Tuesday 28 October 2008

King Arthur and The Mutability of The Past

Dedicated to Kate and Moggs

The past is a funny kingdom. People look at history as if it's an exact science. Of course, it isn't.
The past really is mutable, or has been up till now. Archaeology blends into history which blends into historical myth.

Even in the twentieth century, historical myths have been peddled. History has often been used to justify political concepts, indeed it is STILL used to justify political concepts. And it's not just in the case of Israel, which I think we've covered to death here, but even in concepts such as Welsh Nationalism. Political movements often use history to justify claims which are, in fact, fallacious.

A classic twentieth century case of historical myth concerns the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe in the country that now carries it's name. Under white rule, it was seriously maintained that the city actually was the Ophir of the bible, the legendary mines of King Solomon. It was taken as read that native Africans just couldn't have built it. And the white settlers used this concept to justify their claims that Rhodesia had belonged to a 'superior' people before the 'savages' had come in.

Historical myth as a political tool is as old as history itself. After all, the history of Herodotus starts with an allusion to the Trojan war as the first battle between Greece and Asia. We call Herodotus the father of History, but in truth, much of what he writes of events much over a century before his time, is wildly inaccurate, a mish mash of oral legends. His account of the Kings of Egypt, for example, has no real historical value whatsoever.

Gracchi has been much enamoured of Livy of late, possibly the most significant of the Roman historians. And of course, Livy is what many would describe as a model historian. Except the early part of history, dealing with the origins of Rome, belongs on the realms of classical legend. In fact, possibly the most significant of classical legends, from the point of view of this post.

The idea that the Romans came from Troy.

Anyone who knows the Aeneid will of course, be aware of this story, that Aeneas the Trojan prince fled Troy and established a city on the banks of the Tiber, Alba Longa, where a line of Kings reigned until Romulus became the first King of Rome in 751 BC, and then a further set of Kings ruled until the last King, Tarquinus Superbus was driven out in 510 BC and Rome became a Republic.

And of course, even Tarquinus Superbus may be a fiction. 510 BC is a long time before recorded history REALLY began in Italy.

Why the need of the myth? Well, Rome was young. As soon as it came into contact with the Greeks, it probably felt inadequate about its own lack of known history, compared to Greece and her ancient mythical heroes. So the Romans tacked themselves into this and made themselves the spiritual heirs of Troy.

Now you might think this legend is merely of academic interest. You'd be wrong. It is of supreme importance not just in understanding Rome, but in understanding medieval England. How so, you ask?

Because there is a twist.

During the early part of what we now call the Middle Ages, it occurred to the peoples of Northern Europe that they seemed distinctly short of history. The Bible described what the Jews were doing between the flood and Christ, the history of Greece and Italy was known (even though much of that counts as myth to us), but what was happening in Northern Europe?
Facts were slim. And of course, they lacked archaeology. Since they believed that Man was pretty much created as he was, even the idea that there was ever a Stone Age would have been unthinkable, it followed that the Britain the Romans conquered, was a Britain just like the one they lived in.

In other words, all that needed to be discovered was the History of that Britain before the Romans came. And of course, the Britain between the Romans leaving and the Saxons coming.

Enter Geoffrey of Monmouth. He found the solution. He just gathered as much oral tradition as he could (chiefly old legends of celtic Gods, folk tales, etc) and came up with a 'history' of the Kings of Britain up until the Saxon conquest.

And the basic version was accepted pretty much unthinkingly as being the ACTUAL history of Britain up until the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century. In essence, it was people's belief in THIS history, that shaped the consciousness that was to become the British Empire.

And it went back to Aeneas. The British (or those in Wales and Cornwall, the ones displaced by the Saxons) were Trojans.

The story was that a grandson of Aeneas had been exiled from Italy after accidently killing his father. This Brutus, as he was called, journeyed with his followers till they came upon an island at the edge of the world populated by giants. Ok, I can see what you're thinking, this story is sounding implausible already. But don't forget it wasn't until the eighteenth century that people realised that all these 'giant' bones might in fact be the bones of prehistoric creatures. Giants existed in far off times, people were sure of that. In dark places, they still did.

Anyway, Brutus cleared the island of Giants and settled down to rule the island he called by his own name 'Brutannia' later corrupted to Britain. And he built a capital city on the Thames, Troy Novant, the New Troy.

Well, it won't surprise you much to learn that not much that follows actually happened, but the point is, people thought it did.

A thousand years of Kings sit between Brutus and the coming of the Romans. And they include some quite important events, in terms of the cultural psyche of the later (real) inhabitants of the island. Most of the early Kings founded cities, indeed most of them seem to have been given names accordingly. At various points the Kingdom gets split, but scant regard is paid to the peripheral realms, it is the line of Kings who reign in Troy Novant the History follows. We find the Scots splitting off under their own King and then a page or so later that separate line has seemingly died out, because the Kingdom is being split again.

King Leir is the first one who has gained common currency, reigning about eight hundred years before Christ. Geoffrey tells us he founded Leicester and reigned about sixty years. His story is pretty much as Shakespeare tells it, though Shakespeare's ending is condensed- in the original Leir is restored and Cordelia reigns alone after his death until being slain by the sons of Goneril and Regan. Indeed, Shakespeare would probably have treated it as a history play.

Most of these earlier Kings are of academic interest only. It is later, where Geoffrey starts to bring his history into REAL history.

It is a historical fact that Rome was sacked in 390 BC by a Gallic leader called Brennus. But Geoffrey tells us more about him than Livy does. In Geoffrey we discover that Belinus (founder of Billingsgate, incidentally) and Brennus were two brothers who inherited the realm of Britain between them, but fell out. In time they sorted out their differences by Belinus keeping Britain and Brennus going on a conquering spree. Geoffrey's message? Rome may have conquered Britain, but Britain conquered Rome first.

The Kings after Belinus and Brennus are less interesting, apart from the fact of their kind donation of the empty Ireland nextdoor to a group of roaming vagabonds. (Geoffrey's message; The Scots and Irish only have their countries because the British kindly gave them to them) and their conquering of Denmark and other places (Geoffrey's message; the Vikings may have conquered much of Britain, but the British conquered them first).

When the Romans come, the Kings they face are historical. Of course, in reality these Kings were Kings of one tribe only, they were one of many, but in Geoffrey Cassivellaunus (whose father King Lud not only built Ludgate, but renamed Troy Novant after himself, Caer Lud, later corrupted to London) and Cymbeline are Kings of the whole island. And in Geoffrey, the Kings never depart. Geoffrey's Britain is never a full Roman province, it is more a vassal state, a concept more familiar to the medieval mind.
Interestingly, Geoffrey knows nothing of Boudicca. That was one story he didn't know. One wonders how he might have told it.

If you're wondering who the first Christian King in Europe was, Geoffrey has the answer. But we can't blame him for this legend, in fact it appears in Bede first of all and arises from a confusion with the city of Britium in what's now Jordan who's King Abgar Lucius converted to Christianity in 156 AD.

So Geoffrey can't be held solely responsible for the idea he was King of Britain. But he is responsible for the idea of the three Archbishops of this old, Christian Britain. The idea that Britain was the real founder of European Christianity, that Europe ultimately had Britain to thank for its conversion.

Of the Kings who follow Lucius, many are real. Or are confusions of historical figures. Misreading a line in Bede, where it refers to the son of the Emperor Severus, following after him on the throne, he doesn't realise Bede means the Roman throne, because he hasn't realised that Severus wasn't just an invading General; he was actually the Emperor. So Geoffrey has them reign as Kings. Other Kings of this period are often Roman rebels or Governors misinterpreted as Kings.

Now one fact which got nicely fitted in here was that Constantine, the first of the Christian Emperors, was proclaimed Emperor in York. It is historical fact that his father was called Constantius and that his mother Helen, was a native Briton.

Now Geoffrey's story used brief and confused understanding of these facts. In Geoffrey's version, King Coel (Yes, old King Cole, that's right), marries his daughter to the Roman commander Constantius, who thus becomes King on his death. Constantius converts to Christianity, as it is the religion of the country he is now King of. His son Constantine is thus King of Britain. It is King of Britain he is proclaimed in York, and his conquest of Rome is the SECOND conquest of Rome by the British. Who of course, give the empire Christianity through their King. Geofrey's message; The church might be based in Rome, but the true freedom of the Popes, was won through the fact that the British church created a Christian kingdom to provide that.

The importance of this historical myth cannot be ignored.

And not long after, we have a THIRD conquest of Rome by a British King. Again, it is fact that a Roman General called Maximus rebelled against Rome and declared himself Emperor. Geoffrey of course, adds him to his list of British Kings, as Maximianus.

And after this Geoffrey continues to blend his sources. Vortigern, the King of Britain who calls in the Saxons to fend of the Picts and ends up finding he has opened the gates to hordes of duplicitous Saxon invaders is described by many writers long before Geoffrey and may not be historical, but was certainly believed to be by writers from before Bede's time.

And here, towards the end of history we have the final Indian Summer of Geoffrey's mythic Britain. The greatest of them all.

The King who drove back the Saxons and expelled them. The King who subjugated the Scots and made himself a true High King. The King who conquered Ireland, Denmark, Gothland, Finland, Iceland, before taking all Gaul from the Roman Empire. And the King who went to war to finally destroy the Western Roman Empire- and won. (The actual destroyer of the Western Empire was a chieftain named Odoacer, so history got blurred again). But, at his greatest heights, he was brought down by his nephew Mordred seizing the throne and inviting the Saxons back.

King Arthur.

This is the Arthur that 'history' knew. The conqueror. The greatest and most powerful British King. Geoffrey's message; Britain conquered Rome as much as Rome conquered Britain. Britain had a conqueror at least as impressive as Alexander the Great. One of the greatest conquerors who ever lived, was an indisputable Brit.

After Arthur, it kind of goes down hill. Because of course, we're into known history, the history of the Saxon conquests. The British are pushed back in Wales and Cornwall and their history forgotten until the Saxons themselves are put under Norman yoke and the Normans start to ask what the Saxons never cared about- Who are these British? And Geoffrey told them.

How significant was this myth?


The Plantagenet Kings reigned under the belief that the Kings who ruled in London had had a historical claim to at least be considered High Kings of the whole island. They believed the Irish to be their natural and lawful vassals. They believed that the ancient Kings of Britain had been masters of the high seas, the usual victors of struggles with the Norsemen.

And they believed that the history of Europe showed one thing; there were two cultures descended from Troy, each with equal claims to Imperium.

The continent may well be the Roman Imperium, Britain was separate. And of the respective conquests of each by the other, the first had been British, and the last had been British.
The Pope may have been spiritual head of the church from earliest times, but it was in Britain first of all, that the Christian church took root as the religion of the land. Britain claimed primacy as a Christian nation.

Plantagenet monarchs saw invading the Scots, the Irish and the French as invading land which had historically been their vassals.

How important was this to perhaps the most significant event of all in English history? It's complete break with continental culture, to become the pariah state at the edge of the world, with its heretic Queen and it's pirate navy?
The state that looked across all oceans and no longer the channel?


It was on the basis of the claims made in this totally fallacious history that Henry VIII lawyer's argued that the Roman Church only had primacy in lands that could be said to be Roman lands- and that due to the equal lineage of the British descent from Troy, and due to the many British conquests of Rome, it was clear that the claims of any Roman institution to claim authority over a British King were false. Furthermore, Henry was an actual descendant of the ancient Kings of Britain. Furthermore, it was King Arthur who put paid to the Roman Empire in secular terms. Why now should the British accept the claims of the Church of that Empire?

Henry believed that before the English had brought the authority of the Roman Church with them, the British had enjoyed the freedom of their own church, just as Catholic, but ruled by it's King. Kings who sometimes had paid tribute to Rome, but sometimes had conquered Rome too. And he was the heir of those Kings. An heir, come into his own.

And Elizabeth, she was the crowning glory of this story. The Queen who took this vision of Albion restored and sought to make her again the master of the seas, just as she once had been.
And James I, the great unifier, the King to finally unite the whole island of Britain under one sovereign master.

It never happened. But the people who believed it did made history. It didn't matter that it never happened, history would not if been the same if no one had ever believed it did. It drove the British to believe that being an Imperial people was their destiny.

In the Middle Ages many works of art depict the nine greatest men who ever lived. The great conquerors of time.

Three were Jews; Joshua, King Solomon, Judas Maccabeus.
Three were pagan men; Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great and Julius Casar.

And three were Christians. King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon, the leader of the first crusade.

This history was more important in real terms to the Britain of history, than the realities of the Iron Age. This fake history made real history.

It created a past, a past that determined the thoughts of the present, and those thoughts of the present changed the future, a future that might never have become our past if Geoffrey of Monmouth had not proved the mutability of the past.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Crushie! That's the stuff!

When I read all these historical accounts the same thought goes round and round in my head: what would history be if written by women? Would we hear more of the 'real' everyday stories...the stuff that connects us all to one another..a more human introspection. That is the stuff that would interest me..but men seemed to write with an agenda - for power and for ego.

Anyway, I enjoyed this. :)

Anonymous said...

Didn't Herodotus preface his work with the disclaimer that he reported it the way he was told it?

Hasn't the fashion in which historical events have been recorded evolved in line with human and societal development and education becoming more common place?

And isn't it the case, particularly pre 18th century, that there is no finite account that be given on issues that involve a number of different people, ethnic groups. religions, political systems etc, and that the interpretation and acceptance of "fact" will often be subject the to the belief systems of any given person, group or country?

Anonymous said...

Lordy, lordy that was a ten fag post for sure. But I bet you never cracked a book or googled a thing.

The Arthurian legends and myths abound and when so little is known the sky is the limit.

I'm reading a book at the moment called A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post and wow! A (probably undeserved) dedication too. TY.

But I guess you mythed something ^_^.

Henry wasn’t so far wrong in believing the British Isles had their own independent Christian church/tradition. It did.

The so-called British Church AKA the insular, or Celtic church. A rather wide "home brew" version of Christianity that developed separate from Rome when the empire withdrew, based round monasteries.

It was eventually suppressed and brought into line with Rome. As was the Cathar "heresy". I figure that’s one plank to how Henry interpreted/justified his moves.

As as return to the true, original British non Romano-centric Christian tradition.

Anonymous said...

Crushed- I'm less enamoured of Livy than trying to work him out :)

But I'd agree with you if you said that historians have a project- Geoffrey definitely did. On the Lucius point with Henry- its there but its only a secondary consideration- I think its first mentioned by Norfolk to Chapuys as a threat in 1530 (we have the church to be independent- look at Lucius) and actually isn't that major in the future. In Elizabeth's reign it gets taken up again- though in reality I'd argue Foxe's book of martyrs was more important. I have to say I am basing this on a half remembered paper from Felicity Heal at Cambridge a couple of years ago- Foxe though is the key and you are right both the Cathars and the Hussites come into that story.

I'd also say that religion here intersects with the story of law- which goes back through Coke and Selden to Fortescue and eventually to the accounts of Bracton (c. 1220) about where the law of England originated- most of them are trying to place that origin before the conquest and to some extent when they say Arthur or time immemorial, they are not as interested in the previous period than in the fact that they can prove the existance of English law prior to 1066 and the fact that it is English law which makes England a separate realm (as Henry's propagandist St German argued) and thus a separate ecclesiastical regime is justified. English law and English religion are opposite sides of the same coin in this reading.

Sorry for the long comment but its an interesting subject and there is so so much detail to be observed (too much to be dealt with in one comment or one post)- part of what I'm trying to do with Livy is the kind of detailed analysis that I think a great historian needs to understand him- I cannot do it perfectly as I don't know enough about Livy's intellectual milieu- for a wonderful exploration of a historian you should read Pocock's four volume study of Gibbon and his time which is excellent and very interesting.

I think what your post reinforces is how important not only it is to study history but also to study the kind of stories that people tell about themseles: as essentially those stories are the ideology of the people telling them- and incidentally on a last point that's why I disagree with Kate, history written by women would be very similar (often has been very similar) to men's- because for both sexes indeed for all human beings history is a way of stringing together events into something that we can comprehend- chaos into a substance.

Right that's a mammoth comment- hope some of it is interesting.

Anonymous said...

Kate- This post, or the concept of it, has been on my to do a list a while. It just seemed apt right now, for a lot of reasons. Nor is the subject done to death yet. Historical myth is a rich subject.

Most history prior to the eightentrh century concerned itself mainly with Kings.

Geoffrey's is actually one of the better pseudo histories because at least you are ware of a civilian population. If you read Saxo Grammaticus (the Danish equivalent), you wonder how Denmark survived, its Kings were too busy conquering to do any ruling, if you believe Saxo.

I can't think of any histories from these days written by women, by that was probably because most history in the Middle Ages was written by monks or noblemen.

However, if you want to read legends written from a female perspective, may I recommend the Lays of Marie de France. In many ways, quite feminist in their viewpoint. Women are actually allowed to love who they choose in them :)

Le Femme- He does, but one wonders who he listened to. He can't have got his Egyptian history direct from egyptian priests unless they got him drunk before they told him. It bears no ressemblance to real history and adds kings of Egypt from Greek myth, such as Proteus.

And his account of Cyrus is pure mythology.

The Middle Ages was a time in which documents were accurately preserved. So it wasn't that 'facts' weren't collated, just they weren't so often questioned.

So many things were taken as ospel truth based on the 'authority' of the author.

Case in point, Aristotle's statement that heavier objects fall faster. No one actually tested it. they assumed Aristotle had. He hadn't.

Your last point is kind of one of the points I was aiming at.

History is so often about interpretation and the significance of an event can change as history progresses.

Take the Glorious revolution. At one time, it was believed to be the most significant event in British History. Now it is largely forgotten. The truth is probably somewhere between the two.

jmb- I think I had two fag breaks :)

I didn't, because I'm lazy. There was a point where I did search in my head to be sure of something, but I couldn't be bothered to go to the living room and actually find my copy of Geoffrey.

It's worth reading though and it's easy to find copies.

I specialised in the legend at degree level.

I find these later legends fascinating. people tend to ignore them, but in a way they made the world we live in.

Take Sweden. It's King is Carl XVI. But the first six Carls were made up.

I'll have to see if I can find an online write up of that book :)

Moggs- It did, yes, and Geoffrey wrote his book partly to promote that at a time when the see of Canterbury was asserting its authority over the Church in Wales. Geoffrey maintained that Caerleon had once been a Metropolitan see in its own right.

Incidently, I live not to far from the place which may have the best claim to be 'Augustine's Oak'. It's nothing exciting and it has a ghadtly pub with a vast children's play area.

'Who holds the keys to Heaven, St Peter or St Columba?' As was said at the Synod of Whitby :)

The Cathars. Well, they gave us the word buggery :)

The Celtic church wasn't strictly heretical, just divergent, primarily on technicalities like Easter and Tonsures. The Cathars were part of an alternative Christian concept I have alluded to before, going right back to Marcion and Gnosticism and basically saying that the God of the OT is the Devil of the new.

Grachhi- It wouldn''t have mattered later. In 1530, Henry was kind of bartering for a position kind of like the Patriarchs of Eastern churches. Not part of the Church of Rome, but not quite heretical either. The Popes had learned to co-exust with Constantinople, he figured they could co-exist with him. He was, after all, very Catholic.

In fact, he converted More away from his early sympathies with Luther. Irony of ironies.

Its the concept of an 'Imperial Crown' that is the key. The Popes argued that their authority derived from the donation of Constantine. thus, they were temporal masters of all the land of the Empire, west of Illyria.
And thus the lawful masters of Kings whose authority derived from being part of the Imperium. Thus, all the land of the HRE, Spain, etc.

The argument was that whilst other european monarchies were monarchies originally part of the Roman system (and observing Roman law), Britain lay outside that Imperium, and indeed was 'Imperial' in its own right, the scottish and Irish kings bearing the same rwelations to it that Bohemia bore to the HRE.

And of course, that France did until Philip IV successfully proved that it didn't. Though since he had the Pope under his thumb, he could hardly lose.

I've still not got round to rreading Gibbon, though I enjoy MacCauley's indignant and totally partian work. In fact on the whole, I rate it quite highly even if he didn't much care for 'papists'.

I think ALL history is written with the final chapter in mind, and the final chapter is always the present.

All historians see history as primarily the task of explaining why something is the way it is NOW.

I'm not sure we can ever escape that flaw.

Comments can be as long as they need to be, I have the floor with the post, it's good to have considered responses which add to it :)

Anonymous said...

Wow what a fascinating post Crushed. And it happens time and time again.

I've been thinking about putting up some posts about my favourite historical characters. One them will be William Bligh. While he was no angel, he was not the tyrant portrayed on film.