Wednesday 19 August 2020

Arthur: Conqueror of Europe

A Certain Very Ancient Book Part II

King Arthur’s European Realm by Paul Sire (Mcfarland & Co., 2014) claims to present new evidence from Geoffrey of Monmouth's primary sources used in writing his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). The sources used by Geoffrey in constructing the first Arthurian biography has been a matter of debate for centuries; he claimed he used "a certain very ancient book in the British tongue" presented to him by Walter Arch-deacon of Oxford, that he translated into Latin. Geoffrey certainly used Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum (Nennius); anything not verifiable through those documents is generally considered to have been Geoffrey’s own invention. In Sire’s book then we can expect to find the revelation of some new documentary evidence for Arthur’s existence.

In the Preface, the author sets the four main objectives of his book:

1. To prove that King Arthur was a real historical figure by uncovering documentary evidence,
2. To show that Geoffrey of Monmouth, and other Arthurian authors, used valid historical sources,
3. To disclose those valid sources that confirm the veracity of the "legend" and the real names of most of its characters,
4. To explain how the current confusion and skepticism about the authenticity of the story has risen.

These are four bold expectations that have not been satisfied by many an author to date. Here we hope for something new.

Sire argues that two facts belie the skeptics arguments; Geoffrey rightly identified Tintagel as an important Arthurian-age site after the passage of five centuries had erased all trace of it; the Arthurian sculpture on the Modena cathedral proves Geoffrey did not invent his story and actually took it from Walter's ancient book.

He claims that his book identifies Geoffrey's, and other author's, sources and explains why they knew Arthur so well. A close analysis of historical events, ignored by other researchers, Sire claims he will demonstrate that Geoffrey's account is reliable. He reasons that the true Arthurian story was correctly interpreted by Geoffrey Ashe who identified Arthur as Riothamus, the 5th century British king who led his troops into Gaul then vanished among the Burgundians.

Riothamus in Gaul
Sire maintains that the real Arthur emerges unequivocally by combining these accounts with those of John Morris (The Age of Arthur, 1973) who argued that Arthur was an emperor; King Arthur, he claims, was a real person and by providing documentary evidence aims to finally settle the issue. Today historians view The Age of Arthur as a tangled, confused history of Dark Age Britain that is misleading to say the least.

In addition to Morris, the author relies heavily on Edward Gibbon’s now outdated account of The Fall of the Roman Empire (first published in the 18th century) and is clearly influenced by the controversial From Scythia to Camelot by Littleton and Malcor (1994, revised 2000).

Sire states that to uncover Arthur we must look beyond the classic sites of Arthurian lore, the “insular fringe” as he calls it, and look to the original Celtic world in the east; Provence, Italy, and Armenia. The book claims to span two thousand years but at its core is the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

The Western Empire officially fell in 476 AD when an army of confederate tribes, who Gibbons says consisted of "Heruli, Scyrri, Alani, Turcilingi, and Rugians" entered Ravenna and deposed the child emperor Romulus Augustulus. This army, collectively known as “Scirians” was led by Odovacer. The Scirii ("the pure bloods"?) were a Germanic tribe from somewhere north of the Black Sea and lower Danube.

Sire tells us that when the Romans encountered a group of northern Irishmen at the end of the 4th century they called them “Scotti” because they recognised them as the same people. These Scots, he claims, where originally from the Balkans, quoting Gildas who states that the Scots came from “circione”, that is they were NOT Irish BUT Scirians. This passage in Gildas is normally interpreted as saying the Scots came from the north west and the Picts from the north.

Although his exact ethnic origins are not known, he may have been of Germanic or Gothic descent, Sire tells us that Odavacer, the man who became the King of Italy, was from Angers in western France, the same place identified as the location of the Lancelot stories. He goes on to state that in the genealogies of Lancelot, as provided by the authors of Arthurian Romance, his grandmother was from Leinster, "which in the bard's language is rendered as Lance". You know where this is leading.

"L'ot", Sire claims, is really "Odo" or "Otto" and "Lake" comes from water; thus he reconstructs the real name of Lancelot as "Odo-vacer" (wasser - water) of Leinster. He then claims that Odovacer was responsible for the institution of the Round Table, quoting Gibbon, he "declined an honour which was still accepted by the emperors of the East; but the curule chair was successfully filled by eleven [11 + Odovacer = 12 knights] of the most illustrious senators...."

Sire asserts that the name Odovacer was translated by the Arthurian authors into Occitian as "Lot of the Lake", as a tendency for secrecy which explains why their story has been hidden for so long.

Sire tells us that Odoavcer was Arthur's ally, who as Riothamus, accompanied him in the conquest of Rome. After their confrontation with the Goths on the Loire, Riothamus and Odovacer headed east and, with the assistance of the Burgundians, became leaders of the Alemanni. They carved out a new territory called “Raetia” comprising Switzerland, part of Austria and Bavaria. From here Riothamus and Odovacer (Arthur and Lancelot) “defeated the Romans”, as Monmouth writes, and took Rome.

Sire tells us that Raetia provides a vital clue in identifying who Riothamus was. Arthur, he says, having been born at Tintagel was a Dumnonian and king of Scot Dal Riata. His name was Domang-Art, that is Lord Arthur of the Dumnonians, known as Riatham and King Arthur on the continent. The Life of St Columba refers to him as “Reti” (Raetia).

He goes on to tell us the key to understanding the Arthurian legend is that another group of Tuatha settled in Scottish Dal Ri-ata, the name he says means “Kingdom of the Atta” from which he produces “Ri-Atha-mus” the name of the king of the Britons.

Sire’s answer to the skeptics view that no reliable document has ever been found with Arthur’s name on it is that the king appears in the Dalriadan and Strathclyde genealogies as Domang-Art or Gall, in addition to being named as Riothamus various times in France. He adds that he was probably also the bishop of Chur named Ursicin, before claiming he has uncovered definite proof of Arthur’s existence of his name on the only extant document from Odovacer’s reign in which a grant of land in Sicily is made to a man called Pierius which mentions a “Count and Vice-Lord Ardori” referenced in an early 19th century work - not a primary source as one might expect for such a bold claim.

He goes on to argue that other names in Odovacer’s deed can be linked to Arthur which proves that they must have really been Arthur’s men. Following Odovacer’s downfall the island of Caldey was given to Pierius by Arthur as a place of exile.

Sire’s special pleading is that Geoffrey’s “story is correct, only in a very confusing way” and “you can see the truth among the jumbled facts if you really try”.

I wish I could say the same for Sire’s essay; he presents no evidence to support the connections he sees between Riothamus and Odovacer (Arthur and Lancelot) across the European continent - because there are none. This is a very complex and confusing web that Sire weaves indeed; you find you are reading and then re-reading passages to take it all in. But at the end, it is just too incredulous to take seriously.

In Sire’s account, as in so many reconstructed Arthurian histories, geographies are re-mapped, kingdoms relocated and various names (Riothamus; Domang-Art; Ursicin) are substituted for the real Arthur and this why we don’t recognise him in the genealogies.

Yet in all these alternative histories the authors have not managed to positively identify the man named ARTHUR.

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Sunday 16 August 2020

A Certain Very Ancient Book - Part I

“[The History of the Kings of Britain] that vast compendium of random folklore reshaped into a semblance of history.…….. Even at the end of the 19th century works which took Geoffrey’s account of Arthur seriously were still emerging. It was Geoffrey who elevated Arthur into the Emperor of half of Europe….. developing Nennius’s theme of of the warrior-hero into unheard-of proportions, until the Arthurian armies marched on Rome itself.” [Richard Barber, The Figure of Arthur, DS Brewer, 1972, p.124]

Geoffrey of Monmouth and King Arthur
Surviving in over 200 manuscripts Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) was nothing less than a Medieval best seller. Presumably Geoffrey was from Monmouth as his name suggests, just west of the River Wye on the Welsh Marches, as he had local knowledge of the area and placed King Arthur’s court at Caerleon, no doubt impressed by its Roman remains. However, Geoffrey (c.1090 – 1155) spent most of his career in Oxford, where, he claims, he was presented with a “certain very ancient book in the British tongue” by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, which he translated into Latin as the Historia, although scholars now suggest it was originally titled De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons).

Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon

Geoffrey is remembered as the author of three works; Prophetiae Merlini, Historia Regum Britanniae (De gestis Britonum) and Vitae Merlini.  In circulation before the death of Henry I in 1935 the Prophetiae was issued a few years before his magnum opus the Historia in which it was incorporated at Book VII. Geoffrey had certainly completed his main work on the Kings of Britain before 1139 when Henry of Huntingdon discovered a copy of the manuscript at the Norman Abbey of Bec.  The Life of Merlin saw his return to the prophet but this later version (c.1150) is based on the tradition of the Celtic wildman of the northern forest that features in the Welsh Myrddin poems and seems quite at odds to the wizard-like character of his earlier stories.

Geoffrey’s history starts with Brutus the Trojan, a descendant of Aeneas, who is exiled from his homeland and arrives at an unknown island, exterminates the race of giants inhabiting it, and names the place “Britannia” after himself. Geoffrey’s account continues with the Roman arrival in Britain, through to Vortigern and the advent of the Saxons to King Arthur and the fall of the last British king Cadwallader before the supremacy of the Saxons. Thus, the Historia turns full circle, from the exile of Brutus to the exile of Cadwallader.

According to Geoffrey, Arthur’s career begins with three of the battles as attributed to him in the Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius); the locations of these twelve battles has defied positive identification yet Geoffrey locates these three at York, Lincoln and Bath. The last was clearly Badon Hill which resulted in total conquest of the Saxons, preserving the emphasis that Gildas had placed on the battle.

According to Geoffrey, Arthur then defeated the Scots and the Picts before enjoying something of a golden age. He marries Ganhumara (Guinevere; different forms of the name appear in different manuscripts) before conquering Ireland, Orkney, Iceland and Norway. He then sets off for Gaul leaving his nephew Mordred and Guinevere in charge of the kingdom. Following successes in Gaul, Arthur was intent on marching on Rome but received notice of Mordred’s affair with Guinevere and usurpation of the throne. Arthur turns back for the confrontation with his nephew. After landing in Kent and then chasing Mordred to Salisbury Plain the final battle takes place on the River Camblan in Cornwall.

As Geoffrey’s history commenced with the arrival of Brutus, the name “Brut” came to be used to mean 'chronicle of the Britons' in the tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Within a few years, Geoffrey Gaimar had composed a now-lost French Galfridian history of the Britons. The Brut tradition was continued by the Norman poet Robert Wace (1155) and in less than 50 years the first version appeared in Middle English composed by the English priest Layamon.

With the King’s biography taking up about a fifth of his work it is essentially the centre-piece of Geoffrey’s Historia and the foundation from which all subsequent Arthurian literature sprang. But by the last quarter of the 12th century the Arthurian chronicle had turned to fiction with Chretien's Story of the Grail, a tale of Arthur’s knights with the King relegated to the side-lines.

The Arthurian canon may been created by Geoffrey but it was embellished by the writers of later Arthurian Romance, with iconic themes such as the Round Table (Wace), Camelot (Chretien) and the Sword in the Stone (Robert de Boron); King Arthur had rapidly evolved into a literary figure, or perhaps he always was.

Monnow Bridge in Monmouth, the only remaining fortified river bridge in Britain
Invented History
From a character of supernatural legend fighting giants, witches and monsters, Geoffrey transformed Arthur into a figure of history, a successful military leader who conquered much of Europe. His effect on the Arthurian legend was immense and cannot be over stated.

Geoffrey’s readership was immensely popular as demonstrated by the number of surviving manuscripts. However, in his own times he was taken to task for inventing much of Historia; a few years after publication William of Newburgh proclaimed that “… everything this man wrote was made up”. 

Another of Geoffrey’s critics was Gerald of Wales, who’s own part in the reporting of the discovery of King Arthur’s grave at Glastonbury was rather suspect, wrote that when Saint John’s Gospel was placed on a man possessed by demons they would leave immediately, but when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book was placed on him the demons would return.

There is a complete lack of evidence for many of Geoffrey’s key characters such as Brutus or Belinus, similarly there is no evidence for a British invasion of Gaul or confrontation with Rome. Perhaps William and Gerald were correct in their assessments of Geoffrey’s work.

Geoffrey Ashe has argued that a historical figure called Riothamus, who went by way of ocean to Gaul, may well have been used by Geoffrey as the model behind Arthur’s invasion of Gaul. However, positive identification of Riothamus has proved problematic; after being routed by the Goths he was last seen heading toward the Burgundians, yet many reconstructions of Arthurian history have him return across the Channel in time to lead the Britons to victory at Badon. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Geoffrey knew of Riothamus.

Today Geoffrey’s work is not regarded as a historical account of the Britons and most scholars today consider Geoffrey’s book as “invented history”. Geoffrey claimed he had access to a certain book in the ancient tongue. He certainly knew Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum, yet most historians doubt the existence of any such book.

The question of the veracity of Geoffrey’s Arthurian epic has raged for almost 900 years and still goes on today with modern authors using the Historia to reconstruct Arthurian histories. Two recent works published in the last few years take quite different views of Geoffrey’s Historia; Arthur and the Kings of Britain by Miles Russel and King Arthur’s European Realm by Paul Sire. We will examine these accounts in the next two posts.

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Sunday 2 August 2020

The Death of William Rufus: Accident or Assassination?

On 2nd August 1100 King William II was killed while hunting in the New Forest.

William, also know as "Rufus" owing to ruddy complexion and red hair, was the third son of William the Conqueror. The eldest son Robert Curthose inherited William’s lands in Normandy, the second son Richard died in 1075 while hunting in the New Forest. The youngest son Henry was left no lands but was the only one of William’s four sons born in England.

The Death of Rufus (William II), Alexander Davis Cooper, 1866

William Rufus came to the throne in 1087; his reign witnessed the rule of one of the most unpopular Kings of England, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle described him as “harsh and severe” and “hated by almost all his people”. He was constantly at odds with his elder brother Robert across the channel and at war with the Scots and Welsh. He increased the tax burden to fund his war machine. He was often at odds with the church; relations deteriorated to such a degree that the Archbishop of Canterbury went into exile.

William Rufus was staying at Winchester, and having rejected a plea for reconciliation with the Archbishop, declared he would go hunting the next day.

The day started with news that a monk had dreamed that William Rufus would die in a hunting incident that day. William scoffed at the prophecy and carried on with his plans to go hunting. The party ventured into the New Forest, a Royal hunting ground as designated by his father William the Conqueror.

William Rufus was with Walter Tyrrell, said to be an excellent marksman. An arrow shot by Tyrrell had missed his prey and rebounded of a tree and through the chest of the Rufus. It could simply have been a genuine hunting incident but immediate events cast doubt on this.

Tyrrell immediately fled to France. Stories claim he had a blacksmith shod his horse with shoes reversed so that he could not be tracked. It seems he needn’t have wasted his time as no one set after him in pursuit. Even so, Tyrrell is said to have never returned to England.

The lifeless body of the king was left in the forest with no reports of any attempts to save him. His younger brother Henry, also hunting in the forest that day in the same royal party, immediately set off to Winchester to secure the Treasury and was crowned King of England within three days. A forest charcoal burner eventually took William’s body to Winchester in a cart where he endured a simple burial.

Some historians have speculated that the death of William Rufus was no accident but an assassination on the orders of Henry; the Rufus had never married and having no offspring had no heir to the throne. However, Henry’s dash to secure the treasury and rapid coronation may have been simply to secure the throne of England and deter any aspirations of his elder brother Robert of Normandy who was on Crusade at the time.. It seems we will never know for certain.

Yet, theories abound of course; it has even been claimed that the Rufus had been killed by a French agent as the English king was planning to invade Normandy. Henry was installed on the English throne as he had no aspirations to do so.

In a woodland clearing off the A31 road between Cadnam and Stoney Cross in Hampshire, is a metre high iron memorial erected in 1841, replacing an earlier one erected in 1745. The adjacent oak tree is said to be a descendant of the original tree that the deadly arrow deflected off and pierced the King’s lung. Nearby is an inn called the Sir Walter Tyrrell.

The Rufus Stone

The memorial is inscribed on three sides:

"Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100."

"King William the Second, surnamed Rufus being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis, and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church of that city."

"That the spot where an event so memorable might not hereafter be forgotten, the enclosed stone was set up by John Lord Delaware who had seen the tree growing in this place. This stone having been much mutilated, and the inscriptions on each of its three sides defaced. This more durable memorial with the original inscriptions was erected in the year 1841, by WM Sturges Bourne, Warden."

However, historians asserts that this is not the place where William Rufus fell. In 1530 John Leland, the antiquary to King Henry VIII, claimed that the King died at a place recorded in Domesday called Thorougham (Truham). This village was lost during the formation of the New Forest by William the Conqueror around 1079; the site is likely to be at Park Farm, Beaulieu.

Henry I was King of England from 1100 until his death in 1135. On his death civil war broke out in England due to a succession crisis. His son William had died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, bringing Henry to name his daughter (and half sister to William) Matilda as his heir. Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois claimed the English crown and a period of conflict known as The Anarchy ensued. The war run to a stalemate, finally concluding in 1153 with agreement in the Treaty of Winchester that Matilda's eldest son Henry (Curtmantle) would succeed to the throne on the death of Stephen of Blois.

Stephen fell ill and died earlier than expected in in 1154 and Henry was crowned King Henry II of England the first Plantagenet king of England.

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