Monday 29 December 2014

Vikings: Violent Raiders or Extraordinary Explorers?

The Norsemen's Fury 
Anglo Saxon England shuddered on 8th June 793 AD when a raid by heathen men from across the sea brought plunder and slaughter on the island monastery at Lindisfarne. The raid off the coast of northern England signalled the beginning of the Viking Age, a period of major change across Europe in which the Norsemen are primarily remembered as vicious marauders.

In 843 a Viking raiding party sacked the city of Nantes on the Loire River while the people of the town were observing the festival of Saint John. The Norsemen entered the city unopposed and slaughtered the inhabitants. The Chronique de Nantes records the slaughter:

“After they had disembarked some of them climbed the walls of the city using ladders, others penetrated the cloisters. No one could prevent their entry. The entered the city on the holy festival of St. John the Baptist. The Bishop of the City was Gohardus, a simple, handsome and God-fearing man, with whom all the clergy and monks of the monastery were gathered… 

….The Vikings slew the entire multitude they found there without regard to age or sex. They cruelly killed the priest and bishop Gohardus who died saying ‘Sursum corda’. All the other monks, whether they were in the church, outside it, or at the altar were put to the sword and disembowelled…”

Much of the Viking's exceptional achievement's are over-shadowed by their bloodthirsty reputation, indeed the very word “viking” has become synonymous with a violent raider. However, a growing number of scholars believe the Vikings were no more bloody-minded than other warriors of the period.

In his new book The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, August 2014) Yale historian Anders Winroth argues that the Vikings acted not much differently from other European warriors of the period, citing the mass execution of  4,500 Saxon captives on a single day in 782 by Charlemagne who is now “heralded as the original unifier of Europe.”

Winroth maintains the image of the Norsemen is too often distorted by medieval and modern myth, suffering from bad public relation, in part because they attacked a society more literate than their own, and therefore most accounts of them come from their victims. Moreover, because the Vikings were pagan and often attacked religious houses they played into a Christian story line that cast them as an evil, demonic force. In his book Winroth carries out a sweeping new survey to show such exaggeration was often a feature of European writings about the Vikings.

The extraordinary Viking expansion from their Scandinavian homelands created a cultural network stretching across four continents from the Arctic Circle and the lands of the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea.

In answering the question "Vikings: Violent Raiders or Extraordinary Explorers?" we should consider the evidence provided by the distant travels of these remarkable seaborne voyagers which continues to be discovered and 2014 has not disappointed.

Vikings: Life and Legend Exhibition
In March the Vikings: Life and Legend Exhibition opened at the British Museum in London. The first major exhibition on Vikings at the British Museum for over 30 years featuring many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK alongside important Viking Age artefacts from the British Museum’s own collection. The main attraction at the exhibition was the longest Viking ship ever discovered. The 37-metre-long warship, known as Roskilde 6, was powered by 40 pairs of oars and dated to  around 1025, was excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1997.

Harald Bluetooth’s fortress found?
A team from Aarhus University announced in September the discovery of a new Viking fortress for the first time in 60 years. The fortress is constructed as a ringfort in a field belonging to Vallø Manor on the east coast of Sealand in Denmark, is with some certainty, the fifth of it’s type, a so-called “trelleborg” from Viking times. The trelleborg fortresses are unique for Denmark. Carbon-14 dating has confirmed the fortress was built in the period between the year 900 and the beginning of the 11th century, leading to speculation that the site was one of Harald Bluetooth’s fortresses.

Viking Hoard found in Dumfries and Galloway 
In October the Herald Scotland announced the discovery of more than 100 objects of Viking treasure on church land at an undisclosed location in Dumfries and Galloway in one of the most significant finds of its kind ever made in Scotland. The hoard unearthed by metal-detecting enthusiast Derek McLennan included artefacts of gold and silver from a wide geographic area that includes Ireland, Scandinavia, and central Europe and possibly the largest silver Carolingian pot ever discovered.

Feasting Hall discovered in Denmark
The December issue of the journal Archaeological Prospection published news of the identification of a major Viking  feasting Hall near Vadstena in Sweden. The hall measuring almost 50 metres in length was located by Archaeologists from Stockholm University and Umeå University. The location where the hall was found has long seen as a burial mound, the Aska barrow, but mapping with ground penetrating radar revealed that it is a foundation platform for a large building most likely dating from the Viking Period. The hall was probably the home of a royal family whose rich graves have previously been excavated nearby.

Viking Women raiders
A study of Norse DNA suggests that Viking men took significant numbers of women with them in their longboats when they sailed to places such as the Scottish mainland, Shetland, Orkney and Iceland. Researchers analysed maternally inherited genetic material, known as mitochondrial DNA, extracted from 80 Viking skeletons unearthed in Norway. The result suggest that Norse women played a central role in the Viking settlements established in Britain and other parts of the North Atlantic contradicting the stereotype of male-only raiding parties with an unhealthy appetite for rape and pillage.

Evidence of Viking Metalworking in Canada
The belief that Viking seafarers travelled from Greenland to parts of Arctic Canada has been confirmed by the discovery of Norse artefacts in mainland Canada and the Arctic islands over the past several decades. The discovery of metalworking artefacts could be the earliest evidence of high-temperature non-ferrous metalworking north of Mesoamerica. Analysis of a broken stone vessel discovered on Baffin Island has shown it to be a crucible with traces of a bronze on the inside used for metalworking. It is thought the crucible may have been brought to Canada by Norse seafarers travelling from Greenland or Iceland.

Spanish Vikings
Generally there is only a vague knowledge that the Vikings went to Spain. There are written accounts of the Vikings raiding in northern Spain from around 840 until the 11th century, but, archaeologically, absolutely nothing has been done. In March 2014 a number of Viking anchors were washed ashore in a storm at Galicia in Northern Spain. On the beach where the anchors were found there was a big mound which locals thought might have been a motte-and-bailey construction, which was used by the later Vikings in France. But it is suspected this mound was a longphort – a Viking construction only found in Ireland during the early Viking age, and very similar to English Viking camps, where they would winter, after taking over the harbour.

First Vikings to make the trip to the British Isles
In an article published by the journal Internet Archaeology, Heen Pettersen writes that foreign objects found in burial sites in mid- and western Norway coincide with the first known Viking raids in Lindisfarne, England in 793. (Science Nordic December 2014)

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

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Tuesday 9 December 2014

Mythmaking & Mapmakers

King Arthur & the Northern Enchantment Part IV

The Mapmakers
The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) is well known for his innovative mapping technique based on cylindrical projection first used on his wall chart of 1569, later known as the Mercator Projection accordingly and still in use today on navigational charts. Mercator's map provided a major breakthrough in the nautical cartography of the 16th century by maintaining an accurate ratio of latitude to longitude.

Today, in our modern world with maps produced from satellite imagery and modern printing technology, these early charts present a very strange world view to us. To the 16th-century Europeans the northern polar region was as distant and fantastical as another world; tales of lands inhabited by pygmies, congealed seas, perpetual daylight, whirlpools, a realm of ice that pulled at the lodestone.

Concepts of the known world, influenced by religious views, dominated European maps during the Medieval period with Jerusalem typically shown at the centre. These early maps were, of course, drawn and illuminated by hand, with little duplication and extremely limited distribution. Reports from returning explorers provided vital information for the early map makers. From the beginning of the 12th century Viking explorations of the North Atlantic fuelled the Norse Sagas and began to be incorporated into world maps but the view of the northern polar regions remained shrouded in Arctic mist.

Mercator's north pole
The legend on Mercator's 1569 map claimed the information he based his representation of the Septentrional (northern) regions was gleaned from the accounts of the travels of Jacoben Cnoyen who quoted 'historical facts' of Arthur the Briton from the Gestae Arthuri, and another work written by an English friar from Oxford who had travelled in the far north in 1360 and recorded what he saw in a work called the Inventio fortunata. Unfortunately all these accounts are now lost and all we have of  the contents is recorded in Mercator's letter of 1577 to the Elizabethan geographer John Dee.

The account of the Septentrional regions recorded in the Inventio depicted a great black rock, the Rupes Nigra, at the top of the world with four indraughts which had the force to swallow whole ships, dividing four islands within a mountain range at latitude 78' like a jagged wall around the Pole.  Evidently the Inventio coloured Mercator's view of the northern polar regions as shown on his 1569 wall map and persisted to the first edition of his atlas map of the Arctic, published in 1595, a year after his death, which shows four complete islands with a solid coastline, marking a significant leap in Arctic cartography. Yet, although the author of the Inventio may have claimed to have travelled northwards from latitude 54' he cannot have actually reached the North Pole; the Arctic world he describes is far from the reality we know today.

At this time no explorer had been anywhere near the North Pole, and today we view the ring of islands shown surrounding the North Pole as pure fantasy derived from a mythical concept like something from Tolkien's Middle Earth; yet this interpretive image of the Septentrional Islands and Indrawing Seas depicted in the 14th century Inventio Fortunata persisted for a remarkable length of time and influenced early polar geography from the accounts of  Martin Behaim's globe (1492), Johannes Ruysch's world map (1507), Mercator's wall chart (1569) persisting through to the 17th century in Peter Heylin's 'Cosmographie' (1657).

The detail of the northern polar regions depicted on Behaim's globe shows what he presumed to be the northern edge of the Eurasion continent, the 'edge of the world' as shown on many other maps of the time. The northwest part of Behaim's Arctic coast and that of Scandinavia appear to be based on interpretations of Claudius Clavus. But there is no known precedent for Behaim's central Arctic coast.

In the 2nd century AD the Greek geographer Ptolemy advanced a scheme of cartographic projection that allowed flat maps to account for the curvature of the Earth that he had perfected form his predecessor Marinus of Tyre and acknowledges his great obligations to him in his work 'Geographia'. It wasn't until the rekindling of interest in Ptolemy during the Renaissance that a French cardinal Gulielmus Filiastrus had a Latin translation made of the map captions in his work. The Latinized maps were appended to a 1407 translation. The Filiastrous Ptolemy included a textual description and map of Scandinavia, a region known to Pliny and Mela but with insufficient detail as to be enclosed in local maps.

The Danish cartographer Claudius Clavus was considered a leading authority on the regions of the north at this time, and probably the first to put Greenland on the map with an outline, which was included in the Filiastrous Ptolemy of 1427. From documents written by Nicolas Germanus and Henricus Martellus it seems Clavus visited Greenland in 1420 around the time that Norse settlements in Greenland had come to an end after five hundred years. Clavus's sources were probably Norse but he admitted that some unknown areas, such as the landmass linking Greenland to Scandinavia, were based on conjecture.

In 1558 a book entitled De I Commentarii del Viaggio [The Discovery of Frisanda, Elslanda, Estotilanda and Icaria; Made by Two Brothers of the Zeno family: viz Messire Nicolò, the Chevalier, and Messire Antonio; with a Map of the said Islands] was published by a Venetian nobleman named Nicolò Zeno that claimed an accompanying map was made by his ancestors, the brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zeno, in 1380. The book claimed the map illustrated the lands of the North Atlantic, and some argue North America, discovered by the Zeno brothers a hundred years before Columbus set foot on the New World. A third brother from this distinguished family was the naval hero of the Mediterranean, Admiral Carlo Zeno (d. 1418). The younger Nicolo’, great-great-great-grandson (?) of Nicolò senior, claimed he had an ancient family manuscript which he, as a child, had torn to pieces. Realising that the document contained important information on the explorations of his family he attempted to reconstruct the presumed content of the manuscript by pulling together quotations from letters found in his family house that told the story of Nicoló the navigator who was shipwrecked near the Island of Frislanda while voyaging to England.

The Zeno map (Wikimedia commons)
He was hired by the locals to command the fleet of Frislanda. Later Nicoló wrote a letter to his brother Antonio in Venice inviting him to join him in Frislanda where they enjoyed adventures together until four years later when Nicoló died, c.1398. Antonio stayed in Frislanda for a further ten years before he returned to Venice.

Writing from somewhere in the North Sea just before the time of his death the elder Nicoló claimed that twenty six years previous (c.1372) four fishing boats put to sail and were driven across the sea for several days by a heavy storm. They came to an island called Estotiland, a rich country, abounding in gold (or copper?) and plentiful in all good things, with immense woods, whose people grew corn and drank beer, lying more than a thousand miles westward from where Nicoló wrote. They traded with Greenland, importing furs, brimstone and pitch.

Antonio describes a journey he took to Greenland in which he saw a monastery situated by a hot spring at an unknown location. The waters were used to heat both the monastery and the friar's chambers. Today there is still an active thermal spring at Uunartoq Island which would have been in the Norse Eastern Settlement of Greenland where a cloister is known to have existed. Today a spa bathtub constructed from boulders can be found there with the oldest traces dating back over a thousand years to the time of Norse settlement. Nearby the remains of a Benedictine convent dedicated to Olaf the Holy, King of Norway 995-1000 who baptised Leif Ericson, was located in 1932. It was later identified as the Norse religious house mentioned by Ivar Bardarson in his Description of Greenland, a report written for the bishop of Bergen between A.D. 1341-60. Bardarson was the bishop's envoy and probably sent to the Greenland settlement to collect taxes for the church. By odd coincidence this is around the same time that the friar from Oxford is said to have visited the north and penned the Inventio Fortunata.

The remains of a compass, known as the Uunartoq disc, were found in the convent in 1948. Initially thought to have been a decorative object but other scholars have argued the wooden disc was an important navigational tool used by the Vikings in their 1,600-mile-long sea journey almost directly west from Norway to Greenland. It is thought the Vikings could have used a pair of crystals known as sunstones, in conjunction with the wooden disc, to locate the sun after sunset and pinpoint the position of the sun below the horizon, enabling them to navigate the North Atlantic along a nearly straight line.

According to the Icelandic Sagas the first Norse settlements in Greenland were founded by Erik (The Red) Thorvaldsson, father of the famous Icelandic explorer Leif Ericson, acknowledged as the first European to land in North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Erik the Red's father had been banished from Norway for manslaughter and sailed West to Iceland. Later Erik the Red was exiled for three years by the Icelanders as he too had committed "some killings" c.982. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, he spent his three years of exile exploring a mysterious and little-known land. He rounded the southern tip of the island and sailed up the western coast identifying habitable lands.

After his exile he returned to Iceland with enticing tales of this new land, naming it 'Greenland' to make it sound more attractive than 'Iceland'. Erik returned to Greenland in 985 with the first colonists in 24 boatloads but only 14 completed the journey, the others boats were either forced back to port or lost at sea. Erik established two colonies on the southwest coast of Greenland; The Eastern and Western Settlements.

Nicoló Zeno and the fishermen remained five years at Estotiland. No one could understand their language except an interpreter that spoke Latin who had also by chance been cast on that island. The king of Estotiland sent them with twelve boats to a land to the south they called Drogeo who's people are described as such that they are probably North American Indians.  Nicoló and the fishermen spent thirteen years on Drogeo among the natives before returning to Estotiland. It seems likely the inhabitants of Estotiland where Norsemen and the island was actually Newfoundland which is due west of the North Sea by 'more than a thousand miles' and the land called Drogeo may have been Nova Scotia. Finally Antonio sailed home to Venice with their story.

The North Atlantic from Sebastian Munster's Cosmography
It is from these letters that the younger Nicoló claimed to have extracted details of his ancestors’ voyages to Engroneland (Greenland) and distant islands of Frislanda, Icaria, Drogero, Estotiland and Estland, in the northern Atlantic as depicted on the Zeno map in remarkable detail. Many of these islands were printed on maps for centuries; in the 16th century the accounts of the brother's voyages clearly influenced Mercator who included the Zeno geography in his world map of 1569, followed closely by Abraham Ortelius in his map of the Northern Atlantic in 1573.

Following the Zeno geography Mercator included Frislanda in a separate inset on his 1595 map of the North Pole which led to considerable confusion in the mapping of Greenland and Baffin Island in the following centuries. In 1576 the explorer Martin Frobisher took a copy of the Zeno map with him on his voyage to the Arctic. When Frobisher reported sight of land which he believed to be Frislanda, he claimed the island for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth. He had actually sighted the coast of Greenland, consequently when he got to Baffin Island he thought he was at Greenland, and so the reports of all his explorations around Baffin Island were ascribed to Greenland. Thus it was that for many years "Frobishers Strait" was put at the southern tip of Greenland rather than on Baffin Island. He had initially thought the channel, later to bear his name, was in fact the fabled Northwest Passage with the mistaken notion that the land bounding the strait to the south was America, and that to the north was Asia. It wasn't until 1861 that it was realised it was actually a bay at the southeastern corner of Baffin Island.

After Mercator, one of the most influential geographical works of the 16th Century was Sebastian Munster's Cosmography. The 1579 German  issue of Munster's Cosmography included an early regional map of Scandinavia, Iceland, the Baltic and the North Sea regions, based upon Abraham Ortelius' map first issued in 1573. Again the fictitious islands of Frislanda and Icaria are shown near Iceland, and further west Estotiland is shown as a part of North America and other mythical features such as the islands of St. Brendan and Brazil. No wonder explorer's like Frobisher were confused.

However, the Zeno account was accepted as genuine enough and for a long time considered one of the most important charts made in the late 14th century, during the following centuries Frislanda was included by most cartographers and even appeared as late as Lotter's 18th century map. But as knowledge of the North Atlantic advanced many of the lands depicted in the Zeno map proved to be fictitious and simply did not exist.

Two years after Mercator's death in 1596 the Dutch Arctic explorer and cartographer Willem Barentsz in searching for a Northeast passage along the coast of Siberia discovered and mapped Spitsbergen (shown as "Het Nieuwe Land" Dutch for "the New Land") for the first time and rounded the northern tip of Nova Zembla. This break-through achievement redefined the cartographic perspective of the region, for these newly discovered islands were well into the latitudes where Mercator had mapped his four Arctic lands. In subsequent decades all trace of Mercator's four circumpolar islands, the Rupes Nigra, and the Arctic maelstrom had vanished from maps of the northern regions.

Willem Barentsz's map of the Northern Polar region
 Mercator's four islands around the pole have gone but Frisland is still there
In 1898 Frederic W. Lucas published a scathing criticism of the Zeno account entitled 'The Annals of the Voyages of the Brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zeno, In the North Atlantic About the End of the Fourtheenth Century and the Claim Founded Thereon to a Venetian Discovery of America; A Criticism and an Indictment'. Lucas argued that the Zeno narrative and its accompanying map was nothing short of a complete fabrication extracted from several Renaissance maps and works, including representations of Iceland taken directly from Olaus Magnus which the author of the Zeno narrative utilised to represent an enigmatic new land which some have interpreted as America. As a direct consequence of Lucas' criticism, today the Zeno map and narrative is regarded to be at best of doubtful authenticity if not an outright hoax.

No copy of the Zeno map is known to exist prior to its publication in Nicolò Zeno’s 1558 book and conveniently, some might say, the author claims he destroyed the original text as a child so we only have the 16th century edition. The authenticity of the Zeno map seems to be betrayed by its very accurate depiction of Greenland which is significantly superior to other 14th century maps, and appearing nearly identical in shape and orientation to the Clavus-derived 1467 map of Nicolaus Germanus.  Indeed, modern scholars have concluded that the Zeno map is derived from a compilation of several earlier maps, including Olaus Magnus’ Carta marina, printed in Venice in 1539 and derivatives of Claudius Clavus’ early map of the North c.1427.

The fact that the likes of respected 16th century geographers such as Mercator and Ortelius could be taken in by these representations of the northern polar regions, such as the Zeno brothers and the Inventio Fortunata, underlines what little knowledge educated Europeans actually had of the Arctic regions and hardly surprising that explorers were confused when on the ocean.

Quite simply unchartered lands (Terra incognito) beyond the edge of the map were based on mythological perceptions and Polar maps at the extremes given fabulous descriptions.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
HR Holand, An English Scientist in America 130 Years before Columbus, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, pp. 205-219, Volume XLVIII, 1959. Holand argues that the Oxford friar who wrote the Inventio Fortunata must have been in Hudson Bay.
James Robert Enterline, Erikson, Eskimos, and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America,  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Robert McGhee, The Arctic Voyages of Martin Frobisher: An Elizabethan Adventure, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2006.
Fred W. Lucas, The Zeno Voyage: Anatomy of a Hoax, edited by Jason Colavito, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

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Saturday 15 November 2014

The Secret of Glaston

On this day, 15th November, in 1539, Richard Whiting, the Last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, was executed on Glastonbury Tor. He has hung and dismembered, his head stuck above the abbey gates while the parts of his body were distributed to Bridgwater, Taunton and Bath, in an extraordinary act of violence hardly befitting of the charges levelled at the abbot.

The execution on the Tor has all the trappings of a ritual killing, described by Avalonian Geoffrey Ashe as the act of either mystics or madmen - but why?

King Henry VIII had been desperate to prove papal superiority over Rome  and needed proof of the tradition of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. But Joseph's arrival at Glastonbury was a late addition to the Abbey tradition and even the monks did not seem to know the whereabouts of his tomb.

A mysterious passage, contained in the history of the Abbey, written by William of Malmesbury in the early 12th century De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae points to beneath the floor of the Old Church:

"This church, then, is certainly the oldest I know in England, and from this 
circumstance derives its name (vetusta ecclesia)... In the pavement may be seen 
on every side stones designedly inlaid in triangles and squares and figured with 
lead, under which, if I believe some sacred enigma to be contained...."

In the 14th century an enigmatic prophesy attributed to the 6th century bard Melkin appeared for the first time in John of Glastonbury's "Chronicle" which has been interpreted as claiming Joseph of Arimathea lies buried near the Old Church in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, together with two "cruets" containing the blood and sweat of Christ:

"Amid these Joseph in marble
Of Arimathea by name
Hath found perpetual sleep
And he lies on a two-forked line
Next the south corner of an oratory
Fashioned of wattles
For the adoring of a mighty Virgin

In his sarcophagus
Two cruets, white and silver
Filled with blood and sweat
Of the Prophet Jesus
When his sarcophagus 
Shall be found entire, intact
In time to come, it shall be seen"

The old abbot went quietly to the gallows and with him went the Secret of Glaston.

What was the secret Richard Whiting took to his grave; were the Abbots of Glastonbury guardians of Joseph's tomb?

In 1908 the Church of England appointed Frederick Bligh Bond as director of the first excavations at Glastonbury Abbey. Bligh Bond had remarkable success unearthing lost chapels in a very short length of time. Bligh Bond's address to the Prince and Princess of Wales on the 22nd June 1909 on the occasion of their visit to Glastonbury Abbey included the following perplexing passage:

"Then the grass shall be as glass
And you shall see the mystery
Deep down it lies from prying eyes
And safely sleeps while vigil keeps The Company

(How do) the dry bones stir and shake
And each to each his fellow seeks
Soon comes again what once has been
And Glaston’s glory shall be seen”

At the time Bligh Bond's speech was thought to refer to his archaeological excavations but later it became clear he had stumbled upon the Secret of Glaston, again indicating some enigma lies under the ground of the Abbey.

In 1919 he published his findings in The Gates of Remembrance, revealing that he had employed psychical methods, such as automatic writing, to guide his excavation of the Abbey ruins, claiming he had tapped into the memory bank of the former monks of Glastonbury, whom he termed "The Company of Avalon". Consequently, he was dismissed by the Dean of Wells, in 1921 and the Secret of Glaston remains uncovered to this day.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

The Last Abbot of Glastonbury

The Execution of Richard Whiting

The Bones of Richard Whiting

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Friday 31 October 2014

Lost Tales of the Arctic

Arthur & the Northern Enchantment Part III

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
However, the Gestae Arthuri of Cnoyen's text, indirectly through Mercator's letter, was not the only source known to Dee that described Arthur's conquests in the northern polar regions. In his marginal notes to Mercator's letter, Dee mentions another work De Priscus Anglorum Legibus. Here Dee is referring to William Lambarde's Archaionomia sive de Priscus Anglorum Legibus libri (1568), of which he held a copy in his library at Mortlake and used in writing “Limits.” Lambarde's text describes an Imperial Arthur ruling over the whole of the northern polar regions in much the same vein as the Gestae Arthuri suggests.

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.

The Lost Tales
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, as Thomas Green concludes, 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

Next: Mythmaking and Mapmakers

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.

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Wednesday 22 October 2014

The Hidden Realms of Darkness

Arthur & the Northern Enchantment Part II 

"Into the north window of my chamber glows the Pole Star with uncanny light.
All through the long hellish hours of blackness it shines there".
(Polaris by H. P. Lovecraft)

As we have seen in Part I – The Age of Discovery John Dee was, among many other things, a learned geographer commissioned by Elizabeth I to establish the boundaries of the Queen's Empire. Dee is credited with bringing the term the “British Empire” into common usage and in so-doing produced a number of works for this purpose including “The Limits of the British Empire” and “Of Famous and Rich Discoveries”.  Dee's works fed the aspirations of  the Tudor crown and argued that Queen Elizabeth could claim sovereignty over a vast tract of the Northern polar regions and significantly areas of the New World.

For this Dee used sources that identified discoveries of these areas of the globe by Brendan the Navigator, John Madoc and King Arthur, the Tudor's own Welsh ancestor. Dee claimed that in times past King Arthur had conquered Gaul, Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland in addition to the Northern Polar regions. The credibility of Dee's sources have been the subject of much debate.

In the 9th century Arthur was known to the Britons as a mighty warrior, the dux bellorum, the leader of battles of the Historia Brittonum rallying the Britons against the Anglo Saxons in Post-Roman times. But here he was no King, the text merely states he fought alongside the kings of Britain. According to the battles listed in the Historia Brittonum, Arthur's military successes, twelve in all, culminated at the Battle of Badon, also named by Gildas, and accepted as a historical event dated to around 600 AD.

By the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century work Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur had became a King and Emperor who's dominion stretched across northern Europe. In Book 9 of Geoffrey's opus Arthur after conquering the whole of Ireland adds to his government Iceland, Gothland, and the Orkneys and goes on to subdue Norway, Dacia, Aquitaine, and Gaul. Geoffrey's sources have generated as much debate as Dee's; he claimed he based his tale of Arthur on a certain book written in the British tongue, given to him by Walter Archdeacon of Oxford, that he then translated into Latin. We are left to ponder if Geoffrey invented his account of Arthur as ruler of an European Empire stretching to the far northern polar regions, or whether he had based his story on another work, perhaps now lost to us? Similarly, Dee's claims of Arthur as a conqueror of the northern polar regions is also based on lost works.

Geoffrey's account of British history was largely unchallenged for four centuries until Polydore Vergil published his Anglica Historia in 1534 AD in which he denounced the entire history of the Britons, claiming there is “....nothinge more obscure, more uncertaine, or unknowne then the affaires of the Brittons from the beginninge” notably adopting an anti-Arthurian position.

In his Limits of the British Empire, Dee claimed there were indeed many proofs of Arthur's conquests but Polydore had burnt them all. Dee argued there was evidence of King Arthur's conquests in the northern polar regions as he demonstrated in his works Of Famous and Rich Discoveries which included the transcript of a letter of 1577 from the Flemish cartographer Geradus Mercator, a summary of which he included in Limits.

In 1569 Gerard Mercator published an 18-sheet world map, titled Ad usum
navigantium, using the projection that, to this day, still bears his name. He depicted the northern polar regions as a small inset map in the lower left-hand corner of his large wall map. Mercator depicted the polar region as being made up of four surrounding islands, separated by four strong flowing rivers, which carried the oceans of the world towards a giant whirlpool at the pole where there stood a large rock. These northern islands had not appeared on Mercator’s world map of 1538.

In January 1577 Dee had written to Abraham Ortelius the Flemish cartographer and creator of the first modern atlas, inquiring as to what authority he had used in inserting the names of Cape Paramantia, Los Jardinos and others on the north coast of North America, names which appeared on no other known map. Dee was obsessed with the notion that the whole northern shore could be circumnavigated to reach the Eastern Ocean. There is no record of Ortelius's response to Dee but he is known to have visited England in the following spring when he met Richard Hakluyt and William Camden in London and visited Dee at Mortlake on 12th March. Just weeks later Martin Frobisher departed on his second voyage, officially to search for the Northwest Passage but secretly commissioned to find gold ore.1

The legend on Mercator's 1569 map claimed the information he based his representation of the northern (Septentrional 2) regions was gleaned from the accounts of Jacob Cnoyen who quoted historical facts of Arthur the Briton, and from a priest who served the King of Norway in 1364, who was a descendant of those whom Arthur had sent to live in these isles. The priest said that in 1360 an English friar from Oxford with an astrolabe 3 who had reached these isles and then pushed on further by magical arts.

Subsequently, Dee wrote to Mercator in 1577 inquiring as to his sources. In his reply Mercator explained the source of his ideas regarding the geography of the far north was the Itinerarium of the Flemish traveller Jacob Cnoyen, which he quoted from in his correspondence to Dee, but now lost. Cnoyen's source was cited as the Res gestae Arturi britanni (or Gestae Arthuri), also lost, and a book written by an English Minorite, a mathematician from Oxford, who had travelled in the far north in 1360 and recorded what he saw in a work called the Inventio fortunata, also now lost.

Influence of the Inventio on later maps
It would appear other cartographers of the time were also working from the Inventio fortunata for description of the northen polar regions. Martin Behaim produced a globe between 1491-93, on the eve of Columbus's journey to the New World, which incorporated the discoveries of the later Middle Ages, such as the voyages of Marco Polo, and the legendary Isle of St Brendan. The Behaim globe shows the northern polar regions as depicted in the Inventio fortunata.

Fifteen years later, in 1507, Johannes Ruysch produced a world map, included in the Rome publication of Ptolemy's Geographia, which in addition to accounts from Marco Polo's travels included information from Columbus and the voyages of John Cabot of Bristol. Ruysch's depiction of the northern polar regions claimed it was based on the account found in the Inventio fortunata; in the legend to his map he states, “We read in the book 'De Inventio Fortunatae' that beneath the Arctic Pole there is a high rock of magnetic stone 33 German miles in circumference. The indrawing sea surrounds this rock flowing as if in a vessel that let's water down a hole. There are four surrounding islands....bordered by huge mountains. Here the indrawing sea begins. Here the ship's compass does not hold, nor can ships containing iron turn back.4

The configuration of the Arctic regions continued to be reproduced on later maps such as Orontius Finaeus’ Nova et Integra Universi Orbis Descriptio, published in 1534-6 and Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of 1570.

Mercator died in 1594; a year later a map of the northern polar regions, Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio, very similar to the inset map of the northern polar region Mercator had made on his world map of 1569, was printed by his son and widely reproduced thereafter.

Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio
map of the Arctic 1595 by Gerard Mercator 
Mercator’s 1595 map shows a North Pole that is very unfamiliar to us today in modern times. Mercator’s notes inform us that the waters of the oceans are carried northward to the Pole through these rivers with great force, such that no wind could make a ship sail against the current. The waters then disappear into an enormous whirlpool beneath the mountain at the Pole, and are absorbed into the bowels of the earth. Mercator also tells us that four-foot tall Pygmies inhabit the island closest to Europe. This concept of the northern polar regions appears to have been lifted directly from Mercator's earlier correspondence with Jacob Cnoyen, who took it from the Gestae Arthuri and the Inventio Fortunata, which Mercator claims he faithfully copied word for word as described in his letter to John Dee in April 1577:

“In North Norway, which is called 'Dusky Norway' there are three months of darkness during which there is no sunlight but perpetual twilight. From North Norway you cannot reach the Indrawing sea which lies further northward beyond Grocland. The North Norway stretches as far as the mountain range that encompasses the north pole......It is well known that beyond 70' or 78' latitude there is no human habitation. Moreover, this 78th parallel goes in a circle around the Arctic pole in the form of a high mountain range.

The islands adjacent to the north pole were formerly called Cilliae (perhaps Thule) and now the Septentrionales: among them is North Norway. And near here, towards the north, those Little People live whom there is also mention in the Gestae Arthuri. And there borders on it a beautiful open land which lies between the Province of Darkness and the Province of Bergi. Between these provinces and these lands lie an Indrawing Sea, so called because the current flows so strongly northwards that no wind can make a ship sail backwards against it.  And here it is all ice from October to March.

The priest with the astrolabe related to the King of Norway that in AD 1360 there had come to these Northern Islands an English Minorite from Oxford, who was a good astronomer. The priest received the astrolabe from this Minorite in exchange for a testament. Leaving the rest of the party the Minorite journeyed further through the whole of the North and put into writing all the wonders of these islands which he presented as a book to King Edward which he called in Latin the Inventio Fortunata, which began at the last climate, 54' continuing to the Pole. The Minorite has journeyed to and fro five times on business for the king.

This monk said the mountain range goes round the north like a wall, save for nineteen places where the indrawing channels flow through into four innermost seas. The mountain range is surrounded by sea except at North Norway. Inside the mountain range there is no habitation except in the eastside where there were 23 people not above 4 feet tall. This monk said that in two other places further inland he found a great piece of ship's planking and other balks which had been used in big ships besides many tree trunks that had been hewn down at some earlier date; so with certainty he could saw there was formerly habitation but the people had now gone.”5

At this time no explorer had been anywhere near the North Pole, and today we view the ring of islands shown surrounding the North Pole on this map as a mythical concept; it would seem the author of the Inventio fortunata may have travelled northwards from latitude 54' but cannot have actually reached the North Pole; the Arctic world he describes is far from reality. Yet his concept of the northern polar regions persisted for a remarkable length of time.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Part III: Lost Tales of the Arctic

Notes & References
1. EGR Taylor, A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee, Imago Mundi 13: pp.56–68, 1956
2. The Septentrionales, named after the seven stars of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) or Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) featuring the current northern pole, or North Star (Polaris): James Robert Enterline - Erikson, Eskimos, and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. In Homer's Iliad it is called "the Bear, which men also call the Wain."
3. An astrolabe modelled the daily rotation of the star map throughout the seasons and included a graduated scale for measuring the elevation angle of a star above the horizon yielding the observer's latitude: Enterline, Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. EGR Taylor, op.cit.

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Saturday 11 October 2014

King Arthur and the Northern Enchantment

Deep within the Arctic Circle lies the fabled Northwest Passage, the most dangerous place on earth to navigate a ship. A labyrinth of islands and drifting ice where channels open without warning and close again just as fast. Stretching for 1,000 frozen miles across the Canadian Arctic, the passage was the holy grail of exploration for more than 400 years. 

Part I - The Age of Discovery
It started in the early 15th century, or so they tell us. The Age of Discovery, European exploration led to the first contact between the Old and New Worlds. Pioneering Portuguese and Spanish long-distance maritime travels had culminated in the discovery of a uncharted continent in 1492.

Following the discovery of the Americas by Columbus The Treaty of Tordesillas was drawn up in 1494 which effectively split the world into two regions of exploration with the newly discovered lands outside Europe divided between Portugal and Spain, effectively leaving France, the Netherlands, and England without a sea route to Asia by rounding either Africa or South America. The French and English entered the race three years after Columbus had arrived in the West Indies, defying the Iberian monopoly on maritime trade by searching for new routes, first to the north, and into the Pacific Ocean around South America.

Mercator's 1569 World Map
In 1497 an Italian named John Cabot under the commission of Henry VII of England sailed across the Atlantic from Bristol hoping the voyage to the "West Indies" would be shorter from a  more northerly latitude. Cabot made landfall somewhere in North America, possibly Newfoundland, becoming the first European to encounter mainland North America since the journeys of the Norsemen to Vinland in the 11th century.

When it became apparent that there was no route through the heart of the American continent, attention turned to the possibility of a passage through northern waters. With Spain concentrating on Central and South America it left the French and English unhindered to explore North America; Cabot's being the first of a series of expeditions to find a northerly marine route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans opening a lucrative trade route to Asia.

The search for a northern sea route inspired many fanciful theories, such as The Strait of Anian, accepted by explorers and mapmakers as marking the eastern end of Asia ever since the name first appeared on an obscure Spanish map. The origin of the name of the strait is thought to have come from 'Ania', a Chinese province mentioned in Marco Polo's book. This semi-mythical strait was thought to connect the northwestern Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic by an oceanic channel between northeastern Asia and northwestern North America,  across the top of America. To early British geographers this route was known as the fabled Northwest Passage, a passage repeatedly sought by maritime explorers for over four centuries, from the first attempt in the late 15th century to the Norwegian Roald Amundsen's famous voyage of 1903-1906.

In 1537 the Frisian cartographer Gemma Frisius produced a terrestrial globe in collaboration with Gerardus Mercator which depicted northeastern Asia joined to northwestern Europe by a land bridge across Greenland with America shown as an island separated from the polar land bridge by the 'Fretum Arcticum sive Fretum Trium Fratrum' ('Arctic Strait' or 'Strait of the Three Brothers'). This strait broadens westward into a gulf whose southern shores are described as 'Terra per Britannos Inventa' ('Lands Discovered by the British') suggesting the existence of a passage discovered by Cabot.

German cartographer Sebastian Munster was one of the first to depict this Arctic Strait on a map in 1540 who noted simply that the passage led "to the Moluccas". Giacomo di Gastaldi, a Venetian cosmographer, produced two maps having a bearing upon the subject of the Asia-American connection. His first map of the world, dated 1550, shows a continuous body of land uniting the two continents,  but his second, dated 1561, shows the name 'Ania' as a province in the extreme northern part of the map. The Strait of Anian was first mentioned in a 1562 pamphlet published by Gastaldi, within five years, it featured on maps with the name 'Anian' first appearing on Zaltieri's map of 1566.

Gerardus Mercator
The Flemish cartographer Mercator, famous for his system of map projection still widely used today, included the 'El Streto de Anian' on his 1569 map which other 16th century mapmakers incorporated it into their charts; hence, The Strait of Anian came in to general use and appeared on many maps for the next 240 years, located anywhere from northern Alaska to the coast of Washington, although it is almost certain none of these cartographers had first hand knowledge of this mythical strait.

These maps encouraged British belief in the existence of a northwest passage and there can be little doubt that they were instrumental in the promotion of the voyages of discovery in the Elizabethan period. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the concept of The Strait of Anian was the Elizabethan geographer John Dee who believed the New World to be the island of  Atlantis, the mythical continent mentioned by Plato.

John Dee (1527-1608) had powerful social and academic connections in Britain and on the continent. In recent years Dee's name has become synonymous with occult practices and he is often described as a magus, after he began to turn towards the supernatural as a means to acquire knowledge in the 1580's. In his own time he was much better known as a learned and practical geographer. In the 1550's Dee had studied geography and related sciences under Gerardus Mercator and Gemma Frisius, the leading geographers of the time, at the University of Louvain. The enigmatic Dee seemingly had fingers in many scientific pies in Elizabethan England; cartography, navigation, astronomy, mathematics, along with the more unconventional disciplines of astrology, alchemy and necromancy.

John Dee
It is generally accepted that Dee brought the term the “British Empire” into common usage but his writings are regarded by some as simply imperialistic propaganda derived from antiquarian conceptions. However, in his day Dee established himself as an expert through these writings and was commissioned by the Crown to present a series of works in support of British claims on the New World. In 1577-78 he prepared this works as Bryantici Imperii Limites (The Limits of the British Empire) which he presented to Queen Elizabeth, a work in which Dee defined the outer boundaries of her empire and the Queen's legal rights to establish sovereignty over these regions.

Dee predicted the western entrance to the fabled Strait of Anian would be found in the vicinity of Hudson Bay which matched Mercator's location of Anian. He prepared maps and instructions for several explorers during the Age of Discovery, including Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Ralegh.

Dee's map for Gilbert showed an open passage around the North American coast but also another linking the St Lawrence River with the Gulf of California. He is rumoured to have been involved with early discussions, notably about traversing the Strait of Anian, concerning Drake's voyage circumnavigating the globe in 1577-80. In 1579 John Davis had discussed the possibility of a northwest discovery voyage with Adrian Gilbert, Walter Raleigh and John Dee and eventually set sail from Dartmouth in June 1585.

Dee was certainly involved with Frobisher's first Arctic expedition in which the explorer was convinced he had discovered an open sea channel which would lead to Cathay (China) and the South Sea; a speculative map of 1578 shows Frobisher Strait extending all the way across Canada and ending at the Strait of Anian. Frobisher made three voyages searching for the Northwest Passage. On his second voyage he thought he had discovered gold ore and transported 200 tons back to England. This mineral turned out to be worthless iron pyrite. Gilbert and Frobisher established the first English colonies in the New World.

Arthur, King of the Polar Regions
Dee owned two of Mercator's globes and shared many correspondences with the Dutchman particularly with concern to the northern regions. Mercator urged England to explore the Arctic region, encouragement which seemed to fuel Dee's obsession with a northwestern passage which he transformed into the concept of a northern oceanic empire. The legend to Mercator's map of 1569 provided information that fitted perfectly with Dee's assertion that the English had legitimate claims to sovereignty of the polar regions.

Mecator's map legend "On the Septentrional (northern) regions" included the following:

“On the matter of the representation, we have taken it from the Travels of Jacobus Cnoyen of Bois le Duc, who quotes certain historical facts of Arthur the Briton but who gathered the most and the best information from a priest who served the King of Norway in the year of Grace 1364. He was a descendant in the fifth degree of those whom Arthur had sent to live in these isles; he related that, in 1360, an English minor friar of Oxford, who was a mathematician, reached these isles and then, having departed therefrom and having pushed on further by magical arts, he had described all and measured the whole by means of an astrolabe somewhat in the form hereunder which we have reproduced from Jacobus Cnoyen.

The northern polar regions from Mercator's 1569 map.
Dee inquired as to the sources for the northern polar regions, in particular Arthur's Arctic conquests. The first half of Mercator's letter to Dee dated 20 April 1577 mentions King Arthur four times with an assumed fifth mention in a missing line, regarding an expedition to the polar regions in 530 AD. Mercator claims the information regarding  Arthur's Arctic conquests is taken from the accounts of a Flemish traveller named Jacobus Cnoyen, who gave his sources as the Gestae Arthur, and a book written by an English Minorite from Oxford, the "priest with the astrolabe", who had  travelled to the far north in 1360 and recorded his experiences in a work entitled the Inventio fortunata. Unfortunately, all three quoted works are now lost.

Within a year Dee had written “Of Famous and Rich Discoveries”. The final chapter is entitled:

"That all these Northern Iles and Septentrional Parts are lawfully appropriated to the Crown of this Brytish Impire: and the terrible adventure and great loss of the Brytish people and other of King Arthur his subjects perishing about the first discovery thereof. And the placing of Colonies in the same Iles and Regions by the same King Arthur. And an entire and general Description of all the part of the world within 12 degrees of the North Pole and somewhat more."

In the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to write of Arthurian conquests in Iceland and Norway. Were these tales of King Arthur as a conqueror of the Arctic regions simply medieval invention to serve the claims of British sovereignty or based on an earlier tradition?

>> Part II: The Hidden Realms of Darkness

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

All images: Wikimedia Commons

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Wednesday 1 October 2014

The Uplands of Hell

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!1

On the 19th May 1845 Captain Sir John Franklin set sail from England on an expedition on two ships, Terror and Erebus, to traverse the last un-navigated section of the Northwest Passage.

Explorers have ventured into the icy Arctic regions in search of the fabled Northwest Passage since Columbus and before, seeking a navigable channel connecting the North Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, providing a lucrative trade route to the wealth of the Orient. The search for a Northwest Passage is said to have begun in the late 15th century with the voyages of John and Sebastian Cabot, who made the first recorded landfalls on the North American continent since the Norse voyages of the 11th century. The quest would continue for more than 400 years, with tales of heroism and tragedy, until the Norwegian Roald Amundsen would successfully traverse the Northwest Passage in 1903-05.

From the Illustrated London News of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, 1845
Franklin's two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island in September 1846 and never sailed again. The expedition over-wintered on King William Island, northern Canada, after the ice failed to thaw in 1847. In April 1848, Erebus and Terror were abandoned after a year and seven months locked in the ice. Several of the crew, including Franklin had already died, the remaining crew planned to march south toward the Back River on the Canadian mainland and perished in the frozen northlands. The entire expedition complement, including Franklin and 128 men, was lost.

In 1848, following two years with no news from Franklin, the Admiralty launched five ships to find the missing expedition, prompting one of largest searches in history, running from 1848 to 1859. Numerous rescue expeditions were launched in the years following and throughout the 19th century, eventually discovering just a small number of bodies. While surveying parts of the Northwest Passage in 1854 John Rae was presented with items from the Franklin expedition by the local Inuit who told him the men starved to death, after resorting to cannibalism. In 1992, forensic investigations on bodies confirmed that "de-fleshing" had taken place.

The disappearance became one of the great mysteries of the age of Victorian exploration with Franklin becoming what has been termed a "celebrity ghost" after reports of people experiencing psychic visions of him. One such psychic was a girl, known as the “seeress of Bolton”, who could transmit herself to the Arctic to communicate with Franklin. He became a popular request at seances and his wife, Lady Franklin, regularly attended sittings in London.

The supernatural element of the Franklin mystery seems to reflect the Otherworldly atmosphere of the polar regions experienced by many explorers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recalls his own experiences on the whaling ship Hope to the Arctic in 1880, when he spent seven months at sea in the cold icy waters of the Arctic, an experience which remained a vivid memory all his life:

“The peculiar other-world feeling of the Arctic regions - a feeling so singular that that if you have once been there the thought of it haunts you all your life - is due largely to the perpetual daylight. Night seems more orange-tinted and subdued than day, but there is no great difference.

...After a month or two the eyes grow weary of the eternal light and you appreciate what a soothing thing darkness is.

....Your sense of loneliness also heightens the effect of the Arctic seas. 

....The perpetual light, the glare of the white ice, the deep blue of the water, these are the things which one remembers most clearly, and the dry, crisp, exhilarating air, which makes mere life the keenest of pleasures. And then there are the innumerable sea-birds, whose call is forever ringing in your ears....2

Owing to melting Arctic ice the Northwest Passage has recently become accessible to shipping enabling the Canadian government to begin searching for Franklin's ships, carrying out six major searches since 2008. Now they believe they have found one of the two lost ships from the failed Arctic expedition.

Sonar images from 11 metres below the waters of Victoria Strait, just off King William Island, clearly show the wreckage of a ship on the ocean floor, claimed as the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin Expedition. The ship appears to be remarkably well preserved in the iced waters. A sonar image shows the deck relatively intact. Search team leader Ryan Harris believes the rest of the contents of the ship will also be in good condition.

British archaeologist, William Battersby, has described the find as "the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered news of the discovery of the ship from the tragic expedition, revealing on 9th September 2014 that the vessel had been identified as HMS Erebus, the ship on which Sir John Franklin himself sailed and may even have perished.3

Off topic? Read on.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798.
2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Whaling in the Arctic Ocean in Memories and Adventures : an Autobiography.
3. Sir John Franklin: Fabled Arctic ship found – BBC News 09 September 2014

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Thursday 18 September 2014

A Night at the Abbey

The annual spectacle of lights, music and entertainment took place at Glastonbury Abbey last Friday evening on 12th September (6-10 pm).

Money raised on the night will go to support the abbey’s Rescue Our Ruins Appeal which is funding the vital conservation work currently underway.

Started in 2010 the Night at the Abbey event provides opportunity to see the stunning ruins as never seen before - spectacularly lit with coloured lights. The dazzling coloured lights bring the abbey to life after dark with  greens, oranges and purples to create a stunning setting. A glass or two of Glastonbury Abbey cider, made exclusively with apples from the abbey orchard, completed the surreal atmosphere.

Local musicians performed throughout the night, across the abbey in five different locations. For me the highlight was Tim Pitman, the Voice of Somerset, singing in the Lady Chapel. His dramatic tenor voice didn't need amplification and it would have been good just to hear him singing unaccompanied in the crypt. Tim works closely with many charities such as the Royal British Legion and has performed with numerous military orchestras.

Glastonbury Abbey Appeal - Rescue Our Ruins
The Rescue Our Ruins appeal was launched in May 2012 with the aim of raising £500,000 to save the ancient abbey ruins. The money is needed to fund conservation work and enhance the visitor experience to the Abbey in the following areas:

The Abbot's Kitchen
An iconic building and a very rare survival in Europe of a medieval monastic kitchen

The North Wall
The oldest standing part of the Abbey dating to the Norman period

The Lady Chapel, Crypt & Galilee
A rare example sited at the West end of a church.
The Crypt beneath, known as St Joseph's Chapel, is sited beneath the most sacred part of the Great Abbey Church. Its presentation needs to be greatly improved to be more meaningful and attractive.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

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