The Future of History

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.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How to Start a Civil War

In my research for my book on Sir William Davenant (Shakespeare's Son) I've been having to get to grips with a subject which has long intrigued me.

The English Civil War.

More than anything, I've been eager to understand why it happened.

Naturally, there were large-scale issues - such as the feeling, among many fanatics, that the English Reformation in the 16th century simply hadn't gone far enough.  The Church of England, as it was established under Elizabeth I, was really a sort of State broadcasting service.  It was neither too Catholic nor too Calvinist.  The more zealous Protestants wanted something far more extreme.

But that doesn't explain how the country slid into military conflict.  To understand that, we might look at just one small example of contemporary politicking.

In January 1644, a ship sailing from Dunkirk to Spain ran aground on the south coast of England.  Local troops seized what they could, including various "Popish pictures and superstitious Imagery".  One of these was a large picture which, it was said, depicted the Pope offering a sceptre to King Charles I of England, who declined it, offering it instead to his queen, Henrietta Maria, a Catholic.  The picture, therefore, showed that "Pope and Queene share the Sceptre of England between them".  It was a comment on King Charles I, who was then at war with his Parliament: the King was under his wife's thumb, and both of them were in hock to the Bishop of Rome.

No one seems to have asked themselves why such an image was on its way to an obscure Spanish church.  But one pamphleteer did enter the fray, pointing out that the figure supposedly representing Charles I was wearing the costume of an ancient Roman captain; that the "Pope" was clearly an ordinary bishop; that the distinctive spire in the background belonged to the cathedral of Cologne, and that the subject of the painting was quite obviously an episode from the life of St Ursula, whose martyrdom was depicted in the background.

A few were convinced.  But others continued to insist that the captured painting showed nothing less than the Pope in league with King Charles, who was further to be damned for listening too much to his French wife.  In short, it didn't matter what evidence was brought forth: the hard-liners saw what they wanted to see, and that was that.

Such things happen in febrile times.  Events are interpreted, not on the basis of fact or evidence, but on the basis of preconceived prejudices.  Once people are prepared instantly to believe that a painting of St Ursula is really a painting of the English king being wooed by the Pope and handing power to his queen, then all hope of reasonable debate is lost.

It's no coincidence that these things happened at a time when the printed word was being distributed like never before.  There is a similarity with our own times - the internet is not unlike the pamphleteering activity of the 17th century.  Anyone who has an opinion can voice it.  Many are using the opportunity deliberately to misinform others and incite political agitation.

We're fast heading into similar territory as that in which a painting of a sacred subject can become something altogether different - an indictment of the supposed faults of an English king.  Now, as then, people are filtering their interpretations of events through their own prejudices.  Whenever something happens, the facts are immediately "spun".  The event, and the motives of those concerned, are instantaneously reinterpreted through a veritable Babel of claim and counterclaim.  The result is a rush to judgement, as people too easily swallow the interpretation which suits their prejudices.  Pointing out the facts of the matter becomes a waste of time.  Battle lines have been drawn, long before any evidence actually comes to light.

The earliest known accounts of the Flood indicate that the gods decided to punish mankind because we had become "noisy".

Well, we're becoming noisy again.  Things got noisy in the early 1640s, and that led to a bloody civil war, the execution of a king, and a government of fanatics, which was nothing short of a military dictatorship.

So, there you have it: the English Civil War was caused, as much as anything, by people's willingness to believe nonsense rather than look at the facts.

If history teaches us anything, it's that when people prefer to be noisy than to take a breath, examine the evidence and come to a sensible, informed and considered conclusion, then something like a civil war can't be far away.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Crowd-funding - Can you help?

Rebecca Rideal runs the excellent History Vault website. 

On that site, she has published a five minute interview with yours truly, and my two posts about Shakespeare in love - The White Lady (about Anne, or Agnes, Whateley) and The Dark Lady, about Jane Davenant.  It really is an excellent historical website.

She also organises a monthly Historic Punch event in London's Soho.  So she takes her history very seriously.

Rebecca is looking for funding to cover the costs of her History PhD.  Now, I've something of an interest in this, because her thesis covers aspects of life in Restoration London, where I'm spending a lot of my time at the moment, working on my book about Sir William Davenant.

To raise the necessary finance, Rebecca has turned to crowd-funding, there being no viable alternative.  So I'm putting this post up in the hope that some benefactors out there will take the bait. 

It's a good cause - and Rebecca explains it all here.

If you can help at all, it will be very much appreciated.  Please click here for more information.


Monday, 2 June 2014

The Meaning of "Camlann"

I received a message from Moon Books today, telling me that the copyedited manuscript of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion is ready for me to check.

It seems unlikely that the book will be available before the Scottish independence referendum in September.  I'll be keeping a close eye on the referendum: the vote takes place the day before my 12th wedding anniversary, and having got married on the Isle of Iona to a woman who is half-Scottish, as well as having gone to university in Glasgow, my sympathies lie very much with the "YES" campaign.

I was also interested to note that Le Monde published this piece, indicating that the pro-independence campaign is gaining ground.  The reporter had been in Alyth, Perthshire, to follow the debate.  Alyth, as I revealed in The King Arthur Conspiracy, is where Arthur fought his last battle.

How do I know this?  Lots of reasons, not least of all the fact that the place is name checked in a contemporary poem of the battle.

But wasn't Arthur's last battle fought at a place called Camlan?

Well, for a long while I wasn't so sure.  Now, though, I know that it was - sort of - and I explain why in my forthcoming book on The Grail.  But as that may not be out before the referendum, I hereby present this information as a gift to the "YES" campaign and in honour of a warrior who gave his life fighting for Scottish (and British) independence.

Many commentators refuse to accept that the place-name "Camlan" isn't Welsh.  The fact that Camlan is the Gaelic name for the old Roman fortifications at Camelon, near Falkirk in central Scotland, means nothing to them.  Arthur's "Camlan" was Welsh, and that's all it could have been.

Very silly - and utterly useless, in terms of trying to track down the site of that all-important battle.  If it was a Welsh place-name, it would have meant something like "Crooked Valley", which really doesn't help us very much.

The first literary reference to "Camlann" comes in the Annales Cambriae ("Welsh Annals") which mention Gueith cam lann - the "Strife of Camlann".  However, that reference cannot be traced back to an earlier date than the 10th century, hundreds of years after the time of Arthur.  The contemporary sources make no mention of "Camlann", and so it may be that the name didn't come into use until many years after Arthur's last battle was fought there.

The earliest literary reference to anyone called Arthur concerns an individual named Artur mac Aedain.  He was a son of Aedan mac Gabrain, who was "ordained" King of the Scots by St Columba in 574.  Accounts of the ordination ceremony indicate that Arthur son of Aedan was present on that occasion, and that St Columba predicted that Arthur would not succeed his father to the Scottish throne but would "fall in battle, slain by enemies."

Those same accounts tell us that Columba's prophecy came true: Artur mac Aedain died in a "battle of the Miathi", which means that he was killed fighting the Picts of central Scotland. 

The Irish Annals, which were compiled from notes made by the monks of Iona, inform us that the first recorded Arthur was killed in a "battle of Circenn", fought in about 594.  Circenn was the Pictish province immediately to the north of the Tay estuary - broadly, Angus and the Mearns - which was indeed the territory of the "Miathi".

Circenn might have been Pictish territory, but the name of the province is Gaelic.  It combines the word cir (meaning a "comb" or a "crest") and cenn, the genitive plural of a Gaelic noun meaning "head".  An appropriate translation of Circenn would therefore be "Comb-heads".

The Miathi Picts, like their compatriots in the Orkneys, appear to have modelled their appearance on their totem animal, the boar.  This meant that they shaved their heads in imitation of the boar's comb or crest - rather like the Mohawk tonsure, which we wrongly think of as a "Mohican".  Indeed, whilst we assume that the term "Pict" derived from the Latin picti, meaning "painted" or "tattooed", there are grounds for suspecting that it was actually a corruption of pecten, the Latin for a "comb" (hence the Old Scots word Pecht, meaning "Pict").

So where does "Camlann" fit into all this?

After Arthur's death, much of southern and central Scotland was invaded by the Angles, those forerunners of the English.  As a consequence, the Germanic language known as Northumbrian Old English was established in southern and central Scotland by the 7th century.  It eventually became the dialect called Lowland Scots.

In the Scots dialect, came, kem and camb all meant "comb".  And lan', laan and lann all meant "land".

The land in which Arthur's last battle had been fought - that is, the Pictish province of Angus - was soon speaking an early variant of the English language, or Lowland Scots.  The fact that the Pictish province of Circenn was named after its "Comb-heads", those Miathi warriors who cut their hair to resemble a boar's comb or crest, meant that the place became known by its early English equivalent: "Comb-land" or Camlann.

This was not, of course, the name that Arthur and his warrior-poets would have used for the place.  But then, the term "Camlann" didn't appear in any literary source for at least another three or four hundred years.  By the time the Welsh annalist came to interpolate the "Camlann" entry into the Annales Cambriae, the location had become known by its Old English/Lowland Scots name.  But that name was merely a variant of the older Gaelic name for the province - Circenn, or "Comb-heads".

And that is where the first recorded Arthur fell in battle, as St Columba had predicted.  Not in England or Wales or Brittany, but in Angus in Scotland.

The province of the Pictish "Comb-heads".  The region known as "Comb-land", cam lann.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Dem Bones

I now have a copy of The Last Days of Richard III by my History Press stable-mate, John Ashdown-Hill.  This was the book which led archaeologists to the car park in Leicester where Richard's remains were buried.  I'm looking forward to reading it, when I take a break from my research into Sir William Davenant.

Today, I came across this: A Bone to Pick with the Bard - Richard III was NOT a Hunchback.  It's a piece in the Independent which indicates that Richard "Crookback" did not have a crookback after all!

William Shakespeare appears to get the blame for the fact that we all thought he did.

Well, that's not entirely fair.  Shakespeare was a poet-playwright, not a historian.  And he had to make do with the information that was available to him.

The Tudor kings and queens were always slightly aware that their claim to the English throne was rather shaky.  Henry VII became king when he defeated Richard III in battle.  So, in typical Tudor style, they made up a pack of lies about Richard.  And because many historians are lazy and credulous, we all believed the lies.

The question, then, is this: did Shakespeare really believe the Tudor propaganda?  Or was he actually up to something much more subtle and clever when he portrayed Richard III with a hunchback and a club foot?

After all, Richard III wasn't the only king he seemingly maligned.  Historically speaking, Macbeth was one of the most successful and popular kings in medieval Scotland.  Macbeth's predecessor, King Duncan, was useless; Macbeth defeated him in battle and then ruled for 17 years, during which time he made a pilgrimage to Rome (only a king who knew that his country was safe would disappear overseas for two years).  So, once again, Shakespeare drew a portrait of a king that was wildly inaccurate.

Unless ...

Unless we accept that Shakespeare wasn't really writing about Macbeth but about a different Scottish king.  The one who, at that moment in time, occupied the English throne.  James I.

In Shakespeare's tragedy, written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Macbeth is a brave and steadfast lord who turns to the dark side - ambitious and greedy, he commits murders and goes paranoid.

There are very good reasons - some of them outlined in my book, Who Killed William Shakespeare? - to suspect that Shakespeare thought of James I in just these terms.  He was a promising monarch who broke his promises, choosing to become a veritable "Son of" [Gaelic - mac] Elizabeth, hence "Mac-beth".  King James had dropped heavy hints that England's Catholics would be allowed a degree of tolerance.  He then fell into the traps laid for him by his egregious secretary, Sir Robert Cecil (photo above), and colluded in the government fiction that was the Gunpowder Plot.  The treacherous slaying of King Duncan in the play was really Shakespeare's horrified reaction to the barbarous execution of Father Henry Garnet, SJ, the real target of the Cecil-masterminded "powder treason".

Which brings us back to Richard III.  So King Richard didn't have a hunchback after all.  But Sir Robert Cecil did.  A rhyme of the time described him thus:

Backed like a lute case
Bellied like a drum -
Like Jackanapes on horseback
Sits little Robin Thumb.

He was also known as the "Toad", and Robertus Diabolus - Robert the Devil.

The Cecil family claimed that Sir Robert (the second son of Elizabeth's chief minister, Lord Burghley) had been dropped on his head at birth.  He was certainly stunted and deformed, with a "crookback" and a splayed foot.  Queen Elizabeth called him her "elf", and so in Shakespeare's Richard III he became the "elvish, abortive, rooting hog", the evil "toad" who plots against and kills anybody who threatens to frustrate his ambitions.

It is, in all fairness, extremely simpleminded to imagine that Shakespeare was writing specifically about King Richard.  In reality, he was turning the Tudor propaganda into a weapon against the Court of Elizabeth I.  It was not Richard who was hunchbacked and splay-footed - it was her dangerous "elf", that inveterate and industrious plotter, Robert Cecil.

King James inherited the English throne on Elizabeth's death in 1603.  He also inherited the loathsome Robert Cecil, whom he repeatedly promoted.  And just as Shakespeare had transformed Robert Cecil, for his sins, into the diabolical Richard III, so he turned James I into the tyrannical butcher, Macbeth.

Of course, Shakespeare was so good at what he did that we all made the mistake of taking his words at face value.  But then, historians have been so inclined to swallow Protestant propaganda whole that nobody seems to have questioned Shakespeare's portrayals.  Perish the thought that our greatest wordsmith might have exposed the brutal corruption at the heart of the governments of Elizabeth I and James I! 

No, no, no - far better to assume that Shakespeare really was describing the historical Richard and Macbeth than to acknowledge who the real targets of his quill might have been.  Because that would require us to admit that dreadful people did dreadful things, ostensibly to turn England into a Protestant country, but really to make themselves incredibly rich.  And we really don't want to admit that, do we?

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Pure Honey

Just found out today that one of the most popular posts ever on the excellent Historical Honey website was this one - All is True: Fire at the Globe Theatre - which was the first post I wrote for them last year.

Pretty pleased with that!