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Dreams and Visions in Old English


For millennia dreams were thought to be the interventions of supernatural forces either making personal or eschatological predictions about the future, or simply imparting wisdom or incentivising one to change their ways. Since they were widely considered to be messages from deities, dreams have been entwined with the matter of religion since pre-Homeric times, when oneiromancy, the divination of dream meaning, was first practised (though it was, at that time, superseded in importance by other customs like observing the flight of birds or inspecting the viscera of sacrificial animals).

The Babylonian Talmud underscored the significance and perhaps the predictive power of dreaming, stating, “There are three things for which one should supplicate: a good king, a good year, and a good dream” and it also describes the importance of interpreting these visions: “A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read.” The text goes on to explain that nightmares in particular are notices from God that men must fear and obey him; an idea later brought forward into the Old Testament. The Book of Job in particular contains a passage expounding on God’s purposing of dreams to inspire, save or terrify his subjects:

For God does speak—now one way, now another— though no one perceives it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people
as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears
and terrify them with warnings,
to turn them from wrongdoing
and keep them from pride,
to preserve them from the pit,
their lives from perishing by the sword.

Later Greco-Christian dream-theory continued emphasising this close relationship between dreaming and divinity. Porphyry of Tyre (c. 234 – c. 305), whose textbook Isagoge became standard reading in medieval universities, wrote that, “Truth hides; however, the soul can sometimes see it when the body has gone to sleep and gives the soul more freedom. The rays of the deity reach our eye only in a refracted way, as if the light were shining through horn.”

Problematically, since dreams were private affairs and relied on the dreamer to accurately remember their details, and since they came in many forms, some scrutiny and categorisation was needed. The fifth century Roman writer Macrobius defined five types of dream in his Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, which is, as the title attests, a commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. According to Cicero, the Roman consul Scipio Aemilianus was granted knowledge of the cosmos through a dream, in which his grandfather Scipio Africanus materialised and taught the secrets of the cosmos to him, (fittingly, the ninth century French priest Hadoard, who compiled Cicero and Macrobius’ texts in a collectaneum, claimed to have uncovered their hidden location through a dream-vision of his own.)

The first type of dream that Macrobius classifies is somnium, which are dreams proper. They are largely symbolic and interpretive. Then there is visio, or revelatory visions experienced when we are awake. Then there is oraculum, or oracle dreams, that is, the appearance of an authoritative figure (a parent’s spirit, angel, or deity) that appears to expound wisdom; Cicero’s account of the two Scipios falls into this category. Finally there is insomnium and visum, which are essentially daydreams and other fritterings of the mind and are largely worthless.

The works of Macrobius were not, as far as we can ascertain, known to the Anglo-Saxons, though it was known to Boethius (his adoptive father, Symmachus, edited one version) and he alludes to it in his own Consolation of Philosophy, which was translated into Old English by King Alfred the Great. In The Consolation, Lady Philosophy tells Boethius that “Even now thy spirit sees [the divine] in dreams, but cannot behold in truth while thine eyes are engrossed with semblances.” Alfred excised the wording of this particular passage, having essentially rewritten much of the text himself, but he still ascertains that man can come to some understanding of God in waking life just as he already glimpses it in dreams — but only if he can move beyond simply perceiving God and begin the process of understanding him through good works.

The majority of surviving works from the Anglo-Saxon period are paraphrases of Biblical stories, reworked to fit the distinct Anglo-Saxon perspective. Dream narratives like those of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, or Joseph, Jacob et al were particularly useful in that they could, as the Bible attests with its various dream-inspired saints and martyrs, inspire intense devotion and piety. These paraphrases and hagiographical texts were developed exclusively in monastic settings from the time of Pope Gregory I onwards and were developed further in commentaries by Bede, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus before being passed down to an illiterate laity.

The Old Testament in particular was fertile ground for adapting dream narratives. The Book of Genesis contains multiple dream visions, such as God’s warning to Abimelek and later Laban the Aramean, and of course, Jacob’s vision of the ladder leading to heaven. Genesis also censures those who dismiss dreams and prophecy, though probably to endear the faithful to its own underdog prophets. When the patriarch Joseph first begins experiencing prophetic dreams he tells his brothers and father, who all rebuke him in turn: “And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more.”

As Joseph’s dreams continue, his brothers eventually conspire to kill or exile him, “And they said to one another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” They resolve to sell him into slavery instead, and after switching hands Joseph ends up at Pharaoh’s court. In a scene later repeated in the Book of Daniel, Pharaoh has two consecutive dreams which trouble him into the morning. He summons all of the wise men of Egypt to interpret his dreams, but they are unable to do so. Pharaoh then approaches Joseph, who tells the Pharaoh that “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires,” a humble reminder that the power of divination lay in God, not man – a comment likely to keep Pharaoh’s ego in check.

The Junius manuscript’s Daniel is based on The Book of Daniel, though Antonina Harbus argues that Daniel himself was set aside to such a degree that “its modern title is hardly appropriate” and that “Nebuchadnezzar would have been a more suitable title.” Unlike the Biblical text, the Old English version repositions Nebuchadnezzar as the subject rather than the object of the story. Babylon is depicted as an anti-Jerusalem, and King Nebuchadnezzar the root of its wickedness and folly. Alvin A. Lee writes that the events of Daniel centre on “that period of sacred history between the First Coming of Christ and the Parousia, during which […] repentance, as for the Babylonian king, is still possible.” This redemption is offered to Nebuchadnezzar via a series of dreams through which God speaks. Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream reveals to him the impermanence of earthly empires. This is not enough to convince the king of God’s greatness, and he resorts to idol-worship. Later, another dream is sent to enlighten him. “Then in his sleep a dream was revealed to Nebuchadnezzar.” This terrifying and highly metaphoric dream –revealed to him; a divine communication rather than a concoction of the imagination– foretells his own descent from greatness to madness. “Then the earthly prince –his dream was at an end– awoke from sleep. The fearfulness of it stayed with him, the terror of that phenomenon which God sent there.” The king is then struck by lunacy as a punishment, and enters the wild for seven years where he lives as a rambler, near-naked and filthy until he accepts the celestial hierarchy and his place within it below God. Only then does his sanity and some semblance of his former station return.

Despite the humiliation and distress of his temporary madness, the ordeal is ultimately described as having had a positive effect on Nebuchadnezzar: “When the ruler of Babylon was restored to sovereignty, he had a better disposition, a more enlightened belief in the Lord of life – that God bestowed on every man prosperity as well as punishment as he himself willed.” It is for his tribulations with his dreams and madness that Nebuchadnezzar is remembered. When the Babylonian King Nabonidus (556 – 539BC) was commemorated by a stele the sculptors depicted him suffering from a troublesome dream that is interpreted for him by a vision of his long dead predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar.


Job’s Evil Dreams by William Blake (1825).

The Bible also contained stern warnings against believing wholeheartedly in dreams that may stray from official religious doctrine: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.” In his Dialogues Pope Gregory I (c. 540, d. 604) also distinguished between dreams that involve the intrusion of demonic or angelic beings: “Sometimes dreams are caused […] by the deception of the tempting enemy” he wrote (centuries later, Joan of Arc’s prosecutors could argue that her account of her visions were, indeed, true; but that they were demonically-inspired instead.) The ninth century Anglo-Saxon bible, The Heliand, possibly inspired by Gregory, changed the New Testament account of the dream of Pontius Pilate’s wife from a divine warning to an instance of demonic malfeasance. The Book of Matthew reads: “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’” Conversely, the Anglo-Saxon version read:

That uuif uuard thuo an forahton,
suido an sorogen, thuo iro thiu gisiuni quamun
thuru thes dernien dad an dages liohte
an helidhelme bihelid.

[The woman [Pilate’s wife] was very worried, she was frightened by the visions that were coming to her in the daylight. They were the doings of the deceiver [Satan], who was invisible, hidden by a magic helmet.]

Satan being clad in a helmet is an especially Anglo-Saxon detail: it casts him as a combatant dressed for battle, his invisibility-rendering helmet perhaps analogous to other Germanic and Celtic battle-dress with the same abilities, such as Siegfried’s tarnkappe, or cloak of invisibility, and the “mantle” that Caswallan drapes around himself in battle in Culhwch and Olwen that allows him to slay his enemies unseen: “no one could see him killing the men – only the sword.”

Dreams were also capable of amplifying undesirable waking thoughts as well, to the distress of many Christians. St. Augustine of Hippo fretted that though memories of his sinful youth assaulted him with little strength during his waking hours, they “not only give me pleasure but feel like acquiescence in the act” when he dreamed. Troublingly, “the power which these illusory images have over my soul and my body is so great that what is no more than a vision can influence me in sleep in a way that the reality cannot do when I am awake.” Augustine’s only solution is to acknowledge the gulf between waking and sleeping states and to thereby absolve himself of guilt, though he ultimately remains “sorry that by some means or other it happened to me.”

These sorts of concerns are typically absent from the hagiographical Old English texts: saints are often encouraged by their dreams and visions, martyrs do not suffer in many ways but the physical and all for a good end. Only sinners or strayers are tormented with admonitions from God. One exception is the secular take on a dream contained within The Wanderer where the dreamer’s dream is an extension of his own loneliness and anxiety:

Forþon wat se þe sceal his winedryhtnes
lefoes larcwidum longe forþolian,
ðonne sorg ond slæð somod ætgædre
earmne anhogan oft gebindað
þinceð him on mode þæt he his mondryhten
clyooe ond cysse, ond on cneo lecge
Honda ond heafod, swa he hwilum ær
in geargardum giefstolas breac.

[Often, when grief and sleep combined together enchain the wretched solitary man, it seems to him in his imagination that he is embracing and kissing his lord and laying hands and head on his knee, just as at times previously in days of old he enjoyed the gift-throne.]

This is a rare, non-religious take on a dream in Old English literature. In terms of inspiring the laity, it is not helpful. The Wanderer’s dream is an assault on his wellbeing; as a part of his psyche it is inextricably bound to him; it overwhelms him when he is tired. But Biblical narratives were designed to reinforce one’s faith with promises of God’s kingdom to come, rather than torment them with woes of the present world and the things that are gone from it. It’s telling, then, that the most famous Anglo-Saxon example of divine inspiration is the more salutary story of the field-hand Caedmon, who was visited in his sleep by a man who asked him to sing. Caedmon responded that he was unable to, but the man persisted, asking again, and “Caedmon began immediately to sing verses in the praise of God that he had never heard before.” Caedmon then became something of a luminary figure who dedicated himself to God and who “crowned his life with a happy end” as a result of his piety. Likewise, the saint Cuthbert, Bede wrote, was likewise “spurred on by his heavenly vision of the joys of eternal bliss” and as a consequence was “ready to suffer hunger and thirst in this life in order to enjoy the banquets of the next.”

Caedmon’s tale has antecedents in European myth; most notably in the Nordic story of Thorleif Jarlsakald, where the shepherd Hallbjorn falls asleep near Thorleif’s grave and dreams that his spirit appears and teaches him how to compose and sing poetry. What Caedmon’s story might lack in originality it makes up for by associating his attained poetic powers with divine rather than simply supernatural inspiration. Geoffrey Shepherd writes that the focal point of Caedmon’s dream are its effects, which are “an intensification of piety, a suitable response to a vision.” Christian dream narratives often followed the same formula, where the poet-narrator moves from ignorance to knowledge of God and His works before exhorting (often at command) the greatness of the divine to the reader. “Listen!” opens the narrator of The Dream of the Rood, “I want to recount the most excellent of visions, and what I dreamed in the middle of the night when voiced mortals lay abed” – this vision being one in which the cross enjoins the narrator to spread God’s message and “declare this vision to people”

The power of dreams to empower Christian converts were even utilised in historical accounts like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. For example, King Edwin of Northumbria’s (b. 585, d. 633) conversion is largely attributed to pressure from his second wife Ethelberga, a committed Christian, and Pope Boniface V, yet Bede writes that, rather than political necessity, “the principal factor influencing the king to study and accept the truths of salvation was a heavenly vision which God in his mercy had once granted the king when he was in exile.”

One of the most important dream visions in Christendom concerns another regal figure, the Emperor Constantine (272 – 337AD), who was, as the story is told by his contemporary Lactantius, instructed in a dream before the decisive Battle of Milvian Bridge to adorn his army’s shields with the cipher of Christ. Constantine did so and was subsequently victorious, driving his enemy Maxentius into the Tiber. Eusebius tells a similar story with additional details, where Constantine sees a vision of the Cross in the sky by day and at night is told the purpose of his vision by Christ. It is an interesting addition that Constantine not only dreams about the symbol of the Cross but actively sees it as he is awake; Eusebius likely trying to place the vision somewhere tangible so that others, specifically Constantine’s troops, could see it as well (as other versions of the story relate.)

The image of the Cross taking shape in the sky would become a potent propagandistic legend; Guibert of Nogent wrote that during the First Crusade a crowd in Beauvais “grew ecstatic thinking it had seen a cross in the clouds,” helping spur fervour for another historic Christian victory. The Old English Elene retells the story of Constantine’s vision and also his mother Helena’s (styled ‘Helen’ in the poem) legendary discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem. The poem opens with Constantine’s dream and the invigorating effect it has on him: “Then to the emperor himself there was revealed in sleep as he slumbered among his retinue, by the man renowned for his victories was seen, the portent of a dream.” When Constantine awakens he is “the happier, the less anxious at heart, for the lovely vision.” After his victory Constantine gathers “the wisest men” who have “acquired a knowledge of wisdom from ancient writings” to enlighten him further on Christ and the imagery of the Cross. Constantine subsequently undergoes baptism – a necessary alteration of the historical record, where Constantine was baptised on his death bed rather than after his defeat of Maxentius. Christian storytellers and propagandists could not suffer Constantine’s vision, victory and baptism occurring twenty five years apart from one another.

Dream narratives would go on to prosper in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, sometimes employed as frame narratives (Piers Plowman) or as doctrinal works like those written by the Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen (d.1179), who described how, one day in her forty second year, “Heaven was opened up and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain […] and immediately I knew the meaning of the exposition of the Scriptures.” Hildegard was, just as Caedmon centuries before her, inspired by a heavenly voice to promulgate the word of God, to “write, therefore, the things you see and hear.” In the realm of poetry Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343, d. 1400) continued to invoke the stimulating power of dreams (or ‘sweven’, from the Old English ‘swefn’: to dream) in ‘The Parliament of Fowls’, where he appeals to the creative powers of Cytherea, or Aphrodite.

Be thou my help in this, for thou mayst best;
As wisly as I sae thee north-north-west,
When I began my sweven for to wryte,
So yif me might to ryme and endite!

The Anglo-Saxon period, commonly denigrated as the ‘Dark Ages’, is in fact the bridge between the Classical age and the Early Middle Ages. It continued the tradition of dream narrative and divine sponsorship or reproachment with narratives like The Dream of the Rood, Daniel and Elene that emphasised how visions and the dream-world were not separate worlds at all, mere insomnium and visum and other hypnogogic uncertainties, but an extension and instrument of God himself. Dr. Faith Wallis observes in her essay ‘Caedmon’s Created World and The Monastic Encyclopaedia’ that for Bede and his contemporaries and successors “the idea of the hymn was perhaps more important than was the text of the hymn itself” – the notion that a deity communicates with his creations through the dream-world is on one hand a romantic one; but it is not as cosy an idea as that, since those who are visited in the night find themselves faced with equidistant paths towards glory or damnation. Overall, it was a useful doctrine when combined with a phenomenon as universal as dreaming. Later, in ‘The House of Fame’, Chaucer marvels at dreams in all of their diversity and mysteriousness:

God turne us every dreem to gode!
For hit is wonder, by the rode,
To my wit, what causeth sweveness
Either on morwes, or on evenes;
And why the effect folweth of somme,
And of somme hit shal never come;
Why that is an avisioun,
And this a revelacioun,
Why this a dreem, that a sweven,
And nat to every man liche even;
Why this a fantom, these oracles.

[May God turn every dream to good for us!
For to my mind it is a wonder, by the cross,
What causes dreams by night or by morning;
And why some are fulfilled and some not;
Why this one is a vision, and this a revelation;
Why this is one kind of dream, and that one is another,
And not the same to everyone;
Why this one is an illusion and that one is an oracle.”]


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The Return of Arthur: Prophecy and Appropriation

King Arthur's Tomb (1914) by Florence Harrison.

King Arthur’s Tomb (1914) by Florence Harrison.

Different eras had different concerns and therefore, different anxieties about King Arthur. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries concerns focused on whether or not Arthur would literally return from the paradisiacal Avalon to restore his throne at Caerlon. Later, following the alleged discovery of Arthur and Guinevere’s tombs and the calamitous War of the Roses, the Tudors set to claim Arthur’s bloodline as their own, making his return figurative, with prophecy only satisfied once the descendants of Arthur reassumed the throne.

Later, Arthur’s military legacy was raised in the sixteenth century by British imperialists who saw his legendary conquests as a blueprint for a ‘British Empire’; claims that were countered by the scepticism of figures like Polydore Vergil, who expressed doubt on Arthur’s historicity, to the ire of English commentators. By the eighteenth century Arthur was often invoked as a bulwark against the irrevocable effects of industrialisation and scientific progress. Though his political influence ultimately waned and died, he continue to inhabit the popular imagination as well as the nooks of rural British folklore. 

Chapter 1: The Early Arthurs

King Arthur today is an archetypical figure: in the popular imagination he not only excels at war and politics, but is wise, pious, just, and even his failings, like his fatal wounding at Camlann, have the tint of glory about them. Abetted by his exemplary Knights of the Round Table, Arthur is a guarantor of prosperity and peace for his people, a seeker of holy relics and a staunch defender of Britain from enemies both foreign and domestic, human and supernatural. But, as Irish poet and critic T.W. Rolleston (1857 – 1920) notes in his Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (1911) modern readers “will find in the native literature of mediaeval Wales little or nothing of all this–no Round Table, no Lancelot, no Grail-Quest, no Isle of Avalon, until the Welsh learned about them from abroad; and though there was indeed an Arthur in this literature, he is a wholly different being from the Arthur of what we now call the Arthurian Saga.”

Before delving into Arthur’s development, we must make a distinction between the historical and literary Arthurs, who are often conflated, with good reason but to confusing effect, with one another. Of the historical Arthur we can say almost nothing, except that he was, according to eighth century Welsh monk Nennius in his Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), a notable British warrior who helped defend Britain from the invading Saxon hordes sometime in the murky fifth century.

Nennius’ Arthur is a mystery: a war leader with an impressive military record but scant biographical details. This Arthur is lacking the kingship of later iterations (his position seems to be the result of a promotion or election) and is primarily famed for his military victories and an impressive (if dubious) body count at Mount Badon, where he slew nine hundred and sixty of the enemy. Despite his strength and prowess, Nennius’ Arthur is strictly a defender of Britain rather than the overseas conqueror of later Arthurian lore. It is from this rather indistinct ‘historical’ Arthur that the literary King Arthur would later spring, along with Guinevere, Lancelot, and the Holy Grail – the result of centuries of poetic invention and oracular transmission.

There are few mentions of the supposedly historical Arthur after Nennius: there is an allusion to his prowess in the Y Goddodin, and his victory at Badon and the fall of both Arthur and Medraut (later Mordred) at Camlann are catalogued in the tenth century Annales Cambriae (The Annals of Wales). Troublingly for proponents of an historical Arthur, sixth century British cleric Gildas, author of De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) and who marks the Battle of Camlann as occurring in the year of his birth, makes no mention of Arthur himself. Collected histories like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle neglects to mention Arthur, as does Bede (672 – 735) in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), while the Welsh tales that were emerging at the time were already steeped in the mythologising process that places him as the leader of a team of veritable super men and as a slayer of giants, dragons and witches.

Those invested in the historical Arthur have not let Gildas’ omissions derail them. W. Lewis Jones (1866 – 1922) asserted that Gildas’ De Excidio is “not so much a history as a homily” and that the chronicler is a biased source, given his tendency to demean –and even condemn– his fellow Britons.

Gildas belonged to a ‘Romanist’ party, and what the more or less unorganised Britons sought to do for themselves, and their independence, was to him but a decline upon savagery and selfish native pride. It did not suit his purpose to celebrate the name and virtues of any British prince and it is significant that, apart from Ambrosius –by birth, apparently, no less than by his training and sympathies, a thorough-going ‘Roman’– he does not mention by name a single British chieftain except as a target for his invective.

Welsh cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan (twelfth century) wrote a Life of St Gildas which claims King Arthur slew one of Gildas’ rebellious brothers, but that Gildas, in Christian fashion, forgave Arthur, who received penance. But according to Norman-Welsh chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1146 – 1223) the Britons instead insisted that as a result of the slaying of Gildas’ brother a great history of Arthur had been destroyed by Gildas himself, who was their author:

The Britons maintain that, when Gildas criticised his own people so bitterly, he wrote as he did because he was so infuriated by the fact that King Arthur had killed his own brother, who was a Scottish chieftain. When he heard of his brother’s death, or so the Britons say, he threw into the sea a number of outstanding books which he had written in their praise and about Arthur’s achievements. As a result you will find no book which gives an authentic account of that great prince.

British philologist Lewis Thorpe (d. 1977) notes that “Apart from the fact that Gildas was born on the south bank of the Clyde, there is no evidence to support any of this,” though Giraldus gives himself some latitude by passing off the story as an invention of the Britons (“or so the Britons say.”)

Left there, Arthur might have slipped into obscurity and oblivion; a minor British hero celebrated in adventurous songs and poems but of no relevance to the wider British Isles or its people. It would be Welsh cleric Galfridus Monemutensis, or Geoffrey of Monmouth, (c. 1100 – c. 1155) with his Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), completed in 1136, that would launch Arthur from an insular British hero to an international hero-emperor. Geoffrey expanded Arthur’s scope, bringing much of Europe under his dominion.

According to his narrative, Ireland and Iceland fall to King Arthur after their defending armies are routed, and the kings of Orkney likewise submit. In response, various European kings refortify their castles, afraid that he should invade. Unfortunately, their defensive measures entice rather than repel him: “The fact that he was dreaded by all encouraged him to conceive the idea of conquering all of Europe.” He sails on Norway, slaughtering any who resist and pillaging the land until it and then Denmark fall under his rule. Gaul follows, and after nine years Arthur holds court in Paris, where he divests his conquered lands amongst his men before departing, finally, for Britain and to his dubious end at Camlann and his passage to Avalon.

The publication of the Historia not only launched Arthuriana but also split it in two: so great was Geoffrey’s influence that from thereon Arthurian material would be classified as either pre-Galfridian or post-Galfridian. Unfortunately, it is hard to untangle Geoffrey from his supposed sources and the numerous works that derived from him. Many Welsh manuscripts cannot be positively dated and it is supposed that in many instances Arthur was quietly incorporated into later editions. The Welsh were happy, for example, to subsume Geoffrey’s Historia into their own annals: a Welsh translation can be found in The Red Book of Hergest (c. 1382).

The earliest and most complete manuscript of The Mabinogion can be dated to the early fourteenth century, but the stories therein have not been conclusively dated, with scholars unable to agree on whether they precede or stem from Monmouth’s Historia. T.M. Charles-Edwards writes that scholars “are arguing about […] whether the man who wrote the Four Branches was indebted to French and Anglo-Norman literature and ways of thought and life, or on the contrary, belonged to the period of Welsh literature which preceded the Norman conquest of much of Wales.” Acts of appropriation like these were casually admitted by ‘Dafydd’, the author of Peniarth MS 50 (c. 1450), who describes how “Ryw ddirgeledic gydymddaith ydolgawdd ym drossi man betheu droganawl o ladin franghec a saesnec ynghhymraec/A mysterious companion besought me to translate prophetic fragments from Latin, French and English into Welsh.” Such a procedure was probably very common as bards travelled between countries and courts in the years following the Norman Conquest, slimming and expanding older stories with foreign interpretations and invention.

Arthur would be shaped into various colourful permutations throughout the intervening centuries, but the most contentious was his role as an explicitly Welsh hero who was destined to return from Avalon to relieve his people of the English who had displaced and harassed them for generations.

Chapter 2: The Sleeping Hero

“Many peoples in many lands,” John Morris wrote in The Age of Arthur, “dreamt of a distant hero who is not dead but asleep, who will one day awaken to rescue his people from conquest and oppression.” Ubiquitous among these sleeping heroes is an uncertain death, a famed but lost (or hidden) resting place, and a prophesised future peril for his country as well as its salvation.

In Norway similar legends surrounded the ill-fortuned Olaf Tryggvason (c. 960s – 1000) and similarly Harold Godwinson (1022 – 1066) was rumoured to have survived the Battle of Hastings, withdrawing from the battlefield and into the safety of an eremitic life. This legend was commemorated in a hagiography, the Vita Haroldi Regis (Life of King Harold), which claimed the Normans had invented the story of Harold’s demise because they feared “their destruction if the enemy should hear that he was alive.”

Edward II was also believed to have been deposited safely in Europe after his supposed death in 1327 and Edward III was rumoured to have met him in Antwerp in 1338. James IV of Scotland (1473 – 1513) was said to have been spirited away by supernatural interventionists at the disastrous Battle of Flodden and Edward VI (1537 – 1553) was also the subject of various prophecies concerning his early death and, once death had come for him, his alleged survival and passage to another country, including, in the style of other survival myths, an eventual heroic return.

Most of these survival legends petered out rather quickly and very few outlived their founding supporters, but some lived on with decidedly supernatural and folkloric elements. For centuries German folktales talked of Frederick I’s (1122 – 1190) slumber beneath the Kyffhauser Mountain, from which he and his knights will one day emerge to restore Germany to glory. Sebastian I of Portugal (1554 – 1578), last seen charging into the Moorish frontlines at the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, and whose body was never recovered, was long believed by the Portuguese to be slumbering in some otherworldly plane, awaiting the right time to return and restore his country to greatness. The Brothers Grimm also collected fables telling of Charlemagne’s (c. 742 – 814) slumber under a mountain, and Constantine XI Palaiologos (1405 – 1453) was said to have turned to marble, and will one day return to restore the Byzantine Empire. In Britain Thomas the Rhymer (c.1220 – 1298), Henry Percy (1364 – 1403) and Gerald FitzGerald (1456 – 1513) are said to slumber under the earth, awaiting the time to return and rule. In Ireland the mythical Fionn Mac Cumhaill is believed to sleep in a variety of caves, with James MacKillop writing that “There are more than thirty-five locations, in both Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, where Fionn and his men are supposed to be sleeping.” Other sleeping heroes proliferated throughout the entirety of Europe, appearing in Spain, Germany, France, Denmark, Hungary and even extending to Turkey and Russia.

The Welsh likewise developed a penchant for messianic national heroes throughout the Early Middle Ages, often exemplified in their various rebel princes. Welsh vaticinatory verse long foretold of the ‘Mab Darogan’ (son of prophecy) who would arise to restore his country and people. The ‘Mab Darogan’ epithet became attached to several notable Welsh rebel leaders and princes, including Cadwalader (d. 682) Gruffud ap Cynan (c. 1055 – 1137), Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (c. 1172 – 1240) Owain Lawgoch (1330 – 1378) and Owain Glyndŵr (c. 1349 – c.1415). Many of these ‘sons of prophecy’ died ignominiously: Lawgoch was assassinated by a confidant on order of the English Crown and Glyndŵr, though never captured, died in obscurity. When Llywelyn ap Gruffud, the last sovereign prince of Wales, was killed in 1182, Edward I (1239 – 1307) had his head sent to London where it was displayed and crowned with ivy in a mockery of the Welsh legend that a Welshman would be crowned there as the king of a restored Celtic Britain.

It may be no surprise then that the Welsh, beleaguered by disappointments, turned to Arthur, who, by merit of his victory at Badon and his stymying of the Saxons there, was the ideal British Messiah whose own vanishing from the world was no impediment to eventual victory. Arthur’s popularisation by the Historia created a hitherto unseen demand for the dissemination of Arthurian stories, allowing Welsh propagandists to seize his burgeoning fame and expound his legend as a sleeping hero who would return from Avalon to reclaim Britain for the Britons. While the cult of Harold Godwinson never inspired anything more than the imaginations of a few obstinate Englishmen and invoked very little but disdain from the Norman camp, and the supporters of other slain kings (like James IV) simply moved on with matters of succession, a figure like King Arthur, who existed between both historical and legendary thresholds, and whose example was esteemed even by the descendants of his historical enemies, would be harder to dismiss – after all, Arthur, unlike the Llywelyns and Owains, was not likely to ever have his head fixed atop a gate, nor have his reputation sullied by defeat in battle against contemporaneous enemies.

Geoffrey himself wrote that after Arthur’s wounding he would be attended to at Avalon, a mysterious Isle first mentioned in the Historia as housing the forge of Arthur’s sword Caliburn, but Geoffrey says nothing explicit of his survival until his addendum Vita Merlini in 1150. Geoffrey’s inclusion of Avalon inducted it into Arthurian lore, at least as a name, but it is only one in a long succession of Celtic otherworlds that he would have known about from older stories and mythologies. Pomponius Mela (active 43AD) wrote in his De situ orbis (Description of the World) of an island somewhere in the British Sea where nine Celtic priestesses who can “sanare, quae apud alios insanabilia sunt/cure what is incurable among other peoples” and who also “scire ventura et praedicare/know and predict the future” reside.

The seventh century Irish tale The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal depicts the titular Bran’s odyssey to the Land of the Women, an isle said to be “Cen brón, cen duba, cen bás/Without grief, without sorrow, without death” and where food and drink are infinitely replenishable, descriptions that would mirror those of Avalon that Geoffrey gave in his Vita Merlini. Upon leaving, Bran and his men discover that the few days they passed at the island have in fact spanned centuries.

Unearthly islands also feature in The Voyage of St. Brendan (c. 900), where Brendan and his men seek an island where food, drink and clothing are unnecessary for survival and time is again a relative concept: when fifteen days are thought to have elapsed, they are told that a year has already passed without their consuming sustenance. Like the isle featured in the tale of Bran and future tales of Arthur, this place is “spacious, green, and exceedingly fruitful.” If Arthur had been transported to some isle populated by magical beings, a land of infinite prosperity where time obeys separate laws, allowing visitors to unwittingly pass months, years or centuries in what seemed to be mere moments, then it may be that Geoffrey intended that he land on one not too dissimilar from the many enchanted islands already present in Celtic legend.

It is also noteworthy that in the Vita Merlini and Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwn, ninth-twelfth century) Arthur is ferried to Avalon by Barinthus, who serves as St. Brendan’s ship captain in The Voyage of St. Brendan. Fairy tales about such lands were still popular throughout the Early and Middle Ages. Giraldus Cambrensis wrote of a priest named Elidyr who, as a child, stumbled upon the Otherworld via a subterranean tunnel. Elidyr emerged into “a most attractive country, where there were lovely rivers and meadows, and delightful woodlands and plains” and was taken to meet the king of this idyllic place. After thieving from this strange world Elidyr was chased out and could never find the entrance again.

On the question of whether Geoffrey invented Arthur’s survival or adapted it from a prior tradition, Herman of Tournai (1095 – 1147) provides an interesting account of a visit to Bodmin in Cornwall, where he observed how the locals were “accustomed to arguing with the French about King Arthur” to the point where, in one instance, a local elderly man “began to bicker with one from our community […] saying that Arthur still lived.” This argument broke out into a larger confrontation where “many men rushed into the church with arms” and the spilling of blood was only averted by a cleric who kept the peace.

Herman’s account is interesting because it was written in the 1140’s but the story at Bodmin occured in 1113, some twenty three years before Geoffrey’s Historia appeared to set the post and pre-Galfridian watermark. William of Malmesbury (c. 1095/6 – 1143) also mentioned the Britons’ “many fables” concerning Arthur in 1125, detailing that “ancient ballads fable that he is still to come.” Further evidence of a pre-Galfridian Arthur survival myth is within the Englynion y Beddau (Verses of the Graves). The Verses, usually dated to the ninth or tenth century, is a record of the graves of various legendary heroes which maintains that Arthur’s resting place cannot be found. Interestingly, Modena and Otranto Cathedrals in Italy are also decorated with Arthurian imagery that dates somewhere between 1099 and 1165, and show Arthur astride a goat, a creature often associated with subterranean kingdoms. Sicily at the time was ruled by a Norman dynasty (Norman adventurers first appeared there in 999 and it fell under their rule by the early twelfth century) and these mosaics and carvings were likely inspired and transported by “oral tales […] brought over the Alps by itinerant storytellers and/or Norman craftsmen.” If the carvings do predate the Historia, then it would be compelling physical evidence for a widespread Arthur-in-the-underworld tradition. We can assume, as Geoffrey says in the Historia, that he is not the source of the Arthur survival myth, though he can certainly be called its most successful and renowned propagator.

Whatever the origins of the survival myth, it was Geoffrey who was explicitly targeted by critics; being the myth’s populariser made him just as bothersome as its source, if not more so. Arthur’s very existence however, despite his absence from vaunted records like Gildas’ and Bede’s, was never under scrutiny from Anglo-Norman or Scottish chroniclers. William of Malmesbury, who writes disdainfully of Geoffrey, still comments that the historical Arthur is “a man worthy to be celebrated” though, he deigns to add, “not by idle fictions, but by authentic history.” Giraldus Cambrensis, despite his limited faith in the veracity of the Historia, calls Arthur “that most renowned King of the Britons” whose memory will “endure forever”, but as for the claim that Arthur would rise again, Giraldus wrote:

The credulous Britons and their bards invented the legend that a fantastic sorceress called Morgan had removed Arthur’s body to the Isle of Avalon so that she might cure his wounds there. According to them, once he has recovered from his wounds this strong and all-powerful King will return to rule over the Britons in the normal way.

The Norman poet Wace, who translated the Historia into Norman as the Roman de Brut (1150), comments on the Britons’ belief that Arthur “is still there, the Britons await him, so they say and hope: he will return and live again” – his inclusion of “so they say and hope” being important qualifiers. Ultimately, Wace himself says that he adheres to the words of Merlin, who said that Arthur’s death would remain doubtful. Layamon, whose Brut (c. 1200) is the first of the English Arthur poems, also mentions the Britons’ belief in Arthur’s return and that he also defers to Merlin’s wisdom in the matter.

While Wace and Layamon were able to entertain doubt as storytellers, most chroniclers at the time fought back with the only weapon they possessed: derision. William of Newburgh (1136 – 1198) wrote that Geoffrey’s account was a lie, “promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or a desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and who cannot bear to hear of his death.”

An unofficial continuation of Geoffrey’s work, the Vera Historia de Morte Arthuri, even attempted to end the speculation around Arthur’s fate by revealing that the King received “no efficacious cure” from the efforts of Avalon’s physicians, and passed away as a consequence. Other English chroniclers like Robert Mannying of Brunne, John Hardyng and Thomas Castleford all mention the Britons’ belief in Arthur’s return and do not bring into question his existence, but they unequivocally state that the good king is dead. Mannying mocks that “if he life [live], his life is long.” In John of Trevisa’s translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon (1387) the Cornishman defends the historicity of Arthur on one hand and rubbishes the legends of his return with the other.

Scottish chroniclers, when they were not analysing the legitimacy of Arthur’s claim to the throne or boasting that he had in fact met his end to the Picts, likewise dismiss his return. The Welsh, meanwhile, were utilising Arthur’s popularity to its fullest, to the chagrin of English commentators. The author(s) of the Croyland Chronicle, compiled between the seventh and fifteenth centuries, stated that, “The truth is that, in those parts and throughout Wales, there is a celebrated and famous prophecy, to the effect that, having expelled the English, the remains of the Britons are once more to obtain the sovereignty of England.” The unknown author further writes that the Britons believed their time had come, and that they “used every possible exertion to promote its fulfilment.” A twelfth century Anglo-Norman chronicle writes that the Welsh “threaten us… openly they go about saying, by means of Arthur they will have [the island] back… They will call it Britain again.”

Chroniclers in France also chimed in: Walter of Châtillon (twelfth century) referenced the Britons’ popular faith “in their Arthur”, and Peter of Blois (c. 1130 – c.1211) wrote, perhaps sympathetically towards the Britons, in his debate poem Quod Amicus Suggerit of an agnostic Courtier who compares waiting for the afterlife to the belief in King Arthur’s return; in short, a fantasy:

We’ve never seen anyone
coming back from the world below –
we shan’t abandon certainties
for dubious tales
if you can believe in those,
you might as well expect the return
of Arthur with his British legions!

Though their general trappings are not unique, the Welsh tales of the sleeping hero have an eschatological tone to them in particular. Unlike other European narratives, where the sleeping hero and his retinue awaken by a rite performed by an interloper (such as drawing a sword or sounding a horn) the Welsh heroes are obstinate in their slumber if interrupted, and remain “asleep because the country’s need is not at its greatest and the people are not yet ready to receive and follow the redeemer.” When Arthur reawakens to repossess the Island and reinstate Caerlon, it will be at his peoples’ direst hour. This may refer to a prophecy in the Historia, which in addition to the prophecies of Merlin also contains an omen which comes after Arthur’s passing to Avalon and the subjugation of Britain by the Saxons. When Cadwalader, the last king of the Britons, sets his mind to reclaiming the country he is halted by an angelic voice that warns him the time is not right for the island to be returned to the Britons. That time would come, the voice says, but that time is not now.

Prophecy was cited as the authority concerning Arthur’s return, and the Arthurian prophet was Merlin, whom Geoffrey had drawn from the Welsh seer Myrddin. Benjamin T. Hudson writes that “The employment of prophecy as a genre for historical secular verse was not unusual in the Middle Ages. The model was provided by the Bible, with its insistence on the reverence due to prophecy and the sanctity of the prophets.” Merlin, like Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel, spends years roaming the forests in a state of madness before receiving clarity, but Merlin’s origin as a Welsh king who was struck mid-battle with madness and fled to the woods may also come from a prior tradition in the twelfth century Irish Buile Shuibhne (The Frenzy of Suidhne) which depicts a king’s flight to the woods and his long madness there.

Prophecy had long been purposed for religious, political or social causes. One of the earliest examples of prophetic literature, The Marduk Prophecy, originated in ancient Babylon. After a statue of their god Marduk was stolen and taken to the city of Elam, Babylon entered a period of decline and disaster. The Babylonians were said to have predicted that a “king of Babylon will arise” to restore the city, return Marduk, and punish Elam. The text is largely considered a propaganda piece, or vaticinia ex eventu (prophecies after the fact) for Nebuchadnezzar I (1124-1103 BC), who eventually liberated the statue of Marduk and defeated Elam.

As propaganda it is exemplary, turning an uncertain event (Nebuchadnezzar’s victory) into one mandated by celestial powers. Jesus Christ’s prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temples in the Gospel of Matthew is another cited example of vaticinia ex eventu, since Matthew was written after Jerusalem had already been sieged in 70 A.D. during the First Jewish-Roman War. According to D.N. Dumville the Welsh Armes Prydain Fawr (The Great Prophecy of Britain), a prophetic poem from the tenth century, likewise “takes its stance on well known truths of the present and past, prophesising these as future events and circumstances.” John Morris suggests that the Welsh plundered their own ancient histories and reinterpreted them for contemporary anxieties:

Since Welsh tradition had no history earlier than the fifth century, the poems of the sixth century became the starting point of historical verse and myth. The Merlin Cycle, the Armes Prydein and many other medieval poems plundered the older epics to weave mystic, nervous prophecies of an ultimate reconquest of the lost lands of England.

Another prophecy that was appropriated, this time from England by Wales, concerns Thomas Becket (c.1118 – 1170) who, one story goes, was visited by an angel who presented him with an oil to anoint the kings of England and who also foretold the domination of Europe by the Christian kings of England. Ian P. Wei writes that though the oil was used in the anointment of English Kings “until at least 1483 and probably until 1509” it did not appear “to have been exploited by Henry IV or his successors in support of their dynasty,” probably because of the similarity between Becket’s oil and France’s Oil of Clovis.

The blatant (and perhaps embarrassing) similarities between the oils did not stop the Becket prophecy undergoing an interesting transformation in Wales. In this version, it is Arthur who receives the anointing oil at Glastonbury, this time from the Virgin. British dominion is again prophesised, but notably, references to the ‘Reges Anglorum’ (‘the kings of England’) in the original become ‘brenhinoedd yr yns hon’ (‘kings of this island’) in the Welsh iteration. Dr. Ceridwen Llyoyd Morgan writes that:

It is ironic, and a testament to the skill of the redactor, that a prophetical tale once used in a foreign context should be adapted to carry a very different political message in Wales. From its continental beginnings, where it became part and parcel of the French monarchy, to 14th century England where it could be related to quite different political objectives, the legend of the holy oil finally in its Welsh form is translated into a lament for the loss of Welsh independence and a hope that one day the English yoke will be thrown off.

The ‘English yoke’ however had countermeasures of its own, and would address the Welsh prophecies and Arthur’s mounting popularity in the Plantagenet era by the protracted act of claiming him as their own.

Chapter 3: Arthur and the Plantagenets

The popularity of Geoffrey’s Historia saw Arthur’s literary character flourish in the twelfth century, transforming him from an insular British hero into an international hero-emperor. In Scotland, whose people were often harried by Arthur throughout his literature, John Barbour’s epic The Brus (c. 1375) mentioned him in positive terms:

Als Arthur, that throw chevalry
Maid Bretane maistres and lady
Of twelf kinrikis that he wan
And alswa as a noble man

[And Arthur that through chivalry
Made Britain his mistress and lady
Of twelve kingdoms that he won
And always as a noble man.]

His esteem burgeoned in France thanks to the influence of Welsh exiles who introduced “a great many ‘lais’ and Breton legends […] into French literature during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries” and he was beginning to be credited with historical deeds and was revered as a paragon: Alain Bouchart’s Grandes Chroniques (Great Chronicles, 1514) credits Arthur with the foundation of the first church at Notre Dame following his annexation of Gaul; in Petit Artus de Bretagne (Arthur of Little Britain, fourteenth century) the main character is named after the legendary king on account of his exemplary virtue. In John of Hauville’s (fl. c. 1184) poem Architrenius (c. 1184) the titular Architrenius is transported to a battlefield where the orders of good, led by Arthur and Gawain, are locked in bloody conflict with the forces of evil. Gawain tells Architrenius of the foundation of Britain by Brutus and introduces Arthur as “alter Achilles Arturus, teretis mense genitiva venustas/that new Achilles, the source of glory of the Round Table.”

Likewise, the lais of Robert Bicket (fl. c. 1175) and Marie de France (late twelfth century) contain many Arthurian characters, situations and allusions which their audiences were expected to understand. Chretien de Troyes began writing his Arthurian Romances circa 1170 beginning with Eric and Enide – a story likely based on the Welsh Geraint and Enid, though some scholars argue that the reverse is true. Eilhart von Berge and Gottfried von Strassburg (both late twelfth century) were bringing Arthurian stories, specifically Tristan and Iseult, into German for the first time, just as Béroul was doing in the Norman language. In the early thirteenth century Brother Robert, an Anglo-Norman cleric active in Norway, adapted many of the French romances into Old Norse, including Arthurian pieces inspired by Marie de France and Chretien. Jaufre, an Arthurian Occitan romance, was also popular throughout the Iberian Peninsula during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Arthurian stories also appeared in Italy and Sicily, where they had the advantage of a ruling Norman elite that predated the English Conquest. The anonymously authored Floriante et Floret saw Arthur adventuring in Sicily and even located Avalon at Mt Etna. Guillem de Torroella (b. c. 1348) and Gervase of Tilbury (c.1150 – 1228) made the same connections to Etna, the latter having been in the service of Sicily’s Norman king. Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) would blame the stories of Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere as being the cause of Francesca da Rimini (1255 – 1285) and Paolo Malatesta’s historical affair and subsequently their torment in the Second Circle of Hell in his Divina Commedia (1320).

Unrelated but correlating relics also began accumulating an Arthurian association: the sword of St Galgano (1148 – 1181), which he plunged into a mound, awaiting a worthy to remove, became associated with the sword in the stone. In 1170 a certain Alanus (thought to be Alan of Tewkesbury) attested to Arthur’s popularity when he wrote: “Whither has not the flying fame spread and familiarised the name of Arthur the Briton, even as far as the empire of Christendom extends? Who does not speak of Arthur the Briton, since he is almost better known to the peoples of Asia Minor than to the Britanni?” Across Europe Arthurian literature was becoming an influence much as Homer’s Epic Cycle had been in the Mediterranean.

The reasons for this explosion in renown can be attributed to Geoffrey’s text and to the movements of Welsh and Breton bards who travelled throughout France and England. After the Conquest in 1066 many Breton lords were given English estates by William the Conqueror, thus spreading a new strain of Arthurian tales, already removed from the Welsh iterations, which were becoming popular in France. According to Roger Sherman Lewis these travelling minstrels were able to make “a livelihood by telling their tales, of which Arthur was the centre, with such verve that they were able to fascinate counts and kings who had not the slightest racial or political tie with the British hero.” John Morris agreed that “it is from the Norman stories that the legend grew, retold in succeeding ages in words and sentiment adapted to changing taste.” Richard Barber concurred, writing that “It is only after the Norman conquest of south Wales that we have evidence of the Arthurian stories in languages other than Welsh.”

Wace’s Roman de Brut (c. 1155) was the first substantial post-Galfridian Arthurian entry to appear. Wace, a Norman who ostensibly had contact with Breton poets and minstrels, incorporated into his account Arthur’s now-legendary Round Table, a device he claimed was already famed among the British. However, he also omitted Merlin’s prophecies, as did the English Layamon, whose Brut (c. 1200) ends with a promise that Arthur, upon his return, will aid the people of England. Subsequent English stories like The Avowying of King Arthur (c. 1375 – 1425), The Awntyrs off Arthure (late fourteenth century), Sir Gawain and the Castle of Carlisle (c. 1400) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (fourteenth century) all centred on idealised depictions of courtly life and chivalric conduct centred on Arthur’s court. The adventures therein often test the morals and mettle of various knights (with Arthur, as he is in The Avowying, sometimes serving as the presiding judge) as well as the chastity of their wives, and they usually end with a new inductee into the Knights of the Round Table and the country’s peace being upheld – there are no calls for rebellion, no purge of the English from the Isles, only stability and the constancy of Arthur’s reign. W.R.J. Barron comments in ‘Bruttene Deorling: An Arthur for Every Age’ that:

The sleight of mind by which Arthur becomes the Messianic hope of the Saxons who were his bitterest enemies was possible because the fundamental theme of the Brut is not culture but country, not race but land and the literary immortality of Britain’s darling was to be the common inheritance of all who made the land their home.

A pressing concern for the Anglo-Norman rulers of the time was not the proliferation of Arthurian material itself but the adoption of Arthur as a Welsh nationalist messiah figure. Arthur by this time had already entered the private hopes and beliefs of the English: the Fasciculus Morum, an English preacher’s handbook from the fourteenth century, makes reference to the souls of the perished joining King Arthur and his Knights in the Otherworld. Helen Fulton writes that “the English had appropriated their own version of Arthur as a king of Britain, and therefore of England, [but] to the Welsh he remained a Welsh king of the British nation before the coming of the hated Saxons.” A restored Britain, as far as the Welsh rebels were concerned, was not one that incorporated, but rather expelled, the nation of England. Arthur was attractive to English monarchs for reasons that went beyond his immense popularity; Geoffrey’s descriptions of Arthur as a great military leader and Christian who held power over the kingdoms of Britain as well as the fealty of Europe was the sort of hero-conqueror which English dynasties would long strive to model themselves after.

To settle the legends of Arthur’s return the Anglo-Normans would need to dispel the more unsavoury elements of his story –Avalon, his immortality– by producing a gravesite and a body. Problematically, there was no grave to plunder. William of Malmesbury had written briefly about the discovery of the grave of Gawain, “the noble nephew of Arthur”, before adding that the “sepulchre of Arthur is nowhere to be seen.” But at some point in 1191 or 1192 a breakthrough was made, and Giraldus Cambrensis visited Glastonbury Abbey to view the bones of Arthur and Guinevere, which had been miraculously uncovered there. “In our own lifetime,” he wrote, “Arthur’s body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot.” Giraldus wrote that the tomb of Arthur was emblazoned with a seal that read:



Giraldus’ conclusions were unequivocal: Arthur’s passage to the mysterious Avalon is a legend; he was in fact buried here, in Glastonbury, which he connects to Avalon by way of the Welsh name for the area, ‘Ynys Avallon’, as well as the tomb’s conveniently expositional inscription. The bones were so remarkable that they could only belong to a “veritable prodigy of nature” and were crisscrossed with multiple wounds and one “immense gash” that, Giraldus concludes, “caused Arthur’s death.” In 1216, twenty five years after viewing Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed remains, Giraldus wrote again of Arthur, again compounding his mortality:

Many tales are told and many legends have been invented about King Arthur and his mysterious ending. In their stupidity the British people maintain that he is still alive. Now that the truth is known […] The fairy-tales have been snuffed out, and the true and indubitable facts are made known.

Giraldus attributed the discovery of Arthur’s remains to King Henry II (1133 – 1189) himself, who had apparently learned of their location “from some old British soothsayer”. Giraldus relates that before his death in 1189 Henry informed the Abbot of Glastonbury about the location of the bones, which were allegedly exhumed in 1191. Henry’s motives, Lewis Thorpe writes, “would be obvious enough: the discovery would put an effective end to Welsh dreams that their hero would come back one day to help them in their resistance to the Norman Kings.”

It may be an important detail that Henry learned of the location of the grave from a Briton who had apparently given up the ghost and revealed that the stories of Arthur’s return was a myth founded on hope and self-deceit. Henry might have hoped that ascribing a British source to the story might throw the Britons into some disarray and doubt about their own veracity. Glastonbury itself was set to prosper from the find; the church had suffered significant damage in a fire in 1184 and to fund the repairs Henry was “variously reported to have promised either the total annual revenues of his West Country demesne or, more stunningly, the surplus revenues of the entire realm of England.” With his death and the accession of Richard the Lionheart (who preferred to funnel wealth from the abbeys of England to his cause in the Holy Land instead) Glastonbury found itself in a financial crisis, with its monks now taking to the road, “bearing their relics to the far corners of the realm in a desperate attempt to encourage gifts from the faithful that would at least partially compensate for the loss of Henry’s generosity.”

The discovery of the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere, two years after Henry’s death, seems too opportune to not be suspect. Whatever the suspicions, the important point was that the English had located Arthur’s bones and dispelled not only the mythical Avalon but Arthur’s survival as well. Arthur was then slowly consolidated not as a Welsh hero but an English one.

In 1190 Richard, about to embark on the perils of the Crusades and without a wife or heir of his own, designated his nephew, the son of his deceased younger brother Geoffrey, as the heir to the crown – the boy had been named Arthur by his mother, with Henry II’s consent. Prince Arthur (1187 – c. 1203) never lived to become king, dying in mysterious circumstances in 1203, but decidedly Arthurian arrangements had been made about his future. Richard, brokering peace and arranging political marriages with Tancred, king of Sicily (d. 1194), gifted him with a sword said to be Excalibur as part of an exchange that promised the young Arthur to one of Tancred’s daughters. Emma Mason points out in her essay ‘The Hero’s Invincible Weapon: an Aspect of Angevin Propaganda’, that Richard’s gifting of the most revered sword in British history seems over-generous for a warrior such as himself: “A finely worked sword, with a reputed Arthurian provenance, would convey prestige to its current owner […] The possessor of Excalibur, as Caliburn came to be known, would be perceived as a born leader, destined to achieve great things.” We are left to deduce that the story of Richard’s gift, or the gift itself, was a fabrication, or we can presume that Richard’s heir was to re-inherit the sword after his marriage to Tancred’s daughter. Mason conjectures that the sword was merely decorative and worn only on formal occasions rather than during battle. Richard also adopted a dragon as his battle standard in the Holy Land, and Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1190 – 1228) claimed he had seen Richard’s dragon and that its head was golden; in the Historia Uther Pendragon crafted a golden dragon as his standard, and Arthur’s golden helmet is also emblazoned with the beast in his battles against the Saxons. Richard’s example was followed by Henry III (1207 – 1272), who had a red dragon in the style of Cadwalader’s installed in the Abbey Church of Westminster and carried it into battle against rebellious Welshmen, as did Edward I.

Edward took many steps to quell not only Welsh rebellion but also to adopt Arthur into English chivalric culture, as did his relatives and kinsmen. Richard of Cornwall (1209 – 1272), a close relative of the King, “spent considerable sums building the remote castle at Tintagel, a place that offered neither strategic nor domestic benefits but that was, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the location where Arthur was conceived.” Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed bones were put on display again in Easter 1278 for the benefit of Edward and Queen Eleanor, who removed and inspected them before draping them in silks and reinterring them – Edward assuming the role of Arthur’s successor by paying reverence to his bones.

Besides cultural appropriation, there were also colonial and military aspects to these actions. His successor, Edward II, was born at Caernarfon Castle and was styled the Prince of Wales, likely in an attempt to link Wales’ imperial and independent past to its new role as a future dominion of England. After the conquest of Wales Edward was also gifted a coronet which once belonged to the rebel prince Llywelyn ap Gruffud that was dubbed ‘Arthur’s crown’. He also contrived to discover the body of Magnus Maximus, the legendary Emperor who had found Caernarfon after envisioning it in a dream, and who was attributed with the foundation of several Welsh dynasties and who was also, in some tales, even an ancestor of Arthur himself. The Annales Angale et Scotiae (c. 1312) modelled Edward’s wedding ceremony to his second wife, Margaret of France, after Arthur’s coronation as described by Geoffrey.

Edward was the subject of not only propaganda comparing him to Richard I and Arthur but was also the subject of prophecies. The thirteenth century ‘Catulus Linxeis’, of which only one copy survives, details (in Galfridian style, substituting human actors for animal counterparts) the many victories of the ‘Lynx’s Cub’ across both Britain and Gaul, the Lynx being commonly identified as Henry III and the cub, therefore, being his son Edward I. The text foretells the Cub’s transfiguration into a wolf, and then a boar, and finally a lion before his ascension to the stars once British hegemony over the Western nations has been secured and its Islamic enemies in the Holy Land overthrown.

Edward’s confiscation of various emblems of sovereignty from Scotland and Wales, such as the Stone of Scone and Arthur’s supposed crown, can be seen as a reclamation or reconstitution of Arthur’s empire, centred this time in England. He was certainly satisfied to rely on Arthur’s legends to justify his imperial ambitions. A letter from Edward to Pope Boniface in 1301 refers to Brutus’ subjugation of Albion and Arthur’s annexation of Scotland: “Item Arturus rex Britonum princeps famosissimus Scociam sibi rebellem subiecit, et pene totam gentem deleuit et postea quemdam nomine Anguselum in regem Scociam/Arthur, king of the Britons, that most famous leader, made subject to his authority rebellious Scotland, and destroyed nearly all its people and then appointed as king of Scotland one Angeselus.”

Ever since, Edward argued, Scotland had been a subject of the kings of the Britons and, as Arthur’s successor, Edward himself. But tales of Arthur informed opinion on both sides of the border: Edward was “regarded in Scotland as ‘the Covetous King’ of Merlin’s prophecy: after his death, the soothsayers foretold, the Celtic peoples would ‘band together, and have full lordship, and live in peace until the end of the world.’” Though no Celtic alliance materialised after Edward’s passing in 1307, the Scots could only have felt vindicated by his death and their proclamation of independence a few years afterwards. But as for the Welsh hope, Arthur had taken such root amongst the descendants of his historical enemies that in the fourteenth century chronicler Elis Gruffydd claimed that “they [the English] talk much more about him than we [Britons] do, for they say and strongly believe that he will rise again to be king.” Lesley Ann Coote writes that:

By the time of Edward’s death in 1307, the idea of the King of England as the prophetic hero who embodied all the political hopes, ideals and nature of the English people had taken firm root in the consciousness of many Englishmen. This hero, frequently indentified with Arthur redivivus, was the result of a process of accumulation which had been occurring from the twelfth century onwards, stimulated by an ever-growing demand for political prophecies.

Arthur’s court at Caerlon was also becoming the rod by which all future courts would measure themselves. Caradoc of Llancarfan detailed in the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes) how in 1107 Cadwgan ap Bleddyn (1051 – 1111), a prince of the Kingdom of Powys, held a great feast, inviting all the great chieftains and gentry of the country as well as the best minstrels, the entire banquet designed to mimic the feasts of King Arthur. Edward I also hosted a ‘Round Table’ tournament at Nefyn, reputed to be where Merlin’s prophecies were discovered, and his enthusiasm for Arthurian relics and pageantry were inherited by his successors. Barbour’s The Brus includes a detail that Stirling Castle, held by the English for a decade until it was sieged before the Battle of Bannockburn, held an interesting artifact:

And his consaill thai haiff doyne
And beneuth the castell went thai sone
Rycht be the Rond Table away,
And syne the Park enveround thai
And towart Lythkow held in hy.

[And his council they have done
And beneath the castle went they soon
Right by the Round Table away,
And soon the Park encircled them
And towards Linlithgow held in high.]

Annalist Adam Murimuth (c. 1274 – 1347) wrote that Edward III widely instituted the Order of the Garter and the Round Table “in the same manner and condition as Arthur, formerly King of England, established it,” though one contemporaneous French account of Edward’s festivities was more suspect of his intentions, writing that at Windsor “[Edward] had planned to re-establish the Round Table and the adventures of chivalry, which had not been seen since the days of King Arthur. Yet in his heart he was thinking something quite different, which he did not show on the outside, for all this time he was readying a great fleet, and establishing a large garrison in one of his ports.”

Though Edward made no preparations of the sort until March of that year, the French depicted his Round Table event as a smokescreen for more perfidious intentions rather than out of enthusiasm for chivalry, high politics and solidifying personal relationships. The French in this case portray Edward III as being guilty almost of a false piousness. Regardless of how they were reported, such festivities were fashionable for centuries: Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (1538 – 1601) held Arthurian parties at Ludlow Castle in 1596, his guests dressing themselves as Arthur’s knights.

Today, Arthur and Englishness have become inextricable. Glastonbury Abbey’s own website refers to Arthur as that legendary “English King”. As for the stories of Arthur’s Northern and Continental conquests, they would serve as useful propaganda in the future, but the next conflict would not centre on Arthur’s physical return, but on the accession of his bloodline to the throne of England.

Chapter 4: The Blood of Arthur, King Henry VII

Cadwaladers Blodde lynyally descending,
Longe hath bee towlde of such a Prince coming,
Wherfor Frendes, if that I shal not lye,
This same is the Fulfiller of the Profecye.

These words, written by John Leland as an ode to the triumphant Henry VII of England as he entered Worcester on a horse caparisoned with the arms of Cadwalader in 1486, ends for the people of Britain a centuries-long wait for the return of their long prophesied hero king, the Mab Darogan, or ‘Son of Destiny’. Henry carried the dragon standard into battle just as Owain Glyndwr had in 1400, but, unlike Owain, he succeeded in passing through Wales and overthrowing the last Plantagenet king, Richard III (1452 – 1485) at Bosworth.

Henry’s victory coincided with the posthumous publication of Sir Thomas Malory’s (d. 1471) Le Morte d’Arthur, the first substantial English Arthurian opus of the Middle Ages. Malory’s volumes would provide another leaping-off point for future Arthurian authors and poets, but if it aided Henry at all then it was by invoking the spirit of Arthur when Henry was doing much the same, instituting the office of the Rouge Dragon Pursuivant to honour Cadwalader the day before his coronation and highlighting his Arthurian heritage to justify his rule. Helpfully, his Welsh lineage was impeccable: he was a descendent of Llywelyn the Great’s seneschal Ednyfed Fychan; he was the blood of the one-time dominant prince in Wales, Rhys ap Gruffydd; and his grandfather Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwr had established the family brand by abandoning Welsh naming conventions and settling on a fixed surname – Tudor.

Owen Tudor, as he became known, was one of the few Welshmen who managed to rise above his station, becoming bodyguard (and later husband) to Catherine of Valois, the daughter of France’s King Charles VI and widow to Henry V (1387 – 1422). Social and political mobility was difficult for Welshman in England at the time. In retaliation for their uprisings, the English Parliament under Henry IV (1367 – 1413) passed a series of penal laws that severely restricted the rights of Welshmen in England: “They could not acquire property in land within or near the boroughs; they could not serve on juries; intermarriage between them and the English was forbidden; they could not hold office under the Crown; no Englishman could be convicted on the oath of a Welshman.”

Though foreign wars and domestic troubles created a demand for Welsh soldiers and therefore allowed for citizenship to be granted to a commanding few, the common Welshman found himself handicapped due to the discriminating laws for generations. When the Tudors assumed the throne of England under Henry VII they did so not as a new dynasty but as a continuing one – a restoration rather than an establishment; the kin of King Arthur back in power after hundreds of years of obscurity and near-insignificance as Welsh lords and princes.

But the Tudors were not unique in their ‘heroic’ Welsh bloodline. Welsh and Cornish dynasties had been claiming descent from Arthur for centuries in order to justify privileges and inheritances. One family of esteem in Mawgan, the Carminows, became entangled in legal difficulties with Richard le Scrope (c.1327 – 1403) when it was discovered both families bore the same coat of arms – the Carminows were able to argue that they inherited the heraldry from their ancestor Arthur, whereas Scrope could only trace his to the Norman Conquest. Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, was likewise related to Welsh royalty, her ancestor Roger Mortimer having married Gladys Ddu, daughter of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. Her father and uncle, Edward IV and Richard III, could also claim descent from Llywelyn and other notables like Rhodri ap Merfyn (likewise known as ‘Rodri the Great’ and referred to in the Annals of Ulster as ‘King of the Britons’) and, eventually, as the legends go, Cadwalader, Arthur, and Brutus. The Wriothesley Garter Book, a compilation of Tudor armorials and genealogies assembled by Sir Thomas Wriothesley, corroborates the Yorkist Welsh lineage as well as that of the Lancastrians. Richard III might have proclaimed that the white boar adorning his livery represented Arthur, just as Henry identified himself with the red dragon of Cadwalader, but he made no claim that we know of, and it likely would have faltered when regarded against Henry VII’s more immediate Welsh ancestry and name. Richard’s own survival cult was brief. Edward Halle (1497 – 1547) reported that while Henry was campaigning in Wales “certain malicious and cruel persons … blased abrode and noised daily amongest the vulgare people that kyng Richard (which was openely sene dead) was yet liuyng and desired aide of the common people to repossesse his realme and roiall dignitie.” But rumours of his survival died as suddenly as they arose.

Upon Henry’s accession European poets and humanists were overcome with a Virgilian messianism that treated his reign as the beginning of a new golden age, England’s own Pax Romana, while Welsh bards saw his accession as the fulfilment of Merlin’s prophecies and the promise made to Cadwalader. A.G. Bradley writes:

The bards were of course in ecstasies; the prophecy that a British prince should once again reign in London –which had faded away into a feeble echo, without heart or meaning, since the downfall of Glyndwr– now astonished with its sudden fulfilment the expounders of Merlin and the Brut as completely as it did the audience to whom they had so long foretold this unlikely consummation.

Petrus Carmelianus (1451 – 1527), a Brescian poet, wrote that the War of the Roses had been so devastating that God himself had intervened by joining the Houses of York and Lancaster in the form of Henry’s son, the infant Prince Arthur (1486 – 1502). Bernard André (1450 – 1522), a friar, poet, and later tutor to the young prince, likewise commemorated his birth with a genethliacon, writing that the legend of King Arthur’s return had been accomplished with the birth of the prince. Giovanni Gigli wrote three pieces commemorating the young Arthur, one of which reads:

Henricum suboles, dudum promissa Britannis,
E celo veniens, nascere, magne puer;
Tolle moras; … Ecce ades!

[Offspring of Henries, for a long time now promised to the Britons, coming from Heaven, be born, great youth; have done with delays; … Behold! You are here!]

Sixteenth century England was rife with prophecies to one or two effects: there were those concerning succession in Scotland (which often had repercussions for England) and then there was, writes Tim Thornton, “the Welsh and Galfridian tradition usually associated with Merlin, which tended to focus on the conflict between Briton and Saxon, but also on crusade, Rome, France and Ireland, with a strong dose of dynastic instability and internal strife.” There was less emphasis on Arthur’s return since, as the Tudors and their supporters attested, that prophecy had been fulfilled.

Henry VII’s own interest in prophecy has been a matter of debate; his image had certainly been buoyed by it, and rumours that the Cheshire prophet known as Nixon had foretold his victory at Bosworth were popular enough, so we can deduce that he understood the importance of prophetic speech and its relation to political discourse. One manuscript, Arundel MS 66, which contains a collection of astrological and prophetic works, is believed to have been commissioned by Henry. Lesley Ann Coote asserts that the manuscript is “highly unlikely to have been produced speculatively, without prior knowledge of King Henry’s tastes” given its expensiveness. Included in the manuscript are varying prophecies, some attributed to Merlin, which stress the importance of peace with France (through the inheritance of the French crown by an English king) and the domination of Christianity in the Holy Land. The book itself is festooned with Tudor livery: the red dragon of Cadwalader replaces the more common imagery of the constellation Draco in a section on Ptolemy’s catalogue of stars, the red dragon being superimposed upon the green and white colours of the Tudors.

Arundel MS 66 Draco Tudor livery in Ptolemy's Catalogue of Stars

Whatever Henry’s relationship to prophecy and prophets, it would sour at the end of the fifteenth century. Italian astrologer William Parron, attempting to please the king on the death of his son Arthur, gifted him with a publication on the future fortunes of Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) which included, among others, prophecies concerning the future king’s long relationship with the Church and his blissful marriage. These prophecies would not embarrass Parron for some time; more immediate, and discreditable, was his prediction that the queen, Elizabeth of York, would live a long life – she died months later, in February 1503, after giving birth to Katherine Tudor, who also died on the birthing bed. The deaths of Elizabeth and Katherine, compounded by the recent loss of Arthur, devastated Henry, and Parron left the court in disgrace. Sir Thomas More, a young lawyer at the time of the queen’s death, scolded the astrologer in his A ruefull Lamentation (1503):

Yet was I late promised otherwise
This year to live in wealth and delice;
Lo, whereto cometh thy blandishing promise,
O! false astrology devinatrice,
Of God’s secrets and making thyself so wise?
How true is for this year thy prophecy?
The year yet lasteth, and lo now here I lye.

The Tudors would suffer more prophets during Henry VIII’s reign, most especially after Henry’s break from the Roman Catholic Church, which he justified in part by appealing to King Arthur’s defeat of the Roman legions on Continental Europe. The 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals made the bold claim that “by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed, that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world.” This precipitated the Reformation and drew Henry the ire of his own people and prophets: old prophecies targeted at Henry IV were repurposed to target him, notably the ‘Prophecy of Six Kings’, a fifteenth century prophecy that depicted Henry IV as the ‘Mouldwarp’; a cowardly king that Merlin supposedly foretold would be overthrown and his kingdom divided.

In 1532, the famed ‘Holy Maid of Kent’, the prophetess Elizabeth Barton (1506 – 1534) soured relations between her and Henry when she prophesised that he would not live long if he annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and remarried. Henry had supported Barton when her prophecies condemned heresy and rebellion against him but he quickly began a campaign of discrediting her that ended with her arrest in 1533, the supposed recantation of her prophecies, and her execution in 1534. In a final insult, Henry had her head displayed on London Bridge; making her the only woman afforded the dishonour. This did little to quell resistance. What began as a ‘whispering campaign’ against Henry became a full-fledged uprising. In 1536 the Yorkshire uprising known as the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ broke out in retaliation for Henry’s break from the Roman Catholic Church and the rebels, like many before them, turned to Merlin for their battle cries and vociferations, slandering Henry as the Mouldwarp.

Henry did have his defenders. Wilfrid Holme (d. 1538) wrote in his poem ‘The Fall and Evil Success of Rebellion from Time to Time’ (written in 1537 but not published until 1572-3) that the Mouldwarp was believed, erroneously in his view, to be Henry VIII on the account of seditious prophets:

A prophet came (a vengeance take them all!)
Affirming Henry to be Gogmagog
Whom Merline doth a mouldwarp ever call,
Accurst of God, that must be brought in thrall
By a wolf, a dragon and a lion strong,
Who should divide his kingdom them among.

The identification of Henry with the cowardly Mouldwarp who abandons England to his enemies spread amongst Catholic sympathisers, the clergy and anti-Reformation rebels. To counteract this, his chief minister Thomas Cromwell (1485 – 1540) took advantage of the Treasons Act 1534, which prohibited slander against the king in written or oral form, and began collecting prophecies in order to convict those who had, in the eyes of the government, violated these sections of the Act. John Hale, vicar of Isleworth, was interrogated in 1535 having been accused of calling Henry “the Molywarppe that Merlin prophesised of.” Hale admitted in his deposition to the Privy Council that sometime in 1533 he had been shown the prophecies of Merlin, and despite his disavowals of anti-Henry sentiment (and several pleas about his infirmity) he went the scaffold. In 1537 Richard Bishop of Bungay in Suffolk was punished for making vague references to the Mouldwarp prophecy and in 1538 John Dobson, vicar of Muston, Yorkshire, was executed for telling his congregations that Henry, in accordance with Galfridian prophecy, would soon be overthrown. English antiquarian John Hooker (c. 1527 – 1601) provided an account of an Exeter city attorney who was put to death in 1539 for discussing prophecies and Henry’s possible connection to the Mouldwarp.

In 1542 the Tudors outlawed conflating Henry with the Mouldwarp, including but not limited to the propagation of prophecies to that effect, and later legal statutes in the Elizabethan era prohibited any “prophesying, witchcraft, conjuration, or other like unlawful means” of predicting the queen’s death. Still, though imitations and forgeries were easily spotted and mocked by elites they were widely accepted by the public at large. Learned Elizabethans were also slow to dismiss prophecies that were legitimately ancient and new interpretations of old prophecies also tended to suffice. New regulations were frequently introduced, and forbade:

Any fonde fantasticall or false Prophecye upon or by thoccasion of any Armes Fieldes Beastes Badges or suche lyke things accustomed in Armes Cognisaunces or Signettes, or upon or by reason of any Time Yere or Daye name Blodshed or Warre, to thintent therby to make anye Rebellion Insurrection Dissention losse of life or other Disturbance within this Realme and other the Quenes Dominions.

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1536 – 1572) who conspired to overthrow Elizabeth in favour of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 – 1587) in 1572, was accused at his trial of having been inspired by variants of the Merlinian prophecies that plagued Henry VIII. The monarchy’s attitude toward prophecy, especially prophecy criticising the conduct of the crown or the wellbeing of royals, was clear – Thomas Howard was executed and his titles and lands made forfeit. His younger brother Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton (1540 – 1614) later wrote a polemic titled Preservative against the Poison of supposed Prophecies condemning “certain busy-bodies” who “with limned papers, painted books and figures of wild beasts and birds, carry men from present duties into future hopes.” Though astrologers like Richard Harvey (d. 1630) managed careers in writing prophecy throughout Elizabeth’s reign they did so at the expense of suspicion, ridicule and contempt.

Chapter 5: Arthur and the Empire

Prophecy had become a bane for the Tudor dynasty, but there were other aspects of the Arthurian legend to mine. The blood of Arthur was securely on the throne, and no counter-prophecy had managed to dislodge it. The time had come for the monarchy of England to reclaim those lands and kingdoms conquered by their ancestor, Arthur himself. The fantastical stories of Arthur’s European conquests and overseas excursions beyond the limits of the known world would find themselves utilised in the sixteenth century not to celebrate an empire now gone, but lay the blueprints for an empire to come – specifically, a British Empire, with the legendary Brutus as its founder and Arthur its first great emperor.

The reign of Henry VIII had already laid the groundwork for this empire, declaring as it broke from the Papacy in 1533 that England was an empire owing to its descent from Brutus and the rejection, and then defeat, of Rome by Arthur. With England independent from the Papacy all that remained was the absorption of Wales, Scotland and Ireland into one united Britain. Two statutes in 1535 and 1542 incorporated Wales into England, abolishing marcher lordships and reorganising the marches into shires. Parliament also created new counties, extended English law into those areas, and forbade Welsh speakers from political or public office should they not first and foremostly speak English (a provision not repealed until 1993.)

Though historians have viewed these laws as an attempt to eradicate Welsh identity and culture, the Welsh gentry at the time offered no resistance to the legislation, since the new laws bestowed on them the same rights and privileges as their English peers. Welsh antiquarian George Owen (1552 – 1613) wrote in A Dialogue of the present Government of Wales (1594) that Wales had suffered under the laws of Henry IV but were vindicated by Henry VII’s accession to the throne on account of his Welsh heritage, and vindicated further by Henry VIII’s “special care of his native country of Wales” and the “most pleasant laws” he enacted which made “the subjects in Wales equal in freedom with the subjects of England.” It’s certain that these laws, which in retrospect are considered to have diminished Wales’ identity, were widely accepted by Welshman not only because it brought them into standing with Englishmen but because they were enacted by a monarchy that was considered, in Wales, to be Welsh. The Welsh nobility may have viewed the annexation to be one in which Wales was master, and the abolishment of the marches mere modernisation. Philip Schwyzer notes that “There was cause for rejoicing among the English as well – for if they and the Welsh were now one and the same, they too were entitled to call themselves Britons.”

Despite the unity of Wales and England, tensions with Scotland persisted. The King’s Printer under Henry VIII, Thomas Berthelet (d. 1555) had argued that the kings of Scotland had historically “always knowleged the kynges of Englande [were] superior lords of the realme of Scotlande” and that the Scots must not only be subservient to their neighbour but indivisible from it as well. Centuries earlier Giraldus Cambrensis had displayed the same attitude when discussing Welsh and Irish rebellions in his Topographia Hibernica (c. 1188) where he referred to the many uprisings as being divisive, as though Wales and Ireland were inextricable parts of England. Berthelet relinquished his post after Henry’s death to Richard Grafton (c. 1511 – 1572) who likewise campaigned for Scotland to join itself with England in political union to restore “the only supreme seat of thempire of greate Briteigne.” Grafton argued that Ambrosius Aurelianus, who had been refitted in Geoffrey’s Historia as an uncle of King Arthur, had killed Hengist, and thusly “this Realme was delivered from the tyranny of the Saxons, and restored to the whole Empire & name of greate Briteigne.” The incursions into Scotland led by Protector Somerset during Henry VIII’s ‘Rough Wooing’ was characterised as a ‘British’ mission with the aim of rejoining Scotland with a ‘Great Britain’ of which it was historically once a constituent part, with England as its core. Scots, by resisting, were battling what Grafton called “the mother of their awne nacion.”

There was opposition however towards the acceptance of Arthuriana into Elizabeth I’s court. Her tutor and secretary, Roger Ascham (1515 – 1568) dismissed the Morte d’Arthur in particular as a work of perversion. “The whole pleasure of [that] book standeth in two special points: in open man slaughter and bold bawdry […] That is good stuff for wise men to laugh at, or honest men to take pleasure at: yet, I know when God’s Bible was banished at the court, and Morte Arthur received into the prince’s chamber.” Despite Ascham’s distaste for the material, Elizabeth was still indulged in the Tudor’s relation to Arthur. Edmund Spenser (c.1552 – 1599) detailed Brutus’ subjugation of the island in The Faerie Queene as well as Elizabeth’s relation to various esteemed British heroes:

Thy name O soueraine Queene, thy realme and race,
From this renowmed prince deriued arre,
Who mightily vpheld that royall mace,
Which now thou bear’st, to thee descended farre
From mighty kings and conquerours in warre,
Thy fathers and great Grandfathers of old

Spenser also affirmed the Tudors’ British lineage and right to the throne, the union between Wales and England, the laying down of the arms of rebellious forces, and the prophesised rule of a “royall Virgin” who is explicitly Elizabeth herself:

So shall the Briton blood their crowne again reclame,
Thenceforth eternall vnion shall be made
Between the nations different afore
And sacred Peace shall louingly persuade
The warlike minds, to learne her goodly lore.

In 1575 she spent some days at Kenilworth Castle where, upon approaching the gates, she was heralded as the descendant of Arthur and partook in public games where she repelled Sir Bruce Sans Pitie (described by Malory in the Morte d’Arthur as the most villainous knight alive) from assaulting the Lady in the Lake. Frivolities aside, Arthur’s exploits were also inspiring broader imperial thought at court. Sir Roy Strong observed that from 1579 on, “There appears the first of a long series of portraits of Elizabeth which introduce a heavy overlay of imperial pretensions stemming from maritime power and from a reassertion of dominion based on the descent of the House of Tudor from the imperial stock of Troy and on the conquests of King Arthur.”

John Dee (1527 – 1608/09), an advisor to Elizabeth who also qualified as a mathematician, astronomer, and occult philosopher, took Arthur’s foreign exploits very seriously. Dee is often said to have originated the term ‘British Empire’, and while that is may not be true (Welsh antiquarian Humphrey Llywd had called Arthur’s domain a Britannicum imperium in 1572) the misapplication is not a miss-association – Dee was a thoroughgoing and committed imperialist who proclaimed Elizabeth was due “the royalty and suzerainty of the seas adjacent, or environing this Monarchy of England, Ireland, and (by right) Scotland, and the Orknayes allso.” Dee wrote to the queen, insisting that she held a legitimate claim on the lands seized by Arthur, who, according to history:

Not only Conquered Iseland, Groenland, and all the Northern Illes compassing unto Russia, But even the unto the North Pole (in manner) did extend his Jurisdiction: And sent Colonies thither, and into all the Isles unto Scotland and Iseland, whereby yt is probable that the late named Friseland Illand is of the Brytish ancient discovery and possession: And allso seeing Groenland beyond Groenland did receive their inhabitants by Arthu, yt is credible that the famous Iland Estotiland was by his folke possessed.

British imperialists like Dee used Geoffrey’s Historia as their basis, but other texts had long propagated the legends. The thirteenth century Leges Anglorum Londoniis Collectae details Arthur’s conquests of Greenland, Vinland, and the North Pole, as did Jacob Cnoyen’s (supposedly lost) Gestae Arthuri in the fourteenth century. David Armitage writes that the fundamental idea of a British Empire “lay, on the English side, in the British history of Geoffrey of Monmouth and, in the Scottish rebuttals, the humanist historiography of Polydore Vergil.” Vergil (c.1470 – 1555), an Italian scholar living in England, expressed incredulity in his book Anglica Historia that the British could believe that Arthur “subeewed Scotlande with the Ilyes adjoyninge; that in the teritorie of the Parisiens hee manfullie overthrew the Romaines, with their captain Lucius; that he did depopulate Fraunce; that finallie hee slewe giaunts, and appalled the hartes of sterne and warlike menne.” Vergil was likewise critical of the existence of the author of the British nation: Brutus, who was never mentioned by Livy or Dionysus Halicarnassus despite his legendary lineage and historical importance. Vergil also charged that Britain, like many nations before it, had simply mythologised its history to derive its own beginnings from the gods.

He also threatened to undermine the Glastonbury story, arguing that Arthur’s burial there was impossible, since the monastery was founded after his supposed death, though William of Malmesbury claimed that a church existed there as early as 166 A.D., founded by missionaries in the time of Pope Eleutherius, and was much famed, containing the bodies and relics of innumerable saints as well as “some ancient enigma” that he could not elaborate on. He also described the pyramids that according to Giraldus flanked the graves of Arthur and Guinevere. Upon these pyramids could be read (though not perfectly understood) “some traces of antiquity.” William, writing before Arthur’s grave was located there, deduces that the pyramids contain the remains of bishops and other local figures. Arthur’s bones evaded the era of scientific scrutiny – his grave had been plundered and lost during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Vergil was not only lambasted for his perceived attack on British antiquity but also accused by notables like Humphrey Llywd, Sir Henry Saville and the doctor John Caius of destroying a great deal of manuscripts that he had allegedly plagiarised and pillaged. Caius in particular published a tract which declared that it was “not only reported, but certainly known, that Polydore Vergil, to prevent the discovery of the faults in his history, most wickedly committed as many of our ancient and manuscript histories to the flames as a wagon could hold” – an allegation not dissimilar from that levied against Gildas, and one that John Dee also repeated in his books. For Dee, Vergil’s attack on Arthur’s historicity was an attempt to delegitimatise the nascent British Empire’s claim to overseas colonies and other imperial endeavours. Published rebuttals and attacks on Vergil throughout the century included John Leland’s Assertio inclytissimi Arturii Regis Britanniae in 1544, Sir John Prise’s Historiae Brytanicae Defensio in 1573 and astrologer Richard Harvey’s Philadelphus, or a Defense of Brutes, and the Brutans History in 1593.

One defender of Vergil’s reputation was English antiquarian William Burton (1575 – 1645), who contested that Vergil’s most voracious critics had attacked him “not, as I conceive, for any just cause, but for that he, being an alien, should be graced with such a matter of charge, which most properly had belonged to a native of the land.” Secondly, Burton insisted that Geoffrey of Monmouth was roundly acknowledged, even in Britain, to have somewhat hyperbolically overstated the achievements of the Britons, and that Vergil was not assaulting British history, but merely Geoffrey’s extrapolations and additions.

Despite the attacks on Vergil, his opinion of Arthur was becoming commonly accepted, and by the time of James VI and I (1566 – 1625) of Scotland and England Arthur was becoming steadily unfashionable. Michael Drayton (1563 – 1631) when attempting to endear himself to James’ court, was mocked and dismissed when his Poly-Olbion (1612) tried, increasingly against vogue, to place Arthur in an historical context. “Ignorance had brought the world to such a pass/As now, which scarce believes that Arthur ever was,” he lamented. King James however was happy to incorporate Arthuriana into his court masques and to adopt the ‘British’ mission and absorb England and its neighbouring countries into one united state: “For even as little brookes lose their names by their running and fall into great rivers,” he said, “so by the conjunction of divers kingdoms into one, are all these private differences and questions swallowed up.” James’ supporters also had a tendency for the Arthurian, claiming that his name ‘Charles James Stuart’ was an anagram of ‘Claimes Arthures seat’ and that James, as a great-grandchild of Henry VII, was destined to unite Scotland and England as they were in Arthur’s time. Ben Jonson’s (c. 1572 – 1637) The Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers (1609) has King Arthur praise James for unifying the crowns of Scotland and England:

Merlin’s mystick prophesies are absolv’d
In Britain’s Name, the Union of this Ile,
And claim of both my Scepter and my Stile

However, there was not enough traction for a union of the parliaments at the time; historian Henry Spelman (c. 1562 – 1641) argued in Parliament that England would be “buried in the resurrection of Albion or Brittania” and all to “restore the memory of an obscure and barbarouse people.” This was a difference in attitude from that of Henry VII, who had stated, when objections were made to the marriage of Margaret Tudor (1489 – 1541) and James IV of Scotland, that Scottish assumption to the throne of England would simply see Scotland absorbed into England and the rebirth of Britain, rather than mere Scottish dominion of English properties.

Politically, Arthur was still paid lip service, but his inclusion seemed to hinge on tradition rather than conviction, and though he still inhabited literature and other works, major poets and playwrights were avoiding his material, and the lesser artists vaunted him on one hand whilst asking audiences to allow their dreams of an Arthurian British empire to rest in deference of the status quo. In 1622 The Birth of Merlin was performed in London, written by dramatist William Rowley and attributed, in part, to William Shakespeare, though the Bard’s involvement has been dismissed by scholars (another Shakespearean forgery, Vortigern and Rowena, would appear in 1797). The play notably ends with Merlin prophesising to Uther Pendragon that the Saxons will populate Britain, and he then foretells Arthur’s birth, reign, and victories, but adds that he will die before picking a suitable heir to his kingdoms. Uther replies that Fate must be obeyed no matter its decree, and despite the dissolution of British hegemony and the eventual Saxon, and English, dominance, Arthur will always be remembered by posterity. As for his influence on foreign and imperial policies, other propellants were at hand: competition with other burgeoning European empires like Spain and Portugal saw exploratory missions become ones of settlement, and England’s (and later, the United Kingdom’s) advances in Arts and Sciences provided the justification for subjugating and ‘civilising’ the peoples of Ireland and the expanding New World, or, as Ephraim Chambers called them in his Cyclopaedia (1728), “the savages of Canada or the Cape of Good Hope.”

Arthur might have seen a resurgence during the seventeenth century had one of its foremost poets turned his attention to him. John Milton (1608 – 1674) toiled over the Matter of Britain for some time, making reference in his early work of “Arturumque etiam sub terris bella moventem/Arthur setting wars in motion even beneath the earth” and the “Aut dicam invictæ sociali fœdere mensæ, Magnanimos Heroas/high souled heroes in the virtuous friendship of the Invincible Table” but Milton, despite having planned an Arthurian epic, never composed one. He seemed to toil for some time on the subject matter: “what king or knight before the Conquest,” he wrote, “might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern of a Christian hero?” In his History of Britain (1670) he expresses frustration with Arthur’s historical record and that chroniclers like William of Malmesbury knew “no more of this Arthur five hundred years past, nor of his doings, than we, now living” and that “who Arthur was, and whether ever any such reigned in Britain, hath been doubted heretofore, and may again with good reason.” By this point Milton seemed to have set Arthur aside indefinitely, writing that aside from Monmouth’s account the great, European-conquering Arthur was utterly absent from other domestic and foreign histories. “Others of later time have sought to assert him by old legends and cathedral regests,” he wrote, “But he who can accept of legends for good story, may quickly swell a volume with trash, and had need be furnished with only two necessaries, leisure and belief.” In Book 9 of Paradise Lost Milton excuses his lateness in writing the Satanic epic, asserting that he had been momentarily distracted by wasteful and invented tales of chivalric knights but had now turned his attention to a greater purpose:

Since first this subject for Heroic Song,
Pleas’d me long choosing, and beginning late;
Not sedulous by Nature to indite
Warrs, hitherto the onely Argument
Heroic deem’d, chief maistrie to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabl’d Knights
In Battels feign’d; the better fortitude
Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom

Histories were increasingly distancing themselves from the fanciful claims of the past: no longer could a historian write of a giant-infested origin for the British Isles, or of the coming of Brutus and the reign of Arthur, without inviting serious ridicule. While there were acknowledgments that Arthur must have derived from some distant, obfuscated truth, it was accepted that the histories of the Britons were colourful fabrications and exaggerations. In his 1778’s The History of England Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that:

[The Britons] applied for assistance to Arthur, prince of the Silures, whose heroic valour now sustained the declining fate of this country. This is that Arthur so much celebrated in the songs of Thaliessin, and the other British bards, and whose military achievements have been blended with so many fables as even to give occasion for entertaining a doubt of his real existence. But poets, though they disfigure the most certain history by their fictions, and use strange liberties with truth where they are the sole historians, as among the Britons, have commonly some foundation for their wildest exaggerations.

The only surety Hume had about Arthur’s biography was that “that the siege of Badon was raised by the Britons in the year 520; and the Saxons were there discomfited in a great battle,” a conclusion which learned opinion over the centuries would also arrive. In the third volume of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794) put the cap on the age of Arthur for the eighteenth century: “At length the light of science and reason was rekindled; the talisman was broken; the visionary fabric melted into air; and by a natural, though unjust, reverse of the public opinion, the severity of the present age is inclined to question the existence of Arthur.”

Though the popularity of his literary adventures would ebb and flow, Arthur’s long political career was over.

Chapter 6: Arthur in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

King Arthur (1875) as envisioned by nineteenth century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

King Arthur (1875) as envisioned by nineteenth century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

Though Arthur’s political relevance was sapped by increasing historical scrutiny he reasserted his position as a cultural lodestone throughout the nineteenth century, attracting the attention of various eminent writers. 1816 saw Malory’s Morte d’Arthur printed for the first time since 1634 and various other printings would follow, as would new contributions to the canon by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837 – 1909) Alfred Tennyson (1809 – 1892) and Mark Twain (1835 – 1910).

His status as a British messiah figure, though long dispelled from mainstream thought, proved to be most tenacious in the places that had given the world the myth in the first place and he continued to occupy the folktales and legends of rural Britain. Of course, sometimes the story remained the same: Edward Bulwer Lytton’s King Arthur (1849) presents Arthur eschewing the possibilities of survival or slumber for a death on the battlefield so that he may ensure the eventual reign of Queen Victoria – just as Uther accepted his and Arthur’s fate in 1622’s The Birth of Merlin. Folklorist William Wells Newell’s (1839 – 1907) King Arthur and the Round Table still repeated the official Glastonbury burial myth, “Still lieth Arthur buried there, and beside him Queen Guinevere.” But in his native Wales Arthur was believed to still be awaiting the time to return. When Miguel de Cervantes parodied the chivalric ideal so often exemplified by Arthur in Don Quixote (1605) he also detailed that the people of Cornwall believed Arthur “never died, but was turned into a crow by enchantment, and shall one day resume his former shape, and recover his kingdom again.” This belief apparently still had traction in the nineteenth century, with Robert Hunt documenting it in his Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall (1865):

My father, who died about two years since, at the age of eighty, spent a few years of his youth in the neighbourhood of Penzance.  One day he was walking along Marazion Green with his fowling-piece on his shoulder, he saw a raven at a distance, and fired at it.  An old man who was near immediately rebuked him, telling him that he ought on no account to have shot at a raven, for that King Arthur was still alive in the form of that bird.

One Welsh cave, Ogof Llanciau Eryri (Cave of the Lads of Snowden), is according to folklore to be where a troupe of sleeping soldiers await Arthur’s command, inspiring the call, “The Lads of Snowdon, with their white hazels, will win it” – the ‘it’, according to Elissa R. Henken, “being the crown of Britain.” William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) recalled a Scottish nursery rhyme depicting Arthur as an elemental force still thundering across the Anglo-Scottish border:

Arthur’s bower has broken his band,
And he comes roaring up the land;
King o’ Scots wi’ a’ his power
Cannot turn Arthur’s bower

Notably, Arthur is invoked by the deflated college friends in Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 poem ‘The Epic’, where the young men mourn the loss of “all the old honour” and bemoan “the general decay of faith” in a world where old religious truths were being assaulted by the sciences of geology and natural selection and where Arthur has become a somewhat dusty national trinket. Tennyson later reworked ‘The Epic’ into his ‘Idylls of the King’ as a passage called ‘The Passing of Arthur’ and where ‘Idylls’ ends with a lone Bedivere watching Arthur pass into the distance on his way to Avalon, Tennyson’s original ends with a dream where Arthur returns to the elation of waiting crowds:

And all the people cried,
“Arthur is come again: he cannot die.”
Then those that stood upon the hills behind
Repeated—“Come again, and thrice as fair;”
And, further inland, voices echoed—“Come
With all good things, and war shall be no more.”

All of the ancient desires are fulfilled here. The inevitability of Arthur’s return is confirmed, the wide appeal of his kingship is evident, stretching as it does from the shore to the unseen stretches of land beyond, and the absolute certainty that his return will bring about the end of warfare, though not confirmed, seems certain. Arthur’s return also signals the return of an idealised ‘Old way’ free of the moral bankruptcy and uncertainties of the Industrial and Scientific Ages. The dream ends with the narrator waking up to the peals of church bells, his vision of Arthur and the crowds giving way to Christmas morning – the day that Christendom halts to commemorate and celebrate its Messiah.

While sleeping heroes like Arthur have had remarkable staying power, at least as cultural or literary figures, others have found more militaristic purposes even into the twentieth century. During the First World War the Lithuanian armed forces adopted songs celebrating the victories of Vytautas the Great (1350 – 1430), who had defended Lithuania against Germanic invaders. One song invokes Vytautas to “Awaken, oh eagle, an age of heroes” and the line “The land will yet rumble with the steps of the giant!” heralds Vytautas’ return. Likewise, Sebastianism, the cult of Sebastian I, found itself revitalised in late nineteenth-twentieth century Portugal. In his 1933 poem ‘Sebastian, King of Portugal’, Fernando Pessoa, from the perspective of this ethereal king, exhorts his people to take up the aspirations and determination of their king and to ignore cynics who label ambition as a form of madness; a rallying call from a national character for the preservation of the national spirit:

A madman, yes, because I wanted greatness,
Such as Fortune never grants.
Let others take up my madness,
And all that went with it.
Without madness what is man,
But a healthy beast,
A postponed corpse that breeds?

Pessoa’s poem came at a time when Portugal’s bankruptcy, a regicide, a revolution and a failed Republic were still relatively recent events, and just as the country was backsliding into a long dictatorship under António de Oliveira Salazar. The triggering event for these calamities was the ‘British Ultimatum’ of 1890 that saw Portugal stripped of its overseas territories (some of which were the oldest European colonial outposts) by the British Empire.

But Arthur’s longevity and adaptability may be the most impressive of all, present as he is not only in moments of national crises and desperation but finding new poetic and literary expression in almost every century he has occupied. Medieval kings patterned their courts after his, with Camelot becoming shorthand for idealistic representations of the past, both ancient and modern, and he has continued to inform political imagery into the twentieth century – the imperialist Round Table movement sprung up in 191o in Britain, putting forth the concept of an Imperial federation of European nations (their hopes were dashed by WWI). Overseas, John F. Kennedy’s administration, today the subject of much mythologising and longing of its own, was likened to Arthur’s court after a 1963 issue of Life magazine mourned his assassination with the words, “For one brief shining moment there was Camelot.”

King Arthur has occupied imaginations for over a millennium, leaping from the tongues of Welsh bards and passing between quills and continents; he was stripped and redressed over the centuries according to his audience’s needs and desires. His ability to absorb various other legends into his own is Arthur’s greatest asset and perhaps key to his durability. As Richard Barber writes in Arthurian Legends: An Illustrated Anthology: “Arthur’s magic is that he is a shape-shifter; but he does so subtly and slowly, changing his form to suit the needs of each new age.”

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The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction



British and American detective fiction share a common origin in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but by the time they were enjoying their respective Golden Ages in the early twentieth century they had already become quite distinct from the other, with each possessing its own unique tropes and clichés. This article will look at the development of the hard-boiled and ‘soft-boiled’ genres, and provide an explanation for the British preference for the countryside and the American predilection for stories set in the ‘mean streets’ of L.A., San Francisco, etc. It will demonstrate that the differences between British and American crime fiction can be attributed not only to obvious matters of geography but also their social milieus, and that both the British and American detective were designed to fulfil very different purposes: stability and the preservation of the status quo in the case of the former, and a study into moral complexity and blue-collar sympathy regarding the latter.

The first literary detective was Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Poe is the font from which all future crime writers drew their inspiration, but Dupin has more in common with British creations like Hercule Poirot than he does Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Dupin is European, eccentric, aristocratic, arcane in his pursuits and, like Sherlock Holmes, is best characterised as a ‘consulting detective’. Unlike later American detective stories, whenever Poe utilised miasmic streets and labyrinthine alleys he turned to London (The Man of the Crowd) or Paris (Murders in the Rue Morgue) as backdrop. Mid-to-late nineteenth century American fiction, when dealing with their own cities, tended to portray them as “urban-pastoral world[s] of primeval novelty” rather than “a city anyone ever inhabited.” The “mean streets” of Chandler and Hammett had yet to emerge from the turmoil of the new century.

The classic British detective story, according to P.D. James, was concerned with “bringing order out of disorder” and was typically “a genre of reconciliation and social healing”. Though detectives like Poirot sometimes found themselves jaunting between Britain, Egypt, Iraq and the Continent, the typical location for these stories was the countryside, often represented as “an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration”. Readers could be assured that whenever a story’s mystery was resolved the countryside would be restored to its previous “prelapsarian tranquillity” by an omnisciently-observant gentleman detective.

These detectives were typically aristocratic and included doctors, solicitors, spinsters, and pastime sleuths. They were “never frightened or appalled, never himself (and occasionally herself) a victim of events, never outwitted or daunted” and their ultimate purpose was “to build and uphold a firm structure of social and moral values.” Stephen Knight noted that some societies in early crime fiction were “so tightly knit that escape will not be possible … If there has been a murder, ‘some gentleman’ will come along and take the criminal to a magistrate.” If the police themselves are ever hostile or condescending towards the private investigator then by the tale’s resolution they are “humbly amazed” by his singular brilliance. The idealised British detective therefore was a paragon, especially equipped to remove crime from the countryside. In his book British Writers of the Thirties author Valentine Cunningham puts forward that the detective genre “doubtless owed a lot to its ritualized acts of determining order and significance amidst the seeming randomness of the murderer’s bullet or cut-throat razor.”

British crime fiction’s predilection for posing murder and mystery in the countryside rather than the city are manifold. Firstly, the early detective novels sprang from the country-house genre. Raymond Williams writes that “the true fate of the country-house novel was its evolution into the middle-class detective story … with some of its roots in George Eliot and Hardy but with a significant limitation of scope.” ‘Country house’ novels typically explored small, interlocked communities where social and personal familiarity were key themes. These concerns were transposed more or less directly into the detective novel, even if only to be exploited.

Secondly, English rural writers and poets had long denigrated London and its “insolent rabble” and the “idle, profligate and debauched” therein. They came from a tradition that insisted upon the “very powerful myth of modern England in which the transition from a rural to an industrial society is seen as a kind of fall, the true cause and origin of our social suffering and disorder.” That cities were chaotic and polluted was a given, that they were troubled by incessant crime a certainty. For many intellectual and refined detectives the criminals in England’s cities were too common and their crimes too conventional. Crime fiction put knives and poisons in the hands of zealous parlour maids, butlers, housekeepers, fortune hunters and remaindermen. It took the strange and terrible and transposed it into the mundane and ordinary.

In Agatha Christie’s short story collection The Thirteen Problems a writer, a clergyman, a solicitor and a former police commissioner all debate on whose profession and “what class of brain” is best suited for solving mysteries. Each would become a British mystery novel archetype, as would the victor in their debate – an elderly spinster called Miss Marple. Marple is an inconspicuous figure. Her modesty disguises a sharp intellect and a peregrine’s eye for details. Her long life has made her a storehouse of knowledge, but she conducts herself with a disarming Socratic humility.

“I think it would be very interesting,” said Miss Marple, “especially with so many clever gentleman present. I am afraid I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St Mary Mead does give one an insight into human nature.”
“I am very sure your co-operation will be very valuable,” said Sir Henry, courteously.

In true parlour fashion, the mysteries in The Thirteen Problems are merely mental exercises, solved from the comfort of an armchair, the stakes no higher than the loss of face during a guessing game. The book’s main device is what Poe called “ratiocination” (and what Christie’s own Poirot would refer to as his ‘little grey cells’); it is the unique ability to soak up details and turn out precise observations that reveal deeper or hidden truths. It is this class of brain, and this stock of character, Marple’s companions realise, that is best suited for solving mysteries.

Williams found it fitting “that a mode of analysis of human relationships which came out of Baker Street, out of the fogs of the transient city, should find a temporary resting-place in this facade way of life, before it eventually returned to its true place in the streets.” To suggest that the streets are the ‘true place’ of deduction and syllogistic reasoning is to suggest that it has no place in the countryside at all: that the people there have no need for it, that they are intrinsically trustworthy and devoid of iniquity. This assumption highlights why the countryside was the perfect environment for a mystery story: the notion that a butler, vicar or maid could be a murderer is more likely to surprise a reader than if the suspects were a pickpocket, a burglar or any other felon. The detective novel’s purpose was to provide the stimulant of a puzzle and the thrill of revelation. It was not designed to remind readers of the squalor of the inner cities, but tease them with the exciting prospect that there was something hidden amongst the picket fences and cropped grass and familiar and genteel smiles of their neighbours. “Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes,” Miss Marple teases in The Thirteen Problems.

Even the most famous city detective found the demure countryside landscape chilling. Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, utters that “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” And we must remember that London, as Watson tells us in A Study in Scarlet, is “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”

Holmes and Watson. Parlour games and exercises of the mind.

Holmes and Watson. Parlour games and exercises of the mind.

While the British detective held court in the parlour rooms of the country house the hard-boiled detective stalked through the mean streets of a rapidly expanding and yet decaying Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. His origin is to be found (or is lost) in the dime novels of the early twentieth century.

These ‘grey papers’ or pulp magazines specialised in making heroes out of “cowboys, soldiers, explorers and masked avengers” before branching out to crime detection. They were sparely-written, flecked with slang and colloquialisms, and peopled by tough and unsentimental detectives who were routinely referred to in the new street lingo as gumshoes, snoopers or sleuths. The bumbling or inept constabularies of British detective fiction were also replaced by corrupt or indifferent police departments, and disillusionment with the police force was usually a compelling factor for the sleuth to become a private detective in the first place. American detectives weren’t afraid to go knuckle-to-knuckle with an adversary, even before introductory words can be exchanged. Their clients include the spurned and the desperate (only the British detective can call aiding the King of Bohemia a “small matter,” as is the case with Holmes). The American detective frequented flop houses and clip joints. They fought against and walked amongst finks, juicers, dips, goons and two-time losers as well as gangsters and plutocrats. The gumshoe has no villainous arch-rival, no Moriarty or Dr. Fu Manchu, because he himself is largely unspectacular. “He is a common man,” Raymond Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled hero, “or he could not go among common people.”

The American detective owes his roughhouse distinctiveness to, of course, America. In the fifty years between Poe’s death and the new century a calamitous civil war had been settled, the nation had “doubled its geography”, and the number of “foreign born, suicides, industrial labourers, divorces, gross national product, and white-collar workers all doubled.” Thomas J. Schlereth writes of early twentieth century America that “A country in transition was also in transit. Everyone seemed en route: emigrating and immigrating, removing or being removed, resettling and relocating in many directionseast to west, south to north, rural to urban, urban to suburban.” Architecture also went its own way: ‘Queen Anne’ styled housing went out of fashion and the rise of the skyscraper gave big city skylines a distinct appearance (notably, in Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Miss Marple, suffering the passing of old friends and strange new villagers, finds comfort in “the little nest of Queen Anne and Georgian houses, of which hers was one”. Rural England’s architecture being the only constant anchor for an aging and archaic mode of life).

The end result was that by the early twentieth century Americans, transformed by inescapable upheaval and progress, were beginning to make “strident claims for ‘100 percent Americanism’”. Inevitably the country’s literature began to evolve into new and distinct forms. Detective fiction, despite its progenitor’s rejection of “the idea that there should be a specifically national character to American writing,” also became distinctly American or, as the genre came to be called, hard-boiled. Chandler wrote of the hard-boiled creed:

The realist in murder writes of a world in which the gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket.

Though American writers were undoubtedly aware of, and had extensively read, the work of their British counterparts, the hard-boiled did not arise as a response to it, but as the natural consequence of a domestic social revolution. Ian Ousby writes:

The hard-boiled school came not in reaction against Golden Age fiction, or indeed as the result of any programme of rebelling, but simply as a separate and rival development in the USA – a country which was anyway bound to tire of borrowing from the Old World to find its voice.

British detective fiction, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly archaic and stereotypical. The post-First-War period was increasingly an age of “mass-production, mass-demonstrations, mass-meetings, mass sporting occasions, mass-communications, mass-armies, a time when things would be done in, and to, and for crowds.” But while hard-boiled fiction took to the city streets the ‘soft-boiled’ equivalent stayed comfortably rustic, to its eventual detriment. “Even the exterior setting of the thing is in danger of becoming stereotyped,” complained Ronald Knox, “If I walked into the detective-story house, I believe I should be able to find my way about it perfectly; it is always more or less the same in design.” Incessant sequels and a glut of knock-offs diluted the bourgeois detective until he was no longer remarkable and no longer effective. Writer William Trevor remarked that

All over England, it seemed to me, bodies were being discovered by housemaids in libraries. Village poison pens were tirelessly at work. There was murder in Mayfair, on trains, in airships, in Palm Court lounges, between the acts. Golfers stumbled over corpses on fairways. Constables awoke to them in their gardens.

The British detective was fast losing his relevancy and potency. He was trapped in an unending cycle of locked rooms and exotic poisons and contested wills and perfidious servants. He was ageless and static and increasingly becoming a figure of fun. “Society was becoming corporate and efficient,” wrote William Marling. “The erudite Victorian hero wasn’t; he lost potency as alter ego, and eventually he became an anachronism.” P.D. James surmised that:

The omni-talented amateur with apparently nothing to do with his time but solve murders which interest him has had his day, partly because his rich and privileged lifestyle became less admirable, and his deferential acceptance by the police less credible, in an age when men were expected to work.

As the British detective was declining the American counterpart was quickly confirming his relevance. The gumshoe’s motivation would be employment, not leisure; he is vexed and frustrated, rather than thrilled or invigorated, by elaborate puzzles and ruses. If the aristocratic pastime detective finds himself taking on cases as a result of his immense free time and wealth then the gumshoe is a victim of his economic circumstances. “He is a relatively poor man,” Chandler wrote, “or he would not be a detective at all.”

The prototype for the hardboiled detective is arguably Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, who first appeared in Black Mask serials before being transported into novels like Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. The Op is short, portly, and not particularly erudite. His namelessness and unremarkable demeanour mark him as an everyman. “If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework,” Chandler later wrote, “you don’t know anything at all about the police.”

Hammett’s later creation Sam Spade is another bold deviation from the classic mold. His physical description is given at the beginning of the novel, and he is described as an impossible variety of ‘v’ shapes (chin, mouth, nostrils, brows, and hairline) and even his body seems “conical”. His description as a “blond satan” evocatively sets him apart from his forebearers and contemporaries. He is handsome, but not upstanding. William Marling contends that “Hammett, designing a new hero for new readers in a new era, tells them by this design that Spade is no Victorian detective. Spade is modern, seemingly amoral, rather than a synecdoche for any reassuring quality, as, say, Sherlock Holmes was for reason.” But despite any of his drawbacks, the typical cocky gumshoe was also an idealised figure. Hammett, in the 1934 introduction to The Maltese Falcon, explained that:

[Spade] is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander or client.

Spade is no gentleman, and isn’t particularly compassionate either. At the story’s beginning we see him feign politesse and compassion: “Spade nodded his blond satan’s head, frowned sympathetically, and tightened his lips together.” He operates from his office, rather than a parlour room or apartment. His workspace is merely one cell in a series of interconnected capillaries and he can never feel, even when isolated, truly alone: “The tappity-tap-tap and the thin bell and muffled whir of Effie Perine’s typewriting came through the closed door. Somewhere in a neighbouring office a power-driven machine vibrated dully.”

Veteran actor Howard Duff portrayed Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Veteran actor Howard Duff portrayed Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Ronald Knox and other British crime writers had decreed that the detective is not to fall in love or even toil with it. Though that rule had been sporadically bent before, it was in the American tradition where love or lust could be convincingly utilised as more than an aside or distraction. Spade’s quandary when giving up Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the police is not incidental to The Maltese Falcon’s drama; it is the culmination of it:

 “You didn’t–don’t–l-love me?”
“I think I do,” Spade said. “What of it?” The muscles holding his smile in place stood out like wales. “I’m not Thursby. I’m not Jacobi. I won’t play the sap for you.”

Spade explicitly rejects revenge or love as motivating factors. He hands Brigid in not because he distrusts her, but because “I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.” Brigid may have killed Spade’s partner, but her arrest is not personal. His desires are secondary. His moral code is a natural one. He is, ultimately, a deontologist. But this is not a reassuring or all-encompassing morality: for one, though it drives him to solve his partner’s murder, it does not stop him from sleeping with the man’s wife; secondly, sending Brigid to her inevitable execution horrifies his secretary, Effie, who can’t bear to have Spade touch her. Though his moral code does not protect him from acting immorally, and even though it damages, if only temporarily, his relationships with other people, it must be abided by.

Though the British detective seems mired in a never ending cycle of peace and disruption, they at least have the consolation of harmony, however brief. In The Dain Curse the Op is told that he is “A monster. A nice one, an especially nice one to have around when you’re in trouble, but a monster just the same.” The Op and his ilk may often act in the greater moral interest, but they are not entirely likeable. Conversely, Sherlock Holmes can regularly be told that he has “saved England from a great public scandal”. But the gumshoe is not a solution to the world’s problems and there is no ‘prelapsarian tranquillity’ to restore it to. The effort to return a crime-ridden city into some semblance of serenity was explored in Hammett’s Red Harvest, and in typical hard-boiled fashion required gangsters and corrupt policemen to be gunned down to achieve its (arguably impossible) goal. The American detective could never set the world right. His was too primitive and yet too complex.

If the British detective can only amble on into irrelevance or retirement, the American sleuth, the perennial poor man in an onerous profession, must die in the gutter or keep his doors open for business, as Sam Spade is doomed to do in The Maltese Falcon’s closing moments:

“Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘Yes,’ he said, and shivered. ‘Well, send her in.’”


  • Cawelti, John G., Adventure, Mystery and Romance, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).
  • Chandler, Raymond, The Simple Art of Murder, (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).
  • Christie, Agatha, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, (New York: HarperCollins Ltd, 1977).
  • Christie, Agatha, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
  • Christie, Agatha, The Thirteen Problems, (New York: HarperCollins Ltd, 1932).
  • Conan Doyle, Arthur, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892).
  • Cunningham, Valentine, British Writers of the Thirties, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
  • Deforest, Tim, Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America (Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc, 2004).
  • Hammett, Dashiell, The Maltese Falcon, (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2000).
  • James, P.D., Talking about Detective Fiction, (Oxford: The Bodleian Library, 2009).
  • Marling, William, The American Roman Noir: Hammett, Cain and Chandler, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).
  • Marx, Leo, ‘The Puzzle of Anti-Urbanism in Classic American Literature’ in Graham Clarke (ed.) The American City: Literary Sources and Documents, (Hastings: Helm Information ltd, 1997).
  • Ousby, Ian, The Crime and Mystery Book, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997).
  • Reidhead, Julia (ed.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007).
  • Schlereth, Thomas J, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
  • Symons, Julian, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, (London: Faber & Faber, 1972).
  • Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City, (London: Chattos & Windus Ltd, 1973).

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Within and Without the Hall: Anglo-Saxons in Exile


The mead hall was not merely a place of retreat from a hostile world but was also the foundation and fulcrum of Anglo-Saxon life – for in addition to obvious benefits such as warmth and safety it was also a hub of group solidarity, where tribute was made and the bonds between lord and vassal were sealed and sustained.

Anglo-Saxon hall society had its roots in barbarian Europe where bonds of kinship were strongly encouraged and enforced. Tacitus noted in his book Germania that men were “bound to take up the feuds as well as friendships of father or kinsman,” and it was considered “impious to turn any man away from your door.” Gift-giving was also a highly cherished tradition: “The leaders take peculiar pleasure in gifts from neighbouring states, which are sent not only by individuals, but by the community as well.” In these societies, as well as in their Anglo-Saxon descendants, homage and condemnation were public, never private, affairs.

In such communities certain laws or customs were expected to be obeyed above all else. Internecine violence within the king’s circle was so repellent an idea that its accompanying punishment was severe – more severe, in fact, than those penalties meted out to anyone who happened to brawl within a holy place such as a monastery. The law code of King Ine of Wessex (composed circa 688 – 695 A.D.) demanded that:

If anyone fights in the king’s house, he shall forfeit all his property, and it shall be for the king to decide whether he shall be put to death or not […] If anyone fights in a monastery, he shall pay 120 shillings compensation.

The importance of keeping the peace in the hall was so vital that King Alfred transplanted Ine’s law regarding the issue, almost verbatim, into his own law codes of the ninth century. De duodecim abusivis saeculi, an anonymously authored tract that originated in 8th century Ireland, lays out twelve social and political ‘abuses’ that kings and their subjects were to be aware of. The tract frowns upon “the young man without obedience”, highlighting the importance of respect between elders and youths (or between ranks), and it also disapproves of “the rich man without almsgiving”, which stresses the importance of putting wealth to good and generous use. Additionally, the article abhors “the lord without strength” and “the unjust king”. It was the king’s duty to secure the safety of his people and to see them amply rewarded for their loyalty – or punished for their disobedience.


I, wretched and sorrowful,
on the ice-cold sea
dwelt for a winter
in the paths of exile,
bereft of friendly kinsmen
~ The Seafarer.

For those living under the protection of a hall and its lord, life was not only potentially prosperous but given heterogeneity as well. In poems like Beowulf warriors introduce themselves as the descendants of great soldiers and as the inheritors of great halls and legacies. The best that kings and warriors could hope for was that their reputations would survive even after their own lives or immediate glories had passed. Beowulf demonstrates to the reader how a good reputation can merit a king in troubled times by telling us that Hrothgar, despite being unable to stop Grendel, is still considered a good king because of his adherence to kingly manners. But unjust men, whether they were thegns or even rulers, like the historical Sigeberht of Wessex, could be deposed and driven from their lands for their iniquitous behaviour.

Such castaways and wanderers were social detritus and were to be treated with suspicion, even according to law. The law code of Wihtred of Kent demanded that “If a man from afar, or a stranger, quits the road, and neither shouts, nor blows a horn, he may be considered a thief, [and as such may] be either slain or put to ransom.” This law was also enforced by Ine of Wessex at roughly the same time.

For Christian soldiers the outcome of unlawful and shameful behaviour was especially stark due to its theological implications: Satan had been damned for his attempt at supplanting God, Adam and Eve were banished for their disobedience and Cain made an outcast and branded for the murder of his brethren. In the poem Christ and Satan the devil himself, the original exile, bemoans that “I shall not be allowed to enjoy a more promising home, neither city nor palace.” Linked to cowards and usurpers, demons and devils, an exile carried nothing but negative connotations. In Beowulf, they are literally monsters: the warped progeny of Cain as well as a dragon.

The precise physical nature of Grendel and his mother have been a point of contention for many years: are they monsters, or merely monstrous? But there is one aspect of their nature that is unambiguous, and that is their status as exiles. Beowulf makes it clear that the many ills and malevolent spirits in the world result from Cain’s murder of Abel and his subsequent banishment:

Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.

Grendel’s fury is instigated by the circumstances of his wretched existence, “he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters,” a condition of living which makes “the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet” utterly abhorrent to his ears. The fact that Grendel cannot be tied to any one homestead or hall, the mere fact that he is a homeless wanderer, inspires fear in the Danes upon whom he preys: “young and old were hunted down by that dark death-shadow who lurked and swooped in the long nights on the misty moors; nobody knows where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.”

When Hrothgar relates to Beowulf the rumours of Grendel and his mother much of the horror is concentrated not so much on their deeds or appearances, but where they dare to roam: “They dwell apart among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags and treacherous keshes, where cold streams pour down the mountain and disappear under mist and moorland.” These creatures live and lurk on the periphery of civilisation, they are the ongoing survivors of a bleak and hostile world who have rejected or been rejected by all the pleasures of the hall. They suffer greatly from the absence of company and direct their fury upon the lucky and loyal retainers inhabiting Heorot. To the Anglo-Saxon mind, an exile was not only a damned spirit but a condemnatory one that would blame and wreak his misfortune on others if encountered.

‘Where has the horse gone? where is the rider? where is the giver of gold?  Where are the seats of the feast? where are the joys of the hall?  O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!  O the glory of princes! How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’

‘Where has the horse gone? where is the rider? where is the giver of gold?
Where are the seats of the feast? where are the joys of the hall?
O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!
O the glory of princes! How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’
~ The Wanderer.

But the loss of the hall and kinship with other men was deeply felt by the outcasts. Grendel and his mother lurk in an underwater, twisted facsimile of a hall, replete with “hall-roofing” to fight off the water current and a hoard of weapons and treasure. The dragon also dwells in such an environment, an ancient barrow laden with treasure, but he is a stowaway who has assumed ownership of the tomb and its riches. When he attacks the countryside due to the theft of one of his treasures we see that he is powerful and gluttonous, a monstrous counterpart to the worst of human corruption.

One of Beowulf’s other outcasts is not a beast, but the lone survivor of a destructed race. It is this last man who deposits his peoples’ “rich inheritance” in the barrow that the dragon later claims as his own. After burying the treasure hoard this “forgotten person” wanders the earth until his own death:

And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
day and night, until death’s flood
brimmed up in his heart.

The language here evokes a solitary life as a slow drowning. Dying alone in the wild was an ignominious end for a warrior.

But sometimes fear presents a greater argument than honour, and warriors lose their mettle. At the climax of Beowulf the titular hero’s own war-band struggles to keep brave during their fight with the dragon and eventually flee:

No help or backing was to be had then
from his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop
broke ranks and ran for their lives
to the safety of the wood.

Only one, Wiglaf, resolves to stay and fight. The text notes that “in a man of worth the claims of kinship cannot be denied.” After the battle ends the cowardly warriors (or as the text designates them, “battle-dodgers” and “tail-turners”) shamefully return to the field, and Wiglaf declares that foreign invasion will be imminent “once princes from beyond get tidings of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” We can deduce that abandoning the king or comitatus was considered not only a crime against individual members of the group but against the group, and nation, as a whole. Cowardice was a grave offence, and a coward’s lingering presence in a comitatus or hall would not only shame the group but potentially endanger it as well. Warriors in disgrace were obviously feared and hated whenever they came across honourable men.

The bleak and embattled mindset of an exile was often expressed in poems known as elegies; among them are poems like The Seafarer and The Wife’s Lament. Elegies such as these take place nowhere and are narrated by no one – that is, there is no firm geographical locale indicated in the texts, and the characters refuse, or simply neglect, to identify themselves.

However frustrating this may be for a more historically-minded reader (or for those simply wanting to expand upon the narrative and its circumstances) this absence of localisation and identification adds to, rather than detracts from, the sense of being cast adrift in an impersonal and uncaring landscape. It is not surprising that poems such as The Seafarer, which contains no identifiable narrator or any specific seascape, are often thought of as psychological or even allegorical pieces. Critics like John C. Pope, writing in his essay ‘Second thoughts on the interpretation of The Seafarer’, assert that it “is no wonder” that the poem “at its conclusion should allow the literally conceived pilgrimage of the speaker to suggest the broader idea of allegorical pilgrimage.”

That the icy froth and spume could be figurative language denoting an elegiac psychological bombardment is not dissimilar from the use of storms, hail, rain, and thunder as metaphors for battle or weaponry in other Old English texts (for example, arrows are described as raining down in “showers” in Judith.) The Exeter Book’s third riddle speaks of clouds that “do combat” and also portrays lightning as “death-spears” and “a whistling weapon”. There’s no doubt that the outside world was often seen as a brutal and ever-present enemy to be contended with -an army of natural forces whose battlefield was everywhere- and that this assault took place in the mind as much as it did on the body.

"So this middle-earth, a bit each day, droops and decays." ~ The Wanderer.

“So this middle-earth,
a bit each day,
droops and decays.”
~ The Wanderer.

There was one social group that rejected hall society and the practice of ring-giving and instead embraced exile, and that was the monastic orders. The practice of holy eremitism was not as old as Europe’s warrior society, but it did have a long and storied tradition with its own legends and, eventually, literature.

One of the earliest hagiographies of a saintly hermit was that of Martin of Tours (316 A.D. – 397 A.D.), written by Sulpicius Severus during Martin’s lifetime. Martin had left the Roman Army as a conscientious objector and settled as a hermit in Poitiers, France, gathering around himself a devoted group of followers who committed themselves to an ascetic life. Severus’ biography became “an immediate best seller” that “became a model for an immense flood of ‘Saints’ Lives’, popular literature published in Gaul and Britain during the next several centuries.”

The lives of many future saints followed the same guiding principles of Martin as outlined by Severus: the rejection of the world and its wealth, self-imposed exile and frugal living. Soon many hagiographies were borrowing miracles and events from their predecessors with little or sometimes no alteration. 

Their aim was to get away from the ‘society of man’, to live alone with a few companions in caves or ‘desert wildernesses’ […] The saints did not set out to reform society. They gave it up as an evil to avoid.
~ John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)

The burgeoning popularity of monasticism among the holy orders (and even among the common folk who felt beleaguered by widespread strife and war) eventually brought paradox to the movement: hermits found themselves settling into the hills and caves of Britain with other hermits, forming small societies in the process. Michael Swanton, in his chapter ‘An Assured Heroism’, noted that “By the end of the seventh century monasticism was well established and even regally endorsed among the Anglo-Saxons as a socially acceptable mode of life.” John Morris writes in The Age of Arthur that:

Place names attest the scale of the movement and its locality. Sixth-century Latin usage calls the monastery claustra, enclosure, whence comes the English word ‘cloister’. Its equivalent in Welsh was llan, whose literal meaning is ‘enclosure’. Well over six hundred Welsh towns and hamlets bear the name Llan.

Gerald of Wales, on his tour of the country in the twelfth century, wrote of the abbey church Llanthony, “originally founded by two hermits, in honour of the eremitical way of life, in solitude and far removed from the bustle of everyday existence.” Social approval had done much to enlarge and institutionalise the monastic lifestyle, though this, as church luminaries like Gerald complained, would eventually serve to undo many of its positive and holy aspects. The brothers at Llanthony had struggled for generations to keep society from invading their solitude, and were:

greatly distressed when it began to be endowed with land and church benefices […] In their desire for poverty, they refused many offers of manors and churches in those early years. Situated as they were in the wilderness, they refused to permit the overgrown recesses of the valley, where it widened out into an impenetrable wood, ever to be cleared or levelled off to make an open meadow, for they had no wish to abandon their eremitical mode of life.

The hermits found themselves resisting well-intentioned lords and kings who attempted to bequeath gifts upon them. However the nobility valued it, the old practice of ring-giving was abhorrent to the monks. It could only invite sin. “There in Gloucester men strive for earthly possessions, “ writes Gerald, “but here in Llanthony let them rather turn their minds towards the promise of eternal bliss. There let them enjoy the company of mortal men, but here let them prefer the concourse of angels.”

In Anglo-Saxon Christian literature the fraternising and frolicking that occurred in the hall were also looked upon with disdain. When the heroine of the Biblically inspired Judith enters Holofernes’ tent she looks at the drunken warriors with scorn. Though words like “gold-giving” are used to describe Holofernes, the text displays none of the admiration and awe that we might expect due to a “powerful man” and “lord of heroes”. Instead it is clearly stated that the cavorting and drinking have made the warriors careless and foolish:

[Holofernes] drenched his retainers with wine until they lay unconscious,
the whole of his troop were as drunk as if they had been struck down
in death,
drained of every ability.

There are similar insinuations in Beowulf, where Unferth’s belligerence is attributed to drunkenness, and the poem does not fail to remind readers that the fate of Heorot is tied directly to its grandeur and the jealousies of those inside and outside its doors.

Both self-exile and the apparently disparate notion of a comitatus-themed community eventually reconciled themselves and came together in the form of the chivalric Christian Knight who leaves his band of brothers and goes into the misty and mysterious landscape, alone, to pursue a holy quest. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there are positive depictions of revelry in King Arthur’s Court, rather than the ominous forebodings and disapproval present in other Christian works.

It was fine to hear such glorious commotion:
lively uproar all day and dancing at night,
the sheerest indulgence in dance hall and bedroom
by the ladies and lords, whatever whim took them.
With all worldly pleasures they dwelt there together:
the most famous knights in all of Christendom
It would be hard nowadays
to find such fellowship.

Gawain tells us that the carousing at the court is not only bawdy and abundant, but also represents a golden age for chivalry and Christianity. When Gawain starts to leave for his journey in search of the Green Knight all of Arthur’s court sees him off with sadness: “Much deep sorrow was felt in the hall, that one as valued as him should go on this quest.” Many tales of the saints describe how crowds wept whenever they took their leave. The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith detailed that “As the ship sailed across the river, he looked towards the brothers mourning his departure and heard the sublime sound of their song mixed with grief.”

"The son of nobles crossed over The steep stone cliffs,  the constricted climb, a narrow solitary path,  a course unknown..." ~ Beowulf.

“The son of nobles crossed over
The steep stone cliffs,
the constricted climb,
a narrow solitary path,
a course unknown…”
~ Beowulf.

Similarly Gawain, like all holy or disgraced nomads before him, ventures out and finds the world unkind:

He struggled up cliffs in godforsaken regions,
as, far from his friends, he wandered as a stranger.

Separated from his band of fellow knights, Gawain is isolated in a world that will grant him no respect or quarter on account of his honour and title. Again, as in earlier literature, the natural world is constantly harassing and threatening our lone wanderer: “At every ford and stream that the warrior passed, it was rare if he found no foe to face him.” However, like the self-exiled saints, Gawain has God to protect him from the harshness of nature: “If he hadn’t been alert, and helped by the Lord, he would certainly have went to his death.” God had certainly intervened to help his most blessed of subjects before. In Bede’s Life of Cuthbert the saint is given a loaf of bread, ostensibly from God, when he is in need. Afterwards Cuthbert resumes his journey without fear of hunger:

now that he knew he had been fed in his solitude by Him […] His eyes are ever on them that fear Him and hope in His mercy, so that He may, in the words of the Psalmist, ‘snatch their souls from death and feed them in time of famine.’

Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Wilfrid gives another example of Divine protection:

So Wilfrid and his companions left their native land and set off in exile for the kingdoms of the south. God, who does not leave his saints to endure alone, sent a kind-hearted man to meet them on their way.

To be stripped of one’s titles and honours, to be sent from the warmth of the hall, or to falter in allegiance during the thick of battle, was more terrible than death – but only for a few. Later Christian saints welcomed the wilderness, loneliness and limerance. They saw themselves as divorced from the pleasures and temptations of the hall; they walked not with men but were companioned by choruses of angels. After centuries of co-mingling the two modes of life found themselves reconciled in the form of the lone Christian Knight, a man loved by many but sometimes accompanied by few: he could find glory alone as well as among a brotherhood.

Art by Zdzisław Beksińsk

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Apocalyptic Angst and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes towards Transience.


“The final sum of days he himself established by his authentic power.”
~ Christ and Satan
(Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11, p 213 – 29)

In 601 C.E. Pope Gregory wrote to King Ethelbert, the first English king to convert to Christianity. He began his letter by complimenting Ethelbert, before turning to a gloomier and graver concern: “The end of this present world is at hand,” he warned, “and the everlasting kingdom of the saints is approaching.” Gregory continued by explaining that the first pangs of doomsday would make themselves palpably felt: “When the end of the world is near, unprecedented things occur – portents in the sky, terrors from heaven, unseasonable tempests, wars, famines, pestilences, and widespread earthquakes.”

There were several modes of thought concerning the apocalypse. The version sanctioned by the Church was that doomsday was inevitable but its day of arrival unforeseeable. As Gregory tells Ethelbert, “Not all of these things will happen during our own lifetimes, but will all ensue in due course.” Christ III (The Judgment), a piece contained in The Exeter Book, maintains the same message, and insists that Judgment Day will arrive “with sudden swiftness upon the midnight” like “an audacious thief who goes abroad in the dark … it will painfully cast down those people unprepared.”

This doctrine alone would be enough to incite Anglo-Saxon apocalyptic angst, but another, often discouraged view, held that the world was already in its final stages of life and the apocalypse imminent. In his essay ‘The Ruin of Time’, Michael Swanton notes that, “It was commonplace to contemporary thought that the world as it neared the millennium would show clear signs of decline if not of actual decay.” Swanton points out that, for the Anglo-Saxons at least, the proof of Judgment Day was stamped all over the known world: “All over Western Europe lay the tangible ruins of a once-great civilisation: towns, villas, and public buildings lying desolate and empty.”

Poems like The Ruin do not herald the end of days, but they do catalogue the abundance of buildings “smashed by fate”: crumbled, collapsed, and sinking into the mud. The Seafarer also explains that the world is in a state of disrepair: “The nobility of the earth ages and dries up.” The Wanderer also depicts a world that “each and every day declines and falls.” It elaborates that “The Creator of men thus laid waste this earth,” indicating that the world’s steady dereliction is heavenly mandated. “Here, wealth is transitory; here a friend is transitory; here a man is transitory; here a kinsman is transitory. All the earth’s foundation will become empty.” Neither The Seafarer nor The Wanderer proselytise the end of the world, but they do depict one that is obviously teetering on the brink.

The ruins of Roman and post-Roman British towns speckling the countryside would be an ample reminder that God-sanctioned destruction was a very real (and just) possibility. Christian moralists therefore usually invoked the apocalypse as a means of frightening their wayward congregations into observing good behaviour. Gregory tells Ethelbert that “these portents of the end are sent to warn us to consider the welfare of our souls and remember our last end, so that, when our Judge comes, he shall find us prepared by good lives.” Later in the tenth century Aelfric of Eynsham would write that “men have need of good teaching above all at this time, which is the ending of the world.” The Blickling Homily XI (circa 971 A.D.) asserts that the Day of Judgment “is not far distant, for all the signs and portents which our Lord said should occur before doomsday have occurred, except only that the accursed visitant Antichrist has not yet come into the world.” Afterwards, between 1010 and 1026, an English bishop named Wulfstan wrote The Sermon of the Wolf to the English, which opened with the lines “Beloved men, know that which is true: this world is in haste and it nears the end.” Wulfstan aimed to remind the English that the Britons had been displaced from their land as punishment from God, and that the same fate would befall the descendants of their Anglo-Saxon conquerors if they continued to live in sin.

But the end never came. Judgment Day seemed to be starting and stalling through a succession of disasters and maladies, and after decades of internecine conflict and foreign invasion and doomy portents the English had become well acquainted with the transience of worldly things as a result. Aelfric, in his Second Series of Catholic Homilies, seemed frustrated: “Often people say, behold, now doomsday is coming because the prophecies that were laid down about it have passed. But there comes war after war, tribulation after tribulation, earthquake after earthquake, famine after famine, nation after nation, and still the bridegroom does not come.”

Transience, decay, and the eventual judgment of mankind became familiar themes in Old English poetry. Some, like the aforementioned The Ruin, focus on architectural deterioration, where the “work of giants decays.” Others, like Soul and Body I & II, focus on the posthumous breakdown of the human body and the gratification or anguish of its spirit, as well as its eventual fate on Judgment Day – a date which, importantly, is left ambiguous. In Soul and Body II, the spirit of the recently deceased must visit its corpse every week for three hundred years, “unless the everlasting Lord, almighty God, brings about the end of the world beforehand.” Poems such as these keep Judgment Day distant but certain; in the meanwhile the soul has an untold amount of time to reflect on its eventual doom. Extracts such as Judgment Day II affirm that the end of days will erupt suddenly, leaving mortals in a state of angst and woeful surprise: “I remembered my sins, the crimes of my life and the long-drawn-out time of dark death’s advent upon earth, and I was afraid of the great judgment because of my wicked deeds upon earth.” Later works like Earth upon Earth also focus on bodily decay and the composition of the human form: namely, dust or clay rendered flesh that will, upon death, return to its prior form.

The impermanence of things is remarked upon frequently in Beowulf, where we are reminded that Heorot is doomed (almost as soon as we are introduced to it), and that all great genealogies come to an end, whether they are those of Hrothgar, the monster Grendel, or Beowulf himself. In the 8th century poem, Guthlac A, an angel promises the titular figure that the Kingdom of Heaven will host “edifices which never decay”, and will ensure that life for the saved, in comparison to their prior existence in the mortal world, “grows better for them the longer it goes on”. Later, an angel assures Guthlac that the “whole earth beneath the sky was ephemeral,” and he praises “the enduing good in the heavens,” where things are everlasting. A later story, Guthlac B, attests that worldly existence is merely an “ephemeral span” and “a long wait.”

Apocalyptic language and portents also permeated texts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 635 A.D. the Chronicle noted that, “This year there was in Britain a bloody rain, and milk and butter were turned to blood.” Compare this to Revelation 16:4, and the language reveals itself as apocalyptic: “The third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters, and they became blood.” As Pope Gregory forewarned in his correspondence with Ethelbert, there would be palpable signs of the world’s end, including war, famine, and signs in the sky, and the Chronicle recorded them all. There was “great famine” in 975, 976, 1005, and 1082. In 678 a comet, another harbinger of doom, appeared in the sky for three months “like sunshine.” More comets appeared in 793, 891, 905, 975, 995, and of course in 1066, when Halley’s Comet arrived along with William the Conqueror. Eilmer of Malmesbury, who seems to have spied Halley’s Comet on its last circuit, was quoted by William of Malmesbury on the topic of the bolide’s reappearance in 1066: “Thou art come! A matter of lamentation to many a mother, thou art come; I have seen thee long since; but now I behold thee much more terrible, threatening to hurl destruction on this country.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle connects many disturbances in the year 975 A.D. with a comet: first, King Edgar dies following the death of “the good bishop Cyneweard,” and this itself is followed by the banishment of Oslac of York. “Many wise servants of God were expelled,” the Chronicle notes, and:

“Then, up in the heavens, a star in the firmament
Made its appearance, which confident sages,
Wise seers, astronomers, and sage scholars
Everywhere call by the name of ‘comet.’
Throughout the nation, the vengeance of the Lord
Was widely evident when hunger reigned
Over the earth.”

There were more catastrophes connected with mercurial weather in 793 A.D.:

“In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.”

These heathens were the Vikings, and their appearance is tied directly to the chaos seen in the skies, as is the famine, which “soon followed these signs”, the language here being very clear that the stormy weather and dragon sightings were not randomly occurring phenomenon, but very deliberate warnings of coming destruction. Later, in 1066, the Chronicle would tie the appearance of Halley’s Comet with the beginnings of another foreign invasion: “Throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet … Soon thereafter came Earl Tostig from across the sea to the Isle of Wight, with as many household troops as he could muster.” Note the author connecting the arrival of the star with the arrival of Earl Tostig. The comet’s reputation as a harbinger is sealed here: “He sailed thence,” the Chronicle continues, “and did damage everywhere along the seacoast where he could.”

Most of these calamities were not unusual features in the embryonic English landscape. War was certainly common; the shape and make-up of the country was constantly being revised by it. In his book The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn writes that:

“Generation after generation lived in constant expectation of the all-destroying demon whose reign was indeed to be lawless chaos … People were always on the watch for the ‘signs’ which, according to the prophetic tradition, were to herald and accompany the final ‘time of troubles’; and since the ‘signs’ included bad rulers, civil discord, war, drought, famine, plague, comets, sudden deaths of prominent persons and an increase in general sinfulness, there was never any difficulty about finding them.”

Texts such as the apocryphal Apocalypse of Thomas, though written in Latin between the second and fourth centuries and despite its excision from Christian orthodoxy, found some popularity in Old English homilies in the tenth century. In his essay ‘Two Uses of Apocrypha in Old English Homilies’, Milton McCormick Gatch writes that “Anglo-Saxon writers did not subject Latin materials to rigorous tests of orthodoxy and canonicity,” and that preaching an apocryphal text would not be too unusual, especially texts that reminded the laity of their salvation or damnation, whichever was relevant for the moment. The Apocalypse of Thomas is thought to have inspired a post-millennial text known as Fifteen Signs before Doomsday, which promises floods, droughts, earthquakes, and the typical apocalyptic chaos.

The Apocalypse itself was not necessarily dreaded. For the doubtful or guilty-minded it was a source of anxiety and pain; for the pious it was the cumulative moment of their life’s work. Tales of Armageddon are frequently introduced with flashes of terror and torture and hellfire, but conclude with Christ’s eternal reign and joy for the blessed. Saintly figures were often depicted as going to their deaths in a jovial mood. As Bede died he did so “on the floor of his cell singing.” Guthlac A ends with Eden-esque imagery, as the saint retires to a tranquil plot of land where fruit is plenty and the animals eat from his palm. Eventually his spirit is lifted to Heaven. In Guthlac B he attests that upon his death “my days in the earthly journey will have slipped away, my sorrow will be assuaged.” Christ III (The Judgment) delineates the fates of damned and saved souls, as does Judgment Day II and Soul and Body I & II.

But for many the end of the world still invoked feelings of damnation and perdition. The Domesday Book earned its ominous title through the common feeling of the conquered English people, as, according to one twelfth century Norman writer, “Doomsday is what the man in the street calls it in the English language, that is, to us, ‘The Book of the Day of Judgment’, for its verdicts are just as unanswerable.”

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The Romantics


If you were to merely glance over the work of the first and second generation of Romantic poets then there would seem to be nothing separating the two other than chronology, and in some aspects this is true enough: both strive to escape urban realities in favour of the natural sublime; both tend towards lone figures in scenic environments; and both stress the importance of raw feeling over purely rational thinking.

But wherever the two generations match, they also differ. William Wordsworth, in the introduction to his Lyrical Ballads (1798), dismisses the personification of abstract ideas whereas Percy Shelley uses them to great effect – see Murder and Fraud in The Masque of Anarchy (1819). To Shelley, a poet was an instrument, a lyre over which the imagination blew like a wind, giving it music. Wordsworth strove for accessibility and prose-like poetry that spoke plainly yet deeply. For him, a poet is “a man speaking to men”; a far more rustic concept than Shelley’s metaphoric elaboration. John Keats, a second generation Romantic alongside Shelley, agreed with Wordsworth: “Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts.”

But again, coupled with the similarities were discrepancies in method or style. Keats’ theory of ‘negative capability’ necessitated the disappearance of the poet, with a strong focus on the poem’s object of choice. Negative capability is the ability to detach oneself from your own being; the poet becomes an abstraction who can investigate an object from many differing avenues of thought. Wordsworth however inserted himself into his poetry as a singular, interacting character.

In Simon Lee, not only does Wordsworth address the reader directly (“O gentle Reader!”) he talks to and assists the  poem’s subject matter (an elderly herdsman) in cutting down a tree. In many of his poems the narrator is identified as “I”, who is of course Wordsworth himself. Keats on the other hand claimed that the poet “is every thing and nothing …  he has no identity – he is continually in for, and filling some other body: The Sun, The Moon, the Sea and Men and Women…” With Wordsworth we follow the poet not only as a narrator but also as a guide, a biographer of pastoral life seeking to transpose real rustic scenes into ‘serious’ contemplative literature, hence his focus on the countryside’s ‘small folk’, from huntsmen to leech collectors to “the solitary child … on a wide moor”.

In comparison, the characters inhabiting Keats’ poems are either personified emotions (Melancholy and Joy, Love and Ambition), historical figures like Sappho or Petrarch, or mythological characters like Hermes and Apollo. Interestingly, when Keats focuses on rural figures they are merely representations painted upon an urn, and their stories are ultimately unknowable.

There is however also a sense that what Wordsworth conveys is not a first hand sensory experience; it has been lacquered with what he called “a certain colouring of imagination” in order to make the ordinary interesting. With Keats the object of choice, whether a book (On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer), a series of sculptures (On Seeing the Elgin Marbles) or ancient pottery (Ode to a Grecian Urn) is examined and interrogated entirely on its own merit. Keats would concentrate so intensely on a singular item that the resulting sense of beauty would “overcome every other consideration, or rather obliterate all consideration”.

What mattered to Keats was the raw sensual experience, and not whatever conclusions the poet came to at the end. There was to be no “irritable reaching after fact and reason”, only the object and its effect. In his letters Keats directly noted that poets like Samuel Coleridge lacked the ability to satisfy themselves with “half-knowledge” – the accusation being that Coleridge does not seek to merely experience purity or beauty through nature, but seeks the acquisition of knowledge. Keats suspects that Coleridge places thought over sensation – a betrayal of the Romantic ‘creed’, if there was one.

St. Augustine defined poetry as a pathway to God, “with no mediating Nature between [them],” but Wordsworth, in The Tables Turned, claimed that:

“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.”

The advice here is simply to “Let nature be your teacher”. The trouble was that with advancing age we become saddled with distractions which all work together to detract from our appreciation of (and connection to) nature.

To Wordsworth, a long life had a wearying and detrimental effect on one’s appreciation of nature. In Intimations of Immortality he writes, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream/The earth and every common sight/To me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light”. Wordsworth claimed a belief in the Platonic idea that our pre-existence is a state of perfection, and that “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” As children we can see the glory of nature; we are “Nature’s Priest”, but “At length the Man perceives it die away/And fade into the light of common day”.

In this poem Wordsworth also used prison imagery to describe the human experience:

“Shades of the prison house begin to close
Upon the growing boy …
Inmate Man
Forget the glories he hath known
And that imperial palace whence he came.”

Wordsworth’s only respite from the agony of forgetting the “splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower” is that with age also comes a philosophic mind. He can find “Strength in what remains behind … In the soothing thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering;/In the faith that looks through death.”

In Tintern Abbey he concludes that “The mind within us”, loaded with joyful memories and appreciation of nature, will become a bulwark against “evil tongues”, “rash judgments”, “the sneers of selfish men” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life”. The “wild ecstasies” of youth will transform into “sober pleasure”, and though the “celestial light” dims as the years pass, Wordsworth finds a way to illuminate his brief, transitory existence.

Keats’ approach was far more existential. Death was a worryingly inevitable conclusion and he always felt that time was short. In Ode to Melancholy he rejects suicide and forgetfulness as solutions to melancholy. Instead the sufferer should “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose”, though this solution is temporary: in When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be Keats writes that the knowledge of his mortality spoils his appreciation of the world:

“When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
And I think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance …
Then on the shore of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness sink.”

There is a source of respite for Keats, and that is art. Though man may be ephemeral, an artistic work can survive the ages. In Ode to a Grecian Urn he explores the theme of immortality through art – in this case, a painted Greek urn. “When old age shall this generation waste/Thou shalt remain,” he writes of the urn and its painted figures. But such immortality comes with a price: though the figures painted on the ceramic have survived the centuries, they do not live. Of the trees painted there, he laments: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu”. Furthermore, anything beyond the characters’ physical appearances remain a mystery: “What men or gods are these?/What maidens loth?/What mad pursuit?/What struggle to escape?”

Keats cannot know these answers – but, if we recall, that is beyond the point. For Keats it is the sensory experience that matters, not his conclusions. He is a poet who, always hoping to delay the future, lives to become lost in the present moment.

A final point should be made: there was certainly more cross-over of ideas and love shared between Keats and Wordsworth than there was between Keats and his contemporaries. Though Wordsworth’s name is inextricably linked to that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the two having walked and mused and collaborated during the span of their friendship, the relationship between the likewise contemporaneous Lord Byron and John Keats was one of unveiled animosity; Byron was a flamboyant, witty and charming poet who “woke one morning to find myself famous”. Keats was “a pale flower”, a troubled and easily daunted young man whose reputation as a great poet was born posthumously.

Personality and fortunes aside, Keats, in his poetical manifesto, Sleep and Poetry, dismissed one Nicolas Boileau, whose Art Poétique (1674) anticipated Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711) and a whole school of popular critical thought. Byron, an acolyte of Pope, never forgave Keats for allegedly transgressing against his idol. Similarly, though Keats praised Percy Shelley for his individuality, he also eschewed intimacy with the poet to attain and preserve his “own unfettered scope”. The idea that a battle-line was drawn between both generations, with homogenous and allied forces on both sides, is an artifice; a product of our tendency to divide history into easily-perused categories .

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“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

– or so claimed Thomas Carlyle, who also claimed that “No sadder proof can be given of a man’s littleness than his disbelief in great men.” The nineteenth century philosopher, Hegel, could not help but behold the “World Spirit” in Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who, as Hegel saw, “reaches out over the world and masters it”. Friedrich Nietzsche later claimed, like Carlyle, that “the goal of humanity lies in its greatest specimens.” What Carlyle called a ‘great man’, Nietzsche would later classify as an ‘ubermensch’.

In the twentieth century the sociologist Herbert Spencer would provide the de facto refutation of Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory, succinctly summarised in his phrase, “Before he can remake society, first society must make him”. Such a thought was in fact implicit in Hegel, who, though recognising the existence of great men, saw them as the result of a myriad of historical and social factors that just so happened to result in the great man himself, through no volition or force of will of his own. For Carlyle, outside circumstances and influences meant little.

Traces of Carlyle’s idea managed to creep into Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which was inspired by Carlyle’s A History of the French Revolution, (Carlyle’s friend- and mentorship would earn him a tribute in the opening pages of Dickens’ Hard Times). When, in Two Cities, the mob outside the Bastille is finally moved to violence, Dickens uses the character of Madam Defarge to drive the action. Historically, the violence was perpetuated anonymously. By inserting Defarge, Dickens takes a historical reality and presents it through the lens of a singular ‘hero’ (however inappropriate that word seems here) who drives the fated event to its bloody conclusion. According to some critical circles, Defarge is said to be represent one of the Fates from Greek Mythology; essentially, she is one member of a cabal of entities that can influence the flow of history.

Defarge later rouses the mob to murder a French official: “give us the blood of Foulon, rend Foulon to pieces!” This has serious and long-lasting implications, and Defarge represents the bloodlust of the Revolution, with the rioting mobs merely a tool for her vengeance. Carlyle appreciated the character, calling Dickens’ novel “wonderful”. However, Dickens, though a Carlylian acolyte, never proselytized the Ecclefechan Prophet’s teachings – Defarge, though a driving force, conquers nothing, and is eventually felled by a bullet from her own gun. Still, Defarge’s actions and their consequences in the novel follow Carlyle’s theory that people of great force can direct the flow and ebb of life, and not the other way around.

Despite the character of Defarge, Carlyle himself was not one to attribute women with great qualities. Great Men are the epitome of masculinity, power and nobility. Women were simply considered to be lesser beings. But they did have their champions. In her poem Aurora Leigh, E.B. Browning stages a debate between the titular character and her cousin on the merits of women and their potential for greatness. Browning had been ruffled by Carlyle’s “praise for dumb heroic action” at the loss of finer qualities – qualities, like chivalry, that Browning argued men of her age had lost. “The world’s male chivalry has perished out, but woman are knights-errant to the last,” she wrote. Women are teachers of the world, and even if “women do not think at all, they may teach thinking.” Carlyle read Aurora Leigh, and though he admired Browning’s talent, he surmised that, “[T]his Lady ‘hath a good utterance of speech;’ but as to the thing said with it, one asks: is it a thing at all?”

Whilst Browning denied that men had any chivalry about them, Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre, didn’t deny its existence, but was clear that she found overabundant masculinity, such as that found in a Carlylian ‘great man’, to be simply uninteresting: “had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape,” says Eyre of the helpless Rochester, “[I] should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.” While women have no place by the side of Carlyle’s great men, Jane Eyre is drawn to Rochester because he needs her; Bronte understanding that a man and a woman can complement one another. Additionally, where Carlyle characterises a ‘great man’ as one who “willingly devotes his life to the divine and inner truth and shares his vision with the rest of the world,” Bronte warns that “The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely entrusted”.

Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory is almost Biblical in that it sees history as a narrative led and understood through singular figures, i.e., Moses, Noah, and Christ. This is perhaps a remnant of his religious upbringing – the hierarchical, duty-bound Calvinism and its belief in a preordained “chosen people”. Such notions were of course thrown into disarray and panic by the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which contained his theory of evolution through natural selection. Great men, then, were the result of generations of biological refinement. Carlyle had bemoaned the mechanisation of labour that was occurring during the Industrial Revolution, and Darwin’s book, in Carlyle’s eyes, seemed to mechanise mankind himself whilst also extinguishing his soul and severing his connection to the Divine (and greatness) altogether. As he was with E.B. Browning, Carlyle was dismissive of Darwin. “I have no time for these gorilla damnifications of humanity,” he said. Darwin could only shrug, “As far as I could judge, I never met a man with a mind so ill-adapted for scientific research.”

Darwin stressed that mankind’s position as the most advanced species on Earth was due to the merits of our every ancestor, rather than the achievements of a few fine specimens. According to Darwin, Man did not advance through history and to the top of the organic scale “through his own exertions”; but he points out that we “may be excused for feeling some pride for having risen” in the first place. “[T]he fact of having thus risen, instead of being aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”

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