The Future of History

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

More About Arthur and Alyth

 "Reekie Linn Waterfall, Angus" by stephen samson - Geograph Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -,_Angus.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Reekie_Linn_Waterfall,_Angus.jpg
A day or two ago, I blogged about Alyth, the scene of Arthur's last battle.  But there's much more to say about the subject, and so I'm writing this post as a sort of instant sequel.

Not all of the ancient stories about, or inspired by, the historical Arthur use the familiar name of the hero.  Two alternative titles or designations which recur in this context are: Bran ("Raven") and Llew (Welsh: "Lion") or Lleu (Welsh: "Light"), the latter also occurring as Lliw or Llyw (Welsh: "Leader"), possibly from the Irish luige, Welsh llw, an "oath".

So let's look at some of the stories which give one or other of these names to their oh-so Arthurian heroes.

Le Chevalier Bran

Among the earliest sources for the "battle of Circenn" in which Arthur died, the Irish Annals of Tigernach name Bran as one of the sons of Aedan, King of the Scots, who fell alongside Artur/Artuir.  The Annals of Ulster name Bran instead of Arthur.  Adomnan's Life of Columba names Arthur instead of Bran.

In Welsh legend, Bran, the "Blessed Raven", was the "crowned king of the Island of Britain" who fell through the treachery of an Irish king named Matholwch ("Prayer-Sort").  The final battle involved a marvellous cauldron of rebirth, which had been Bran's gift to Matholwch.  Along with Bran, who had been fatally wounded by a poisoned spear, there were just seven survivors of this epic battle.  There were also seven survivors of Arthur's last battle, according to the contemporary poet and eye-witness, Taliesin.

Meanwhile, the "Horn of Bran the Hard from the North" was one of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain ("which were in the North"), the other treasures having belonged to the contemporaries, relatives and near-neighbours of Arthur son of Aedan.  A later tradition holds that Arthur had a hound called Bran.  The name evolved into the "Brons" of Arthurian romance.

Bearing all that in mind, I was fascinated to come across an old Breton folksong entitled Le Chevalier Bran ou le Prisonnier de Guerre ("The Horseman Bran, or the Prisoner of War").  Published in 1842, this song begins:

A la battaile de Kerlouan
Fut blesse le chevalier Bran!
A Kerlouan, sur l'ocean,
Le petit fils de Bran le Grand!
Prisonnier, bien que victorieux,
Il dont franchir l'ocean bleu.

["At the battle of Kerlouan, the horseman Bran was wounded!  At Kerlouan, by the sea, the grandson of Bran the Great!  Captured, even though he was victorious, he was taken across the sea."]

There is much that can be said about this intriguing song, with its distinct Arthurian overtones - for example, the song tells of an oak-tree which stands in the field of battle, at the spot where "the Saxons were put to flight when Even suddenly appeared", Even probably being Owain (French "Yvain") who distinguished himself at Arthur's last battle, as we know from Aneirin's epic Y Gododdin poem.

However, for now we need only concentrate on two aspects of the Breton song.  The first is that le chevalier Bran was the grandson of Bran le Grand.  The grandfather of Arthur son of Aedan was Gabran, the Scottish king who gave his name to the region of Gowrie, in which Arthur's last battle was fought.

What, then, of Kerlouan, where the horseman Bran was wounded and taken away as a "prisoner of war"?  At first glance, it appears to refer to the commune of Kerlouan in the Finisterre department of Brittany.  But this place-name almost certainly travelled with the British refugees who fled to Armorica, the "Lesser Britain", when their Lothian homelands were conquered by the Northumbrian Angles in circa AD 638.  The ker element is cognate with the Welsh caer, meaning a "castle", "stronghold" or "citadel".  The louan element refers to St Elouan, otherwise Luan, Llywan, Lua, Lughaidh or Moluag ("My-Luan").

St Elouan or Louan was an obscure saint, said to have been contemporary with St Columba (and, therefore, with Arthur son of Aedan) and to have brought Christianity to the northern, Highland Picts, while Columba spread the Gospel among the southern, "Miathi" Picts (Arthur son of Aedan died, according to the Life of Columba, in "the battle of the Miathi").

The only place where St Elouan or Louan is still venerated as "Luan" is at Alyth, near the site of Arthur's last battle.  The Church of St Luan now stands on Alexander Street.  The Alyth Arches are all that remain of an earlier church, dedicated to St Luan, which supposedly occupies the site of an even earlier chapel.  Alyth, then, has a strong claim to have been the "Stronghold of Luan" or Kerlouan where Arthur/le chevalier Bran was grievously wounded and carried away "across the sea".  Any resemblance to the Caerleon which recurs in Arthurian tradition as an early form of Arthur's legendary court (later "Camelot") is probably not coincidental.

Llew Skilful Hand

Llywan is the Welsh form of Luan/Louan.  In the ancient Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen (which, as I stated in my previous blog post, offers a potted account of Arthur's career, including the violent seizure of a magical cauldron), the treacherous king-turned-boar is finally driven into a river near Llyn Lliwan ("Lake Louan"), which was somewhere near Tawy (the Tay).  This lake appears to be remembered on the map of the Alyth area as the Bankhead and Kings of Kinloch, adjacent to Arthurbank beside the River Isla.  The marshy ground in the river's floodplain was once known, perhaps, as Loch Luan, a name preserved in the spot, near Meigle, known as Glenluie.

The name of this lake recalls Llew, Lleu or Lliw - as Aneirin sang in his Y Gododdin elegy for the northern warriors who fell in Arthur's last battle:

No one living will relate what befell
Lliw, what came about on Monday at the Lliwan lake.

Apart from the tales of his Irish counterpart, Lugh Long-Hand, the most famous of the British legends concerning Llew or Lleu is that found in the Welsh "Mabinogion", in which a great hero known as Llew Skilful Hand is tricked by his treacherous wife into standing on the edge of a cauldron by a riverbank, where he is speared by his wife's lover (the poisoned spear took a year to make because it could only be worked on during the Mass on Sundays).  The name given for the river on the banks of which Llew was speared is "Cynfael".

Now, bear with me here.  The bloody boar-hunt in the legend of Culhwch and Olwen which culminates with the destruction of the Boar-King in the river near Loch Tay and the "Lliwan lake" is, in fact, the second of two dangerous boar-hunts which took place "in the North".  The first concerned another Boar-King - or, to be more accurate, another king of the Miathi Picts, who modelled their appearance on the boar, hence the Gaelic and Scots names for their territory in Angus: Circenn ("Comb-heads") and Camlann ("Comb-land").  The death of this previous Boar-King of the Miathi Picts can be dated to circa AD 580, some 14 years before the final battle.

His name was Galam, although he went by a couple of epithets.  The Annals of Ulster record the death of "Cennaleth, king of the Picts" in 580.  The Annals of Tigernach refer to the death of "Cennfhaeladh king of the Picts" in the year 578.

These epithets reveal the location of Galam's power-base in Angus as king of the Miathi Picts.  Cennaleth translates as "Chief of Alyth".  Cennfhaeladh could indicate a "Shaved-head", as in the boar tonsure sported by the Miathi warriors, or the chief of a "high, rounded hill", such as that which looms over the town of Alyth in the vale of Strathmore.  The proper pronunciation of Cennfhaeladh would be "ken-eye-la".  This suggests that the name of the River Isla, which flows past Alyth and Arthurbank, derives phonetically from Cennfhaeladh.  It also suggests that the Cynfael river, on the bank of which Llew Skilful Hand was treacherously speared by his wife's adulterous lover, was really the Cennfhaeladh or River Isla, on the bank of which Arthur was mortally wounded.

Arthur and his men defeated Galam Cennaleth ("Chief-of-Alyth"), otherwise Cennfhaeladh, in about 580 at the "Battle of Badon" (Gaelic Badain, the "Tufted Ones"), fought a little further up the River Isla at Badandun Hill.  Galam's Miathi warriors later joined forces with Arthur's nemesis, Morgan the Wealthy, and the final conflict was fought beneath Barry Hill and the Hill of Alyth, on the banks of the River Isla or "Cynfael".

Seekers of the Grail - which in its earliest form was a magical cauldron - might care to investigate the legend of "Sir James" and his cauldron of enlightenment, a legend centred on the Reekie Linn waterfall, behind the Hill of Alyth (see top of this post).  It's quite an eye-opener.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Naming the Goddess

Coming soon, from Moon Books - Naming the Goddess ( details here)

I contributed the chapter on "Christian Wisdom, Pagan Goddess: Reclaiming Sophia and the Saints from the Judeo-Christian Tradition".

Looking forward to reading the book as a whole!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Alyth, the Scene of Arthur's Last Battle

While I work on Shakespeare's Son - my biography of Sir William Davenant, a man of whom I'm becoming increasingly fond - The Grail continues to make its way through the publishing process, courtesy of Moon Books.  So, by way of a sneak preview, in this post I shall offer up some of the evidence for the location of Arthur's last battle.

The Battle of Circenn

You probably think Arthur's last battle was fought at a place called "Camlann".  I've been unable to find any reference to that place-name before the Middle Ages.  The very earliest mentions of anyone called Arthur in the records indicate that he died in a battle fought in Angus, Scotland.

Adomnan of Iona's Life of Columba (circa 697) tells us that Artur son of Aedan was present when his father was "ordained" king of the Scots by St Columba in AD 574.  The saint predicted the fates of Aedan's sons, announcing that Artur would "fall in battle, slain by enemies".  Adomnan assured his readers that this prophecy came true when Artur and at least one of his brothers was killed in a "battle of the Miathi".

The Miathi, or Maeatae, were a Pictish tribe: essentially, they held the low-lying lands to the south and east of the Highland massif.  Another Latinate term for these people was Verturiones.

The Irish annals, which drew at least some of their information from the records kept by Columba's monks on the Isle of Iona, specify that Artur son of Aedan died in a "battle of Circenn".  This refers to the Pictish province which was roughly contiguous with today's Angus and the Mearns.  The term Circenn combined the Gaelic cir, meaning a "comb" or "crest", and cenn, "heads".  Circenn, then, was the land of the Comb-heads.  This tells us that the Miathi Picts modelled their appearance on their totem beast, the boar (rather like their compatriots in the Orkneys, the Orcoi, from orc - a young boar).  Indeed, it is possible that the Latinate name for the Verturiones tribe combines verres and turio and indicates the "offshoots" or "offspring" of the "boar", while the very term "Pict" (variant, "Pecti", "Pecht") quite possibly derived from the Latin pecten, a "comb".

Now, let's look at "Camlann" - the traditional name for Arthur's last battle.  Its first appearance in the records comes in an entry interpolated into the Welsh Annals, where it refers to a gueith cam lann or "strife of cam lann".  By the time this came to be written down, the region in which Artur son of Aedan died was speaking a version of Northumbrian Old English which became the dialect known as Lowland Scots.  In that dialect, cam lann would mean "comb land".

In other words, "Camlann" is merely an anglicised version of the Gaelic Circenn, the land of the "Comb-heads" in which the first Arthur on record fell in a cataclysmic battle.

Culhwch and Olwen

One of the oldest of the Welsh (i.e. British) tales to feature Arthur is that of Culhwch ac Olwen.  It forms a sort of mythologised, potted account of Arthur's career, culminating in the desperate and bloody hunt for a king who - for his sins - was turned into a boar.  This hunt begins with a violent amphibious landing, at a site which can be identified as Cruden Bay, on the Aberdeenshire coast, after which Arthur is met by the "saints of Ireland" who "besought his protection".  The dreadful Boar-King is challenged and chased from Esgeir Oerfel, the "Cold Ridge" of the Grampians, the Boar-King making his way across country towards Llwch Tawy (Loch Tay) before he is intercepted by Arthur and his men and driven into a river.

In The King Arthur Conspiracy I identified the treacherous Boar-King as Morgan the Wealthy, a renegade British prince who abducted Arthur's wife, Gwenhwyfar, and escaped into the land of the Miathi Picts (his bolt hole appears to have been the fortified Hill of Tillymorgan in Strathbogie).  The site where Morgan finally came to grief is marked by the "Morganstone" on the west bank of the River Ericht, a short distance to the west of the Hill of Alyth in the great vale of Strathmore in Angus.

Arthurian Connections with Alyth

Before we proceed, let us consider some ancient references to Arthur and his family in the context of Alyth and its immediate vicinity.

In addition to having a son named Artur or Artuir, King Aedan of the Scots had a daughter called Muirgein.  According to Whitley Stokes, editing and translating the Martyrology of a 9th-century Irish monk called Oengus, Muirgein daughter of Aedan was born "in Bealach Gabrain".

The inability of certain scholars to find a "Bealach Gabrain" in Scotland has led some to argue that Muirgein daughter of Aedan was utterly unconnected with Artur son of Aedan.  But place-names evolve.  The Gaelic term bealach, meaning a "pass" or "gorge", usually appears as "Balloch" on today's maps.  There is a "Balloch" which runs along the feet of Barry Hill and the adjacent Hill of Alyth in Strathmore.

Furthermore, this "Balloch" or bealach was in a region named after the grandfather of Artur and Muirgein.  Gabran was the father of Aedan.  He ruled the Scots for twenty years until his death in about AD 559 and gave his name to the region of Gowrie (a corruption of Gabran).  The "Balloch" near Alyth was in Gabran's land (Gabrain) and lies close to the town of Blairgowrie, which also recalls the name of Arthur's grandfather.  The "Balloch" at the foot of the Hill of Alyth was almost certainly the "Bealach Gabrain" or "pass of Gowrie" where Arthur's (half-)sister, Muirgein daughter of Aedan mac Gabrain, was born.  To pretend that the Balloch of Gowrie could not have been "Bealach Gabrain" because they are not spelled the same way these days is tantamount to claiming that Londinium and London could not have been the same place.

So Arthur's sister, Muirgein (latterly, Morgan le Fay), was born near Alyth.  Writing in about 1527, the Scottish historian Hector Boece also indicated that Arthur's wife was buried at Meigle, which is just a mile or two south of Alyth.  Hector Boece's local tradition recalled Gwenhwyfar as Vanora (via Guanora) and claimed that she had been held hostage in the Iron Age hill-fort atop Barry Hill, adjacent to the Hill of Alyth, before she was executed and buried in what is now the kirkyard at Meigle.  A carved Pictish standing stone, now on display at the Meigle museum, reputedly depicts the execution or burial of Arthur's wife.

Y Gododdin

One of the best sources of information about Arthur's last battle is the ancient epic, Y Gododdin.  This was composed and sung by Aneirin, a British bard of the Old North, and can be dated to circa AD 600 (the date of Arthur's last battle is given in the Irish annals as, variously, AD 594 and 596).

Unfortunately, the relevance of Aneirin's elegiac tribute to the warriors of Lothian (the "Gododdin") has been missed by scholars who want to believe that the poem bemoans the destruction of a British war-band from the Edinburgh area which had the misfortune to be wiped out at a mythical battle fought at Catterick in North Yorkshire.  No evidence exists that any such battle was fought.  The Angles (forerunners of the English) preferred not to recollect their defeats but were happy to remember, and to boast about, their victories.  If the Angles of Northumbria had indeed obliterated a British band of heroes from Lothian at Catterick, we might assume that they would have remembered doing so.  And no scholar has yet explained the presence of "Irishman and Picts" at this imaginary battle in Anglian territory.

A verse or two of Y G[ododdin, added at a later date than the original composition, described a battle fought in Scotland (Strathcarron) in AD 642 and the death in that battle of a Scottish king who just happened to be a nephew of Artur son of Aedan.  This interpolation does at least suggest that the subject of the original poem was a battle fought in roughly the same area (Scotland) by the family of Artur and his father Aedan.  The Y Gododdin poem also mentions various famous warriors who appear in the early accounts of Arthur's career and who were contemporary with Artur son of Aedan.

One surviving version of Y Gododdin even mentions Artur/Artuir by name:

Gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef Arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur ...

Confused by the misidentification of the battle sung about by Aneirin in Y Gododdin, and the assumption that Arthur himself could not have been present at that battle, scholars have persistently mistranslated this verse - mostly in an attempt to render the second half of the second line, "He was no Arthur".  But Aneirin's verse should properly be translated thus:

Black ravens [warriors] sang in praise of the hero [Welsh, arwr]
of Circenn [transliterated into Welsh as "caer ceni"].  He blamed Arthur;
the dogs cursed in return for our wailing/lamentation ...

Aneirin indicated, in his Y Gododdin elegy, precisely where the final battle took place:

Eil with gwelydeint amallet
y gat veirch ae seirch greulet
bit en anysgoget bit get ...

Which translates as:

Again they came into view around the alled,
the battle-horses and the bloody armour,
still steadfast, still united ...

The "alled" was Aneirin's Welsh-language attempt at the Gaelic Allaid - also Ailt - or the Hill of Alyth.

Breuddwyd Rhonabwy

The extraordinary medieval Welsh tale of The Dream of Rhonabwy actually provides a description of the scene in the hours before Arthur's last battle was fought.  The visionary seer, Rhonabwy, finds himself crossing a great plain with a river running through it (Strathmore).  He is met by a character call Iddog, "Churn of Britain", who admits that it was he who caused the cataclysmic "battle of Camlan" by betraying Arthur.  In company with Iddog, Rhonabwy approaches the "Ford of the Cross" (Rhyd-y-Groes) on the river.  A great army is encamped on either side of the road and Arthur is seated on a little flat islet in the river, beside the ford.

The topography precisely matches the detail from a 19th-century Ordnance Survey map of the area around Alyth seen at the top of this post.  On the right-hand side of the detail is the ridge known as Arthurbank, which lies along the River Isla, opposite the junction of the River Ericht with the River Isla (a few miles down the Ericht from the site of the Morganstone).  A little flat islet lies in the River Isla, close to the Arthurbank shore, and a ford runs alongside this little islet, exactly as described in the Welsh account of Rhonabwy's dream.

Aneirin also mentioned this ford in his Y Gododdin poem as rhyd benclwyd - the "ford" of the "grey" or "holy mount".  There is, indeed, a Greymount marked on the map, a short distance to the north of the ford on the Isla.  In his Agriculture of Perthshire, published in 1799, the Rev. Dr Robertson described the discovery of a "large Druidical temple" at Coupar Grange, adjacent to this ford.  A standing stone found in this "temple" would no doubt have been rebranded a "cross" by the early Christians, so that the ford across the Isla, beside the little flat islet, would have become known as the Ford of the Cross (Rhyd-y-Groes), as described in The Dream of Rhonabwy, or the "Ford of the Grey/Holy Mount" (rhyd benclwyd) as described by Aneirin.

Until the late 18th century, an Arthurstone stood at the south-eastern edge of the Arthurbank ridge (its presence is still marked on the map).  This Arthurstone corresponds to the Morganstone, a few miles away up the River Ericht, and marks the spot where Arthur fell in his battle with the Boar-King of the Miathi Picts in the land of the "crested" Comb-heads, Camlann.

The Head of the Valley of Sorrow

After the battle, Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar was executed and buried only a mile or so away at Meigle.  The legend of Culhwch and Olwen (which, interestingly, features a treacherous individual identified as Grugyn, who also appears in Aneirin's Y Gododdin) tells us that, after the battle at the river with the dangerous Boar-King, Arthur and his heroes once more "set out for the North" to overcome a fearsome witch.  She was found inside a cave at Penn Nant Gofid - the "Head of the Valley of Sorrow"- on "the confines of Hell" (which we can interpret as the edge of the territory controlled by those boar-like Miathi Picts).  The Welsh gofid ("sorrow/trouble/affiction/grief") appears to have been something of a pun, for another Welsh word for sorrow or grief is alaeth (compare Ailt, Allaid and Alyth, the "Head of the Valley of Alyth" being the very hill on which Arthur's wife is rumoured to have been held prisoner before her execution and burial nearby at Meigle).

In the Welsh tale, this witch is known as Orddu (that is, Gorddu - "Very Black"). A similar legend from the Isle of Mull, whose Arthurian associations have been overlooked for far too long, names the troublesome wife as Corr-dhu ("Black-Crane").

We might also note that the 9th-century Welsh monk known as Nennius described a "wonder" of Scotland in the form of "a valley in Angus, in which shouting is heard every Monday night; Glend Ailbe is its name, and it is not known who makes this noise."

Nennius's Glend Ailbe seems to be a corruption of the Gaelic word for a valley (glen) and the River Isla, or perhaps the Allaid or Hill of Alyth, which dominates the vale of Strathmore.  The mysterious shouting in this "Valley of Sorrow" was reputedly heard ever Monday night.  And we know from Aneirin's eye-witness account of Arthur's last battle that it came to an end on a Monday.

This is just some of the evidence for Arthur having fallen in the vicinity of Alyth.  There is plenty more to come in The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion - including descriptions of the Pictish symbol stones, found close to the site of that battle, which actually depict the Grail in use!

I'll let you know when the book is about to be published.

Friday, 8 August 2014

A Warning to the Curious ...

... or "How History Works" (Part II?).

I was flicking through this book the other day.  It's on sale at Tudor World in Stratford, where I'm currently doing the odd Shakespeare Tour and Ghost Tour (and great fun they are, too).  What's more, the "Horrible Histories" Gruesome Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon is actually dedicated to the owner, and the phantom residents of, the Tudor World property.

I admire Terry Deary's achievement.  His entertaining brand of History-Without-The-Dull-Bits appeals to young and old, no doubt to the despair and disapproval of the more academic types out there.  And he does a good job of digging up those obscure facts and stories which tend to be omitted from the standard accounts.  In that respect, his Gruesome Guide to Stratford is probably a helluva lot more interesting than the typical guidebook.

He even includes the story of Shakespeare's skull!  Yes, the local "legend" which I spent months researching for Who Killed William Shakespeare?  So, extra marks there for Mr Deary.  Except that he concludes his short account of Shakespeare's missing skull with the information that the skull was safely returned to the Stratford grave.

Almost every account I read of the legend of Shakespeare's skull, as originally recounted by "A Warwickshire Man" (Rev. Charles Jones Langston) in his 1884 publication, How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found, ends with the information that the missing skull was returned to Stratford.

This recurring "fact" intrigued me while I was researching the story.  You see, thanks to the infamous "curse" on Shakespeare's gravestone, the town of Stratford, and Holy Trinity Church, have always been rather diffident about opening up his grave.  So how, I wondered, had they managed to get the skull back into the grave, sometime in the late 19th century, without anyone noticing, and with no record surviving of the grave having been reopened?

It puzzled me for quite a while.  And then, while I was starting work on the manuscript for Who Killed William Shakespeare? - a breakthrough!  The skull is still inside the crypt at Beoley Church.  It was NEVER returned to Stratford. 

Various photos of the skull were taken at different times in the 20th and 21st centuries - on those rare occasions when the crypt was opened up for an architect's inspection - and those photos prove that the skull stayed exactly where Rev. C.J. Langston found it: in the vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel.

Okay, so ... Why do so many accounts of the story end with "The skull was returned to Stratford", when it quite evidently wasn't?

I've never yet managed to track down the source of that little bit of historical misinformation.  I don't know who first decided that the skull had probably been returned to its owner, or who first sneaked that falsehood into the legend.  But here's the thing: ever since that bit of false information was added to the story, it has been repeated, over and over again, whenever somebody stumbles across the legend, including, of course, Terry Deary, when he included the tale in his "Gruesome Guide" to Stratford.

I'm not attacking Mr Deary.  But I am questioning the way that, once a lie has been introduced into the historical account, it tends to stay there, repeated over and over again, until it becomes a "fact".

I've blogged previously about the will which names Anne/Agnes Whateley, the woman William Shakespeare was first given a licence to marry.  Because Samuel Schoenbaum failed to find that particular will, he concluded that Anne Whateley was a clerical error: she never existed.  And because Sam Schoenbaum said that, it became "The Truth"!  Anne Whateley: the woman who never was.  But she did exist.

The case of Anne/Agnes Whateley and the case of Shakespeare's skull are somewhat similar.  In both instances, something has been introduced to the approved story of Shakespeare which doesn't suit the peddlers of that orthodox account.  Whenever that happens, it seems, the race is on to quash that little problem.  With any luck, something will quickly get sneaked into the historical record which neutralises the threat posed by that rogue story.  So, Anne Whateley, we are led to believe, "did not exist".  The skull "was returned to Stratford".  Neither statement is true, and yet both have been repeated ad infinitum.

The skull story is particularly intriguing, in this regard.  Given that Stratford has, on the whole, sought (a) to ignore the story of Shakespeare's skull - and the actual existence of that spare skull at Beoley, and (b) to rubbish the story whenever someone mentions it, you do have to wonder.  If, as the Shakespeare folks in Stratford insist, the missing skull simply could not have been Shakespeare's, then why is it so important that we all believe it was returned to Shakespeare's grave after Rev. C.J. Langston discovered and identified it?  Isn't that a case of having your cake and eating it?  If it never was Shakespeare's skull, then there's no need to put out the false rumour that it was returned to Shakespeare's grave. 

I think the claim that the skull was returned to Stratford was a deliberate attempt to "close down" the story.  An interesting legend, yes, but no need to get excited because the skull came back to Stratford anyway.  Certainly, definitely, no need to probe any further.  Like the mysterious Anne Whateley, the skull doesn't exist.  At least, it doesn't as long as you don't go looking for it.

So, someone set a hare running.  To stop anyone from really investigating the strange tale of Shakespeare's missing skull - as told by that pillar of respectability, a Victorian clergyman - somebody made up the part about the skull having been returned to Stratford.  Which it never was.  But that's what you'll keep reading is what happened.

Unless you read Who Killed William Shakespeare? of course!

Seriously, though.  History is not, or should not be, a Wikipedia entry, which anyone can alter as they see fit.  The facts matter.  Anyone who "plants" a piece of misinformation - such as "the skull was returned to Stratford" - is deliberately misleading people.  And the people who seem most easy to mislead are historians, who keep repeating the lie, if only to make sure that you don't go getting any ideas.

Monday, 28 July 2014


I've been remiss.  Dreadfully so.

The only thing I can say in my defence is that I have been busy writing my biography of Sir William Davenant (Shakespeare's Son) and enjoying myself giving tours in Stratford-upon-Avon - some days, you might see me in doublet and breeches, leading a troupe of tourists or students from one Shakespearean site to another, whilst on Saturday evenings I guide intrepid visitors through the dark delights of Tudor World on Sheep Street, every Ghost Tour threatening to yield at least one supernatural experience.  So, yes, I've been busy.

Added to that, my paper on The Faces of Shakespeare is about to be published by Goldsmiths University; Moon Books will soon be publishing Naming the Goddess, to which I contributed a chapter, and my own The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion is currently passing through the Moon Books production process.  Oh, and I've also been quietly working on a project based on events in 1964-65 for a company set up by a very good friend of mine from my drama school days.

So I hope you'll forgive the radio silence.

Anyhoo - my great buddy and artistic collaborator on The Grail, Lloyd Canning, got a fantastic four-page spread in this month's Cotswold and Vale Magazine, including (as you can see) the cover shot.  Lloyd's amazing images really came out well in the magazine, and The Grail got a good mention (as well as my Who Killed William Shakespeare?), which means that we're all very chuffed.  A hearty CONGRATS to Lloyd for the well-earned and much-deserved publicity.

I'll try to post another update very soon.  I promise.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Call Ye Midwife

More from the wonderful world of Davenant research.

Liza Picard's book on Restoration London is a witty little treasure trove of stuff.  The book describes "Everyday Life in London 1660-1670" and it does so beautifully.  I was particularly struck by the section on the Medical Risks of Birth and Infancy.

Midwives, it seems, were generally in a hurry to get to their next patient.  If the mother's waters hadn't broken, the midwife wasn't going to hang around.  A specially sharpened fingernail, or the sharp edge of a coin, would slit the amniotic sac, and then the baby would be yanked out.

Such was the hurry that the midwife would be unlikely to wait for the afterbirth to be expelled.  That, too, would be grabbed and pulled out.

Midwifery was a pretty good way of killing baby and mother.  Bacteria would be transferred from one mother to another by the midwife who had just tugged baby and the afterbirth out of one womb before moving on to the next.

The skull in the crypt at Beoley Church, which I suggest in Who Killed William Shakespeare? was Shakespeare's, is rather interesting in this respect.  There is an oval depression, mid-brow, near the top of the frontal bone.  Heading down the left side of the temple, the skull is uneven, with a ridge sloping down across the brow and slight depressions on either side of it.
These features - the oval depression and the ridge - are visible in portraits of Shakespeare.  The "missing link" between the skull (which disappeared) and the portraits is almost certainly the "Death Mask of Shakespeare" in Darmstadt Castle:
The depression and ridge are present on the death mask (dated 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death), and since this was probably the model for most of the portraits, we see the same features in some of the more familiar images of Shakespeare.  They are present, for example, in the Cobbe portrait:
And, indeed, in the Wadlow portrait:

And on others.  These distinguishing features, along with other "defects" visible on the face, are what I now look for in order to determine whether or not an image of Shakespeare s genuine.
In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I focussed on the very noticeable depression high up in the middle of the forehead.  It can be seen very clearly on the Shakespeare bust in his funerary monument in Stratford Church:
In the well known Chandos portrait in the National Portrait Gallery:
And on the Davenant bust of Shakespeare at the Garrick Club:
Among others. 
But by focusing on that depression as one of the key indicators that the portraits were based on the death mask, and the death mask replicates the actual face of the man whose skull is in the crypt at Beoley, I neglected to consider the ridge and grooves to the side of the main depression.
I concluded - wrongly, I fear - that the depression was a sunken fontanelle, caused by malnutrition or dehydration in early childhood.
I now suspect, and I made the point in the paper on The Faces of Shakespeare, which I gave at Goldsmiths, University of London, a couple of months ago, that the depression near the top of the frontal bone and the ridge and grooves beside it are connected.  They are finger marks.
I had begun to think that the midwife had grasped his skull with her left hand during the delivery.  Her thumb had impressed itself into the soft bone of his cranium, and her first two fingers left their marks alongside.  The pattern of the depressions indicates that she gripped his skull a bit too tightly.  When the bones of his skull hardened, the finger marks remained; indeed, it may be that their presence caused the coronal suture to fuse a little oddly, leaving a sort of raised wiggly line running up from the sides of his head.
The description of midwifery practices given by Liza Picard in her book on Restoration London confirms the possibility, at least, that Shakespeare might have been forced out of his mother's womb by an over-enthusiastic or impatient midwife.  I've argued elsewhere on the blog that Shakespeare wasn't a very tall man (which is why his skull seems "undersized"), and it may be that he was from his mother's womb "untimely ripped". 
Quite simply, he wasn't ready.  But maybe the midwife had been called because the mother's health was at risk.  Or he was believed to be due.
Perhaps the woman nicked the sac with her jagged fingernail, reached in, gripped the skull with her left hand (the right hand underneath) and pulled.  There is no reason to assume that the midwifery profession had changed very much in the hundred years separating Restoration London from Elizabethan Stratford.
Shakespeare bore the marks of the midwife's fingers all through his life.  And they are still visible - on his portraits, on the busts, on the death mask ... and on the skull at Beoley.