Authors: Bryan Sykes
Since the time of the ‘older’ Cheddar Man, the Isles have been almost continuously occupied. During the millennia that his remains slept in the silent limestone caves of Somerset, almost everything has changed in the Isles. The landscape has been transformed from open tundra to thick forest to cultivated fields. Where once he hunted for food, tourists throng the gorge and queue for cream teas. From a total population of a few thousand in the Stone Age, the Isles are now home to more than 60 million people. Beyond the shores, a further 150 million people from all over the world can trace their roots back to the Isles. While his bones were gradually entombed by the drip, drip, drip of limestone water in the silence of his cave, the ancestors
of the ancient Celts have arrived in Wales and Ireland, the ground has trembled under the marching feet of Roman legions, the shingle beaches of Kent have yielded to the keels of Saxon warships, and the blood-curdling cries of Viking raiders have echoed from the defenceless monasteries of Northumbria and the Scottish islands. While he endured 12,000 years of solitude, the world outside pulsed with life – and death. His DNA stayed where it was, but outside the cave it had another life in the generations of descendants whose stories we can now begin to unfold.
On Easter Day 1278, Edward I, King of England, accompanied by Queen Eleanor and a glittering retinue of knights and ministers, arrived at the Benedictine monastery of Glastonbury in Somerset. The reason for his visit was very specific – and very deliberate. He and his court were there to open the tomb of the legendary King Arthur. In a lavishly elaborate ceremony, two caskets containing the bones of Arthur and his queen, Guinevere, were taken from the tomb, the bones removed and carefully laid out on the altar of the monastery chapel. The following day Edward wrapped Arthur’s bones in sheets of silk and solemnly placed them in a painted casket decorated with Arthur’s portrait and his coat of arms. Queen Eleanor then mounted the platform and performed the same rites with the bones of Guinevere. After this the caskets were placed in front of the high altar and the royal party departed.
What was Edward up to? Why did he go to so much
trouble to travel all the way to Glastonbury? He was there for one very simple reason. He was aligning himself with the legend of King Arthur and through him laying claim to the ancient kingdom of the Britons. He was able to capitalize on the predominant myth about the origins of the British people, a myth that utterly dominated the Middle Ages. We may believe that nowadays we are beyond the grasp of hazy origin myths and treat them as the sole preserve of ignorant and primitive people clinging to absurd notions of their past. But in my research around the world I have more than once found that oral myths are closer to the genetic conclusions than the often ambiguous scientific evidence of archaeology. Hawaiki, the legendary homeland of the Polynesians, was said to be located among the islands of Indonesia, and genetics proved it. The Hazara tribe of north-west Pakistan had a strong oral myth of descent from the first Mongol emperor, Genghis Khan, and his genes are still there to this day. These are just two examples.
Only when I began my research in the Isles did I come to appreciate that we are just as entangled in our own origin myths as everybody else. They are still very powerful and, as in other parts of the world, they may contain grains of truth that we can test by genetics. I believe we are just as vulnerable to the power of myth about our own origins as the Polynesians or the Hazara or, indeed, the witnesses to the elaborate ceremony at Glastonbury over 700 years ago. The modern historian Norman Davies castigates archaeologists for their over-materialist approach to the past and their disdain for myth. I am on his side. While no
one would be foolish enough to suggest that they are entirely accurate in every detail, myths have a very long memory. They are also extremely influential. To see how our own origin myths have developed, let us return to the Middle Ages.
The legend of King Arthur was brilliantly exploited by Edward I and many other of the Plantagenet kings who reigned during the Middle Ages. By linking himself to the mythical dynasty of ancient British kings he was seeking to justify his attempts to become sovereign of the whole of Britain. Twenty years after Glastonbury, he argued in the papal court in Rome that his descent from Arthur and a long line of ancient British kings gave the English crown rights over Scotland and had been ample justification for his military campaigns. His great-grandfather, Henry II, had done a similar thing when he arranged for Arthur’s remains at Glastonbury to be ‘discovered’. His grandson Edward III showed his enthusiasm for the myth in 1348 by instigating his own version of the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table: the Order of the Garter, a select company of twenty-four grandees that still continues today. It is no coincidence that Prince Charles, the current heir to the throne, was christened Arthur among his many names.
The origin of the myth itself was a quite brilliant work of creative imagination by a Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in 1138.
The History of the Kings of Britain
has everything an origin myth should have. It is full of heroic deeds, terrible battles, black treachery, and is woven with just enough threads of authenticity to be taken seriously. It even had its own mysterious source – a book
(never discovered) ‘written in the British language which told of the lives of the ancient British Kings from Brutus, the first, to Cadwallader, the last’, given to Geoffrey by a mysterious archdeacon, named Walter, in Oxford where he wrote the
It is hard for us, in retrospect and living in a world where most mythologies, or so we like to think, require at least a semblance of supporting evidence, to believe that Geoffrey’s
should have been taken quite so literally. But what gave the
such an enduring influence, apart from its use for political advantage, was that woven into the improbable narrative and sheer fantasy were crumbs of credible historical fact. It was very specific about the tide of events and enjoyed huge popularity because of its enthusiastic endorsement by a succession of royal dynasties. It became, quite literally, a medieval bestseller, and as its popularity increased, so the myth it created slowly transubstantiated into objective truth. It was believed every bit as much as the Greeks were certain of their Olympian pantheon of Zeus, Apollo, Athena and Poseidon.
Geoffrey begins his
with a description:
Britain, best of Islands, formerly called Albion is situated in the Western Ocean, between Gaul and Ireland. It is in length 800 miles, in breadth 200 and is inexhaustible in every production necessary to the use of man. For it has mines of all kinds, the plains are numerous and extensive, the hills high and bold and the soil well adapted to tillage, yields its fruits of every species in their season. The woods abound with a variety of animals and afford pasturage for
cattle, and flowers of many lines, from which the eager bees collect their honey. At the bases of their mountains that tower to the skies are green meads, delightfully situated, through which the pure streams flow from their fountains in gentle soothing murmurs. Fish also live in abundance in the lakes and rivers and in the surrounding sea. It is inhabited by five different nations, Britons, Saxons, Romans, Picts and Celts. Of these the Britons formerly, and prior to the rest, possessed the country from sea to sea until divine vengeance because of their pride, they gave place to the Pictish and Saxon invaders. In what manner and whence they came will more fully appear in what follows.
According to the
, the very first inhabitants of Britain were a race of giants under Albion, a son of the sea-god Poseidon. Albion and the other giants were the children of a band of fifty women who arrived in the empty land having been banished for killing their husbands. There being no men, the fifty women mated with demons to conceive their giant offspring. The demise of Albion came about when he joined forces with two of his brothers to steal, from Hercules, the herd of cattle he had been sent to capture in Spain as the tenth of his twelve labours. Albion and his giants ambushed Hercules as he was passing through the south of France on his way home to Greece with the cattle. Hercules fought off Albion, aided by his father Zeus who arranged for a shower of rocks to fall from the sky at just the right moment, and slew the giants. After that defeat, though the giants continued to inhabit Britain
for the next 600 years, their numbers dwindled until only a few remained.
Already this is a rich history, firmly linked for the benefit of the readership to the classical mythology of Zeus, Poseidon and Hercules. The next arrivals were no less well connected to the classical world and came to Britain as a direct result of the Trojan War. When Troy fell to the Greeks, Aeneas and a group of his followers escaped and made their way to Italy, where they established the settlement that was to become Rome. The link between Troy and Britain begins with the birth of Aeneas’s grandson, Brutus. The soothsayers, indispensable contributors to all good mythologies, predict that he will cause the death of his parents. Which, of course, comes to pass. His mother dies in childbirth and he accidentally shoots his father. A deer runs between the young Brutus and his father while they are out hunting. Brutus fires the arrow, which glances off the deer’s back and hits his father in the chest. After this misfortune Brutus is banished. His wanderings take him to Greece, where he precipitates a revolt by slaves descended from Trojan prisoners of war, and liberates them. Looking for a new home, they sail to a small deserted island, where Brutus finds a temple dedicated to the goddess Diana. In a dream Diana reveals to Brutus the existence of a great island past the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) and out into the ocean towards the setting sun.
Brutus, there lies in the west, beyond the realms of Gaul, an island surrounded by the waters of the ocean, once inhabited by giants, but now deserted. Thither go thou, for it
is fated to be a second Troy to thee and thy posterity; and from thee shall Kings descend who shall subdue the whole world to their power.
Though the island is inhabited by giants, Diana reassures Brutus that, following their defeat by Hercules, they are few in number and easily overcome. Once there, Diana promises him, Brutus will build a new Troy and found a dynasty of kings that will eventually become the most powerful on earth. You can already see how Geoffrey has cleverly sculpted his
to make it irresistible for any British king to claim this mantle for himself.
Now on a divine mission, Brutus sets sail for Albion with his Trojans. All ancestors, whether mythical or entirely real, must place their first foot on dry land somewhere. Brutus chose Totnes in Devon, a few miles up the River Dart from the open sea. The rock on which his foot first made contact with Albion is still there. Brutus and his men made short work of the giants and set about exploring the virgin country. Their chosen site for New Troy was on the River Thames. New Troy, or Troia Nova, became Trinovantum and, later, London. Another stone, still visible today in Cannon Street near the City’s financial quarter, was the altar that Brutus built to honour Diana whose divine guidance led him to Albion. Thus it was, according to the
, that Brutus, grandson of Aeneas of Troy, became the first king of Britain.
Twenty years after he first stepped ashore at Totnes, Brutus died and Britain was divided into three parts, England, Scotland and Wales, each ruled by one of his
three sons in that order of seniority. When the two younger sons died, the whole island reverted to the eldest, Locrinus. It was his alleged direct descent from Locrinus that Edward I used as the justification for his military campaigns against both Wales and Scotland in the late 1200s. For Edward, it was entirely legitimate to restore the whole of Britain under one crown – his, of course.
From Brutus and Locrinus, a long line of kings trickles down through the centuries, a rich vein of quasi-historical material for mythologists and authors. Shakespeare’s inspiration for King Lear came from this list. Another legendary king was Lud, who rebuilt the walls of New Troy; it was through corruptions of Lud’s name that it eventually became London. After Lud, the next in line was Cassivelaunus, whom we shall meet again later on. It was during his reign that Julius Caesar launched his military expeditions in Britain in 55 and 54
. And these were certainly not mythical. Caesar was well aware of the legend of common descent of both Romans and Britons from Aeneas and the Trojans. But this did not alter his view that the Britons, during their long centuries of isolation, had become degenerate and lost their skill in the art of war.
The full-scale Roman invasion launched by Claudius in
43 reduced the power of the British kings but did not extinguish it. But it is the events in the centuries after the Roman occupation ended and what the myth has to say about the Saxons that give it its greatest modern significance. Not all British kings were heroes in the
, and as Roman power in Britain declined in
the early fifth century AD, the country became the focus of Anglo-Saxon ambitions. At this point the crown passed to the ambitious and treacherous tribal chieftain Vortigern.
After the death of the rightful king, Constantine, Vortigern arranges for the coronation of Constantine’s unworldly son, Constans, in exchange for his own effective management of the country. But that is not enough for Vortigern, and he orders Constans’s murder. Even then he is not crowned, but assumes the title of King of the Britons. Constans’s brothers, the rightful heirs, flee to Brittany and prepare for an attack to regain the crown. To protect himself against the forthcoming war, Vortigern makes the fateful decision to recruit outside help. According to the
, he sights three ships in the Channel which, he discovers, are manned by Saxons under their leader Hengist. They have been sent to seek settlements of their own, their homeland being no longer able to support them – an exercise carried out, apparently, once every seven years.