The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Heroby Simon Andrew Stirling
A controversial book offering new evidence that Arthuir mac Aedain was the real King Arthur
Arthur led the Britons to the brink of victory but was cut down by treachery and betrayal. Arthurian legends have since been corrupted, leading to popular but false assumptions about the king and the belief that his grave could never be found. Drawing on a vast/b>
A controversial book offering new evidence that Arthuir mac Aedain was the real King Arthur
Arthur led the Britons to the brink of victory but was cut down by treachery and betrayal. Arthurian legends have since been corrupted, leading to popular but false assumptions about the king and the belief that his grave could never be found. Drawing on a vast range of sources and new translations of early British and Gaelic poetry, this book explodes these myths and exposes the shocking truth. In this, the first full biography of Arthur, Simon Andrew Stirling provides a range of proof that Artuir mac Aedain was the original King Arthur. He identifies the original Camelot, the site of Arthur's last battle, and his precise burial location. For the first time ever, the role played by the early Church in Arthur's downfall and the fall of North Britain is also revealed. This includes the Church's contribution to fabricated Arthurian history, the unusual circumstances of his burial, and the extraordinary history of the sacred isle on which he was buried.
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The King Arthur Conspiracy
How A Scottish Prince Became A Mythical Hero
By Simon Andrew Stirling
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Simon Andrew Stirling
All rights reserved.
Dragon of the Island
AVALON, THE blessed island on which Arthur was buried. Where is it?
Had it not been for centuries of obfuscation, misdirection, make-believe and propaganda, that question would not need to be asked. Finding Avalon is much the same as finding Arthur: it cannot be done unless prejudices are eschewed and myths laid bare. The facts are that Arthur did exist and the island of his burial can be visited. That is the good news. The bad news is that all this was hidden for so many years because of a conspiracy: a conspiracy that began during Arthur's lifetime; a conspiracy, moreover, which led directly to the fall of Britain.
Such conspiracy talk can often seem far-fetched – by the end of this book the reader will be able to judge for themselves whether or not there was a conspiracy to overthrow him and hand power to his enemies. That conspiracy was of its time; in the case of Arthur, though, we are actually dealing with two conspiracies. The second continues to this day, appropriating his legacy and seeking to turn Arthur into something he was not. For evidence of the latter one has only to visit the county of Somerset in south-west England.
Approaching the town of Glastonbury, the visitor is greeted by a road sign proudly announcing that Glastonbury is the 'ANCIENT ISLE OF AVALON'. Once a thriving religious community, Glastonbury has now become a centre of the New Age movement. The town is dominated by a steep, conical hill known as the Tor, which has attracted more than its fair share of legend. But the association of Glastonbury with Arthur's Isle of Avalon rests on nothing more than an act of deception.
The abbey at Glastonbury was established 300 or 400 years after the death of Arthur. Then, in 1184, disaster struck: the old church was destroyed by fire. Money was urgently needed to build a more durable structure, and the principal source of money was pilgrims. The monks had to come up with a plan to lure pilgrims in their thousands to Glastonbury. It was King Henry II who threw the monks a lifeline by wondering out loud whether the grave of Arthur might not be found in the abbey precinct.
Henry II died in 1189 and was succeeded by his son Richard, nicknamed 'Lionheart'. Richard's overriding interest was the Third Crusade, for which he too needed funds, and so he summoned Henri de Sully, the Abbot of Fécamp in Normandy, over to Glastonbury to work a miracle. Henri de Sully had already turned the abbey at Fécamp into a profitable enterprise by making the most of its holy relics, which supposedly included a bone from the arm of Mary Magdalene and a quantity of Christ's own blood. In their different ways, both of these relics would magically reappear at Glastonbury, the latter in the form of the mysterious receptacle known as the Holy Grail.
The monks of Glastonbury began their excavations in 1191. In no time at all they had unearthed a grave 'between two stone pillars that were erected long ago in that holy place'. The grave contained two skeletons 'hidden very deep in the earth in an oak-hollow', one being that of a large man with a damaged skull, the other belonging to a woman whose golden hair crumbled to dust when it was grasped by one of the monks.
There is no evidence that a Christian settlement existed at Glastonbury in Arthur's time, and if one did it was not significant enough to be mentioned in Bede's eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Equally, there were no strong grounds at all for believing that Arthur was buried there, and perhaps a certain amount of scepticism greeted the claims that Arthur's grave had been discovered. To overcome these doubts a propagandist by the name of Giraldus Cambrensis ('Gerald of Wales') was brought in to provide an 'eye-witness account' of the discovery and to add a few details of his own. Writing in 1193, Giraldus went into overdrive:
What is now called Glastonbury was, in antiquity, called the Isle of Avalon; it is like an island because it is entirely hemmed in by swamps. In Welsh it is called Inis Avallon, that is insula pomifera, 'The Island of Apples', because the apple, which is called aval in the Welsh tongue, was once abundant in this place ...
Giraldus was right, insofar as the Welsh word for an 'apple' is afal. In all other regards, though, he was wrong. Almost certainly, Giraldus had misidentified the kind of apples for which Avalon was famous, and his claim that Glastonbury was the Isle of Avalon had no basis in fact.
Giraldus Cambrensis was on a roll, however. He described a leaden cross he claimed had been discovered on the underside of the gravestone. The cross bore a Latin inscription, which read:
HERE LIES ENTOMBED KING ARTHUR, WITH GUENEVERE HIS SECOND WIFE, IN THE ISLE OF AVALON
It does not appear to have occurred to Giraldus that 'Guenevere' was a medieval French version of the name of Arthur's queen and, therefore, not quite authentic. The leaden cross vanished many years ago, but William Camden made a sketch of it in 1607. Camden's sketch shows no reference whatsoever to Arthur's 'second wife'. Giraldus, it would seem, had dreamt that bit up.
Still, the 'discovery' of the grave, along with the publicity campaign undertaken by Giraldus Cambrensis, did the trick. Pilgrims flocked to Glastonbury (rather like their latter-day counterparts, now known as tourists) and their cash paid for the reconstruction of the abbey and for the Lionheart's military adventures in the Holy Land. As an added benefit, the rebellious Welsh were thoroughly discomfited. For years they had predicted the return of their glorious culture hero. Once his bones had been found mouldering in an English grave, the prospect of him riding forth again seemed much less likely.
The 'discovery' of Arthur's remains had been engineered to boost the fortunes of Glastonbury Abbey, but the effects would be far-reaching. In the summer of 2008, an exhibition entitled King Arthur: A Legend in the Making opened at the French university of Rennes. The event's curator, Sarah Toulouse, told the world's press, 'King Arthur is a mythical character who was invented at a certain point in history for essentially political reasons.'
There is, sadly, some truth in that statement, but it is not the full story. Ms Toulouse continued: 'If [King Arthur] had really existed there would be more concrete historical traces of him.' Those historical traces are not difficult to find, if one is prepared to look in the right direction. A hero named Arthur undoubtedly existed, but his legend was stolen, uprooted from its proper place and time and transplanted to another country. Few acts of cultural appropriation can compare with this flagrant theft. Quoted in the BBC's Radio Times magazine in 2011, author Peter Ackroyd described one of the more famous versions of the Arthur legend as 'a story of Englishness'. But Arthur was never English. England did not exist in his day. Ackroyd's statement offers proof of the fact that the cult of Arthur was commandeered by his enemies.
The scam of Arthur's grave and the subsequent myth that Glastonbury was the Isle of Avalon formed a major part of the conspiracy to reinvent Arthur as an English paragon. Not for nothing has Glastonbury been described by one writer as a 'factory of fraud' and a 'laboratory of forgeries'. The same manipulative cynicism was brought into play more than three centuries after the faked discovery of Arthur's grave, when Glastonbury's interests were once again threatened. On this occasion it was another King Henry – the eighth of that name – who had set his sights on the vast wealth of the Church. His officers were standing by to 'suppress' the monasteries and seize their assets for the Crown.
With exquisite timing, at that precise moment – 1536 – a manuscript appeared; known to scholars as the Hafod MS 19, it also goes by the more enticing title of The Greal.
The manuscript contained an account of the life of St Collen, an obscure British saint more commonly associated with the parish of Llangollen in Wales. The tale, as told by the Glastonbury monks, had St Collen inhabiting a primitive hovel at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. One day, Collen overheard two men outside who were talking about Gwyn ap Nudd (pronounced 'gwin ap nith') and saying that he was the 'King of Annwn and of the fairies'. Collen stuck his head out of the door and reprimanded the men with the words: 'Hold your tongues quickly, those are but Devils.' The men replied that it was Collen who should hold his tongue, lest he receive a rebuke from the mighty Gwyn.
A little later, a messenger knocked on the door to Collen's hut, inviting him to a meeting with Gwyn ap Nudd on the Tor at noon. For two days, Collen ignored the summons. On the third day, he armed himself with a flask of holy water and climbed the hill to meet with the 'King of Annwn'.
On the summit of the Tor, Collen saw 'the fairest castle he had ever beheld', surrounded by the 'best-appointed troops', the most talented minstrels and 'maidens of elegant aspect'. Courteously, Collen was ushered into the castle, where the king was seated on a throne of gold. Gwyn ap Nudd offered the saint an abundance of sweetmeats and entertainments, to which Collen responded with a fit of righteous fury and a well-aimed dash of holy water, instantly sending Gwyn and his court back to the realm of everlasting fire and interminable cold.
The story, as told in 1536, was a thinly veiled parable: such was the sanctity of Glastonbury that it could withstand the blandishments of luxury-loving kings like Gwyn ap Nudd, and like Henry VIII. The propaganda machine had swung into action once more, but this time it failed in its mission. Three years after The Greal appeared, the king's officers swooped. The walls of the abbey were torn down, its library plundered and burnt; even the black marble tomb to which the supposed remains of Arthur and his queen had been transferred was destroyed, and the last Abbot of Glastonbury was marched up to the top of the Tor and cruelly butchered.
The myth, however, refused to die. Along with the fabricated legend of the Holy Grail at Glastonbury, the notion that the Tor was the dwelling place of the king of the fairies, Gwyn ap Nudd, is regularly trotted out in books of British folklore. Glastonbury had not only laid claim to having been the Isle of Avalon – it was now also Annwn (pronounced 'an-noon'), the Celtic Otherworld. And all this on the basis of a tale concocted simply to preserve the abbey from the greed of King Henry VIII and his supporters.
On the face of it, there is little to link the Glastonbury legend of St Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd with the historical Arthur. But the fact is that Glastonbury had again turned to the traditions of Arthur and his people in an attempt to bolster its spiritual reputation. St Collen, as we shall discover, was implicated in the assassination of Arthur, while Gwyn ap Nudd was one of Arthur's closest companions.
Gwyn ap Nudd – the name meant 'Blessed son of Mist' – is traditionally thought of as a very British sort of Devil: a lord of the underworld who rides out on stormy nights at the head of his pack of spectral hounds. A fourteenth-century manuscript preserves an invocation uttered by Welsh magicians:
ad regum Eumenidium et regina eius: Gwynn ap Nudd qui es ultra in silva pro amore concubine tue permitte nos venire domum
to the king of the Fates and his queen: Gwyn son of Nudd, who is far off in the forest, for the love of your lover permit us to enter your domain
The assumption, then, is that Gwyn was some sort of British god. But the gods of today tend to be the heroes of yesteryear, and before he was demonised in Christian fables the original Gwyn was a princely poet and a prophet. It is he who will eventually lead us to the true place of Arthur's burial.
His story was transcribed by Llewellyn Sion, a Welsh bard of the sixteenth century, who introduced him as Gwion Bach or Little Gwyn. He was raised by a foster-father named Gwreang (meaning 'page' or 'squire') and, at an early age, made the short journey from the old Roman fort at Caereinion to the lake of Llyn Tegid in the kingdom of Gwynedd.
Llyn Tegid is better known in English as Bala Lake. It is a long, deep stretch of water, hemmed in by mountains and cleansed by the River Dee, which runs the entire length of the lake on its way, via Llangollen (the parish of Gwyn's persecutor), to its junction with the sea near Liverpool. The lake is also the home of a supernatural water-monster affectionately known as 'Teggie'.
In Gwyn's day, Llyn Tegid was the site of a finishing school for the British nobility. Central to the cultic nature of this school was a remarkable cauldron, which dispensed what Gwyn would refer to as the 'liquor of science and inspiration'. The divine patron of the cauldron was a sow-goddess called Ceridwen. The goddess was said to be the spiritual partner of Tegid the Bald, who was perhaps none other than 'Teggie', the resident monster of the lake.
On arrival at the Llyn Tegid college, Little Gwyn was given the task of tending the fire that warmed the sacred cauldron of inspiration. The cauldron was being prepared for a lad named Morfrân (meaning 'Cormorant'), who was so hideously ugly that he was also known as Afagddu (from afanc, a 'water-monster', and du, meaning 'black'). The cauldron's gift of poetic inspiration was intended to compensate Morfrân for his ghastly appearance. But where Morfrân was horrible to look at, his sister was the absolute opposite. She was a striking beauty known as Creirwy.
Morfrân is mentioned elsewhere in early British literature as one of the few survivors of Arthur's last battle; he was also the father of the original Merlin. Creirwy, meanwhile, was even more crucial to the story of Arthur. Her name (pronounced 'cray-ir-ooy') seems to have drawn on crëyr, the Welsh word for a 'heron'. The lovely Creirwy would, therefore, appear to have had something in common with the grey, ghostly and elegant bird – perhaps because the heron stands on one leg, which was also the stance adopted by Celtic seers. The likelihood is that Creirwy, as a senior priestess of the cauldron cult, was a prophetess. She was also destined to give birth to the most famous hero of them all.
Creirwy and Morfrân were lined up to play the parts of goddess and consort in what would have been a joint initiation. But, according to legend, fate intervened to ensure that it was Little Gwyn who received the blessing of the cauldron. Three droplets of the mystical brew splashed onto his hand. Gwyn thrust his smarting fingers into his mouth and instantly gained wisdom and enlightenment. The cauldron gave a shriek and broke into pieces, spilling its remaining contents into a stream and poisoning the horses of the local magnate.
With his newly acquired knowledge, Gwyn realised that he was in trouble. As the goddess Ceridwen lumbered towards him, furious that the cauldron's goodness had been stolen, Gwyn turned himself into a hare and gambolled away. The goddess transformed herself into a greyhound and chased after him. Gwyn leapt into a river, becoming a fish. Ceridwen took on the form of an otter. Next, Gwyn flew up into the air as a bird, but the goddess transformed herself into a hawk. Finally, Gwyn spied a farmyard and dropped down into the middle of it, disguised as a grain of wheat. Ceridwen changed her shape into that of a great crested hen and swallowed him whole.
Gwyn's transformations find their echo in the Scottish legend of Tam Lin. Abducted by the Queen of Elfland, Tam Lin was rescued by his lover Janet, who had to hold him fast while he took on a variety of menacing forms. Such shape-shifting seems to have been an integral part of a poet's visit to the Otherworld, and it was Creirwy's task to hold Gwyn still as he wrestled with the demons of his imagination.
The 'liquor of science and inspiration' almost certainly contained hallucinogens which, once imbibed, gave the initiate the sensation of being chased and of passing through different states. Writing in the person of Merlin, a churchman of the twelfth century clearly grasped what the ritual was all about:
I was taken out of my true self, I was as a spirit and knew the history of people long past and could foretell the future. I knew then the secrets of nature, bird flight, star wanderings and the way fish glide.
The story of Little Gwyn suggests that he jumped the queue for this trippy experience, inadvertently taking the place of the ugly Morfrân. In reality, Gwyn's preferential treatment was probably the result of blood ties and politics.
The horses that were poisoned when the cauldron shrieked and fell apart belonged to one Gwyddno Garanhir, whose epithet meant 'Tall-Crane'; like Creirwy, Gwyddno was associated with the sacred bird of letters and foresight. Gwyddno (pronounced 'gwi-th-no') governed the province of Meirionydd, a subdivision of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. His roots were in the North, however: he was a descendant of the venerable Dyfnwal, onetime overlord of the British kingdom of Strathclyde. The sons of Dyfnwal the Old had spread out to occupy most of what we now think of as the Scottish Lowlands. One of Dyfnwal's grandsons was Clydno, the ruler of Lothian (Clydno's epithet, 'Eidyn', indicates that he controlled the citadel of Din Eidyn – Edinburgh). Clydno Eidyn had at least two children: a son known as Cynon and a daughter named Creirwy.
Excerpted from The King Arthur Conspiracy by Simon Andrew Stirling. Copyright © 2012 Simon Andrew Stirling. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Meet the Author
Simon Andrew Stirling has been a professional writer for 20 years, with credits including science, history, and television drama programs. He received a Writers' Guild Award in 1995 for his work on the BBC's Between the Lines.
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With its wealth of historical and mythical information, this book is a truly fascinating read. I loved the lyrical sound of the Celtic and Gaelic names, and the author’s deep knowledge of his subject shone through clearly. I was effortlessly guided back through the ages to a time of warring tribes, warrior kings and early Christian saints; secretive Druidic cults and ancient bards. Simon Stirling wields a masterful pen as he skilfully unpicks the deliberate web of deceit and misdirection surrounding the figures of Arthur, ‘Merlin’ and Taliesin, to reveal the human beings beneath. Despite my interest in the premise behind this book I confess I was reluctant to have the trappings of legend stripped away from my idea of ‘King Arthur’ (probably because I’m an author of fantasy novels!). After reading it, however, I find I can appreciate and admire the man of history while leaving the myth untouched. I now have a longing to visit the places of Arthur’s great battles, to walk beside his grave, and to admire for myself the great cauldron that came to be known as the Holy Grail. I would recommend this fascinating and well written book to anyone with a love of history, a taste for drama, or simply a desire to understand how legends are formed.