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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