As chance would have it, today I discovered two interesting items from Caitlin Green, an archaeologist of Roman and medieval Britain and currently a tutor at the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge.
The first was an article of hers that originally appeared in The Heroic Age in 2012:
John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic
From 1577 to 1580 the English polymath John Dee was engaged in manufacturing and disseminating some extraordinary claims on behalf of the English monarchy and its imperial ambitions. Most intriguingly, Dee, generally seen as the originator of the phrase ‘the British Empire’, argued that Queen Elizabeth could assert dominion over a vast tract of the northern globe and the New World, partially by dint of it having been once conquered and ruled by the Tudors’ reputed early medieval ancestor, King Arthur. In his most important treatment of the issue, the Brytanici Imperii Limites (‘Limits of the British Empire’) of 1578, he wrote that Elizabeth could claim “title royall to all the coastes and ilandes begining at or about Terra Florida and so alongst, or neere vnto Atlantis [=America], goinge northerly, and then to all the most northern ilands great and small, and so compassinge about Groenland [=Greenland], eastwards until the teritoris opposite vnto the farthest easterlie and northen boundes of the Duke of Moscovia his dominions…” Dee’s arguments, culminating in the Limites, do not rest exclusively upon Arthur’s supposed conquest of the northern latitudes – an Oxford friar, the Welsh Prince Madoc, and St Brendan the Navigator were all also cited as evidence for a historical dominion and thus current ownership – but Dee himself admitted that his case did ‘depende cheiflie vppon our Kinge Arthur’. As a result, Dee went to some pains to legitimise his Arthurian material, complaining that the profusion of ‘fables, glosinges, vntruthes, and impossibilities, incerted in the true historie of King Arthure’ meant that the ‘truth ytselfe’ of Arthur’s historical acts – as Dee conceives them – was often disbelieved or ignored, and can only be retrieved through a purging of the parasitic legends that had gathered around it, something which Dee proceeded to do. Having weeded out the ‘untruths’ from his gathered Arthurian narratives, Dee could confidently proclaim that Arthur had conquered Gaul, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, all the northern islands around Russia i.e. the entire Arctic Ocean abutting northern Europe, Estotiland (which may be the Canadian Baffin Island, if it describes a real place), and even up to the North Pole itself.
This reminds me of a paper I wrote in graduate school and I’m annoyed that I did not discover John Dee in the course of my research for it! The historicity of King Arthur was much debated in Tudor England: Polydor Vergil, an Italian humanist at the court of Henry VII, got the ball rolling in his Anglica Historica (1513), which deals with Arthur in a single paragraph:
At this time Utherius departed owte of the world, after whome succeded his sonne Arthur, being noe doubte suche a mann as, if hee hadd lived longe, hee surelie would have restored the whole somme beeing allmost loste to his Britons. As concerninge this noble prince, for the marvelus force of his boddie, and the invincible valiaunce of his minde, his posteritee hath allmost vaunted and divulged suche gestes, as in our memorie emong the Italiens ar commonlie noysed of Roland, the nephew of Charles the Great bie his sister, allbeit hee perished in the flour of his yowthe; for with woonderus admiration they extol Arthure unto the heavens, alleginge that hee daunted three capitans of the Saxons in plaine feelde; that hee subdewed Scotlande with the Iles adjoyninge; that in the teritorie of the Parisiens hee manfullie overthrew the Romaines, with there capitan Lucius; that hee didd depopulat Fraunce; that finallie hee slewe giauntes, and appalled the hartes of sterne and warlike menne. This redowbted conqueror, of so manifolde exploits, is reported to have ben sodainle retrayted from his jornay with domesticall contention, while hee minded to invade Rome, and consequentlie to have extinguished his tratorus nephew, Mordred, who usurped the regall power in his absence, in which conflict hee himselfe receaved a fatall stroke and baleful wounde, whereof he died. Not manie years since in the abbey of Glastonburie was extructed for Arthur a magnificent sepulchre, that the posteritee might gather how worthie he was of all monuments, whearas in the dayse of Arthure this abbaye was not builded.
This attack is actually rather mild, consisting of the brevity of the passage (cf. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who devotes five of the twelve books in his twelfth-century Historia Regum Brittaniae to the subject of King Arthur), the use of the word “alleging,” and the demonstration that King Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury was anachronistic. But even if Vergil was simply employing new techniques of humanist critical enquiry, he was still a foreigner, attacking a hometown hero! So for the rest of the century a number of Englishmen vociferously defended King Arthur, using the same techniques (or what they imagined to be the same techniques) to argue that King Arthur did in fact exist – and running down Vergil and Italians for good measure. Of course, some of the embarrassingly exaggerated Arthurian stories had to go – just as Dee discarded some of the more fanciful material in his own investigation. But that didn’t mean that King Arthur himself didn’t exist!
(“Cleaning up” fanciful medieval legends, rather than discarding them entirely, also played itself out with the figure of St. George: Pope Clement VII, stung by Protestant mockery, tried to expunge all mention of the dragon from prayers to St. George in breviaries and missals of the church, while maintaining that he was still worthy of veneration.)
The second item of Dr. Green’s was an interesting post on her blog today:
The aim of the following post is to offer a draft look at an interesting Arabic account of early medieval Britain that appears to have its origins in the late ninth century. Despite being rarely mentioned by British historians concerned with this era, this account has a number of points of interest, most especially the fact that it may contain the earliest reference yet encountered to there having been seven kingdoms (the ‘Heptarchy’) in pre-Viking England and the fact that its text implies that Britain was still considered to be somehow under Byzantine lordship at that time.
Read the whole thing.