Sunday, 17 June 2012

A Tale of Two Cities II

Whereas, Geoffrey of Monmouth centred his tales of Brutus and the foundation of the New Troy on the site of the square mile of the Roman trading settlement of Londinium, the City now the modern business and financial capital of the country, Thomas Malory has his Arthurian associations with London based a mile to the west around the City of Westminster.

Book the Second: The 'Knyght Presoner' 
Sir Thomas Malory, the 'knyght presoner', wrote the ultimate version of the Arthurian legend in English which he claimed he had translated from a French 'life' of King Arthur while he was in prison. But Malory's book, Le Morte d'Arthur, is much more than a simple translation of an unnamed French source; although clearly influenced by continental sources, it is more 'the complete works of King Arthur', the magnum opus.

Dying shortly after its completion, Malory's book was printed by William Caxton in 1485 who named the work after the final book, Morte Darthur, (The Death of Arthur) although Malory had originally named it "The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table". Said to be from Newbold Revel, Warwickshire, the identity of Sir Thomas Malory is as elusive and as mysterious as the knights of his stories; there were at least half a dozen individuals bearing the name in the 15th century. [1]
The Lady of Shalott – John William Waterhouse, 1888
Following his initial imprisonment in 1452 Malory spent the rest of his life behind bars, apart from short spells during brief reprieves. In May 1455, he was transferred from Ludgate to the Tower of London, which at that time was used for detaining aristocratic prisoners, rather than the final days before execution of later use for which the tower is famous. Here, Malory had access to a library that was quite extensive for the time, and it was at the Tower library that he most likely read the French book and other continental material that was the source of Le Morte d’Arthur, his only work of literature, which according to the epilogue was completed in the ninth year of Edward IV, that is between 4 March 1469 and 3 March 1470. Malory died barely twelve months later on 14 March, 1471, and and was buried under a marble tombstone in the chapel of St Francis within the church of Greyfriars, Newgate, which, despite its proximity to one of the jails in which he had been imprisoned, was considered one of the most fashionable church in London at the time.

Malory has much of Arthur's activities around Westminster in London but, like Geoffrey before him, fails to make it the centre of Arthur's rule. Malory's geography is questionable; he clearly places Arthurian events in the context of his own day, moving Camelot to Winchester, [2] probably influenced by the location of the Round Table there, which in his time was almost certainly believed to have been original. To Malory, Camelot is a city, it's main church that of Saint Stephen’s where the king wedded Guenever and twelve of Arthur's defeated enemies were buried. However, Caxton, possibly following Geoffrey of Monmouth, clearly states in the book's introduction that Camelot was in Wales rather than south east England. To explain this apparent discrepancy between author and publisher it is said that Malory confused Venta Belgarum (Winchester, Hampshire) with Venta Silurum (Caerwent, Gwent).

Westminster was once a separate city that grew around the Abbey, the 'West Minster', the monastery church at Thorney Island, that gave the area its name, located about one mile west of the old Roman walled City of Londinium with St Paul's, the 'East Minster'. Tradition claims the 'West Minster' was founded by Sæberht, king of the East Saxons in the 7th century, however, it is certain that there was a small community of monks on the island by at least the 8th century.

According to Malory, Arthur's knights often go to Westminster to see the King and it is where Queen Guenever rode a-Maying into woods and fields beside Westminster, with certain knights of the Round Table, clad all in green when abducted by Sir Meliagrance. Indeed, Arthur and his court sight the barge carrying the dead body of Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat (Tennyson's 'lily maid of Astolat' from the Idylls of the King and his poem 'The Lady of Shalott'), down the Thames at Westminster. After nursing the wounded Launcelot back to health, Elaine dies of a broken heart after he leaves the castle unaware of her feelings for him. Following her instructions, her body is placed in a boat, holding a lily in one hand and her final letter in the other. Her body is floated down the Thames to Camelot, where she is discovered by King Arthur's court. (Book XVIII, Chp XIX).

Elaine by John Atkinson Grimshaw 1877
Presumably Arthur's court is not far away as he and Queen Guenever can see the Thames from a window, (Book XVIII, Chp XX). We should therefore expect Astolat to be upstream on the Thames but Malory puts it at Guildford, the first place Arthur and his Knights stop on their way from London to Camelot (Winchester). Guildford is on the river Wey, joining the Thames at Weybridge, but it was not navigable in Malory's time, so he has Elaine's father and brother take her body directly to the Thames. [3]

However, at the end of the book Caxton reiterates his claim to have “divided the work into twenty-one books, chaptered and emprinted, and finished in the abbey, Westminster” leaving one to wonder how much of Malory's confused geography was due to editorial licence as we have seen above Caxton disagreed with Malory's location of Camelot at Winchester but an identification that remained popular for several centuries.

Later, Malory has Modred follow Queen Guenever to London where she has shut herself in the Tower in attempt to escape him. Modred arrives with an army and besieges her but must break off the siege with the news that Arthur has returned from France and landed at Dover.

Having failed to prevent Arthur's advance from Dover, Modred has gathered even more troops and waits for the king at Salisbury Plain, near the site of the stone temple of Stonehenge which Geoffrey associated with the magical arts of Merlin. Malory has adapted his final episode from the French 'Death of King Arthur' which also sites the fatal battle on the Plain. After receiving a warning in a dream Arthur arranges a truce and concedes parts of the kingdom to Modred. However, tensions run high and both are suspicious of the other and order their knights to attack as soon a weapon is drawn. All seems well until a knight is bitten on the foot by an adder. He draws his sword and the flash of the blade in the sunlight brings the armies to battle. Throughout Welsh tradition the strife of Camlann that followed ultimately leads to the downfall of the British leaving the way open for the Saxon onslaught.

The Sword in the Stone
Perhaps Malory's most famous Arthurian event in London is the drawing of the sword from the stone:

“So in the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul’s or not the French book maketh no mention, all the estates were long or day in the church for to pray. And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—'Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England'.” (Book I, Chp V)

Sir Kay is going to a tournament but has lost his sword so the young Arthur goes to the churchyard and took the sword from the stone and unwittingly proved himself as the rightful heir to the throne.

It has recently been claimed that the drawing of the sword from the stone outside “the largest Church in Roman London discovered, probably the seat of its Bishop, was at Tower Hill.” [4] The Roman Cathedral at Tower Hill was not discovered until 1995 and thought to have been built  between 350 - 400 AD with masonry reused from other buildings in the late Roman period. The massive building overlooking the city would have been one of the world's largest early churches at 100m long and 50m wide and would have been almost identical in design and slightly larger than the church of St Thecla in Milan. It is common conjecture that the Cathedral at Tower Hill was built by order of Magnus Maximus, (remembered as Macsen Wledig in Welsh tradition), proclaimed Emperor of the West in 383 AD by the Britannia garrison.

Born to a poor Spanish family Maximus became a distinguished general in the Roman army serving under Count Theodosius in Britain in 369 AD during recovery of the province following the "barbarian conspiracy". Around 380 AD he was promoted to comes Britanniae, general of the field armies of Britain. The following year he had resounding success against an incursion of Picts and Scots. Following his elevation to the purple by the British field army tradition holds Maximus responsible for stripping the garrisons of Britannia of her troops in pursuit of Gratian, the western emperor, who he defeated outside Paris. According to the 9th century Historia Brittonum the British troops never returned and may have settled in Brittany giving some credence to Breton traditions.

Maximus ruled Britain, Gaul, Spain and northern Africa from his court at Augusta Treverorum (Trier) in the lower Rhineland. It is at Trier c.385 AD that Maximus condemned the Spanish bishop Priscillian and six of his followers to the death penalty. The episode is notable for being the first people in the history of Christianity to be executed for heresy by other Christians. [5] Maximus' reign was short lived; after marching on Italy he was defeated at the Battle of the Save by the Emperor Theodosius, son of Count Theodosius, captured and executed near Aquileia in 388 AD. Along with Maximus so died the hopes of the west: he was the last emperor of note to venture to Britain.

Owing to Maximus' short reign it is doubtful that the Roman Cathedral at Tower Hill was ever completed. There is certainly no evidence of his return to Britain. Writing in the 6th century Gildas tells us in the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae that:“After this, Britain is left deprived of all her soldiery and armed bands, of her cruel governors, and of the flower of her youth, who went with Maximus, but never again returned.” [6] However, if the cathedral was finished it must have had a short-lived existence as the remains indicate evidence of fire damage from the 5th century suggestive of Germanic raiding parties venturing down the Thames and sacking the building a thousand years before Malory's day; he was almost certainly unaware of the cathedral's existence.

Lundenwic - Londinium
However, there had certainly been a late-Roman episcopal see in London. In The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation The Venerable Bede records a tradition that the first Saxon cathedral was built by King Ethelbert in the metropolis of the East Saxons in the year 604 AD:

“when this province also received the word of truth, by the preaching of Mellitus, King Ethelbert built the church of St. Paul, in the city of London, where he and his successors should have their episcopal see.” (Book II, Chp III)

Bede calls it a ‘mart of many nations’  but for many years archaeologists could find no trace of this early Saxon London. Yet, the early Saxon settlement of 'Lundenwic' was not on the site of the abandoned Roman city of Londinium, but a mile to the west. Excavations at St Martin-in-the-Fields, near Trafalgar Square, by the Museum of London Archaeological Service (MOLAS) has uncovered evidence of the presence of Saxons on the site well over a hundred years earlier than Lundenwic is generally supposed to have been founded.

The tale of these two cities is yet to be told.

It has been suggested that the London Stone was where the young Arthur drew the sword. This weathered block of limestone has achieved near mythical status and is enigmatically connected with the destiny of England's capital city; London's fate lies with the stone.

Copyright © 2012 Edward Watson

Next: Book the Third: The London Stone


Notes & References
1. P.J.C. Field, The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory, D.S.Brewer, 1999, discounts the other five.
2. In 1934 Walter Oakeshott discovered another copy of Malory's Morte Darthur in Winchester College. Until the discovery the Winchester manuscript the available text of Morte Darthur was dependent solely on William Caxton's 1485 printing of the book with most modern issues based on H Oskar Sommer's 1890 edition of this work. The Winchester Manuscript contains some differences to Caxton's version which has led scholars to question how much Caxton altered from Malory's original. As we have seen above Malory associated Winchester with Arthur's Camelot, no doubt influenced by the Round Table hanging in the Great Hall part of Winchester Castle, which was hanging there in Malory's day and no doubt fuelled his imagination. Reading of the discovery in the newspaper the Arthurian scholar Eugène Vinaver met Oakeshott, and produced the 3 volume "The Works of Sir Thomas Malory" (Oxford, 1947) based upon the Winchester Manuscript and perhaps a more faithful rendition of Malory's original.
3.  Geoffrey Ashe, Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image, 1997. The Wey was made navigable to Guildford in the 17th century and extended further south in the 18th century to Godalming.
4.  As part of the promotion to the publication of his book Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot (The History Press, 2010), Christopher Gidlow published the 'Top 10 clues to the real King Arthur', in The Independent, 12 July 2010.
Following 30 years of academic denial of King Arthur, Gidlow attempts to turn the tide and looks at the archaeological evidence for Arthur’s existence. At No 2 in Gidlow's list is The London Basilica at Tower Hill which he endeavours to connect with the drawing of the sword from the stone by Malory's statement that "outside the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not",  arguing that it was the largest Church in Roman London and probably the seat of its Bishop.
5. On the the fate of the Priscillianists, a sect of heretics, the English historian Edward Gibbon wrote: “The theory of persecution was established by Theodosius, whose justice and piety have been applauded by the saints: but the practice of it, in the fullest extent, was reserved for his rival and colleague, Maximus, the first, among the Christian princes, who shed the blood of his Christian subjects on account of their religious opinions.” - Edward Gibbon, The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 3, Chapter 27, 1776 -1788.
6. In support of the statement by Gildas there is no evidence for Maximus returning to Britain although he may well have ordered the building of the cathedral at Tower Hill but the concept of Londinium experiencing a golden revival at the end of the 4th century under Maximus is totally unfounded. It is often claimed that he reopened the London mint and used the 'AVG' mark on his coinage. The argument for the usage of this mint mark denoting Londinium appears to be based solely on the Roman city being renamed 'Augusta' in the 4th century. Indeed, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that Theodosius "marched from Augusta, which was earlier called Londinium." However, archaeological evidence for Maximus's Londinium officina has never been found and survival of the modern name 'London' suggests 'Augusta' was more an official honorific rather than in common usage.  The Treveri were an important tribe in Gallic Belgica, which the Romans gave the name of 'Augusta' to their chief city, revealing its antiquity under its modern name of Treves, situated on the Moselle, a tributary of the Rhine. It was one of six cities in Gaul to which the privilege of coining money was granted. Is it not more likely that coins minted under Magnus Maximus using the 'AVG' mark were minted at Augusta Treverorum (Trier) where he held his court.

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