The Battle of the Books: An Attack on Nationalism
For a historical figure, King Arthur seems remarkably fictional; yet for a fictional character he has had an extraordinary impact on the history of Britain.
Terry Jones, The Search for King Arthur (6)
By the time Henry VII, the first Tudor king, ascended to the throne in 1485, the literary Arthur was a well-established English hero. Arthur was not only lauded as “the most Christian king” but also a very British one, and this “Britishness” suited Tudor primitivism very well. In his discussions on the Tudors and their Arthurian connections, Charles Millican explains that historical primitivism is a term used to describe “the spirit that led to exaltation of the Tudors as restorers of the pristine British glory” (4). Certainly, by the end of the Middle Ages, many Englishmen were concentrating a good amount of nationalist sentiment around the mythical Arthur, and this nationalism was sometimes revealed in the literature of the period. In the same year that Henry was crowned King of England, William Caxton printed his edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, a work that was highly influenced by Continental medieval Arthurian tales. That an English language Arthurian work was one of the very first books ever printed in England, published near the time of Henry’s coronation, is significant; it underscored the connections the young Tudor monarch was making to the legendary British leader.
Millican points out that Caxton revered Arthur. In his Preface to Morte Darthur, Caxton wrote that Arthur was “the most renowned Christian king, first and chief of the three best Christian, and worthy, King Arthur, which ought most to be remembered among us Englishmen to-fore all other Christian kings” (xv). But Henry saw Arthur as more than just the embodiment of the greatest of all Christian kings. He was also, as Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in his Historia regum Britanniae, a Briton emperor whose far-reaching kingdom extended well into Europe. To Henry and the English, it became a source of national pride that an ancient British king was such a worldly and powerful emperor: Arthur had not only been king of all Britain, but he had been rex imperator as well.
Henry VII claimed his royal lineage from the House of Lancaster. He was the grandson of Owen Tudor, a Welshman, and Catherine of Valois, the French widow of Henry V. When Henry VII came to the crown, he understood that his victory at Bosworth Field represented the beginning of a new dynasty. However, he also knew that beyond the founding of a dynasty, he had to create a new monarchy and that this new monarchy required stability. He was keenly aware that for a long time, the crown had stood merely as a symbol of an aristocratic faction, and that the previous kings of England had been primus inter pares, “first among equals” for far too long (Guy 231). Astute as he was, he realized all too clearly that it was no longer enough for the king to merely reign: for his dynasty to endure and usher in a new age, the king needed to rule and reassume the role of rex imperator. He realized it was in his best interest to do everything in his power to maintain control of the crown in an effort to keep his newly founded dynasty secure. Henry knew that seeking imperial glory for himself and the kingdom would solidify his hold on war-torn feudal England. He was cognizant that his hereditary claim to the English throne was tenuous at best, but in ending the civil wars between the houses of Lancaster and York, Henry was ushering in a new era.
His promise of marriage to Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, was critical as a means to reconcile both factions of the civil wars. That he had brokered the “Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York” was an achievement because, since the War of the Roses, many people “looked forward, if not to the return of Arthur in person, then at least to his return in the persona of a Welsh claimant to the English throne” (Levin 81). And this was something Henry could provide: from his paternal side, Henry claimed Welsh (and more importantly, British) ancestry. His grandfather, Owen Tudor, claimed to be a descendant of Cadwallader (d. 689), the last king of the Britons.
According to legend and recorded as history by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cadwallader, the last Briton king, sought exile in Armorica following the Anglo-Saxon invasion. He remained amongst the Briton settlements for eleven years before deciding it was time to return to his native land. Before he was able to return, however, an “Angelic Voice” ordered him to stop, claiming that “God did not wish the Britons to rule in Britain any more, until the moment should come which Merlin had prophesied to Arthur” (Geoffrey 282). Furthermore, as a reward for the Britons’ faithfulness, God would reward them by permitting them to “occupy the land again at some time in the future, once the appointed moment should come” (283). It was believed that this appointed time was to be the return of Arthur. Cadwallader altered his plans and instead, went to Rome on pilgrimage. His son Yvor returned to Britain in his place, where he ruled over the remaining Britons and ensured that the descendants of this “great ancient race” never lost their freedom to the invading barbarians. The Britons held their own for nearly eight decades, but as the Saxons grew more powerful and wise, they contained the Britons to the mountainous western portion of the island, and these ancient people “were given the name of the Welsh instead” (284). The Saxons eventually gained control over most of the island, and the Welsh never truly recovered their lands or status.
As spurious as Geoffrey’s Historia was, as a Welshman, Henry probably recognized that claiming kinship to ancient Briton rulers would somehow legitimize his claim to the crown by fulfilling prophecies stating that “British blood would one day regain the throne” (Schwyzer 15). After all, this British identification was very important to the Welsh. In The Historie and Liues, of the Kings of England, William Martyn writes that prior to the battle of Bosworth, Henry’s march from Milford Haven through Wales was met with enthusiasm: “When the Welshmen were put in mind, that (being the son [i.e., grandson] of Owen Tuthar) hee was of their owne bloud . . . they flocked vnto him” (qtd. in Millican 11). Indeed, Skeel stressed that this Welsh fervor and acceptance was not merely a result of Henry’s victory in battle, but “because Henry was sprung from Welsh princes, the Welsh could regard him as their rightful king and no mere descendant of their conqueror” (qtd. in Millican 15). Henry’s position in Wales was strengthened because he was Owen Tudor’s grandson, who, in turn, was a descendant of the famous tenth-century Welsh hero, Rhys ap Tudor. From the beginning, the Tudor dynasty heralded a link to England’s British foundations: in the eyes of the English and the Welsh, Henry VII personified not only the return of the legendary King Arthur, but also the restoration of the line of ancient Briton kings.
Tudor readers, according to Raphael Holinshed, loved reading about history, and more explicitly, they were very interested in reading about current events (Fussner 266). Over half of Holinshed’s Chronicles was devoted to the Tudor monarchy, and the Tudors themselves had a taste for history and biography. Biographical information was very important to the antiquarian movement and, as Fussner stresses, the popularity of history was dependent on the popularity of biography (267). The two went hand in hand, and in the Tudor period, historians, chroniclers, antiquaries and humanists provided both.
Near the end of his reign, Henry VII commissioned an Italian priest, Polydore Vergil, to write a history of England (Guy 236); Henry VIII would later become the patron of the antiquarian, John Leland. Around the 1530s-1540s, Vergil and Leland became embroiled in what later critics would call “the battle of the books” (Schwyzer 16). Simply put, Vergil, in search of the “true” history of the British Isles, found himself in the unenviable position of attacking not only Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, but the mythical nature of British history, and Arthur in particular. What followed was several years’ worth of defenses as scholars and writers strove to reject Vergil’s assertions. Leland, the first to respond to Vergil, was the self-proclaimed defender of both national pride and the Tudor belief in the Arthurian myth.
The Italian humanist historian, Polydore Vergil (1470?-1555), approached history with a critical eye: like many sixteenth-century historians, he engaged in debates concerning historical truth while admitting that, in many cases, truth could sometimes be difficult to prove or know (Fussner 252). His greatest contribution as an antiquarian and historiographer was the Anglica Historia, a comprehensive, multi-volume history of the English people that was first printed in 1534. The Anglica was a significant work not only because it was representative of Italian humanist thought, but also because it would eventually influence English historiography in novel ways. As with other historians of British and English history, Vergil depended primarily on the works of classical and medieval writers, especially when discussing the early history of Britain. In his own work, he rarely added anything to what previous historians wrote, but in the case of the English chronicles, Vergil took a decidedly unfavorable position.
Vergil took one particular historical chronicle to task: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, written around 1136. As Geoffrey explains in his Preface, his purpose in writing the Historia was to record the history of the Britons, from its mythical origins beginning with Brutus, down to the last British king, Cadwallader, prior to the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the seventh century (Thorpe 9). Between Brutus and Cadwallader, however, Geoffrey spent an inordinately large amount of time recording the “history” of Arthur; nearly half of the Historia detailed Arthur’s life and lineage. Thorpe writes that Geoffrey’s intent in writing was patriotic in nature. On the one hand, he wanted to underscore that Britain was still “the best of all lands” even though the British people had been separated into two nations: those who remained on the island to fight against the Saxons (the Welsh), and those who crossed the Channel and settled in Armorica (the people of Brittany). On the other hand, Tatlock states that Geoffrey also had political reasons for writing the Historia, one of which was his desire to furnish “a precedent for the dominions and ambitions of the Norman kings” (426). Indeed, in many variants of the Historia, Geoffrey dedicates his work solely to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, an illegitimate, yet recognized, son of Henry I and uncle to Henry II. In his Preface, Geoffrey writes:
I ask you, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, to do my little book this favour. Let it be so emended by your knowledge and your advice that it must no longer be considered as the product of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s small talent. Rather . . . let it be accepted as the work of one descended from Henry, the famous King of the English . . . with the result that now, in our own lifetime, our island of Britain hails you with heartfelt affection, as if it had been granted a second Henry. (51-52)
While much of the Historia glorified the British people, it was also offered in support of the Norman Angevin dynasty. In support of this pro-Norman stance, Faletra argues that while Geoffrey did glorify the Britons within his text, British history came to an end with their defeat at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons (68). Their continuous warring from the Anglo-Saxon period on through to the twelfth-century essentially proved the quarrelsome nature of the Welsh, a trait which, he claims, justified expanding Norman control over Wales and her people.
Despite Geoffrey’s attempts at recording nearly two thousand years worth of history, Vergil nevertheless concluded in the Anglica that the Galfridian tome was not only an unreliable historical source, but that worse, the widely copied, used and referenced Historia manuscript was likely the cause of three centuries’ worth of historical errors (Carley 186). Throughout the Middle Ages, the Historia was considered an important text and an historically accurate document. Over two hundred manuscripts remain extant, a staggering number considering the survival rate of medieval manuscripts. But more importantly, the Historia was circulated not only in Latin, but in French and English, in both England and on the Continent. The large number of surviving manuscripts and its translations are proof of its popularity. However, while Geoffrey used Gildas, Bede and Nennius as his historical sources, as well as the Annales Cambriae, Welsh king-lists and genealogies, many of his claims have been largely dismissed by modern scholars as specious at best, and completely fabricated at worst. Vergil’s humanist training allowed him to conclude that the Historia was fantastical, based less on history and more on creative story-telling.
Vergil’s humanist attitude was certainly unlike those of his English contemporaries: while no longer as pronounced, the medieval confusion regarding history and myth endured long into the sixteenth century, and many Historians still had a difficult time differentiating between truth and fiction (Fussner 265). Vergil never had such doubts between historical fact and myth, basing what he wrote on evidence culled from various sources. Vergil’s objection to Geoffrey, in particular, was the Historia’s glorification of spectacular myths, and he dismissed two of Geoffrey’s chief heroes in turn: Brutus and Arthur. His treatment of the legend of Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, was contemptuous; unlike many writers and antiquarians of the age who accepted the Galfridian Trojan myth as a part of their historical roots (despite varying degrees of uncertainty and skepticism over the years), Vergil categorically dismissed as completely false the possibility of the Brutus narrative. He defended his rejection of the British Trojan descent with rational arguments, then an unfamiliar tactic in historical documentation.
As a humanist, Vergil preferred rational thought over supernaturalism, and he was the first historian to introduce the exercise of logical thinking into the writing of English histories. From his humanist training, he discerned that Geoffrey’s treatment of Brutus was more fanciful than rational, and that the Historia was meant to be more affective than logical. Vergil declared that “Historie is a full rehersall and declaration of things don, not a gesse, or divination” (qtd. in Fussner 253). For him, it was more important to present facts and arguments, even those he would eventually reject, and allow the reader to come to a logical conclusion on his or her own. Of Geoffrey’s Brutus, he wrote: “I will nether affirme as trew, nether reproove as false, the judgement of one or other as concerning the originall of soe auncient a people, referring all things, as wee have don hertofore, to the consideracion of the reader” (253).
Because very little was written about the early stages of British history, most historians of the medieval period included accounts from the Historia into their own works, not necessarily because they believed them to be true but because contemporary wisdom and common practice called for their inclusion into other texts. Vergil refused to do the same; instead, he reasoned that since ancient writers of history did not mention Brutus, and since Britain was visible from the Gallic shores, it was entirely possible that the original inhabitants of Britain were not descendants of the Trojans at all, but instead, were people who emigrated from the Continent. He declared: “[I]t is not to bee thought that at enie time it lacked inhabitants, which might then receave them when all other londes didd, not awayghting or intertaining the exiled or hurtful roge runninge awaye owt of Spaine, Germanie, Fraunce, or Italie, as late Historiens make report” (253).
That Vergil the humanist would dismiss Brutus because of his mythical origins is not unexpected; by the same token, one can anticipate his repudiation of the Briton claim to Trojan ancestry. What may come as a surprise, however, is that he barely acknowledged the historicity of Arthur’s reign in the Anglica. Vergil chose to be overtly indifferent towards Arthurian historicity despite Henry VII’s patronage. This disregard may have been a consequence of his foreign roots: he was a naturalized Englishman (Levin 84). He moved to England in 1502, when he was in his early thirties, and he only returned to Italy in 1553, two years before his death. Despite living a majority of his life on English soil, Vergil remained very much an Italian. It is highly unlikely that he, as a researcher and scholar, would not have known about the Tudor-Arthurian roots or even guessed at the popularity of the mythical hero. It is more probable that since he was a foreigner, he may not have cared about or fully understood the consequences that came with Arthurian irreverence. Either way, Vergil’s humanism would have prevented him from being an Arthurian sycophant. More importantly, by the time Vergil had a prepared manuscript, Henry VII had died, and the crown had been passed to his son. It took Vergil nearly six years to write the Anglica, and Henry passed away three years into Vergil’s appointment as historiographer. Between completion of the manuscript and the first printing in 1534, he made numerous revisions (Carley 185). With his patron’s death, it is very likely that Vergil didn’t think his disregard of the Arthurian matter was important at that point.
Whatever his reasons, Vergil’s Arthurian account amounted to only one paragraph in the Anglica. He supported his treatment of Arthur by claiming that the only facts which could be established definitively were that Arthur reigned after Uther Pendragon, and that if he had lived longer, he may have reunited the British kingdoms. Everything else Geoffrey had written about Arthur was, at best, speculative and unsubstantiated by any other historical sources (Carley 186). Geoffrey, in comparison, devoted four of the eight parts of the Historia to Arthur’s lineage and life, piecing together the small number of accounts related to Arthur into one solid myth.
Berthelot writes that Geoffrey’s Arthurian chronicle “provide[d] the Anglo-Norman sovereigns with a reference point and a worthy model” and that it also “emphasizes the common interest shared by Normans and Britons, who face the same, and implacable, foe—the Saxons—and demonstrates how Britain’s future hopes are indissolubly linked to the Norman cause” (36). When Henry II ascended to the English throne in 1154, he quickly assessed the political advantage to be gained from Geoffrey’s work, much as Henry VII did three centuries later. Since Henry Plantagenet lived with his uncle, Robert of Gloucester, as a child, he was quite familiar with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work (Nitze 355). Once the Historia made its way to the Continent, the Arthurian legends rapidly became popular, especially after Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France developed the tradition further. Henry and his wife Eleanor were both fascinated by the Arthurian tales; Henry had studied them as a child. In fact, Arthuriana persisted throughout Henry’s life: in addition to his uncle Robert’s patronage of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Marie de France, author of Breton lais including the popular Lanval, may have been his half-sister; Eleanor’s daughter, Marie de Champagne, was the patron of Chrétien, who wrote Arthurian romances under her direction; and one of Henry and Eleanor’s grandsons was named Arthur (Weir 131). By the 1170s, because of the royal interest in all things Arthurian, it became fashionable for the aristocracy to emulate Arthurian characters and chivalric ethics. As Geoffrey Ashe writes, romancers echoed Geoffrey of Monmouth by making Arthur preside over a chivalric Utopia, a king who campaigned and wielded power on the Continent (171). It became common for people to travel to sites associated with Arthur such as Caerleon in Wales and Glastonbury in England. Henry and Eleanor themselves visited Glastonbury Abbey, Arthur’s purported final resting ground.
Nevertheless, many of the Welsh, possibly irritated by the Norman (mis)appropriation of their legends and hero, still clung to their belief that Arthur would one day return to free his people, a belief historians and critics alike have termed the “Breton Hope.” According to the Hope, Arthur never died at the Battle of Camlann: as Arthur and Mordred faced each other in battle, each dealt the other a fatal blow. While Mordred died from his wounds, Arthur was taken by his sister Morgan (or by other accounts, a group of women) to Avalon, where his wounds were tended to. Legend holds that Arthur remained at Avalon, resting, and when the time was right, he would one day return to lead his people to victory when they needed him most.
Largely ridiculed by modern chroniclers, the Breton Hope was quite popular in the Middle Ages, and was a sufficiently widespread belief not only amongst the British in Wales and Brittany (ancient Armorica), but even for people in some parts of Europe as well (Loomis 290). The idea of a returned Arthur was a seminal influence in the evolving idea of British nationhood: if Arthur had escaped death at Camlann and was only waiting for the right time to return to drive the enemy away, regardless of who this enemy may be, Arthur had morphed into someone more than a king or an emperor: he had become a god (Castleden 3). This notion was prevalent enough to constitute an obstacle to the political ambitions of Henry II, as both the Welsh and Britons refused to see him as their returned messiah (Berthelot 38). On a political level, Henry knew he needed the support of the Welsh against the Saxons, who still continued to balk at Norman rule. Instead of trying to unite these two dissenting and quarrelling factions, Henry decided he could gain the advantage by setting them against each other.
But as much as the Welsh hated the Saxons, they were slow to rally to the Plantagenet king’s aid. Their faith in the Breton Hope was strong; after all, the old Welsh poem “Englynion y Beddau” (“The Stanzas of the Graves”) confirmed the Breton Hope: “A grave for March, a grave for Gwythur, / a grave for Gwgawn Red-Sword; / hard to find in the world, a grave for Arthur” (Bollard 14). In medieval thinking, the fact that there was no grave for Arthur alluded to the possibility that he may never have died, or that he may have been taken to a magical place, in this case, Avalon, where he continued to live, waiting for the right time to reclaim his throne and free his people. In the Historia, Geoffrey writes “Arthur himself, our renowned King, was mortally wounded and was carried off to the Isle of Avalon, so that his wounds might be attended to” (261). At the time, it was a widely held belief that Avalon was Glastonbury; medieval etymological studies lent this credence, since Avalon (Ynis Afallen, “Isle of Apples”) was associated with the Celtic place name Ynis Wytrin, “Isle of Glass” (Berthelot 42). In order to eliminate any hopes the Welsh may have entertained regarding a returned Arthur waging a war against the Plantagenets, Henry wanted to prove Arthur’s death beyond any doubt. According to legend, during a visit to Dyfed in Wales in 1179, Henry II supposedly met a bard who told him not only about the Breton Hope, but also where Arthur’s grave was located.
Weir writes that “Indeed, there was so much speculation that Arthur would one day return to his kingdom that a disconcerted Henry II instituted a search for the hero-king’s grave at Glastonbury” (131). Around 1189, on the basis of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey argued that Glastonbury was indeed Avalon, and that they had proof that both Arthur and Guenevere were buried in the abbey’s churchyard (Nitze 356). It should be noted, however, that just five years prior, a great fire destroyed much of the abbey; having limited resources for rebuilding, the monks were no doubt quick to recognize any advantages to be gained by offering their abbey grounds to a king who was looking to destroy a legend. Gerald of Wales writes in the Speculum Ecclesiae, “In our own lifetime, when Henry II was reigning in England, strenuous efforts were made in Glastonbury Abbey to locate the tomb of Arthur. It was the King himself who put them on to this” (520). Unfortunately for Henry, Arthur’s grave was never discovered in his lifetime, despite his patronage of the abbey—which allowed the monks to rebuild their monastery—in the final years of his reign (Berthelot 43). About a year after Henry’s death in 1189, the monks of Glastonbury “discovered” the tombs of Arthur and Guenevere, along with an inscribed leaden cross, confirming that the tomb was Arthur’s. Gerald of Wales wrote about the discovery of the graves about three years later, in the De Principis Instrucione:
In our own lifetime Arthur’s body was discovered at Glastonbury, although the legends had always encouraged us to believe that there was something otherworldly about his ending, that he had resisted death and had been spirited away to some far-distant spot. . . . I have seen this cross myself. . . . The inscription reads as follows: Hic Iacet Sepultus Inclitus Rex Arturius in Insula Avalonia (Here lies interred the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon). (518)
As far as the Plantagenets were concerned, however, they had succeeded: the discovery of Arthur’s gravesite dealt a fatal blow to the Breton Hope, ensuring that Arthur would not—could not—return to help his people, while at the same time, authenticating the legend and creating a personage of undeniable historical reality (43). By some accounts, it was Richard, Henry’s son and successor, who sponsored the excavation of the Glastonbury site (Snyder 237). Now that the Normans were in possession of Arthur’s bones, they borrowed more than just his reputation. As an example, Richard famously gave Excalibur, a relic “discovered” at the gravesite as well, to his fellow crusader, Tancred of Sicily. To the Plantagenets, the Arthur of the Welsh was finally dead, and their proof lay in the churchyard of Glastonbury Abbey.
Despite all of the historical maneuverings of the Plantagenets, however, Vergil argued against the notion that Arthur was buried at Glastonbury and cynically observed that this was “an indefensible piece of anachronism . . . since the monastery was not even founded until after Arthur’s death” (Carley 186). In Vergil’s estimation, most of what Geoffrey wrote about Arthur was conjecture, at best. Nevertheless, the Galfridian Historia was technically the first cohesive narrative of the Arthurian cycle, placing Arthur simultaneously within a historical and a fictional construct. Derek Pearsall writes:
Even allowing for this enigmatic fragment of evidence, and for the persistence of Arthur in Celtic legend, it seems that Arthur would probably have gone the way of Cuchulainn and other Celtic heroes, into a more narrowly circumscribed cultural history, if it had not been for Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154), whose Latin prose Historia regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain’), written between 1130 and 1136, is one of the most influential books ever written. The Historia is not itself a romance—in fact it masquerades as a meticulously exact account of British history, with details of the reigns of kings who never existed and of the numbers killed in battles that never took place—but it was the pseudo-historical basis on which the whole story of Arthur was erected. (7)
While Tudor historiographers may not have agreed with, or even liked what Vergil wrote, they did find the Anglica indispensable because of his critical digressions, factual details, and new historical interpretations. More importantly, other historians found the Anglica to be a valuable source of information for the reigns of the early Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII. This, however, did not prevent other historians from battering his Anglica with a “storm of censure indignant at his disproof of early legends” (Einstein 306). Sir Walter Raleigh probably characterized it best: “Whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may happily strike out his teeth” (qtd. in Fussner 254). Still, Vergil was not afraid of expressing his opinions despite the slew of criticisms hurled his way. For him, the objective was the search for truth, and if Arthur had little or no basis in the truth, it was his duty to present and prove it to the English people.
One of the first to respond to Vergil’s writing was John Leland, who was born in London at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Not much is known about his family life except that he may have been orphaned at an early age. He was educated through the patronage of Thomas Moyles, and later on through royal scholarships (Scattergood 58-59). He attended St. Paul’s school and received his degree from Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1522. He pursued further studies at All Souls College, Oxford, where he concentrated on the Greek language, and at the University of Paris, where he became interested in antiquarian studies; he studied under François Dubois and other preeminent scholars of the time such as Erasmus, Faber and Buddoeus. When he returned to England, he was a master of both Latin and Greek, and demonstrated a fluency in a few modern languages as well. He worked briefly as a tutor before taking holy orders; shortly thereafter, he was assigned as a chaplain to Henry VIII. Leland’s relationship with the king progressed from that point on, as he was first given the rectory of Peuplingues, then appointed as the king’s library keeper. To emphasize Leland’s acceptance in Henry VIII’s court, he was also known to have written some poems for Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533, some of which “were set up and some other were spoken and pronounced . . . as her Grace rode from the Tower of London through the said city [London] to her most glorious coronation at the monastery of Westminster” (Scattergood 60).
By 1533, he was appointed Royal Antiquary by Henry, earning the distinction of being the only person to ever hold that title. Henry commissioned Leland to “search after England’s Antiquities, and peruse the Libraries of all Cathedrals, Abbies, Priories, Colleges, &c., as also all the places wherein Records, Writings, and whatever else was lodged that related to antiquity” (Mirror 389). Leland took his post seriously, and for the next six years he was occupied with his antiquarian tour of England and Wales, where he paid special attention to the monastic libraries and their collections. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1535, Leland managed to salvage a range of valuable manuscripts, but lamented the loss of countless others. He, along with his book collector friends, John Bale and Sir John Prise, searched the monastic libraries for books “worth preserving”—that is, books which fulfilled the new ideological requirements of the post-Reformation library—and the three together managed to gather a good number of medieval manuscripts for the royal library as well as their own personal collections (Summit 5). Leland’s conservation of books for the royal library was his attempt to “purify books from within.” As his friend and contemporary, John Bale, wrote:
He ded wele to commyt certen of those worthy workes to the kinges noble libraries to their conservacyon, and also in reserving a certen of them to hym selfe, at that tyme myndynge to have polyshed our chronycle, by fabulous wryters sore blemyshed (qtd. in Summit 10).
According to Summit, Leland’s act of restoration was a means of removing the Catholic blemish from the chronicles, thus making it acceptable for Protestant or reformist use. Patriotism inspired these men to save these books: after all, they were links to England’s glorious past and merited preservation.
On his return to London, Leland presented the king with the results of his research in a work titled “A New Year’s Gift,” a progress report on his various projects, as well as his journey through England and Wales. The king rewarded Leland with a rectory and a canonry in 1542-43, and in 1544 Leland published his response to Vergil’s Anglica Historia in a work now known as the Assertio Inclytissimi Arturii. After the Assertio, Leland retired shortly thereafter to London and began working on another multi-volume historical publication, the History and Antiquities of this Nation, but unfortunately, he never finished it. Sadly, perhaps due to his intense work and research, or some other attributable cause, he began experiencing psychological problems in 1547. According to the Companion to Literature in English, when Leland’s friend John Bale found out about his diminished capacity and mental state, he wrote “a most pitiful occasion fell besides his wits” and by 1550, Leland was declared insane; he died two years later (537-38). Vergil outlived Leland by three years.
Leland’s response to Vergil was passionate, vigorous and swift. Vergil’s belittling of Arthur as well as his claims that the Arthurian material in the Historia was mostly fictitious was considered by Leland to be an affront to English nationalism. Leland considered himself both a loyal Tudor subject and a dedicated antiquarian and humanist. As the former, he always remained conscious of his royal benefactor’s presence; similarly, he was mindful of the Tudor claim to a line of descent from Arthur. He knew that their claims of legitimacy had been based on and were linked to Arthur, Cadwallader and Brutus. In Leland’s mind, Vergil’s attack of Geoffrey’s Historia, and by extension, Brutus and Arthur, was essentially attacking and seeking to nullify the Tudor claims to legitimacy.
As the royal antiquarian who possessed a Continental education, Leland also considered himself an objective historian and humanist scholar who, above all, sought truth using facts, much as Vergil did: “An other way, do equity, honesty, the rule of fame, and heerehence a iust loue to my contry, yea truth it selfe (then which one thing, nothing more deare I love) fully moue me” (qtd. in Carley 186). As librarian to Henry VIII, several of the monastic manuscripts Leland had helped save were Arthurian in nature; he believed that these books filled national or historical roles and would benefit any library. In fact, some of these manuscripts were William of Malmesbury’s and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicles (Summit 9). He understood that in order to preserve these texts, and the story of Arthur in particular, he had to prove them true. Leland’s Assertio sought to defend Arthur as an historical figure, and in doing so, Leland assumed a new persona: that of nationalist.
Leland wrote the Assertio primarily as a rebuttal to and a criticism of Vergil. He wanted to show that he would not yield to Vergil, despite his age or authority:
[W]ith the same dilligence to leane vnto the Brittish history interpreted by Geoffrey of Munmouth a man not altogether vnlearned, (what soeuer otherwise persons ignorant of antiquitie, which thinke themselues to haue knowledge, shall say) as vnto a firme defence, rather then vnto the fond fables or base stuffe into the history of Arthure. I doe not more delite, then Polidorus, the Judge. But to bee afraide of any man by reason of his greate age, or eloquence, or authoritie, finally as like a foolish forsaker of the truth, I shoulde so leaue her partes vndefended: that certainely will I neuer doe. (qtd. in Summit 17)
But Leland felt compelled to write the Assertio for other reasons as well. The first was his highly developed sense of nationalism, which not only illustrated his concern for England and Englishness, but for Britain and Britishness as well: “In meane time, yet by good reason it shall be free for me, to make most famous the state of my countrie, and specially the partes of truth, euen with singular diligence, expedyte industry, cheerefull labour, prompt counsell, quicke iudgment, yea, and finally by all meanes” (18). The Assertio is as much a defense of Arthur as it is of Geoffrey, a defense of Englishness and Britishness, which Vergil, as an Italian, surely would not have understood. His second reason was wanting to provide Henry with a sense of what humanist learning was all about (Scattergood 63). As a seeker of truth, Leland was forced to admit that some Arthurian accounts were indeed fabulous, but he maintained that these accounts did not make British history false. Leland asserted that in order to arrive at the truth, fictitious elements had to be dismissed:
The aduersarie [Vergil] I know will say, that many lyes haue crept into those bookes. Wherefore this is nothing else, but to Teach him which is fully taught. As I contemne fables, so I reuerence & embrace ye truth of the history: neyther will I suffer this to be taken away from mee at any time, but with losse of life. (53)
Leland advocated the production of historical truth via selection and distinction. He stressed the importance of casting away “trifles” and cutting off old wives’ tales: in essence, he made a distinction between “monuments of antiquity” and “monuments of superstition” (Summit 15).
This idea of differentiating between matters of the past (monuments of antiquity) and superstition was something that gave Leland’s work meaning. Leland recognized that he lived in a time of rapidly evolving cultural changes. He was caught between two Englands: the new England was distancing itself from Rome and Catholicism; it was redefining itself as a nation state; the medieval scholasticism he and an entire generation before him was accustomed to was giving way to humanism. According to the historian John Scattergood, for Leland, old England was early Tudor England: it was traditional, mystical, essentially Catholic, and relatively feudal with old families owning the land (67). Old England was the land over which Henry VIII reigned, and it was the land where Arthur had lived, and where ancient Britain still survived.
For Leland, these two Englands existed side by side; he saw the present in terms of a disappearing past, and one couldn’t exist without the other (Scattergood 64). Some scholars have criticized Leland and other English historians who defended Arthur and/or Geoffrey as a “one-sided thumping of Vergil by a host of enraged English and Welsh writers” (Schwyzer 16). While this may be a true and accurate statement, what Schwyzer failed to recognize was that Vergil’s diminution of Arthur in the Anglica attacked everything Leland held dear: Britain and England, Arthur and the Tudors. When Vergil stated that Geoffrey’s Historia was meant to be more affective than logical, the same could be said of Leland’s response as well. Leland’s Assertio was emotional and sentimental, but nationalism and patriotism were also based on emotional and sentimental responses.
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