King Arthur and Glastonbury (18th April)

Next Meeting: 18th April 2018 / Room 3.62 / 3-5pm

Glastonbury is a village situated in a secluded spot in the marshes, though it can be reached both on horseback and on foot. It affords pleasure neither by its situation nor by its beauty.[1]

Located in Somerset, Glastonbury Abbey is a site of popular myth and legend. In the Middle Ages, the Abbey claimed to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, and it is also the legendary burial site of King Arthur.

Hagiography and Historiography

In the 1129, the monks at Glastonbury commissioned William of Malmesbury to write the official history of the Abbey, as well as the life of Saint Dunstan, who was the first abbot of Glastonbury (and later became the Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury).

William’s original version of De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie has not survived. The text is extant in two thirteenth-century manuscripts. Both manuscripts include several interpolations relating to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea, the relics of Saint Patrick and Saint Dunstan, and the exhumation of the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere. These interpolations were introduced into the text between 1171 and 1247.

In the 1130s, the Welsh cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan, who was a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth, composed the Vitae Gildae for the Glastonbury monks. Caradoc claims that the sixth-century British monk ‘Gildas Sapiens’ – or ‘Gildas the Wise’ – wrote De excidio et conquestu Britanniae while at Glastonbury. Caradoc was also the first writer to associate King Arthur with Glastonbury, and the Vitae Gildae includes the earliest version of the story of the abduction of Guinevere.

The Exhumation of King Arthur

By the late twelfth century, Glastonbury Abbey ‘was in a state of financial and ecclesiastical crisis’.[2] In 1184, a great fire at Glastonbury destroyed the monastic buildings. Reconstruction began almost immediately, and the Lady Chapel was consecrated in 1186 or 1187; however, work on the abbey was postponed by the death of Henry II (1189), which ended financial support and royal patronage.

In order to raise funds, the monks of the abbey commenced a series of propaganda exercises, and used holy relics and the bodies of saints to promote Glastonbury as place of pilgrimage. The bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were discovered in the cemetery at Glastonbury in 1190 or 1191. In both of his accounts of the exhumation, Gerald of Wales recalls how a Welsh bard had told Henry II about the location of Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies. Gerald was the first to explicitly identify Avalon – the resting place of Arthur – with Glastonbury.

Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies were re-exhumed in 1278. At Easter, Edward I visited the Glastonbury with his wife, Eleanor of Castile, and on the 19th April he instructed the bodies to be moved to the high altar. The exhumation asserted that Edward I ‘was a legitimate successor to the Arthurian imperium’.[3] Following the conquest of Wales in 1282, Edward took possession of Arthur’s crown in 1283, and held a Round Table at Winchester in 1284. His grandson, Edward III, also visited Arthur’s tomb with his wife, Philippa of Hainault, in 1331. 

The Legend of Joseph of Arimathea

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea was popularised in thirteenth-century French Arthurian romance. In the first part of his trilogy of Arthurian romances, Robert de Boron describes how Joseph of Arimathea used the Holy Grail to catch the last drops of blood from Christ as he hung on the cross. Robert also claims that the descendants of Joseph brought the Grail to Britain.

In the mid-thirteenth century, the story of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated into William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie. These revisions asserted that Joseph was the original founder of Glastonbury, which subsequently bolstered the reputation of the abbey. John of Glastonbury also expanded the story of Joseph in his Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie, using the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus – also known as The Acts of Pilate – and the first part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, L’estoire du Graal, as his main sources for the apostle’s life.

The legend of Joseph of Arimathea also survived into the later middle ages. In the fifteenth century, John Hardyng included the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the two versions of his Chronicle (1457 and 1464). As Edward Donald Kennedy points out, ‘[t]he account of Joseph afforded Hardyng an ideal story to use to counter Scotland’s claims to preeminence as a Christian nation’.[4] Hardyng’s Chronicle also contains a grail quest – which is unprecedented in the chronicle tradition – and Galahad’s achievement of the Grail occurs before Arthur’s war against Rome and the final battle between Arthur and Modred.

Texts

Gerald of Wales

Gerald wrote two accounts of the exhumation of King Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury. The first account is contained in De principis instructione (c. 1193), while the second – and more detailed – account is included in Speculum ecclesiae (c. 1216). Gerald claims that he was an eyewitness of the exhumation, but Richard Barber has challenged his claim to authority.

Ralph of Coggeshall

Ralph was abbot of Coggeshall, near Colchester in Essex. He wrote his Chronicon Anglicanum in around 1223, and the entry for 1191 includes an account of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere.

Adam of Damerham

Adam was a monk of Glastonbury Abbey in the thirteenth century. He wrote a history of the abbey entitled Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus, which is a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie from 1126 to 1291. Adam was also an eyewitness of Edward I’s visit to Glastonbury in 1278 when the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere was opened and their bones were moved to the high altar.

(NB: Adam’s account of the second exhumation in 1278 is taken from John of Glastonbury’s Cronica)

Vera historia de morte Arthuri (c. 1200)

Written around 1200, the Vera historia de morte Arthuri is extant in four manuscripts. Two manuscripts – London, British Library, Cotton Titus A. xix and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 186 – include materials relevant to Glastonbury, such as excerpts from the works of William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury. In Paris Biblioteque de l’Arsenal, 983, the Vera historia is interpolated between chapters 178 and 179 of the First Variant version of the Historia regum Britanniae. Richard Barber and Michael Lapidge have suggested that the Vera historia was originally composed in Wales.

John of Glastonbury, Cronica sive antiquitates Glastoniensis ecclesie (1350s)

The Cronia survives as a complete text in seven manuscripts. The main sources for John’s Cronica are William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesie and Adam of Damerham’s Historia de Rebus gestis Glastoniensibus. John’s Cronia is ‘highly derivative’,[5] and he uses a selection of chronicles, hagiography, and romance to construct a history of Glastonbury Abbey.

Questions for discussion

  • What are the motivations for the exhumation in the accounts by Gerald of Wales, Ralph of Coggeshall, and Adam of Damerham?
  • What is the significance of royal and ecclesiastical authority in the different accounts of the exhumation of Arthur and Guinevere?
  • How does Arthur’s tomb function as a site of public memory?
  • Philip Schwyzer classifies the exhumation of Arthur as a sub-genre of the inventio topos that participates in an act of ‘colonial archaeology’.[6] How are the materials and artefacts of British history appropriated in these texts?
  • Catherine Clarke argues that local landscapes are ‘central to the fashioning of monastic identity and its connection to images of the nation’.[7] How is the landscape of Glastonbury represented in these texts?
  • Why does Gerald of Wales undermine of the myth of Arthur’s return?
  • How do the texts – particularly the Vera historia and John of Glastonbury’s Cronica – engage with models of Arthurian history in chronicle and romance?
  • How do Gerald of Wales and John of Glastonbury align the story of Arthur’s death by Geoffrey of Monmouth with Glastonbury?
  • Can the relocation of Arthur’s resting place to Gwynedd in the Vera historia be read as a response to the growth of Glastonbury legends in the 1190s?

Useful links

Glastonbury Abbey

Digital reconstruction of Arthur’s tomb

Glastonbury in the news

Recent excavations at Glastonbury

[1] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum: Volume One: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. by M. Winterbottom with the assistance of R. M. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 2.91.1.

[2] Valerie M. Lagorio, ‘The Evolving Legend of St Joseph of Glastonbury’, Speculum, 46 (1971), 209-31 (p. 210).

[3] John Carmi Parsons, ‘The Second Exhumation of King Arthur’s Remains at Glastonbury, 19 April 1278’, Arthurian Literature, 12 (1993), 173-77 (p. 176).

[4] Edward Donald Kennedy, ‘John Hardyng and the Holy Grail’, Arthurian Literature, 8 (1989), 185-206 (p. 197).

[5] James P. Carley, ‘Introduction’, in The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury’s Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1985), pp. xi-lxii (p. xi).

[6] Philip Scwhzyer, Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 55.

[7] Catherine A. M. Clarke, Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England, 700-1400 (Cambridge: Brewer, 2006), p. 68.

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William Caxton, Prologues and paratexts (21st September 2016)

File:The Caxton Celebration - William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen.jpg

The Caxton Celebration (1877)

Next meeting: 21st September 2016 / Room 0.43 / 3-5pm

Very little of William Caxton’s early life is known, though biographers have made an effort to speculate based on the family name of Caxton (and ‘Causton’), which has connections to the Kent area. There is reference to his early life and education the prologue to Charles the Grete, where he states he is ‘bounden to praye for my fader and moders soules that in my youthe sette me to scole’, but the earliest archival evidence we have is not until after his schooling.

This first evidence we have is an entry in the 1438 annual accounts of the Mercer’s Company, who traded cloths and silks on routes between England and north-west Europe. The Company provided the means for Caxton to live and work across Europe for a considerable portion of his life, though biographers and historians (naturally) disagree on the precise dates. Caxton’s prologue to the History of Troy provides the best evidence we have for his approximate date of departure from England. It was finished in 1471 and printed c.1473, and states that he had been in ‘Braband, Flandres, Holand and Zeland’ for the best part of thirty years.

During this thirty-year gap, Caxton became a Merchant Adventurer and a relatively wealthy businessman with connections across Europe. As his wealth and renown grew, so did his involvement in international politics. Around 1462, he became Governor of the English Nation at Bruges. As a result of this role, he spent several years in Flanders, at the court of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, and was present at many of the trade negotiations between England and Burgundy. Caxton eventually resigned from his governorship to devote time to translating and printing. The source of his interest in this area is still speculated upon, but some of those contacts Caxton established across his mercantile career will have included printers in Cologne.

The first of his publications, the History of Troy was printed at Bruges, shortly after the translation was finished c.1471. Following this, he returned to England in the early 1470s, to begin printing in Westminster. Caxton is recorded as having paid for a year’s rent for a shop near Westminster Abbey on 30 September, 1476 – at the price of ten shillings. He continued to rent this shop each year until his death in 1491. His successor, Wynkyn de Worde, also remained in this location until he moved premises in 1500. The shopfront Caxton selected was expertly placed. The city was one of great mercantile connection, and the shop was directly between the King’s Palace of Westminster (now the Houses of Parliament) and the Abbey Church. It was a location that attracted an audience of royalty and nobility, of the Church, of the Law, and of the middle and mercantile classes alike.

The texts Caxton chooses to translate include a wide range of materials: indulgences, books of chivalry and courtesy, historical texts, and romances, the prologues to which we are examining in this session. The romances Caxton selected for translation were undoubtedly influenced by his time in the Burgundian court, and the emphasis placed by the court and Duke Philip upon the chivalric code. Many of the romances represent the fashionable views and preferred tastes of the late-fifteenth-century Burgundian court. To each of these, again following the fashion of the Burgundian court, Caxton added his own words as prologue and epilogue.

The texts we’re reading are as follows:

(1) Caxton’s prologue to Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. We are all doubtless familiar with Malory’s work. Caxton’s printing of it in July 1485 was accompanied by this prologue, emphasising Arthur’s place among the Nine Worthies. The prologue is from is P. J. C. Field’s 2013 edition.

(2) Prologue and epilogue to Charles the Grete. One of Caxton’s own translations, Charles was printed December 1485, with this prologue and epilogue. The text is in three parts, and the largest and central of these tells the story of Charlemagne’s successful crusade into Saracen Iberia.

(3) Prologue and epilogue to Godeffroy of Bologne. Also Caxton’s own translation, from French, of the history of the First Crusade as written by William, Archbishop of Tyre. The text follows Godfrey, the final of the three Christian worthies, on crusade. The Godeffroy prologue and epilogue are some of Caxton’s most explicit and enthusiastic about crusade.

(4) Prologue to Eneydos. Another of Caxton’s own translations, from a French version of the Aeneid. This prologue is not directly related to the previous three sets of texts. However, the prologue is an enjoyable read, and contains Caxton’s discussions of the English language, translation, and eggs.

(5) An article by J. R. Goodman, entitled ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-5’. Goodman’s article is an excellent introduction to the texts from which most of these prologues are taken. She begins with a discussion of Caxton’s life before moving on to discussion of the series of ‘Worthies’ texts (Le Morte Darthur, Charles the Grete, and Godeffroy of Bologne) and their prologues.

There is also a separate blog post on Caxton’s ‘Worthies’ series, available on the MEMORI website.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Can we analyse these prologues/epilogues alone as part of the cultural context, or must they be attached to their respective texts?
  2. How are the prologues made relevant to their individual texts, and to what extent do they follow a set pattern of topoi?
  3. Caxton uses these spaces to directly address what he suggests are the relevant portions of his readership. How do these audiences differ between texts, and to what extent are they relevant?
  4. The texts Caxton printed 1481-5 – Godeffroy of Bologne, Le Morte Darthur, Charles the Grete – are often referred to as his ‘Chivalric’ or ‘Worthies’ series, based on his comments in the prologues and epilogues. How does this structure influence a reading of both the prologues/epilogues and the literary works?
  5. Do you believe the concerns over crusade and chivalry in these prologues/epilogues, or are they a mercantile attempt to utilise the printing press technology and boost book sales?
  6. Caxton translated many of the prose romances he printed himself, often literally and with a high degree of accuracy. What do you make of his discussion of the English language in the prologue to Eneydos? Can the prologues/epilogues tell us anything about the act of translation?
  7. What do you think of the continued relevance of Malory’s Morte Darthur, and of Caxton’s reasoning behind selecting this text for print? What links exist between the tales or thematic elements of the Morte Darthur and the elements we see discussed in any of these prologues/epilogues?
  8. Jane Goodman notes that Caxton’s time in the Low Countries would have allowed him to attend a variety of fifteenth-century chivalric spectacles, the records of which show that the ‘conviction of the participants … conveys their belief in what they were performing’ (p.259). To what extent do these prologues convey nostalgia for a chivalric past, or an attempt to usher in a new golden age of chivalry?

 

For further biographical discussion of Caxton, see:

N. F. Blake, Caxton and His World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969)

N. F. Blake, Caxton’s Own Prose (London: Andre Deutsch, 1973)

George D. Painter, William Caxton (London: Chatto & Windus, 1976)

Diane Bornstein, ‘William Caxton’s Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England’, English Studies, 57 (1976), 1-10.

J. R. Goodman, ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-5’, in Studies in Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), pp.257-71. [INCLUDED IN READING MATERIAL]

William Kuskin, Symbolic Caxton (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008)

The Awntyrs off Arthure (20th April 2016)

awntyrs3

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324

Next meeting: 20th April 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Awntyrs off Arthure is a Middle English Alliterative poem thought to have been composed between the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The text tells two stories, each of which feature Gawain as the protagonist. The Awntyrs is preserved in four manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B, Thornton MS, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91, and Ireland Blackburn MS, Robert H. Taylor Collection, Princeton, New Jersey. The text contains distinctive features and variations in each of these manuscripts, suggesting that none of the texts can be perceived as the ‘original’. The complexity of the poem’s composition suggests that it was purposefully created as a literary piece, rather than descending from an oral tradition.

Previous generations of criticism on the themes of structure and unity in the Awntyrs have traditionally suggested that the poem represents a poorly joined bipartite narrative with little to indicate a relationship between the two sides. Ralph Hanna builds upon on Herman Lubke’s theory that the Awntyrs constitutes two separate poems joined together by a third party, in his 1974 edition of the text, splitting the two ‘halves’ completely and giving them the subheadings ‘The Awntyrs A’ and ‘The Awntyrs B.’ At best, it was conceded that the poem ‘remains a remarkable fragment of the same kind of poetic art as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but a fragment only’. However, A. C. Spearing’s seminal comparison of the structure of the Awntyrs with the diptych marks the beginning of a new wave of criticism, more interested in arguing for some kind of unity than against it.

  • Should the Awntyrs be read as two distinct and separate poems joined together by a later hand, or a single and coherent poetic structure?
  • If you think that the poem is formed of two separate halves, how and why might the two parts have been joined to create the poem that we have now?
  • If the poem should be read as a single and coherent text, how do the two storylines interact with one another?
  • Do theories of structure effect the way in which the text should be read?
  • How might images of mirroring and reflection be important to the text?

 

The warnings that the ghost of Guinevere’s mother address two of the central elements of romance narratives: love and war.

  • What do you make of the presentation of Guinevere’s mother?
  • Is there any significance in the fact that these warnings are given to Gawain and Guinevere?
  • Is national identity an important theme within the poem?

 

The Lincoln Thornton Manuscript also contains the only surviving copy of the Alliterative Morte Arthur. This text comes similarly close to a criticism of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in its discussion of fortune and King Arthur’s dream:

“Freke,” says the philosopher, “thy fortune is passed
For thou shall find her thy fo; fraist when thee likes!
Thou art at the highest, I hete thee forsooth;
Challenge now when thou will, thou cheves no more!
Thou hast shed much blood and shalkes destroyed,
Sakeles, in surquidrie, in sere kinges landes…” (AMA 3394-3399)

  • Are there any parallels between these lines, and the questions Gawain asks of Guinevere’s mother?
  • What does the Awntyrs suggest about fortune?
  • Does Arthur’s solution to the combat between Gawain and Galeron answer the problems of conquest raised by Gawain himself in the first part of the poem?

‘Erec et Enide’ and ‘Geraint mab Erbin’ (18th March)

Gregynog is located in that region of Wales which is generally called “The Middle Borderland”. Of all the Welsh border country this middle area epitomizes the physical and human characteristics of a border region in geographical terms. The uplands of Central Wales extend long fingers of land to the east, such as the Long Mountain and the Kerry Hills, while also in this same region tongues of riverine lowland reach westwards far into Wales, as in the Upper Severn, or Vale of Powys, near which Gregynog lies. This is also a region in which after many centuries of conflict two peoples and two languages have reached a situation in which although each strives to maintain its identity, both also integrate into a region which is essentially transitional in character.[1]


The gallant knight errant often crosses a variety of borders as he journeys through the landscape of medieval romance. So too did the several members of the MEMORI Reading Group as we traveled – albeit on a bus, rather than on a noble steed – from Cardiff to Greynog Hall for the inaugural MA English Literature Conference.

At Gregynog, the Reading Group revisited Chretien’s de Troyes’ Erec et Enide and Geraint mab Erbin from the Mabinogion. For this session, the group consisted of a range of regular members mixed with some new faces, but all of the attendees are currently enrolled on the English Literature MA programme, and have studied some medieval literature.

Many members of the group were familiar with Chretien’s other romances, or other manifestations of the Arthurian legend, although the Welsh text was a little more unfamiliar. The group discussed a range of topics, including: the various court scenes; the aggressive dwarf; the poor vavasour; the stag hunt and the sparrow hawk contest; the marriage of Erec/Geraint and Enid(e); and we also considered why the two tales differ in their style and form. As ever, the group was engaged with the material, and the session provided good opportunity to reflect on and to further appreciate the intricate relationships between these two texts.

Three MA students, who regularly attend the MEMORI Reading Group and Research Seminar, also gave their first papers at the conference. Charli Pruce spoke on ‘Knowledge and Power in the High Medieval Renaissance’; Sarah Jones talked about ‘Escapism, Danger, and Medievalism in the Secondary Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis’; Arthur Usher presented on ‘Ill-Speaking in Malory’s Morte Darthur’; and Olivia Mills delivered a paper on ‘Mountains, Myth and Magic – Welsh Landscape in Children’s Fantasy Literature’.

After two days of in rural Wales, the group returned to Cardiff. The Reading Group will reconvene in April in our usual location, when we will be reading the Awyntwrs of Arthure. All welcome.

 

[1] Harold Carter and J. Gareth Thomas, ‘Gregynog – The Regional Setting’, in Gregynog, ed. Glyn Tegai Hughes, Prys Morgan and J. Gareth Thomas (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1977), pp. 1-10 (p.1).

Lanval and Sir Launfal (27th January 2016)

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Text of Lanval from British Library Harley MS 978, f. 134r

Next meeting: 27th January / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

Lanval is an Anglo-Norman Breton lai, which was written by Marie de France in the twelfth century. It focuses on a knight in the Arthurian court, who is pursued by Queen Guinevere. Lanval, however, refuses the queen’s advances as he already has a lover – the fairy mistress. Guinevere subsequently insists that Lanval is a homosexual, and she tells Arthur that Lanval has shamed her by spurning her love. Lanval is then ordered to appear in court where he is judged by the king and his barons.

Sir Launfal an indirect adaptation of Lanval in Middle English, which was produced in the late fourteenth century. It survives in a single fifteenth-century manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A. ii. Sir Launfal is draws on two particular texts: the Middle English Sir Landevale (a translation of Marie’s lai), and the Old French lay of Graelent.

Questions for discussion

  1. How is the relationship between Lanval and Guinevere portrayed in the two texts? Why is Lanval so suspicious of the queen in the Middle English version?
  2. How is the court represented? How does law and order operate in the two texts?
  3. What is the significance of the Fairy Mistress? How does she bring about resolution in the two texts?
  4. Why is there a greater emphasis on generosity, finance, and economics in the Middle English version?
  5. How are the values of shame and honour employed in the two texts?
  6. How has the original Celtic material been reused in the two texts?

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).