Take a moment to think the unthinkable. All the ancient tales you learned from your favourite childhood storybooks, from simple fairy tales to King Arthur, are not the hoary old legends you thought they were. They are merely modern retellings; sanitised by the Victorians.
At the beginning of the Victorian Era there existed a large prosperous and literate middle class in Britain with time to read and the money to buy mass-produced books. Educated and socially conscious, they longed for a fairer and simpler world. Much like the one existing before the Industrial Revolution that paradoxically created their wealth and leisure. For inspiration they turned to the folktales gathered by the previous generation.
By the end of Victoria’s reign, industrialisation had transformed Britain. The railways changed the country even more fundamentally than mobile phones, computers and the internet have today. Although life remained hard for the working class, on whom all wealth depended, they were better educated, had better food, and disposable income. They believed social and industrial progress gave them the opportunity to better their lives through hard work and education.
As with the middle class before them, education encouraged the working classes to buy into a national system of values; a large part of which consisted of taking a fierce pride in your motherland. During this period, the idea of a nation’s unique identity and cultural heritage grew throughout Europe and the United States.
National identity was promoted by the accessibility of cheap reading matter presenting agreed-upon populist histories of heroic stories and legends. There were King Arthur and Queen Elizabeth in Britain; Charlemagne and Roland in France; El Cid in Spain; the Germanic Teutonic Knights; and Paul Bunyan and the Revolutionary Fathers of America.
By the 1800s, at the very start of the Industrial Revolution, the middling sort had already begun to feel Britain was losing its identity and cultural heritage. Craftsmen, put out of work by machinery, turned to sabotage. According to some explanations, saboteurs were originally French hand weavers who, in the attempt to preserve their livelihood, threw their wooden clogs into the new-fangled machines to break them. In French, clogs were called sabots.
By 1850 the cities were swelling as young people moved to work in the new manufactories. With a national railway system and overseas competition, smallholdings catering to local markets were left behind as agriculture changed to the large-scale national production necessary to feed a growing industrial nation. The country estates of the landed gentry, once the major employer, were now efficiently run by a small workforce increasingly helped by steam powered machines. Across the countryside, villages were dying and with them a way of life dating back to the early Middle Ages.
More leisure led to new amusements. Gone were evenings spent with a local storyteller; who had learned his trade from his forefathers, back through the generations. There was now no one to listen to his tales; only the old and the very young, soon be in school learning readin’, writin’ an’ ‘rithmetic, and to respect their betters.
As when anything is dying, people realised, almost too late, what they were about to lose. There was a flurry of interest in the past. Intrepid schoolteachers, clergymen and solicitors set off for the unimaginable wilds of the Scottish Highlands, the misty mountains of Wales and the fog swept moors of Cornwall to find and record the last of the storytellers before they disappeared forever.
They painstakingly transcribed tale after tale in almost incomprehensible dialect. Translated the best into the King’s English and published them in modest folios. The slim volumes proved immensely popular with the rising industrial rich, who were desperate to ingratiate themselves with the aristocracy where land was wealth and tradition, was everything.
As the collections of folktales gained popularity, it was quickly realised the old men’s tales may have been corrupted over the long years of retelling. The search was on to find more authentic versions. Ancient books, treasured by antiquarians more for their age than what they contained, were examined and translated.
The Black Book of Carmarthen, the White Book of Rhytherch, the Red Book of Hergest, and a myriad of unnamed manuscripts containing the Histories, the Triads and the Annals of the British were examined. Unfortunately for Victorian sensibilities, the authentic tales were not as morally edifying as they hoped and so had to be improved – a bitter pill sweetened with lavish illustrations from the best talent the Arts and Craft movement had to offer.
All these ancient books came from Wales. It seems odd that Wales preserved British history, until we consider the Welsh are the original British, and England is an entirely different thing.
After almost 400 years of occupation, the Roman Legions started to withdraw from Britain to defend the heartland of the empire. Magnus Maximus or Big Max, remembered in the ancient Welsh stories as Macsen Wledig, hastened the process by stripping Britain of its remaining fighting forces in his bid to become Emperor of Rome, which he did in 383.
His troops never came back and Britain never recovered from the loss. It lay wide open to pirate raids and settlement by Germanic tribes from across the North Sea. As if this was not enough, the island was also hit by a series of devastating plagues, poor harvests and famines – a period remembered in Arthurian legend as the time of the Fisher King and the Wasteland.
Towards the end of this dark period, after again being refused military help from Rome, the Romano-Celtic nobility threw out the last of the Roman governors and declared independence.
Germanic legionary veterans, called foederati, had been settled in farms and towns on Britain’s east coast for at least a hundred years. It was Roman policy to give ex-soldiers farmland in vulnerable places. They knew veterans would have both the ability and the motive to defend their homes. Given the unstable times, it made sense for the veterans, turned farmers, to seek help from kin and old comrades back in Jutland and Saxony; tempting them with the good British farmland left empty by plague.
Conflicts probably arose between veterans and native warlords, styling themselves Kings, or perhaps Dukes and Counts after the prestigious Roman military titles of the Duke, and Count, of Britain and the Count of the Saxon Shore. Local warlords wanted the old German veterans to fight all over the country; wherever they were trying to annex territory from weaker fellow rulers. The foederati did not mind fighting locally, but they were certainly not going to leave their own families and farms undefended.
This traumatic period of conflict between the British and the Germanic ancestors of the English is remembered in Arthurian legend as the time of King Vortigern (an Ancient British word for High King) who invited the Angles and Saxons mercenaries over.
According to legend, when Picts from the North and Irish in the West besieged Vortigern, he invited the Saxon brothers, Hengist and Horsa, as foederati in exchange for the Isle of Thanet at the mouth of the Thames. Then, in exchange for the hand of Rowena, Hengist’s beautiful young daughter, he ceded the Kingdom of Kent.
When discussing this period, the fact the surviving ancient documents actually refer to the Anglo-Saxons as foederati – auxiliary legionary troops employed by Rome to defend the German frontier – is often overlooked.
Earlier in the story, Vortigern had attempted to build an impregnable fortress in Snowdonia, North Wales, to escape his enemies. When the fortress kept falling down, his druids told him to seek a boy with no father. In some versions the boy is the young Merlin. In a prophecy, ripe with meaning, the boy said the High King’s fortress was collapsing because a red and white dragon fought under the foundations. He said the red dragon (still the symbol of Wales) represented the British and the white, the Saxons.
The fact both sides are dragons signifies both are Roman legionary warriors. The dragon was the Roman Emperor’s Imperial battle standard. Contemporary sources describe it as a sort of a long wind-sock, painted up as a dragon with musical pipes fitted inside. Any breeze made it dance and roar over the Emperor and his companions ‘causing terror in the hearts of his enemies’.
By inviting German ex-legionaries – probably related to those already settled in eastern Britain – Vortigern was merely following a Roman Imperial policy that had stood the empire in good stead for centuries. His mercenaries were in fact comrades who had fought side-by-side with the British contingent in many continental battles. Rather than wild barbarians, they were in fact trusted allies.
When order was restored, the British nobility began to resent Vortigern’s Saxons. Their attitude created a far bigger menace than their old enemies had ever presented. Soon both sides were at war. As legend explains it, a feast was given to make peace between them and everyone agreed not to bring weapons. But once inside the banqueting hall, the Saxons treacherously slaughtered the British, keeping Vortigern alive as a puppet ruler.
It was after this Arthur’s uncle Ambrosius Aurelianus, then his father Uther Pendragon (‘fearsome chief-dragon’) and finally, Arthur (The Bear?) himself began the long campaign to wrest Britain back from the Saxon marauders.
Ancient sources do not call Arthur a king. They refer to him as ‘Dux Bellorum’ or Duke of War. A fictitious military title based on the traditional Roman commands of the Count of Britain; Duke of Britain and Count of the Saxon Shore. The title Count comes from the Latin word ‘Comes’ meaning companion; specifically… to the emperor. Duke is from another Latin word ‘Dux’ meaning… to lead.
While highlighting the meaning of words, the name Saxon is said to come from the stabbing dagger they used. The Scottish word for a foreigner is ‘Sassenach’, which means Saxon in Gaelic. ‘Welsh’ is the Saxon word for foreigner. England comes from Angle Land – the name of an invading Germanic tribe. While the Welsh call themselves the ‘Cyrmy’ – from the ancient British word for ‘comrades’.
Conflict escalated between the Romano-Celtic British and the Germanic tribes of the Saxon Shore; the east coast of England facing the European frontier – nowadays modern Germany, Denmark and Sweden. For a few decades after the Battle of Baddon, the great British victory that probably took place around Bath – in ancient British ‘dd’ is pronounced ‘th’ – the victorious British kept the Anglo Saxons confined to their old East coast territories.
According to the monk Gildas, who wrote ‘The Ruin and Conquest of Britain’, the British kings were a pretty poor bunch in the generations after Baddon. By squabbling with each other, they left the way open for the Anglo-Saxons to break loose and eventually drive their defeated armies into Wales, the Scottish borders, Cornwall and Brittany.
The Welsh continued to resist the English, and then the Norman invasion, for almost another 1,000 years. As a way of treasuring the past glories of their cultural heritage, British and Celtic stories were written down by monks and preserved in their monasteries.
As old British triumphs, such as the victories of Arthur were not something the Anglo-Saxon conquerors cared to remember, Arthur and his contemporaries were never mentioned by the English. Because of this, Arthur is forgotten by history and only remembered in legend.
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