Rowan Williams on King Arthur

The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes in the New Statesman (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Our once and future king

No indisputable evidence exists for a “real” King Arthur, but, fictional or not, Britain has always needed him.

BY ROWAN WILLIAMS

Does anyone now read the historical novels of Henry Treece? A minor poet associated with the postwar “New Apocalyptic” group, he produced in the 1950s and 1960s a steady stream of fiction for the adult and young adult market, set mostly in early Britain and in the Viking age. The books are characterised by vivid, simple and sometimes repetitive plotting, ample bloodshed, a well-judged mixture of the cynical and the romantic, and plenty of gloomy Celtic and Nordic atmospherics. Several of the novels feature an “historical” King Arthur – a sixth-century warlord, co-ordinating resistance to the invading Saxons. Treece portrays with some skill the ways in which such a figure might have manipulated vague memories of Roman power and cultural identity to shore up his dominance in a chaotic post-Roman Britain.

The picture Treece outlines (a picture that can be found in rather less highly coloured narratives by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Meriol Trevor) is in fact not too far away from what a substantial number of professional historians of the mid-20th century had come to take for granted. The withdrawal of Roman military presence from Britain in the first quarter of the fifth century must have left the native population at the mercy of rapidly increasing swarms of settlers from north-western Europe, who pushed across lowland Britain, sacking Roman settlements and killing a substantial proportion of the population. Archaeology seemed to support this picture: Roman towns had been ruined and abandoned, British hill settlements were reoccupied and refortified. There appeared to be a bit of a hiatus in “Saxon” settlement in the first half of the sixth century, however, and some historians saw this as the result of a concerted campaign of British resistance.

There was an obvious gap for an “Arthurian” figure to fill, a military leader with nationwide authority, leaving a legacy in popular memory strong enough ultimately to generate the familiar legends of a great British hero and king. We are on our way to the Round Table and the Holy Grail and all the other riches of the “Matter of Britain”, as the medieval authors called the jungle of legendary traditions that grew around the name of Arthur.

More at the link.

It’s interesting how some figures who resisted invasion are later appropriated by the invaders themselves. King Arthur is one such; if he ever existed, he would have been a Romanized Briton defending an (unwillingly) independent Britannia from Anglian and Saxon invasion. The Britons lost, of course, and were pushed into Wales and Cornwall, where they consoled themselves that some day Arthur would return and vindicate their claim to their ancestral homeland. Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1095-c. 1155), a man of Welsh background who entered the church and who ended up at Oxford, wrote the History of the Kings of Britain, which included a long chapter on Arthur. From that point on, Arthur ceased to be a Welsh figure and became an English one, since he defended the island from invaders.

St. George Goes to War

One reason why the St. George legend has such staying power is that the dragon can stand in for any bad thing. As we celebrate the centenary of the end of the First World War, here are a couple of examples of how he was employed in the propaganda of both sides:

Pinterest

This one, by an unknown artist, was published in London by Spottiswoode and Co. in 1915 for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee.

Wikipedia

And this one, by Maximilian Lenz, was published in Vienna in 1917 for the sixth war bond campaign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In both cases one’s own army is cast as the good St. George, and the enemy as the evil dragon. I suppose it’s a good thing that British and Austro-Hungarian troops did not face each other directly all that much, otherwise St. George might not have known what side to take! (Last Saturday, Sasha Volokh asked, in seriousness, what happens when two powers dedicated to St. George fight against each other, e.g. Russia and Georgia in 2008. I said that I did not know, but I suppose it only really matters if people actually believe in the power of saints as heavenly intercessors and not just as mascots or symbols – and even then I suppose it’s no different from both sides believing in God and praying to him for victory.)

These posters raise a serious point though. I like St. George, obviously, but sometimes the legend does promote self-righteousness. We all like to believe that we’re in the right, and the other side is in the wrong, but we must keep in mind that this might not always be the case! But since there can be no compromise between good and evil, the Manichaeism on display here, I think, would tend to discourage people from seeking a negotiated settlement, and to encourage them to keep digging, even though they’re already in a hole.

George Orwell vs… Alex Comfort?!

From Reason (via Instapundit):

In 1972 Dr. Alex Comfort had a colossal hit with The Joy of Sex, making him suddenly rich and famous. Less famously, in World War II Britain, a much younger Alex Comfort had a heated dispute in print with George Orwell.

Orwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the war against Hitler, while Comfort was opposed to the war. Outside narrow literary and political circles, neither man was very well-known. Orwell had published several books and dozens of articles, but he had yet to write Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Comfort, 17 years Orwell’s junior, had produced a couple of novels, several poems, and some works of anarchist theory. His most enduring work came a few years later: Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, which makes a good case that politics is an artificial game preserve for the kinds of anti-social predators whom it is a function of normal social life to curb and discourage….

The Orwell-Comfort debate occurred in 1942, most importantly in the pages of the Partisan Review, an American journal run at that time by former Trotskyists and open to various kinds of anti-Communist left-wing thinking. There was a brief continuation of the debate (in verse!) the following year, in a British socialist weekly, Tribune. The editors of Partisan Review were themselves split on whether to support America’s war against the Axis powers. The leading figure, Dwight Macdonald, was firmly antiwar and never regretted it.

A striking fact about debates over “pacifism,” especially when they occur during a war or during preparations for a war, is that discussion of the most fundamental, abstract principles tends to become disconnected from the practical choices facing decision makers. In the early 1940s there was only one major policy choice for Britain: Either pursue the war against Germany, or accept Hitler’s repeated offers of a peace deal. There were strong arguments on both sides. But in his new book, The Duty to Stand Aside, Eric Laursen gives the impression that there was some third alternative.

Read the whole thing.

Horse Racing

Mike Huggins talks about his newly-published book Horse Racing and British Society in the Long Eighteenth Century at Proofed, a blog of Boydell and Brewer:

I had not realized how important the annual racing week was in the leisure calendar of so many county and large market towns during the eighteenth century, helping foster consumerism and the urban renaissance. For many women of the middling classes for example, the racing was almost incidental, but was looked forward to for weeks before with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. It offered many social opportunities; socializing with the titled and the county set, attending assemblies, balls, the ordinaries or the theatre, appearing in the grandstand, and dressing up, demonstrating status and conspicuous consumption.

Racing was equally significant politically. The early Jockey Club was much more than a racing club. Its members were mostly Protestant, Whig and committed to the defeat of Stuart Catholicism, and were usually MPs or otherwise leading figures in the political elite, like the Duke of Bolton. Racing played across divisions of Whig and Tory, court and country or Hanover and Jacobite in complex ways. Hanoverian sons demonstrated their independence against their father by spending money racing. Race meetings were sites of assembly for political discourse where prospective and current parliamentarians lobbied for support, exploited the dynamics of patronage, or used attenders as focus groups.

More at the link.

Their Legacy Remains

The latest from Stonehenge:

Ancient WELSHMEN ‘helped build Stonehenge’ by dragging bluestones 140 miles from the Preseli Mountains before they died, corpses reveal

It is now believed the Welshmen helped to build Stonehenge more than 5,000 years ago after helping to drag the stones from the Preseli Mountains of Wales, some 140 miles (225km) from the Wiltshire monument.

Until now, little was known about the origin of the people who built the ancient stone circle, although the origin of the stones was already known.

According to the University of Oxford research, 10 of the 25 cremated skull bones found at Stonehenge belong to people from ‘western Britain’, most likely Wales.

Because the older ‘bluestones’ used to start building Stonehenge also come from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, it raises the possibility the dead people either helped to transport the building blocks, or were taken to the site from there to be buried.

Stonehenge was built in several stages, with construction completed around 3,500 years ago.

Researchers from Oxford University examined the strontium isotope composition in the cremated bones buried at the site between 3,180 and 2,380 BC to reveal where the ancient people spend most of their lives.

In 10 of the fragments of skull, they found chemicals in the remains were consistent with people from western Britain, a region that includes west Wales – the known source of Stonehenge’s ‘bluestones’.

An interesting find, although it’s anachronistic to call them “Welshmen.”

Windsor Castle

From the Independent:

Fascinating images show original Windsor Castle after it was built to defend against medieval Home Counties

Research sheds new light on origins of England’s most famous royal palace outside London

Historians have reconstructed what Britain’s largest medieval fortress – Windsor Castle – originally looked like when it was built to keep the Home Counties under control some nine and a half centuries ago.

Using a series of archaeological discoveries made over recent decades, researchers have been able to calculate that the original 11th century fortress, built by William the Conqueror, was around a fifth of the size of the current castle.

They have also discovered that, although it has always been a Royal fortress, the land on which it stands had to be rented from a private landlord for the first 475 years of the castle’s existence.

More at the link.

Pirates and the Metric System

From Taking Measure, a blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (via Slate Star Codex), an interesting historical anecdote offering a reason why the United States did not adopt the metric system.

Pirates of the Caribbean (Metric Edition)

September 19, 2017
by Keith Martin

To save his own life, Joseph Dombey had an idea. As two pirate ships surrounded the ship he was on in the Caribbean Sea in 1794, Dombey scrambled below deck, disrobing as he went. He appropriated the outfit of one of the ship’s many Spanish sailors and prayed that he had picked up enough of their language during his trips to South America to blend in. Dombey shouldn’t have been in this position. In fact, he shouldn’t have been in the Caribbean at all. None other than Thomas Jefferson himself was expecting to meet with Dombey in Philadelphia at that very moment.

Dombey’s fate that day arguably delayed the adoption of the metric system in the United States by almost a century and left us as one of the few countries in the world still using non-metric units for our everyday measurements.The marauders now swarming Dombey’s ship were a particular breed of pirate: British privateers— the state-sponsored terrorists of the 18th century. These waterborne gangs had the tacit approval of the government in London to harass and plunder other countries’ maritime commerce and keep part of the spoils as their profit.

After seizing control of the ship, the pirates came across a sailor speaking Spanish with a curiously French accent—Joseph Dombey. A French physician and botanist acting under orders from the French government, Dombey had left the port city of Le Havre, France, weeks earlier for Philadelphia and the meeting with Jefferson, the United States’ first secretary of state and future president. But storms had pushed Dombey’s ship off course and deep into pirate territory.

France had supported the United States against the British in the War of Independence, and now they intended to build closer economic ties with the new American nation. Dombey was to negotiate with Jefferson for grain exports to France and to deliver two new French measurement standards: a standard of length (the meter) and a standard of mass called, rather ominously, a grave, to be considered by the U.S. for adoption. (The grave would be renamed the kilogram a year later in 1795.)

In many ways, Dombey was an excellent choice for this mission. Having already been on several trips to South America to collect botanical specimens, he was an experienced trans-Atlantic traveler. His knowledge of plants would also be of help in his agricultural trade negotiations with Jefferson. And Dombey’s scientific training as a physician and botanist gave him an understanding of the importance of accurate weights and measures, so it was highly likely that he would be able to convince Congress to adopt the new French standards, which would later come to be known as the metric system.

Despite his qualifications, Dombey lacked one important attribute: luck. His previous trips had all ended in failure. He had spent two years in Peru collecting plants that could be usefully cultivated in France, only to have the shipment captured by the British. A second collecting trip, this time in Chile and in collaboration with Spain, fell apart over a business dispute, with Spain keeping all the valuable specimens. But Dombey’s voyage to Philadelphia would turn out to be his most disastrous.

Upon learning his true identity, the pirates imprisoned Dombey on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Unfortunately, Dombey died before they were able to ransom him to the French, and the units of measure in his charge never made it into Jefferson’s hands.

Some historians view this event as a tragic missed opportunity whose consequences we are still living with today. When the U.S. became an independent nation, it inherited an inconsistent collection of traditional British weights and measures. Congress was aware of the flaws with its British measures, and a congressional committee was formed to recommend solutions. Thomas Jefferson, an admirer of French scientific ideas, lobbied for a measurement system similar to that of France. But Congress didn’t adopt it, and the British-influenced system took hold in the U.S. instead. However, If pirates hadn’t intercepted Dombey on his way to Philadelphia, the situation might be very different today.

More at the link.

And this also, has been one of the dark places of the Earth

From the Independent (hat tip: Rachelle Smerhy):

First evidence of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain discovered in Kent

The landing site for Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain more than 2,000 years ago has been identified for the first time – in Kent.

His ships arrived at Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet at the north east point of the county, a spot never previously suspected because it was separated from the mainland.

But the location matches Caesar’s own personal account with three clues about the landscape being consistent with the amazing discovery.

These were its visibility from the sea, the existence of a large open bay and the presence of higher ground. His army immediately constructed a fort on it.

Iron weaponry, including a javelin, and other artefacts dug up at the neighbouring hamlet of Ebbsfleet overlooking the bay suggests it was a Roman base dating to the 1st century BC.

More at the link.