February meeting: King Arthur in Scotland

11th February / Room 2.50 / 3-5pm

This month we are reading a selection of extracts from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scottish chronicles that focus on the story of King Arthur, as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Some of the nuances in these texts require a sound understanding of Geoffrey’s version of the Arthurian narrative, so do recap his account if you have time. The dates and manuscript context, along with a brief description of the selected texts, are as follows:

Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (1440s)
John of Fordun is credited with writing the first narrative of Scottish history. In his Chronica Gentis Scotorum, John recorded the history of Scotland from its foundation by the legendary Gaythelos and Scota and ended with the death of King David I in 1153; it was later continued in Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (1440-7) until the death of James I in 1437. Bower made some small revisions to the Arthurian section in John’s Chronica.

The Scottis Originale (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries)
This chronicle is a condensed and popular version of the Fordun-Bower tradition written in Old Scots. The text survives in three manuscripts: National Archives of Scotland MS Dalhousie GD 45/31/1-II; British Library MS Royal 17.D.xx; and National Library of Scotland MS 165000 (or the Asloan MS). The Dalhousie and Royal manuscripts were produced in the fifteenth century (1460s), while the Asloan manuscript was written in the sixteenth century after the Battle of Flodden (1513).

Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527)
Hector Boece published his Historia Gentis Scotorum in 1527 (we are reading a version from 1575). Boece’s Historia recorded the history of Scotland from its foundation to the accession of James III of Scotland in 1460. The Historia is strongly nationalistic and patriotic, and it was designed to counter to work of John Mair – Boece’s contemporary – who advocated union between England and Scotland through royal intermarriage. Boece’s work shows the influence of John of Fordun and Walter Bower, as well as various classical histories. William Stewart later translated the Historia into Scots, and English Renaissance historians, including Polydore Vergil and Raphael Holinshed, made use of Boece in their own works.

 
Try to think about some answers to the following questions as you read the selection of texts:

  1. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, Anna is the sister of Arthur and the mother of Gawain and Modred. John of Fordun, however, made Anna into Arthur’s aunt, and this was accepted by his continuators, such as Walter Bower. What do you make of this revision of lineage in the Scottish tradition?
  2. How does the story of the conception of Arthur change and develop across this selection of texts? [Note that Walter Bower was the first chronicler to explicitly denounce Arthur as a bastard]
  3. How is Arthur portrayed in the Scottish tradition? Why is he rejected as king and why is Modred considered to be the rightful heir of Britain?
  4. What is the significance of oaths and treaties in the Scottis Originale and Boece’s Gentis Scotorum?
  5. Boece makes Lot and Modred into Picts rather than Scots: what might be the reason for this change? [Remember that in Geoffrey’s Historia the Picts were often allied with the Saxons, the enemies of the Britons]
  6. What do you think about the pejorative comments that John of Fordun and Hector Boece make about Geoffrey of Monmouth?

Below is some historical context about Anglo-Scottish relations and the political use of the Arthurian legend in the late thirteenth century, which may help you to interpret some of the themes and issues which arise in this selection of texts.

 
Historical Context

Before the end of the thirteenth century, England had little influence over Scotland. The Scots insisted that they were independent of the English crown, and they resisted the threat of imperial conquest; however, the Scottish Succession crisis and the first interregnum (1290-92), which saw the death of the immediate heirs of King Alexander III of Scotland, provided Edward I with an excuse to attempt to subjugate Scotland to England. John Balliol was initially elected king of Scotland, and Edward, who oversaw the proceedings, managed to get the Scots to swear allegiance to him as overlord. Nevertheless, John Balliol was forced to abdicate in 1296, which began the second interregnum (1296-1306). During the period guardians such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce ruled Scotland. The absence of a legitimate king prompted Edward to launch a military campaign against Scotland in order to bring it under English control, and so beginning the First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328).

In 1301, Edward launched his sixth campaign against the Scots. That year, Pope Boniface sent a letter to Edward warning him against conducting his aggressive wars of conquest, but the king ignored his request. Edward responded to Boniface by claiming that he had a rightful claim to sovereignty over the Scots, and he used the Arthurian legend to support his claim:

Item, Arturus rex Britonum princeps famosissimus Scociam sibi rebellem subjectit, et pene totam gentem delevit et postea quemdam nomine Auguselum in regem Scocie prefecit et cum postea idem res Arturus apud civitatem Legionum festum faceret celeberimum, interfuerunt ibidem omnes reges sibi subjecti inter quos Anguselus rex Scocie servicium pro regno Scocie exhibens debitum gladium regis Artuti detulit ante ipsum et successive omnes reges Scocie omnibus regibus Britonum fuere subjecti. Succedentibus autem regibus Anglis in predicta insular et ipsius monarchiam et dominium optinentibus subsequenter Edwardus dictus senior filius Elvredi regi Anglie Scotorum Cumbrorum et Stregwallorum reges sibi tanquam superiori domino subjectos habuit et submissos.

[Again, Arthur, king of the Britons, a prince most renowned, subjected to himself a rebellious Scotland, destroyed almost the whole nation, and afterwards installed as king of Scotland one Angusel by name. Afterwards, when King Arthur held a most famous feast at Caerleon, there were present there all the king subject to him, and among them Angusel, king of Scotland by bearing the sword of King Arthur before him; and in succession all the kings of Scotland have been subject to all the kings of the Britons. Succeeding kings of England enjoyed both monarchy and dominion in the island, and subsequently Edward, known as the elder, son of Alfred, king of England, had subject and subordinate to him, as lord superior, the kings of the Scots, the Cumbrians, and the Strathclyde Welsh].[1]

Edward’s letter borrows events from the Arthurian narrative in the Historia regum Britanniae, most notably Arthur’s conquest of the Scots and his subsequent installation of Augusel, the brother of Lot of Lothian, as king of Scotland. The letter also demonstrates how Geoffrey’s text could be manipulated for political purposes, and the discourse of power utilized in this text supports Edward’s wars of conquest. In his appeal to ‘British’ history, Edward presents himself as Arthur redivivus, with the implication that he too should control Scotland.

Edward’s letter to Boniface is a prime example of the reception of Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae in the early fourteenth century. Edward deployed the story of Arthur for an explicitly political purpose, and his version of Arthur directly antagonized the Scots. The English Arthur was an island overlord, who controlled the whole of Britain, and who conquered those who rebelled against him. This dominant idea of Arthur provoked response primarily from the Scottish chroniclers who rejected Arthur as their king on the grounds that he was illegitimate, and they preferred to believe that Modred, the son of Anna and Lot of Lothian, was the true heir to the British throne. The Scots also disbelieved the idea that Arthur conquered Scotland, and so they managed to maintain their independence.

[1] ‘Sanctissmio Patri Bonifacio, or To the most Holy Father Boniface’, in Anglo-Scottish Relations, 1174-1328: some selected documents, ed. E. L. G. Stones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 192-219 (p. 197).

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