Sunday, March 31, 2013

King Arthur and the Making of an English Britain

By Alan MacColl | Published in History Today Volume: 49 Issue: 3 1999 Alan MacColl explores the appropriation of the Arthurian legend for political ends by English monarchs from the twelfth century onwards.
King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detail from the "Christian Heroes Tapestry" dated c. 1385. "Arthur among the Nine Worthies is always identified by three crowns, which signify regality, on his standard, his shield, or his robe." -- Geoffrey Ashe, The Quest for Arthur's Britain [Praeger, 1969]Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, tapestry, c.1385One of the oddest images of the 1997 General Election was produced by the Scottish Conservatives: a sword being drawn from a stone and hurled in the air to land point-down in the ground. While one can see what the Unionists were about – identifying the Scotland of Braveheart with the Britain of King Arthur – the appeal to the latter was ill-judged, betraying a misconception whose nature and origins are worth exploring. Though Arthur and the hotly-contested topic of his historical reality are no longer the subject of serious academic study, the ideological uses to which the legendary hero has been put are important for students of medieval and early modern Britain, and form part of the historical background to the current debate about the constitution of the United Kingdom.
Nowadays, the most interesting thing about the ‘historical’ Arthur is the way this hero of the Britons was appropriated by the descendants of their Saxon conquerors and incorporated into the history of the English, playing a key part in the development of their self-conception as a nation. The legendary British history established in the twelfth century is a narrative of English national unity, and also of empire, used repeatedly by English monarchs to further their attempts to subdue the rest of the British Isles. In this English context, even Arthurian romance is not politically neutral, but provides a symbolic focus for a culture whose assumed superiority justifies the domination of the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish.
The idea of an imperial British England drew its original authority from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1138). In both Latin and English, the term ‘Britain’ has a contentious history arising from its use in conflicting senses. The land inhabited by the ancient Britons was roughly equivalent to the territory that became England and Wales and southern Scotland; this is the old Britain of King Lear and Cymbeline. Hence Britain often means England and Wales, or simply England itself. Until the seventeenth century Great Britain normally signifies England as distinct from Little Britain or Brittany: Wynkyn de Worde in 1529 calls Arthur ‘somtyme kyng of grete Brytayne now called Englande’. But Britain could also mean the entire island, Britannia insula. Geoffrey normally uses this sense. The bane of the early Scottish historians, the confusion has persisted to our own day.
Geoffrey’s History is part of a complex process of cultural expropriation and assimilation which began with the Norman Conquest. The Scandinavian settlers had been quick to assume the language and culture of France, but it would be a long time yet before their descendants had any great incentive to make comparable adaptations in England. It was in their past alone that the English possessed cultural property which their new rulers lacked. In the field of historical narrative, the deficiency was remedied by William of Malmesbury’s momentous History of the Kings of the English (c. 1125), in which the years since the Conquest were presented as the latest chapter in a story reaching back to the earliest history of the English people. To borrow a vivid Hollywood term, Geoffrey’s book is a prequel, filling in the history of pre-Saxon Britain and taking it back to the beginnings of European civilisation. Contemporaries were quick to see the connection, and from the outset the work was treated as part of English history.
To appreciate its appeal to English readers, we must look beneath its superficially Welsh appearance. It is misleading to describe it as a compilation of Celtic legends, as if it were like, say, The Mabinogion. Geoffrey’s edifice was constructed on the slight frame of accepted British history, derived from Latin works, notably the ninth-century History of the Britons. Using bits and pieces of material adapted from a multitude of other sources (most of them having nothing to do with Wales or Britain), he skilfully filled in this framework and gave it apparent solidity, binding it all together in a largely fictional narrative matrix. Geoffrey’s only identifiable Welsh source was a collection of the pedigrees of Welsh ruling families, closely similar to one which is still extant. Comparison with the latter shows that he treated this source as a novelist might the telephone directory, freely using the names of fifth- and sixth-century Welsh princes for his fictitious pre-Roman kings of Britain, and arbitrarily borrowing one genealogical sequence for the list of ‘other famous men’ who attend Arthur’s court at Caerleon. With this trivial exception, Geoffrey’s sources and models are overwhelmingly Latin and literary. Any Welshness is almost entirely on the surface.
It is not hard to understand why the History was accepted as genuine. The claim that the original Britons were Trojan exiles had the authority of the History of the Britons and invited flattering comparison with ancient Rome. Arthur’s astounding continental conquests put him in the company of Alexander and Charlemagne. Merlin’s prophecies would have been read with solemn attention because such dark words were known to conceal important truths. Even Geoffrey’s references to a mysterious Old Welsh source, ‘a certain very old book in the British language’, would have served to confirm his ‘authority’. No one familiar with medieval literary conventions would take this claim at face value. Originality was not a medieval virtue, and invention was often made respectable by the invocation of a fictitious authority. Auctoritas, ‘authority’, was a derived, not an intrinsic, quality. The whole rigmarole of the old book, a recent commentator observes, is part of Geoffrey’s self-presentation as an auctor.
By giving England the right sort of ancient history the work made her new rulers on a par with the French, allowing a discreet veil to be drawn over their real past as Viking marauders. If the Anglo-Normans had more to gain than the native English, both parties could now take pride in the British past, a ground where they could meet without contention – as it belonged to neither.
The imperial theme of the work is established in the opening account of the foundation of Britain by Brutus and his band of Trojan exiles. Here and elsewhere, readers would have recognised parallels with Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic of imperial Rome and, after the Bible, the most revered text of the Middle Ages. They would also have noticed allusions to Alexander the Great, particularly in the story of Arthur’s conception and the scene with the Roman emissaries at the feast of Caerleon, both of which Geoffrey adapted from one of the popular lives of the Macedonian conqueror.
Legendary narratives of national origin are common throughout the Middle Ages and after. The seventh-century Frankish Chronicle of Fredegarius purported to show that the Franks could trace their lineage back to Troy, and by the sixteenth century just about every nation in Europe, it seems, had claimed Trojan, Greek, Egyptian or Old Testament ancestry. It has been suggested that the proliferation of such narratives in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is related to the emergence of the nation state. They could also serve more readily definable political ends. The Trojan legend underpinned the claim of the Frankish kings, realised for a time in the restored western empire under Charlemagne, to be the true successors of imperial Rome.
For most modern readers, the terms ‘empire’ and ‘imperial’ carry values which did not apply in the Middle Ages. The primary sense of imperium is ‘rule’ or ‘dominion’, with no connotation of overseas territories, or oppressed indigenous peoples. Though ambitious monarchs, of course, aspired to as extensive an imperium as possible, the main point about being an emperor was that you did not have to take orders from anybody. This is the sense intended in Henry VIII’s Act of Appeals of 1533, which began by declaring that ‘the realm of England is an empire... free from the authority of any foreign potentates.’
Furthermore, the ‘British Empire’ is both older and younger than casual references to its 500-year history suggest. Coined in the mid-sixteenth century, the main sense of the term until early Victorian times was in relation to Great Britain and Ireland, with no particular overseas reference; it is not until 1857 that we find Thomas Hughes, in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, celebrating that Empire ‘on which the sun never sets’. While Geoffrey’s History no doubt strengthened the Normans’ title to their continental territories by showing that Gaul had once belonged to Britain, it is the British Empire of these islands that comes first. Brutus’s three sons represent the unity of England, Wales and Scotland, and Arthur’s first conquests after the defeat of the Saxons are of Scotland and Ireland. Among those who attend Arthur’s crown-wearing at Caerleon, the first mentioned are an affirmation of the unity of the whole island of Britain: the kings of Albany (which Geoffrey reminds us means Scotland) and Moray, those of North and South Wales and Cornwall.
What may represent an early attempt to use Arthur in the service of the English crown occurred in 1190, when the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have uncovered a tomb containing his remains along with those of Guenevere. According to one account, the exhumation had been suggested by Henry II after hearing of Arthur’s grave from a Breton minstrel. Certainly a demonstrably dead Arthur would have suited Henry’s purposes in Wales and Brittany, countering the legend of the hero’s return, then apparently used in both countries as a rallying-cry for resistance. But Henry had died in 1189, and his son Richard had higher aspirations, concerning Jerusalem.
Those of Henry’s great-grandson Edward I were more practical and nearer home. When he attached the Principality of Wales to the English throne in 1283, Edward made the Welsh surrender certain particularly precious relics as tokens of submission, including a piece of the true cross and the legendary crown of Arthur. On the King’s return to London in 1285, the trophies were carried in solemn procession to Westminster Abbey, and there presented at the high altar. We next hear of them eleven years later when they were paraded at the head of Edward’s army as he marched into Scotland. On the return journey, as ‘a sign of the resignation and conquest of the kingdom’, they were accompanied by their Scottish counterparts, most famously the Stone of Destiny.
Edward’s interest in the legendary British history also had a practical, legal dimension. In August 1300 Pope Boniface VIII had issued a Bull calling on him to abandon the war in Scotland and rejecting his claim to feudal superiority. The King’s reply the following year reiterates his claim, buttressing it with a host of examples beginning with Brutus’s division of the island of Britain among his three sons, Locrinus, who got Loegria or England, Camber who got Cambria or Wales, and Albanactus who got Albany or Scotland. On the death of Albanactus, it is argued, Albany reverted to Locrinus. Among further arguments, it is pointed out that Geoffrey tells of Arthur’s conquest of Scotland, and of the homage paid to him at Caerleon by the Scottish king Anguselus.
Though Edward’s officers came by their information by ordering a systematic search of royal and monastic archives, the history of imperial British England was not merely the province of government lawyers and monkish antiquarians. The story of Brutus and the British kings achieved an astonishing currency. Over 200 manuscript copies of Geoffrey’s Latin History survive, the majority of them English in origin, though the medieval provenance of the others extends as far south as Florence and as far east as Bavaria. It is one of the most frequently copied works of the whole Middle Ages. The legendary history also proliferated in vernacular versions, first of all in Anglo-Norman and English verse and then, in the thirteenth century, in an Anglo-Norman prose paraphrase, surviving in nearly fifty manuscripts. This is the chronicle generally known as the Brut, which also multiplied in Latin and English translations and which, with additions bringing it up to date with recent events, became the standard history of England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Surviving in over 170 manuscripts, the English prose Brut is perhaps the most popular written work of these centuries. Chronicles compiled by individuals also often begin with a summary of the Brutus story, as do verse romances. The legendary history of Britain was thus current in all three languages of medieval England, and must have been universally known.
Throughout thirteenth-century Europe, the high tide of Arthurianism brought a fashion for chivalric tournaments and assemblies, or ‘Round Tables’. Nowhere was the idea embraced more enthusiastically than in the England of Edward I and his immediate successors. What is particularly striking about the Arthurian occasions of Edward’s reign is that they are not primarily displays to be watched, like most Tudor and Stuart masques and pageants, but dramatic performances in which king and court were the participants.
Edward held a round table at Nefyn, Caernarvon, in July 1284 to mark the conquest of Wales. The festivities included dancing in an upper chamber whose floor collapsed, causing the revellers to fall through. The celebrations for his second marriage in 1299 included Arthurian play-acting in which knights were named after those of the Round Table. During the concluding banquet, a squire rode in spattered with blood, calling on the king and his knights to take vengeance on the Welsh, whereupon they all vowed to do so. Further messengers followed, demanding vengeance on the Scots and others.
In 1306, after Robert Bruce had been crowned King of Scotland, Edward knighted his son Edward of Caernarvon at a ceremony at Westminster. At the banquet afterwards, servitors brought in a tray bearing two (confectionery?) swans covered with gold network. The King vowed before God and the swans that he would avenge the Bruce’s wrongs against God and the Church, after which he would go to the Holy Land, never to return. Prince Edward swore in turn that he would not sleep two nights in the same place until his father’s vow had been accomplished.
A striking example of life imitating art, Prince Edward’s vow is straight out of the Conte del Graal of Chrétien de Troyes, which includes a scene where Perceval swears never to sleep more than one night in the same place until he has achieved the object of his quest. We like to think of art and literature as appealing to some higher order of imaginative reality, untainted by the mundane and temporal crudities of ideology and politics. But it can be argued that in the English Middle Ages the romance of chivalry was one means by which the ruling classes defined and reinforced their identity as representatives of a superior civilisation.
With its wandering heroes, quests and trials, romance remains one of Western culture’s enduring images of the moral life. Taken in a more literal way, however, its military ethos, combined with its simple oppositions of good and evil, lend themselves to less worthy ends. Viewed in its reductive glass, the world becomes a place where the forces of righteousness wage war against an evil or inferior other. For medieval Christendom as a whole, that other was supplied by Jews and Muslims. For England in particular, from the twelfth century, its place was filled by the Welsh, the Scots, and above all the Irish.
A large part of medieval and modern ‘British’ history can be seen as a process of conquest and forcible anglicisation of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The argument justifying English claims to these nations in terms of a moral obligation to redeem them from barbarism appears as early as the twelfth century – a medieval version, one Welsh historian remarks, of the White Man’s Burden. In earlier times there is no sense that the Celtic peoples are any different from the English. But by the mid-twelfth century, English cultural superiority was assumed, and we can see the beginnings of the stereotypes by which England was often to define her Celtic neighbours over the next 800 years. To cite a few contemporary examples, the Welsh are rude and untamed, the Irish are so barbarous that they cannot be said to possess any culture, the Scots toss babies on pikes.
John Gillingham has documented the appearance of anti-Irish prejudices in the twelfth century and their rapid hardening into stereotypes which became a powerful part of a new imperial ethos. Gerald of Wales, who, as Dr Gillingham observes, did more than any other writer to establish the standard English view of the Irish, continued to be read and translated until well into the sixteenth century. At the end of the fifteenth, all these stereotypes were given a further boost by Caxton’s popular Description of Britain, which provides a whole gallery from the Celtic nations.
The Tudors have sometimes been given the credit for a great Arthurian revival. In fact Henry VII’s interest in the British history represents a late stage in a fashion in royal genealogies which began earlier in the fifteenth century. In numerous surviving manuscripts, the lineage of Edward IV is traced back to his Welsh antecedents, and thence to Geoffrey’s British kings. When Henry Tudor commissioned a report on his British ancestry, the commissioners duly reported that the new King could trace his descent from Brutus. The theme was reflected in popular pageants at the beginning of Henry’s reign, and for obvious reasons the Tudor monarchs continued to make a point of their Welsh credentials. However, interest thereafter in British history as such appears to have been sporadic.
The naturalised Italian civil servant Polydore Virgil’s dismissal of the story of Brutus in his English History of 1534 marks a turning point in the fortunes of the British legend. Though all England would doubtless have agreed that Polydore was ‘the most rascall dogge knave in the world’, in the long run it did not matter. The more numerous and vehement the defences of the British history became, the more they confirmed that the subject was now up for debate. Henry VIII’s appeal to the story of Brutus, Camber, Albanactus and Locrinus, when he renewed the English claim of supremacy over the King of Scotland in 1542, is the last gasp of the tradition in which the legends could be read as having legal authority. Defences of Arthur and Brutus continued to pour from the presses, and British and Arthurian themes still played a prominent part in Elizabethan pageant and ceremony, but something had irrevocably changed. The debate is part of the background to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene of 1590 and 1596, in which though Arthur is the nominal hero of the poem, the author makes no use of either the British king’s life or the events and characters of Arthurian romance. No longer simple and literal, the whole thing has become the stuff of allegory and metaphor.
Nevertheless, the legend still retained considerable power, and Arthur and empire keep crossing one another’s paths in the national literature of Elizabethan England. Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589) begins with Arthur’s Irish conquest as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Faerie Queene celebrates the triumph of English imperialism in terms of the civilising power of Elizabethan gentility. It has been argued that the poem’s central fiction of the perfect gentleman abroad, represented by Arthur and the knights of Gloriana’s court, subduing evil and holding the forces of disorder at bay, reflects the Elizabethan colonial experience in Ireland. Such a reading puts clearly the relationship between the fictions of chivalric romance and the supposed political realities to which they correspond, English civilisation on the one hand and a dark, barbaric – and papist – Ireland on the other.
A coda to this brief account of the British history is supplied, ironically enough, by a Scottish monarch, James VI and I, who pursued the subject with a single-mindedness unequalled since the days of Edward I. James fancied himself as a second Arthur, with a mission to reunite Britannia, proposing in his proclamation of October 1604 to ‘discontinue the divided names of England and Scotland . . . , and take the name and stile of KING OF GREAT BRITTAINE’. Pageants, entertainments and court poetry repeatedly return to ancient British themes. Not surprisingly, James’s English subjects showed little enthusiasm for the project. The king seems never to have grasped that one of the chief meanings of ‘English’ was ‘not Scottish’. Besides, all the Arthurian and British machinery seems to the modern observer so patently self-defeating that one suspects a degree of English subversion. For 400 years Arthur had been an English hero, and the whole apparatus of the legendary British history had existed to further the cause of English empire. Everyone knew that Great Britain was simply the old name for England. James’s project was a lost cause. When Union came a hundred years later it was on English terms, a hard-headed affair designed to further the interests of the English establishment and its allies north of the Border, not to feed the quasi-mystical fantasies of an autocratic Scottish monarch.
The critical historiography of a rationalist age put paid to Arthur as an important political symbol. Brutus and his Trojans finally left the stage, and the English people began to reconstruct themselves in terms of their Anglo-Saxon past. But old ideas often die hard, particularly if they are built into language and serve an unrecognised ideological function. Introducing parliaments for the Scots and the Welsh, the current proposals for constitutional reform make no provision for an assembly to represent the English as a nation, the clear assumption being that they already have their own parliament in that of the United Kingdom. Beneath the modernising gloss lies a latter-day version of the old Anglocentric domestic imperialism. However, as Jeremy Black has suggested, one of the unintended results of the proposed changes may be a new sense of England as a unity distinct from Britain and the UK. Scots who wish their southern neighbour well must hope he is right. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legacy of a British England and an English Britain has dogged us long enough.
For Further Reading:

  • Alan MacColl was Lecturer in English at the University of Aberdeen and is now a freelance author.

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