WAS LINDISFARNE A BRITTONIC NAVAL BASE IN THE AGE OF ARTHUR?

 

Lindisfarne-0198
Lindisfarne Castle, while only dating to the seventeenth century, overlies older Saxon and perhaps even Brittonic fortifications.

The “Holy Island” of Lindisfarne off the coast of northeastern England is notable for the great monastery established there in the early 7th century, as well as for its most famous expression of Medieval religious art, The Lindisfarne Gospel.[1]  Lindisfarne is also notable for suffering the first recorded Viking attack in 793 A.D., which was preceded, not surprisingly, by the sighting of ferocious dragons in the sky.[2] 

Vikings attack Lindisfarne
A Popular view of the Viking raid on Lindisfarne. via Wikimedia

 

Lindisfarne is not recognized by most modern scholars as having had any military associations tied to its early history, much less naval ones.  However, renewed archaeological interest in Lindisfarne’s early period, coupled with observations made a few years back by Professor Howard Williams, brings to mind some interesting possibilities, which in turn lead us to a suggest a new hypothesis regarding the island’s early history.  Whether this hypothesis will eventually be proven valid or not remains to be seen.

The earliest archaeological evidence of human habitation on Lindisfarne dates to the Late Neolithic era, consisting of a lone stone found out of context with cup-marks on it.  At that period the coastline around Lindisfarne would likely have been far different than from today and, in fact, may not have been an island at all.  Today the “Holy Isle” is a tidal island which can be accessed by land when the tide is out.  Lindisfarne’s relation to sea and shore has doubtless changed several times over the intervening millennia.  Of greater importance for our present concern is Lindisfarne’s geographic proximity to Bamburgh Castle, the royal capital of an Anglian dynasty during the Late Brittonic (or Early Saxon) Period. Lindisfarne was within eyesight of Bamburgh and the relationship between the Northern Anglian dynasty’s royal seat and the island was clearly one of long standing, both religiously and politically.

Bamburgh Castle from beadh Wikimedia 2006
Bamburgh Castle viewed from the beach is within direct eyesight of Lindisfarne. Before becoming an Anglian stronghold, it would have been under Brittonic control.

 

Throughout most of its history, Lindisfarne has been seen in the context of it as a holy place and monastic center.  But there is evidence that it has served a far more secular role in the past as well.  In 2001, the Time Team conducted brief three-day investigation of Lindisfarne, concentrating on sites referred to as “the Priory” and “the Palace.”  Most of their finds from this short survey were of post-Medieval date, but what they discovered was relevant to our present line of inquiry.  The “Palace,” it turns out, was a tavern with an adjacent brew-house and in all likelihood was part of a 16th century naval station.  Similarly, the “Priory” was probably a naval barracks, where definite evidence was found for it having been used to house military supplies, including solid shot for cannon.  The Time Team also uncovered evidence of an earthwork near The Priory, as well as a lost angular bulwark.  A nearby field, today dry land, would have been a tidal basin at that time and was probably a part of the sixteenth century naval station.  All in all, while the Time Team did find assorted Medieval finds (mostly shards of pottery) they determined that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at least, Lindisfarne was “the Portsmouth of the North.[3]

The geographic location of Lindisfarne in far northeastern England made it ideally suited as a place from which Elizabethan fleets might sail out to defend against incursions from both Scotland or from across the North Sea, or indict enemies sailing north from the English Channel; its strategic location would have made it equally useful as a naval base in earlier eras as well.  This fundamental geographic reality of Lindisfarne has not escaped the attention of other scholars, despite the dearth of written sources on the subject.  Professor Williams, in his essay, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” points out that Lindisfarne’s natural harbor on the south shore, coupled with its proximity to the Angle fortress of Bamburgh, would have made it a “key maritime central place” in the seventh and eighth centuries.[4]

Lindisfarne Castle, while looking suitably Medieval to the modern eye, in fact only dates to the seventeenth century, but the castle is located on a large outcropping of rock with clear visibility for miles around and may well have had a genuine military installation atop it in ages past, now covered over or erased by later construction.

These inferences regarding Lindisfarne’s early military and naval importance, throw the infamous Viking attack on the “Holy Island” in an entirely new light.  To be sure, the pious monks with their silver and gold would have been easy targets for the wolves of the sea; but what if the Viking raid had a sound military purpose as well?  A swift, sudden attack on the main Saxon naval base of the north, putting their northern fleet to the torch while it sat at anchor helpless and unmanned, would in one bold blow have shattered Anglo-Saxon maritime defenses and exposed the entire eastern coast of England open to numerous smaller plunder raids.

Without the northern fleet to ward off even these lesser blows, larger Viking raids were inevitable.  The Danes, it should be remembered, invaded Britain from the northeast, of which the attack on Lindisfarne was the opening gambit.  For English chroniclers, steeped in the ethos of a warrior culture, it would have been far less humiliating to record the butchery of pious unarmed monks at the monastery and conveniently omit from their chronicle the fact that the pride of the Saxon navy had been caught unawares and butchered at anchor with sails furled.

Although the Viking raid in 793 may be the first detailed mention of Lindisfarne, we know that it was a thriving place long before that and that there may yet be archaeological evidence of it having had a military function long before the Viking Age.  A new archaeological investigation of Lindisfarne is currently being undertaken, and while only preliminary results are available, the Dig Ventures expedition has already uncovered some interesting finds.  The new expedition is specifically tasked with looking for “Early Medieval” finds, presumably those associated with the monastery established there by St. Aidan in 635.  Among the sites being investigated was a structure called the “Holy Island Heugh” where their first season uncovered the foundation of a massive 25m. wide wall.  The Heugh is a rocky spine of high ground which seemed to protect the monastery from storms coming out of the North Sea; Lindisfarne Castle is built along another such outcropping to the east.[5]  Among some of the small finds from the first season were numerous indicators of early maritime activity, although none specifically naval.[6]

Brian Hope-Taylor in 1962 had determined that the Heugh was scattered with buildings of an early date, so it was a logical site for the present-day excavators to investigate.  Opening a trench on the Heugh, the Dig Ventures team uncovered the massive 25 meter wall; its lack of mortar suggests to them a pre-Norman date, while its size and structure point to it being a tower.  Such a massive construction argues strongly for it being more than simply a “signal tower” and likely served a military purpose.[7]

The military installation on the Lindisfarne Heugh (if such it was) is thought to be of early Saxon date which, if proven true, strongly supports Professor Williams theory regarding Lindisfarne being a Bernician and then a Northumbrian naval base.  But Lindisfarne’s strategic value surely was not only appreciated by the Anglian kings of Benicia; before the area fell under their rule Lindisfarne would have been an important port in the Brittonic Period—an era popularly associated with the Arthurian post-Roman state.  Is there any evidence which can point to a pre-Saxon phase at Lindisfarne and nearby Bamburgh?

Towards the end of the sixth century, a war broke out between the newly established Kingdom of Bernicia, ruled by Theodoric, versus a coalition of Celtic British kings (and a few Irish as well) led by the famous (or infamous) Urien of Rheged.  Bamburgh was taken by a force of the Dalriada Scots, while British armies overran the rest of the upstart Saxon kingdom.  Overwhelmed by superior forces, Theodoric retreated to Ynys Metcaut—the Celtic British name for Lindisfarne.  Although, as with most events of the Brittonic Period, dating is fluid for this campaign the best estimate puts it sometime around AD 590.[8]

The Anglian dynasty of Bernicia would surely have fallen had not Urien been assassinated at the instigation of one of his own sub-kings.  As it was, the siege (or blockade, depending on the translation) of Ynys Metcaut lasted three days and three nights.  Nennius’ text is a bit obscure in this passage and it is not entirely certain whether the siege/blockade of Lindisfarne was raised due to Urien’s death or whether he was perhaps murdered later because of his failure to take the island citadel. In any case, it is clear from the passage that Ynys Metcaut was a military stronghold of some sort and the possibility that there was naval component to the siege is at least implied; whether Urien’s siege was raised by the timely arrival of a Saxon fleet is purely speculative but not unreasonable given the island’s history and geography.

Two ships at sea from Arthurian MS in British Library
Medieval Arthurian MS showing two sailing vessels at sea.

 

All this occurred in the late sixth century, after the unified Brittonic state of the fifth century had disintegrated into separate successor realms governed by competing Celtic warlords, with each seeking hegemony—both over each other and over the Saxon realms that also arose in this era.

Going farther back into the past of this region, when a Celtic Overking or Ameradaur still held sway over most of what had been the Roman diocese of Britannia, it is generally acknowledged that the first Germanic settlers did not come as conquerors, but had been settled as foederati under Octha, military auxiliaries recruited by the British Overking to defend the area against both Picts and less friendly Saxons who might come raiding across the North Sea. They initially replaced Cunedda’s warband of the southern Votadini, who had been dispatched to Wales to deal with the Irish threat there.  While the exact date of the settlement of the first Germanic federates is, again, a moot point, a date in the early to mid fifth century is not unreasonable.

Late Roman early Brittonic warriors & sailors
Late Roman/Early Brittonic Warriors and Sailors, such as might have garrisoned Dinas Guayardi and Ynys Metcaut in the fifth century.

 

It was not until the mid to late sixth century that Ida is believed to have moved north from the Anglian colony of Deira (the Celtic Deywr) and established, probably by force, his headquarters at the former Brittonic stronghold of Din (or Dinas) Guayardi—Bamburgh.[9]  Din Guayardi could well have begun as a Roman signal station in the fourth century or earlier; as a rocky outcropping which guarded the mouth of a river, it also made a natural location for a later Brittonic citadel.  It is believed to have been the capitol of the Brittonic kingdom of Bryneich from the late fifth into the mid sixth century, up until Ida’s revolt. If Lindisfarne was not already a naval base before Ida’s arrival, it would certainly have been so after.

Celtic Sailing Vessel based on Guernsey Ship, artist's reconstruction, Guernsey Museum
Artist’s reconstruction of the Guernsey Ship, a sailing vessel of Celtic style construction.

While the early history of Lindisfarne remains but dimly understood, the geography and topography of Lindisfarne, Ynys Metcaut, would not have changed radically between the late fifth and early seventh centuries, nor would the island’s strategic relationship to northern Britain have changed during that time.  The first garrison could have been Celtic British, superseded by a Saxon garrison in the employ of a local Romano-Celtic polity before Ida’s outright break with his Celtic neighbors.  In any case, the use of Lindisfarne as a naval base would have been the logical outcome of its location under both Brittonic and Anglian rule.

At the present time, despite its fame, its long history and successive archaeological surveys, the systematic investigation of Lindisfarne is just beginning.  Moreover, to date little or no underwater archaeology has been conducted around the island to supplement investigations on land.   While current investigations are concerned with the early Saxon period (largely with seventh century remains), which are scarce enough, one would hope excavators would keep their eyes—and minds—open for earlier Brittonic occupation levels.

We know the Brittonic period favored wooden architecture over stone, so the evidence in the ground may consist of little more than discolorations in the soil where post-holes once lay; it may also be that the post-Roman Brittonic occupation levels were scraped clean by successive construction and reconstruction on the island and that such evidence is absent entirely.  Still, excavators should be made aware of the possibility of their existence, as the subtle testimony of the soil can be easily overlooked or ignored, as it has been on many other sites in the past.

If it is proven that Lindisfarne possessed an early Saxon era naval installation, it inevitably follows that Lindisfarne would have served a similar role in the preceding era.  Reinvestigation of previous sites thought to have had no post-Roman occupation are more and more showing evidence of continuity from the Roman period onward; the whole concept of an “Anglo-Saxon Invasion” has been called into question by a growing number of scholars.[10]  Future careful investigations of the “Holy Island” may yet reveal that Lindisfarne had an as yet undocumented Brittonic Era presence and verify its use as a Dark Age naval base.

 

[1] Janet Backhouse, The Lindisfarne Gospels, (Oxford: Phaidon, 1981).

[2] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A.D. 793:

[3] “Holy Island, Lindisfarne” Time Team, S08, Ep09 (2001): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v4E8zUWA1A

[4] Howard Williams, “Lindisfarne’s Landscape and Seascape,” Archaeodeath Blog, July 10, 2014: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/lindisfarne/comment-page-1/

[5] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “Tools Down” June 27, 2016: https://digventures.com/lindisfarne/timeline/diary/site-diary-tools-down/

[6] Dig Ventures. Site Diary: “A Whale’s Tale” June 18th 2016: https://digventures.com/lindisfarne/timeline/diary/4339/

[7] “Archaeologist’s Find St. Cuthbert’s Tower” Berwick Advertiser, July 12, 2016: http://www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk/news/archaeologists-find-st-cuthbert-s-tower-1-4175447

[8] Nennius, Historia Brittonum, cap.63; the syntax of this passage is somewhat garbled; the way it is phrased makes it uncertain as to whether the Bernician King in question was Theodoric or Hussa. For the war and Urien in general, see John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (NY: Scribers, 1973), 232-237; also see Peter Marren, Battles of the Dark Ages, (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 1988), 60-61.

[9] Anglos-Saxon Chronicle, AD 547. All early dates in the ASC were assigned by later editors and for the fifth and sixth centuries are highly suspect.  For a discussion of the etymology of the place name Lindisfarne and the origin of the Saxon  presence in Bernicia, see Caitlin GreenLindisfarne, the Lindisfaran and the Origins of Anglos Saxon Northumbria” Britons and Anglos-Saxons, Lincolnshire AD 400-650 (Lincoln: History of Lincolnshire Committee, 2012), Chap. 6 235-265.  At least one scholar would put Ida’s revolt against his British overlords at 575; see Donald Henson, “The Early Kings of Bernicia” Academia.Edu (2008):

[10] Dr. Francis Pryor, in his Britain AD (BBC TV Channel 4, 2004), described it as “The Invasion That Never Was,” while other scholars, though more circumspect, also emphasize British continuity over discontinuity.  See, for example Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology” in Nicholas Higham, Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, (Woodbridge, Boydell, 2007) Chapter 3, 27-41; Christopher A. Snyder, “A Gazetteer of Sub-Roman Britain (AD 400-600): The British sites.” Internet Archaeology, (3). (Council for British Archaeology, 1997).

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FIRE VS ICE: WHAT ENDED CLASSICAL CIVILIZATION?

Comets have traditionally been looked upon as harbingers of doom. Maybe the folklore is right after all.
Comets have traditionally been looked upon as harbingers of doom. Maybe the folklore is right after all.

“The bay trees in our country are all wither’d,                                                          And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;                                                              The pale-fac’d moon looks bloody on the earth                                                        And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change;”

—-Shakespeare

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been much chewed over and discussed by scholars for centuries.  Mostly they debate the causes of its political collapse, but almost as debated is the issue of when Classical civilization ended exactly.  The last nominal emperor in the West was in 476 AD and that is often cited as the dividing line, but in truth the political system was in decline for a long time before that and, as Professor J. B. Bury pointed out in one lecture long ago, when the last puppet emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, no one in the West imagined that there would not be some figurehead placed on the throne to replace him after a year or so.  Moreover, the status quo of barbarian—Roman relations in the West, as chaotic as it was, remained more or less in place for several generations more.  In the East, the Imperial government went on without a beat and Justinian, is generally regarded as both the first ruler of the Byzantine era and the last emperor of the Roman one.  Yet even the East suffered a massive trauma and near collapse in the sixth century. Ancient civilization did end and the Middle Ages, at least in the West, was a very different period than that which preceded it.  Moreover, it is generally to the middle decades of the sixth century that we look to as the period of transition from one to the other.

Artist's conception of ancient volcano
Artist’s conception of ancient volcano

Now as in all other things in historiography, you will get various parties arguing that there was no ending and no beginning, that the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all and so forth.  Admittedly, because of the lack of survival of many written sources which might otherwise illumine things for us, the period following Classical Civilization demise appears more dismal than it might otherwise be.  But there was a collapse beyond the political one: in mid sixth century we have record of famines and a catastrophic plague which spread across the known world, killing off millions of people—perhaps even more than the Black Death of the late Middle Ages, which led to the end of Medieval Civilization.  But while famine and plague are certainly proximate causes, in recent decades there has been a gradual dawning among some researchers that a singular natural catastrophe triggered these economically and socially disruptive events.

Did Halley's Comet cause the collapse of Classical Civilizaton? Some think so.
Did Halley’s Comet cause the collapse of Classical Civilizaton? Some think so.

This is not an abstraction, nor is it solely based on literary sources which, while some academics tout the virtues of “close linguistic analysis,” often result in the same source being used to prove opposing viewpoints.  In particular, scientists studying ice cores going back many millennia and more recently the assembling of continuous sequences of tree rings dating back into the Neolithic and beyond,  have observed anomalies in the geophysical record around the middle of the sixth century AD which hint at a climatic event of staggering proportions.  This is not theory but scientific fact; it was severe and it lasted a number of years.  It certainly triggered massive famines worldwide and, as a rule, where famines occur plagues are not far behind.

What was this singular event was that triggered a worldwide climatic crisis?  Here’s where it gets a bit dicey; we have the physical evidence, but what the source of the crisis was is more problematical.  Professor Mike Baillie, an Irish dendrochronologist of some standing in the scientific world, first observed that at certain times during the Holocene, tree ring growth has displayed a dramatic change—a change which could only mean that the trees in question suffered a dramatic trauma.  This shift in the tree ring pattern transcends locale: it was noticeable in Irish tree rings, in those from Germany, from the US, as well as other places in the world, all centered around ca. the 630-645 AD time frame.  Ice core samples similarly reflect something really bad going on in the climate about the same time.  Tracking down the villain, Baillie at first considered volcanic activity, which can spew massive amounts of particulate matter into the upper atmosphere; while not entirely discounting this, however, Baillie concluded that rather it was the effect of either an impact, or the near earth grazing, by a large cometary body which triggered this climate disaster which killed millions and ended Classical Civilization.

Professor Mike Baillie, the leading proponent of comet impacts and near misses profoundly altering human history and world climate.
Professor Mike Baillie, the leading proponent of comet impacts and near misses profoundly altering human history and world climate.

Many historians, I gather, have not warmed to his ideas about catastrophic events causing culture change.  Immanuel Velikovsky, back in the 1950’s argued something similar and then proceeded to rewrite history—something historians don’t like.  Well, Velikovsy’s cosmetology was entirely wrong and his theories rightly dismissed.  But Velikovsky did comb through a welter of ancient sources for references to celestial events, many of which became mythologized in the form of fire gods and dragons; and when the hard science began to emerge about comet and asteroids affecting earth in recent times, some (not all) of his citations began to not look so absurd after all.

Catastrophists still reject Velikovsky’s basic premises, but some of the ancient sources he cited have proven of value, even if historians still tend to ignore them as fictitious or as fantasy.  Bear in mind, every year we pass through the debris of various comets—shooting stars we call them—and are mostly harmless.  One such meteor shower, the Draconid, is particularly interesting because dragons are one ancient metaphor for comets.  Now Baillie’s theory of a cometary cause for the mid-sixth century event is not  dependent on am actual impact—although that may have occurred.  A series of earth grazing comets, occurring one after the other, could also spew enough space dust, meteors and Tunguska-like fragments to trigger a prolonged climatic crisis as well.  The proverbial “dirty snowball” of 536AD and ensuing other close calls may well have ended what was left of Classical Civilization.

Dr. Dull and associate inspecting evidence for the 636 AD Ilopongo Eruption.
Dr. Dull and associate inspecting evidence for the 636 AD Ilopongo Eruption.

However, besides the skepticism of academia, in recent years Baillie’s thesis has been challenged, if not discarded, by an archaeologist/anthropologists working in Central America.  Dr. Robert Dull, environmental scientist researching the Classic Maya Collapse, has argued that the dramatic and sudden change which occurred to Mayan Civilization, and posited that a major volcanic eruption in El Salvador is what not only caused the collapse of the Mayans but of Classical Civilization as well.  That a massive eruption occurred was well known: the giant caldera of  Lake Ilopanga exists to prove the event.  Dating, however, was considerably more problematical.  Finally, according to the National Geographic documentary series, Perfect Storms, Prof. Dull did find one carbonized tree trunk which he had analyzed, and which yielded a date close to 636 AD—the approximate time of both the Mayan and the Classical collapses.  Because National Geographic carries far more clout in the media than the obscure scientific journals Prof. Baillie has published in, or the specialized books that Baillie has published on the subject, Dr. Dull’s theory seems have become dominant—at least among anthropologists and the media.

So here we have it: Dull versus Baillie, fire versus ice; but who is correct?  I’m sure there are some academics out there who would say “none of the above;” but before rejecting both out of hand, I would recommend reading Mike Baillie’s Exodus to Arthur, which provides a good summary of his theories up to 1999.  Where Baillie relies on sub Roman British historians for his chronology of the fifth and early century, I’m afraid he is off, but that is not a defect in his ideas, merely of the historiography he relied on to supply him historical dates; where he instead relies on his dendrochronolgy and on ice core evidence, he is at his strongest.  For Dull, the Ilopango eruption is THE cause; while the documentary makes a good case for the Classic Maya Collapse being triggered by the Ilopango supervolcano, the linkage to the Justinian Plague and associated famines is assumed rather than proven.  However, see the “Dark Age Volcano” episode of Perfect Storms, either on the National Geographic Channel or on YouTube:

The way National Geographic weights the evidence, it makes Dull’s thesis seem as though it is the sole explanation of both events.  Moreover, more than ten years before, Prof. Baillie had theorized that cometary events might actually trigger volcanic events; certainly the reverse cannot be true.  So, while Dr. Dull’s arguments seem persuasive, his is not necessarily the only explanation.  The controversy continues and one would hope that a healthy discussion in the future will lead us all closer to the truth.

More recently, scientists analyzing ice core samples with up to date techniques, have found that much of the “stuff” that was deposited ca. 536 AD is extraterrestrial in origin: “I have all this extraterrestrial stuff in my ice core,” study leader Dallas Abbott, of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory opined to LiveScience/Huffington Post in 2013.  While acknowledging that they also found traces of volcanic material also dating to 536, Dr. Abbott said it almost certainly wasn’t big enough to change the climate so dramatically.

Who is correct? My own opinion is that Baillie is on the right track; but that does not necessarily negate Dr. Dull’s research. Unfortunately, while Dr. Baillie has written about his theories extensively, I could not find any academic publicatons by Dull, just articles in the popular media and, of course, the National Geographic documentary. I understand that he presented his theory orally at a meeting of the Association of American Geographers in 2012, but couldn’t find a copy of that lecture or any subsequent paper in print form. Perhaps Dr. Dull’s academic papers are available somewhere and I just haven’t located them.  Or perhaps the geographer has fallen prey to the chronic problem which besets archaeologists: digging and digging and not publishing their findings in a timely manner.  I have, unfortunately, known some distinguished archaeologists who perished before they published.

Comets were called "Broom Stars" by the Chinese, because their appearance meant life tended to be swept away by them.
Comets were called “Broom Stars” by the Chinese, because their appearance meant life tended to be swept away by them.

Regardless, I do believe that from time to time catastrophes of staggering proportion do strike without warning and when they do humans are virtually powerles to change the course of events. While it would be nice to think that the immutable forces of history control the march of events like some great orderly engine, it rather seems that nature’s fickle hand of fate intervenes to jumble things up from time to time for us. At the least, it would be good to learn more about this celestial pinball game before we get behind the eight ball once more, no?

The Real Dance of the Dragons

The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis.  From a 15th century copy of Nennius' Historia Brittonum.
The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis. From a 15th century copy of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum.

 

In George R. R. Martin’s magnum opus, Songs of Fire and Ice, the latest published volume, A Dance With Dragons, as well as in the similarly named episode of the television series, makes passing reference to a curious tale about a young knight who attempts to slay a dragon by using a polished shield, thinking the dragon will see only its own reflection; the young knight is burned to a crisp for his efforts.  It turns out that this short tale is but part of a much larger fictitious history, called “The Dance of the Dragons, A True Telling” relating to a previous civil war in the realm of Westeros between members of the previous dynasty, the Targaryens.  It turns out that there are various versions of both the knight’s tale and the happenings alluded to in the referenced (non-existent) book.  Although at present a minor part of Martin’s fantasy mythos, the referenced history itself provides a foundational understanding to the later happenings of the realm that Martin has clearly modeled on medieval Great Britain.

As with other elements in his historical fantasy, Martin has borrowed story elements and motifs from actual British history and rewove them into his sub-creation which has now become a best selling phenomenon.  Although it plays but a minor role in his epic, it is not hard to see that it is heavily influenced by the semi-legendary real foundation myth of the Britain.  As one of Martin’s characters relates, the dragons (actually personifications of the warring members of the Targaryen dynasty) are not really “dancing” so much as warring with one another.  In this regard, the allegory is much closer to its British archetype than I think either fans of Martin, or academic historians of Dark Age Britain, may be willing to concede.

In Nennius’ Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, after the massacre of the Elders of Britain and uprising of the Saxons, the discredited monarch Vortigern retreats westward fearing both rebellious subjects and the mutinous Saxons and decides to build a castle with his remaining loyal followers at Dinas Emrys in Wales.  However, the masons are continually thwarted, as whatever they construct during the day is mysteriously undone at night.  Vortigern’s “wise men” tell him that a human sacrifice is needed to undue the magic spell cursing the site where he is trying to build a stronghold.  A boy born without any human father must be killed and his blood sprinkled over the site.  In due course such a child is found, but as he is about to be slaughtered he astounds the King and counselors with his own prophetic vision.

Another medieval illustration of the "Dance of the Dragons" as rendered in Nennius.  Egerton 3028 BM ms.
Another medieval illustration of the “Dance of the Dragons” as rendered in Nennius. Egerton 3028 BM ms.

The wunderkind proclaims that only he can solve the mystery of the collapsing castle.  He instructs the kingsmen to dig into the ground, where they uncover a pond; he then instructs them to drain the pond, where they uncover two dragons, red and white, who proceed to duel one another.  The astonishing vision is explained by the prophetic child as symbolic of Britain: the Red Dragon represents the Welsh, the white one the Saxons and the two “dragons” will fight for possession of the land of Britain until the Red Dragon at last vanquishes the White, but not after much bloodshed and destruction.  Such, in short is the tale, although Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others disagree on a number of details.

Not surprisingly, historians have dismissed the story as utter nonsense, labeling Nennius’ entire history as “pseudo-history” and Geoffrey’s—well they never did have much faith in Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historian anyway.  While clearly framed in mytho-poetical terms, the story relates some basic historical realities, albeit much disguised and distorted; however, that is beyond our main point here.  The Prophecy of the Two Dragons as related by Welsh tradition is in fact the basic foundation myth of Great Britain and as such transcends whatever historical realities which may be disguised in the story.  In later times it would be referenced again and again to cite one faction or claimant’s legitimacy, or lack thereof.  Not surprisingly, when Henry Tudor (or to give the Welsh spelling, Twdwr) fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he carried not the English St. George’s cross into battle, but rather the Red Dragon of Wales as his battle standard.  So as not to leave any doubt about his partisanship for the Welsh cause, Henry (in English terms Henry VII) named his first son Arthur, so that, as the ancient Welsh prophecy foretold, Arthur would once day rule again over a united Britain.  Unfortunately, though Henry VII ended the English Civil War—the War of the Roses—Arthur did not become king again, and the Welsh prophecy remains to be fulfilled.

It is easy enough to dismiss the Prophecy of the Two Dragons as pure fantasy, like George Martin’s works; but Welsh legends and myth generally have a factual basis, if one is willing to spend some time unraveling the entangled truth (most academics are not so inclined) and, more importantly, this legend has had a far deeper cultural impact on British history than any historical details which may be gleaned from it.  At a later date I may detail the historical background underlying the Legend of the Two Dragons, although it is convoluted and bound to stir disagreement as to interpretation; but for now let us just appreciate the foundation myth as myth and George R. R. Martin’s creative appropriation of it

British History and the Game of Thrones

Songs of Fire and Ice series of books by George R R Martin were the basis for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.
Song of Fire and Ice series of books by George R R Martin were the basis for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

In honor of the start of the latest season of the popular sword, sex and sorcery television series, Game of Thrones, we will depart from our regular agenda of discussing what some regard as the equally fabulous Age of Arthur, and discuss the relationship between George R. R. Martin’s best selling novels and actual medieval history.  He has, with some justification, been labeled “the American Tolkien.”

Martin has acknowledged that much in his violent series of books is modeled on British history, although he has obviously tweaked the fantasy elements quite a bit—but even here he has borrowed more generously from Celtic British folklore and myth as well.  George actually comes from a Sci-Fi background, having won numerous accolades for his legitimate Science Fiction work.  Upon a time, the aficionados of Sci Fi and those of Fantasy never met: the science geeks looked down on the sword and sorcery bunch, priding themselves on basing their works closely on scientific theory.  Indeed, it often turns out that Sci Fi writers have been hard put to keep ahead of scientific fact, so rapidly have the speculations of fiction writers been turned into mundane science.  Perhaps that may have motivated the veteran Science Fiction writer Martin to turn to the “dark side” (so to speak) of Fantasy.  At any rate, with millions of fans hungering for more books to come out in the series, no one these days is complaining about his having betraying the “purity” of Science Fiction writing for Medieval Fantasy.

 

While we can’t cover the entire spectrum of Martin’s fantasy world, we will touch on one or two motifs and elements which are clearly borrowed from British history.  Obviously, the civil war which absorbs most of the series emulates the later medieval conflicts such as the Baron’s War and more closely the War of the Roses.  The similarity of the “House of Lannister” to the House of Lancaster virtually goes without saying, although not necessarily their sadism and incest.  The bloodthirsty course of the wars and the often equally violent acts of the subsequent Tudor dynasty are scarcely less replete in gore than their fictional counterparts.

One chapter which stunned television audiences in particular was the episode known as “the Red Wedding.”  For reasons best known to George, his wedding scenes tend towards the murderous and the Red Wedding is one aptly named, as drenched in gore as it is.  While others may take issue with me on this score, I cannot help seeing in this episode a strong reflection of an event famous in Welsh history, although English historians prefer to believe it never happened: the Brad y Cyllyll Hirion, translated alternately as “The Treachery of the Long Knives” or “The Massacre of the Elders of Britain.”  The incident occurred when Vortigern, the first ruler of a united Britain after the departure of the Romans, had come to become dependent on a mercenary army composed of German barbarians—the Saxons.  As was typical in the fifth century AD, their leader, Hengist, had ingratiated himself with the sovereign, to the point where Vortigern married Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, and become a virtual puppet ruler.  The Britains, unlike the Romans on the continent, however, did not meekly submit to barbarian domination.  Ambrosius, a Romano-British general, had revolted but was defeated and forced into exile.  Meanwhile, Vortigern, ever the skilfull politician, had cobbled together a compromise, reconciling Celt and Saxon.  The compromise was to be celebrated at a feast, which tradition holds was held near Amesbury.  However, at a pre-arranged signal, the Saxon warlords, ostensibly unarmed, drew knives from under their cloaks and attacked the Celtic “Elders”—the Senate that governed Britain under the elected sovereign.  Only a handful of native British leaders escaped the massacre and the Saxons followed their treachery by widespread pillaging, looting and rape.  Such, at least, is the Welsh version of the story.  Every since, any act of political deceit or treachery on the part of the English against the Welsh has been figuaratively referred to as the Brad y Cyllyll Hirion.  It does not take too much imagination to picture the treacherous massacre of the Red Wedding as borrowed in substance from Welsh historical tradition.

Also borrowed from Welsh lore is the central role of the Raven in the epic series of books: communication over vast distances is done by ravens, not messenger pigeons; likewise, one of the stark boys is called Bran, which is Welsh for raven, a bird with strong supernatural and prophetic ties in Welsh myth and legend.  We shall delve more deeply into Bran and his antecedents in a futrue essay, but for now, suffice it to say, the name strongly suggests supernatural powers of second sight and prophecy.

 

Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister for the television adaptation.
Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister for the television adaptation.

Well, a new season of mayhem, murder and naughtiness is upon us.  I leave one and all to enjoy Game of Thrones and await George R. R. Matin’s latest offering in print

 

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