The Offpeak Day Return of the King
A bit of an oddity for this week’s second blog.
(And anybody thinking ‘the blogger’s a bit of an oddity anyway’ is toast.)
Last week’s trip to Galloway – see the previous post – provided me with lots of inspiration of all sorts, and, thanks primarily to Wigtown, also provided me with lots more books which now need to be found space on my groaning shelves. But the area where I was staying also provided me with ideas and material to supplement a post from almost exactly four years ago. So the first half or so of what follows is an edited version of that post, with entirely new material in the second part. I’ll do a similar thing with next Monday’s blog, which will also update another very old post, coincidentally again from pretty much exactly this same time of year, albeit five years ago. This might well be connected to the previous point about bookshops and bookshelves!
Bear with me – and if you know the legends of King Arthur at all, you’ll probably know just how terrible a pun ‘bear with me’ is…
A confession: I very nearly became an Arthurian.
Before you all run off into the hills, screaming hysterically, bear with me for a few minutes. Remember that I originally come from Carmarthenshire – Caer Myrddin or Caerfyrddin, the fort of Merlin, right? So the Arthurian myths and legends were all around me from pretty much as far back as I can remember. The Sword in the Stone was the first film I ever saw in the cinema, aged about six, and by the time I was eighteen, I’d read Geoffrey of Monmouth and The Once and Future King, been vaguely irritated by the TV series Arthur of the Britons, and wondered why on earth some of my sixth form friends insisted we should go drinking in the King Arthur Hotel on the Gower Peninsula, rather than in the (literally) hundreds of pubs that were nearer.
Then I went off to Oxford, where my first term studying ‘modern’ history included the Venerable Bede (note: Oxford University has always had difficulty with the concept of ‘modern’) and his ‘back story’ in the writings of Gildas and Nennius. So when it came time for me to choose my options within ‘English One’, the vast English history paper (note: Oxford University has always had difficulty with the concept of ‘British’) that stretched from the fall of Rome to about 1500, it was a no-brainer – like a shot, I was off to what it was then still politically correct to call ‘the Dark Ages’. I decided I’d really impress my tutor by spending the vacation beforehand reading the new, exciting book about the period, namely John Morris’s Age of Arthur.
I was instantly enthralled. Here was a whole new world, a thrilling combination of dramatic narrative and detective story, full of unfamiliar evidence and thought-provoking analysis. I was vaguely aware of the fact that Morris – coincidentally, an alumnus of my own college – had stirred up some controversy, but no matter. It was the newest, biggest book in the field, and I was still of an age when my assessment of history books began and ended with the questions ‘is it new, and is it big?’. Fortunately, my tutor on this course was the ideal man to put me right: James Campbell of Worcester College (who sadly died last year) was a formidably erudite don of the old school, and he alerted me to the devastating critique of Morris penned by David Dumville of the University of Cambridge (note: Oxford University has always had difficulty with the concept of ‘Cambridge’). So off I went to other tomes, such as Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain, which gave me a very different, archaeological, perspective on the period, and I emerged from the experience a wiser and distinctly more sceptical person, at least when it came to all things Arthurian.
It was also an object lesson in ‘how to do history’ more generally. For example, endless pages of references impress the credulous and are often intended quite deliberately to intimidate the sceptical into submission, but they don’t mean a thing if the references are to sources from long after the period they’re meant to be describing – a particular fault of The Age of Arthur – or are simply cross-referring from one dubious secondary source to another in a vicious circle of obfuscation. These traits are all too common, for example, in the work of many of the more controversial World War II ‘revisionists’, conspiracy theorists, and many of those writing books about such esoterica as the Holy Grail. (For my sins, I read quite a lot of the latter when researching my own venture into the reasonably esoteric, Blood of Kings, and quite a lot of the former when I was trying to steer impressionable GCSE students away from such things in the relatively early days of the Internet.) All too often, those who think they are historians, or even genuine, qualified historians who should know better, ‘prove’ their cases by citing highly dubious ‘sources’ that actually prove nothing whatsoever.
Four years ago, when the original version of this part of the blog was posted, I was staying at the Landmark Trust’s gloriously eccentric Coop House. This is in the parish of Arthuret, a pretty suggestive name to begin with, and the location of not one but two important battles – one in 573, not long after the time traditionally regarded as ‘the age of Arthur’, and the battle of Solway Moss in 1542. I always like to research an area before going there, so inevitably, I delved into the history of Arthuret. Pretty soon, I was lost in the darker undergrowth of the Arthurian forest (which, of course, is situated next to the Holy Grail sausage factory and the Templar vomitorium), ploughing through books and blogs which made the most astonishing claims. Some even believe that the legendary king himself lies buried beneath Arthuret parish church, and that perhaps the Holy Grail can be found there too… So I made the church my first port of call when I got there, and found it to be a very pleasant spot. But as a candidate for the last resting place of King Arthur, it is no more or less plausible than, say, Glastonbury, where the bones of the ‘king’ (and of Guinevere to boot) were ‘discovered’ in 1191. In the one case, an entire historical theory has been established on the distinctly shaky foundation that the name ‘Arthuret’ might possibly be derived from ‘Arthur’; in the other, the abbey greatly boosted its visitor numbers, and thus its income stream, as a result of the distinctly convenient find.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with a lot of the ‘Arthur industry’. Much of it can be attributed to attempts by one over-enthusiastic local historian after another to twist the miniscule amount of actual hard historical evidence about Arthur and his times to follow in the footsteps of the 12th century monks of Glastonbury by placing the fabled king within their own particular patch. Thus we have Cornish Arthurs, Somerset Arthurs, Welsh Arthurs, Cumbrian Arthurs, a French Arthur (seriously) and a Scottish Arthur – or rather Scottish Arthurs, with a veritable battle royal taking place a few years ago between clans desperate to claim him as one of their own. The odd thing is that these optimists keep pushing their distinctly ingenious claims, despite the fact that a few years ago, Guy Halsall’s book Worlds of Arthur carried out what seemed to me to be a pretty effective demolition job on the whole business of Arthur myth-making. But then, and before legions of Arthur-loving trolls start laying into me, I should deploy the historian’s great catch-all cop-out, namely ‘it’s not my period’; or at least, it hasn’t been since about 1977. And let’s face it, books which claim that Arthur didn’t exist and didn’t inhabit a part of the country with a reasonably large book-buying population are never going to sell as well as books that say he really was a great warlord and that Camelot was that hill just up the road.
Hang on, though. When I was looking for potential walks, I noticed on the map that only a few miles from Arthuret and the Coop House is the site of a Roman fort named Camboglanna. Hmm. Doesn’t that sound to you a bit like Camlann, the name of King Arthur’s last battle? And lo, Google the two names together and you’ll see plenty of websites which make precisely that connection. Then again, though, I’ve driven up and down the M4 many more times than I care to remember, and have always thought that the hill fort just by Junction 15 at Swindon would have been an obvious candidate for the site of the Battle of Mount Badon…and what’s the name of the place nearest to it? Badbury. At the end of the day, the Arthur myths are remarkably seductive, powerful and abiding, and who am I to argue with that?
So that’s what I wrote four years ago. All of those thoughts and themes came back to me in spades last week, when I was staying in another truly unique Landmark, Glenmalloch Lodge. For one thing, Glenmalloch stands on the Cumloden estate, home to the troubled Earls of Galloway, and was originally built as Cumloden School. (Apparently 25 girls and their teacher used to fit in there – and given that it was cosy for just me, I reckon the teacher must have double stacked the wee lassies.) Mmm, though, ‘Cumloden’…doesn’t that sound a bit like ‘Camlann’ to you? OK, yes, I won’t go there.
Remote and peaceful (indeed, probably the quietest and darkest place I’ve ever stayed in), Glenmalloch is, of course, in North Wales, or as some insist on calling it, ‘Scotland’.
Before all my Scottish friends jump down my throat for the second time this week, I should emphasise that we’re not making a territorial claim on your wonderful country. (Unlike with England, of course, where we still want the flat and dry bits back; fifteen hundred years of hurt, etc…) Nevertheless, it’s indisputably true that what’s now southern Scotland was once ‘Welsh’ territory, the Hen Ogledd (‘Old North’) of the annals. The original name for Edinburgh, Dunedin, is Welsh, as are many place names around it – Tranent, for example, is simply an inverted rendering of ‘Trenant’, about as Welsh as a name as you’ll find. During my drive west along the highway to the sun, otherwise known as the A75, I passed the signs to Caerlaverock Castle, semantic twin to Caernarfon, Caerphilly, and, yes, Caerfyrddin, Carmarthen. The great stone of Clach nam Breatann, ‘the rock of the Britons’, at the northern end of Loch Lomond, is said to mark the northern border of the Welsh kingdom of Strathclyde, which had its capital on the rock of Dumbarton. Thus in the humble opinion of this blogger, adding Scots Gaelic versions of placenames to the usual ones on, say, railway station signs, in this part of Scotland, is historically illiterate: provide an alternative to the Anglo-Scots version by all means, but that alternative should surely be in Welsh, the original language of the area.
All of which brings me to Rheged. In the old Welsh annals, this was a mighty but short-lived kingdom in the north, which had a brief period of greatness under King Urien. But historians and archaeologists can’t agree on whether Rheged existed at all, and if it did, on where it was. It’s usually been assumed to have been on one or both sides of the Solway Firth, perhaps extending as far south as Rochdale, the original name of which was Recedham (Note: on behalf of the Welsh people, I can confirm that we aren’t lodging a territorial claim for Rochdale.) But there were plenty of suggestive pointers not a million miles from Glenmalloch Lodge. Not far west, for example, is Dunragit – surely, some have argued, ‘the fort of Rheged’? Not far east is Trusty’s Hill, brooding over Anwoth kirk, which I mentioned in my last post, and overlooking the town of Gatehouse of Fleet. Recent excavations there have revealed what’s been described as a palace complex from the correct period, i.e. around the sixth century; so was this the principal seat, or capital if you prefer, of Rheged? If so, might Arthur have known it, especially if he was a warlord of the Hen Ogledd, not of ‘south’ Wales, Cornwall or Somerset?
At which point, off we go once again, charging back into the Arthurian forest. I took a detour on my way to Glenmalloch, and stopped off to see Pendragon Castle, on the border of the north Pennines and the Lake District. Despite being a small and nondescript ruin, this has two things going for it. First, it has surely the most awesome castle name of them all; eat your heart out, George R R Martin. Second, it was reputedly the home of Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur. In fact, the castle wasn’t built until the twelfth century, half a millennium and more after Uther’s time, but its name demonstrates that, just like the ‘grave’ discovered by the monks of Glastonbury, ‘the Arthur industry’ has pretty well always been with us. A key part of that industry is the myth proclaiming that one day, when the nation is in its direst peril, the Once and Future King will rise from his slumber in a forgotten cave, and ride forth to save –
Hang on, there’s someone at the door.
Some guy in a suit of armour, wanting to know Boris Johnson’s address.