Arthur's Lost Men
A great black rock, the Rupes Nigra, 33 leagues across, sits at the top of the world with four indraughts, which swallowed ships, dividing four islands, one inhabited by pygmies, forming a mountain range like a wall around the Pole. This concept of the northern polar regions influenced early polar geography from Martin Behaim's globe (1492), Johannes Ruysch's world map (1507) and Gerard Mercator's wall chart (1569) persisting through to the 17th century in Peter Heylin's 'Cosmographie' (1657).
In 1577 Mercator responded to an inquiry from Queen Elizabeth's geographer John Dee in a letter in which he asserts that he extracted the concept of the Northern Regions, word for word, from Jacob Cnoyen who took it from the Gestae Arthuri and the Inventio Fortunata except, where for sake of brevity or speed, he translated into Latin, when if not his words he retained his meaning. He tells Dee that these facts and more can be found in the beginning of the Gestae Arthuri:
“….part of the army of King Arthur conquered the Northern Islands and made them subject to him. And we read nearly 4000 persons entered the indrawing seas who never returned. But in AD 1364 eight of these people came to the King's court in Norway. Among them were two priests, one of whom had an astrolabe, who was descended in the fifth generation from a Bruxellensis: One I say; the eight were (descended) from those who had penetrated the Northern Regions in the first ships.
That Great Army of Arthur had lain all the winter (of 530 AD) in the northern islands of Scotland. And on May 3 a part of it crossed over into Iceland. Then four ships of the aforesaid land had come out of the north and warned Arthur of the indrawing seas. Arthur did not proceed further but peopled all the islands between Scotland and Iceland, and also peopled Grocland, where he found people 23 feet tall. When those four ships returned there were sailors who asserted they knew where the magnetic lands were.
On May 3 the following year Arthur then sent 12 ships with 1800 men and 400 women northwards. Of these 12 ships, five were driven onto the rocks in a storm but the rest made their way between the high rocks on June 18, forty-four days after they had set out.”1
Dee's transcript of Mercator's letter is now fire damaged with several missing lines, but the absent text can be reconstructed from it's inclusion in Dee's work Limits of the British Empire, recently discovered and acquired by the British Library in 1976. Dee's account of Mercator's letter is all that survives of the correspondence between the two geographers and we have no way of knowing if either man was responsible for any interpolations to the original text. Cnoyen would appear to be our only known source for the Gestae Arthuri, which only survives in these extracts copied by the geographer Gerard Mercator and included in his letter to Dee. From what we have of Cnoyen's text it would appear to describe in detail King Arthur's northern conquests. Yet, the story of Arthur's northern adventures is a maze of lost texts and interpolations.
Three years later, in 1580, the English writer Richard Hakluyt, who through his works promoted the English settlement of the Americas, being familiar with Dee's works inquired of Mercator for further details but received no further information in the geographer's reply:
“The historie of the voyage of Iacobus Cnoyen Buschoducensis throughout al Asia, Affrica, and the North, was lent me in time past by a friend of mine at Antwerpe. After I had vsed it, I restored it againe: after many yeeres I required it againe of my friend, but hee had forgotten of whom hee had borrowed it.”2
|Ice Dwellers by William Bradford|
Hakluyt also knew of Lambarde's work and referenced it in his 16-volume work on the history of English exploration and seafaring, 'Principal Navigations' (1598-1600), quoting a passage that claims Arthur subdued Norway and all the islands beyond, as well as Greenland and Iceland with Lapland forming the eastern boundary of his empire. The people of these lands were wild and savage but there were certain Christians living in secret.
A Lost Tale
In turn, Lambarde's source was an Arthurian section taken from the Leges Anglorum Londoniis Collectae. This massive Latin collection of English laws was compiled in the first decade of the 13th century, produced as part of the criticism of the reign of King John (1199 - 1216) leading up to the signing of the Magna Carta at Runymede in 1215, and includes interpolated versions of Quadripartitus, the Leges Henrici Primi, and the Leges Edwardi Confessoris.
The Arthurian section of the Leges Anglorum Londoniis Collectae inserted into the Leges Edwardi Confessoris adds extensive material concerning the law-making and empire-building of previous British and English kings, including the legendary King Arthur, building on the portrait of an Emperor of Northern Europe presented in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britannie. The earliest 13th century version of Leges Edwardi Confessoris noted that Arthur introduced a law calling upon all great men, knights and freemen of Britain to swear to defend the realm against foreigners and enemies.
The Leges Anglorum section containing Arthur's northern exploits has been dated to c.1210 AD showing that Arthur's conquests of the northern polar regions was not simply Dee's invention for the purposes of Elizabethan propaganda. The concept of Arthur as an Arctic conqueror is exceptional in the Arthuriad but as it is common to both the Leges Anglorum and the Gestae Arthuri it is a reasonable assumption that both texts were derived from a common original. Alternatively, both texts may represent mid to late 12th century independent elaborations of Geoffrey's Historia regum Britannie.3
Further, a fragmentary text of late 12th century or early 13th century date known as the Insule Britannie, apparently pre-dating the Leges Anglorum, lists a number of northern islands as "British" possessions without mention of Arthur, all but one of which are also named (in similar spellings) as parts of Arthur's British Empire in the Leges Anglorum.4
It is argued that the concept of these islands as "British" possessions must derive from an acquaintance with the adventures of Arthur in the northern polar regions. The early date strongly supports the contention that there was indeed an earlier source from which at least the Leges Anglorum and the Insule Britannie surely derive. As Adam of Bremen's 11th century text Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesia Pontificum provides the names of the northern countries and islands that Arthur conquered it may well have been the common source.5 It is of course entirely possible that the Gestae Arthuri was the lost 12th century source which inspired both the Leges Anglorum and the Insule Britannie.6
However, as Cnoyen appears to have been in Bergen in 1364, the same time as the priest with the astrolabe 7 combined with the fact that he mentions the Polo-derived "province of Bergi" near a reference to the Gestae suggests the text must post-date Polo's Travels, c.1300. 8 Thus, the Gestae Arthuri is likely to be of a 14th century date, and therefore an elaboration of a lost 12th century text concerned with the Arthurian conquest of the northern polar regions, which underlies both the Leges Anglorum and the Insule Britannie, suggesting it may have its origins in a pre-Galfridian Welsh tale of an Arthurian attack upon a frozen Otherworld fortress in the northern polar regions.9
Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. EGR Taylor, A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee, Imago Mundi 13, PP.56–68, 1956.
2. Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries, 1599.
3. Thomas Green, John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic, The Heroic Age, Issue 15, October 2012.
4. Lynette Muir, King Arthur's Northern Conquests in the Leges Anglorum Londoniis Collectae, Medium Ævum 37:pp.253–262, 1968; quoted in Green, 2012.
5. Green, 2012.
6. Muir, Op.cit.
7. Kirsten Seaver, The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca. A.D. 1000–1500, Stanford University Press, 1996.
8. Taylor, Op.cit.
9. Green, Op.cit.
* * *