Oxford Mania

Any psychologists out there care to help me?

I'm wondering whether there's already a name for it - Something-or-other Syndrome - or whether we might actually be in a position to identify a previously uncategorised condition and give it a name ourselves.

Let me explain.

My wife, the Adorable Kim, sent me a link yesterday to the Spectator blog.  She drew my attention, in particular, to the comments beneath the post.

First, the post itself, which was titled - with breath-taking insouciance - Shakespeare was a nom de plume - get over it.  The author claimed to have found the smoking gun, that one clinching piece of evidence that people knew, even as far back as 1595, that Shakespeare wasn't really Shakespeare.  He provides a photo (above) of a detail from a page of William Covell's Polimanteia where, in the margin, we see a note:

All praise worthy. Lucrecia. Sweet Shakspeare.

But no.  That's not relevant.  Because, to the side of that, in the main text, Covell writes about Samuel Daniel's Delia sonnets and his Cleopatra, remarking that -

"Oxford thou maist extoll thy courte-deare-verse happie Daniell"

Now, to the casual eye, this is a harmless enough piece.  Covell, a clergyman from Cambridge, notes that Samuel Daniel, who was educated at Oxford, could be admired and extolled by his old university.  Daniel was, in Covell's words, "court-dear-verse happy", which appears to suggest that his poetry pleased the royal court of Queen Elizabeth.  Meanwhile, in the margin, Covell adds "All praiseworthy" (probably in regard to Samuel Daniel) and then "Lucrecia Sweet Shakspeare", on the grounds that Daniel's Delia sonnets and his Cleopatra were published roundabout the same time as Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece.

But maybe our eyes are too casual.  Because to the conspiracy nuts, that small snippet is PROOF that "Shakespeare" was really Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

See - beside the margin note (Sweet Shakspeare) we have the word "Oxford".  See?  And after Oxford we get the words "courte-deare-verse", which is OBVIOUSLY a clue, isn't it?  Can't you see it?  It says "Our De Vere"!

Or rather, it doesn't.

Now, if you click on the link to the Spectator blog, you'll see that this spectacularly irrelevant sample of conspiracy-fail is bigged up to the nth degree.  All us Stratfordians (i.e., those of us who pay attention to what people actually said about Shakespeare back in his day) are illiterate morons in the pay of dark forces determined to maintain a 400-year old fraud.

It gets worse when you look at the comments, and the unseemly slanging match of insult and aspersion.  My particular favourite - our whatever the opposite of "favourite" is - is this comment:

"Hopeless? Trying to fit a commoner - a petty thief from Stratford - into some supremely advantaged individual possessing rights of equality with a peer as published in quarto dedications. - The temerity of this commoner might be unique?
That he could influence English arts and culture and history by some kind of osmosis witht native fauna? - Are you for real?
First tell us the kind of excellence you seek in the defense of this Dumbness. Perhaps during those hard times you see Stratford men as a case for socioeconomic blindness? You see your literary comparatives defend - what? The poetry from the Stratford man's childhood?
Give us some merit to follow in at least a few of your arguments."

Setting aside the fact that the argument here is difficult to follow ("word salad", anyone?) let's be honest: the comment comes from someone who just hates William Shakespeare.  He was a "commoner" (ooh, steady on, old chap) and a "petty thief from Stratford" (evidence?  Oh yes, he supposedly poached a deer - see my book, where I deal with that).  So how could he possibly have possessed "rights of equality with a peer"? (that's an old argument, and shows a blind ignorance of what life was like in Shakespeare's day.  Ever heard of Ben Jonson?)

An astonishing outburst, which is a good 200-odd years out of date.  But then, something tells me that the individual who left this comment happens to believe that titled lords are the biz!  Please, bring back the aristocracy - they're the only people who can string a sentence together, and who deserve to be immortal and to "influence English arts and culture and history".  The rest of us are just trash living in our own middens.  Please, won't some grand Earl come along and show us the way, for we are mere scum?!

Nonsense.  Absolute nonsense.

There is no smoking gun.  There is NO evidence that Shakespeare didn't write his own plays,. and PLENTY of evidence that he did.  There is NO evidence that somebody else wrote them for him.  It is a silly story.

And yet, a certain kind of person clings to it with a kind of religious devotion ("Dear Lord [Oxford], give me the strength to serve you here in the midst of idolatry and evil ...").  That's what it's like.  A kind of religious mania ("Protect us, Lord Oxford; we who are persecuted for thy sake by the blind and the ignorant who have erected a commoner in thy place ...").

Look around, though, and you'll find many examples of such wayward extremism these days.  Climate Change Denial?  Check.  UKIP supporters?  Check.  People who don't like wind farms?  Check.  The Tea Party?  Check.  Etcetera, etcetera ...

They all use the same methods.  Weird claims, based on a fundamental refusal to read the evidence and a crazy belief in "smoking guns", coupled with outright abuse directed at anybody who challenges them.

Standards of debate are slipping.  Why?  Because these people never give in (it's a form of religious mania, remember).  You can beat them 100 times in a fair and open debate, and they'll just keep coming back with insults and wild, abusive, hysterical claims.  They are the only ones who know "The Truth", so be damned with you, and your evidence, and your facts.

So - any psychologists out there care to help me define this strange syndrome?  There seems to be something millenarian about it, as if the End of the World were nigh and we must all repent our sinful ways (admiring a commoner - you fools, you'll all burn in Hell!)  Can anyone in the know help me to put a name to this outrageous behaviour, this determination to shout down anyone with the facts at their disposal, this refusal to see things as they are?

What makes somebody leap to such an extreme?  What is their major malfunction?

And how do we stop them infecting the ether with their insanity?

Get in touch if you think you can help.