Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Question from Carlyn - Source of Prince Arthur's name

I just started reading Virtuous Prince. I am not even past 50 pages of honking big type and have found some things that contradict what I thought I already knew.

Starkey attributes the naming of Arthur to the Arthurian legend but Julia Fox clearly states that Arthur was named for a star prominent at his nativity – probably Arcturus. (Source: Anglo, British History, p. 32 and note 2.) She believes that the Arthurian Legend became attached to Arthur much later. Who do you think is right?


Lara said...

I've always heard the Arthurian connection, but like so many things in history, just because I've always heard it doesn't mean it is right!

[putting on astronomer hat]

But, I can at least comment on the Arcturus front -- it was setting in the west-northwestern skies about 2 hours after sunset in September 1486 according to a program I use (actually, it's about the same now, since things don't move that much in 400 years). So, I'm not sure how "prominent" I would consider that, but it is one of the brightest stars in the evening skies at that time of year, for what it's worth.

PhD Historian said...

I do love the questions that come up on this site! Yours, Carlyn, gave me a couple of hours of very pleasant research and writing to distract me from the troubles of the day. And like you, Lara, I've always heard the story, but also always questioned its veracity.

The Tudor dynasty was masterful at shaping its own depiction in history and mythology, giving us plenty of reason to question these kinds of stories. Entire academic conferences and scholarly books have been devoted to analyzing the ways in which chroniclers writing during the reigns of successive various Tudor monarchs shaped and manipulated the writing of the historical narrative to suit the public image those monarchs wished to convey.

One need only look at the controversy over Richard III, the groundwork for which was laid by the hands of Thomas More. Today it is all but impossible to separate the historical fact from the Tudor propaganda. Debating that issue is practically a cottage industry today!

It seems to me very likely that Henry Tudor did wish to create some kind of correlation between himself, his new dynasty, and the ancient hero Arthur of Avalon and Camelot. But I am not convinced that Henry began building those symbolic links as early as Prince Arthur’s birth in September 1486. I am inclined to believe that the connections were not prospective and premeditated efforts to shape a future, but were instead drawn much later as a part of the larger program of retrospective Tudor propagandist mythmaking about its own past.

In an earlier thread regarding Arthur’s birth at Winchester (http://tudorhistory.org/queryblog/2008/10/question-from-elizabethan-elizabeth-of.html), I addressed Starkey’s erroneous and misleading use of a source that he interpreted to indicate that Henry VII made a conscious and deliberate effort to build a connection to the Arthurian legend even before his son’s birth. If I may quote that posting:

“Starkey may have been a little misleading in his footnote, especially if he cites Volume 4 of the original 1715 [printed] edition of [John] Leland's [manuscript] De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea [written by Leland in the 1530s and 1540s] as the source for the story that Henry sent Elizabeth to Winchester for the birth in anticipation of naming the child Arthur and creating a closer association between the nascent Tudor dynasty and the Arthurian legends.

On page 190, Leland begins a very detailed description of the coronation of Elizabeth [of York]. There follows a lengthy panegyric poem to Henry VII that compares him to every Biblical and mythological savior-king and warrior imaginable. Leland then describes Henry's progress through Hereford and the attendant pageants, and his subsequent move onward to Gloucester and Bristol (p.199). There he is received by a person portraying Justicia who delivers a lengthy speech that Leland records. From there, he returned to Westminster on 5 June (p. 202). Then on page 203:

’And sone after the King departed from Westminster towarde the West Parties, and hunted, so to Wynchester, where on St Eustachius' Day the Prince Arthur was born.’

There the chapter ends. The following chapter begins with a lengthy description of the christening of Arthur.

In short, Leland makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of any effort on Henry's part to send Elizabeth to Winchester in order to associate the birth of Arthur with the Arthurian legends. Elizabeth is not even referred to after page 192. Instead, Leland makes it fairly clear that Henry was himself already in the area on a kind of restful hunting holiday following what was no doubt an arduous official progress through the west country. It would appear from Leland that Arthur was born in Winchester simply because the king just happened to be there when Elizabeth reached her term, not because of some colorful attempt to recreate King Arthur in the infant being born.

Starkey was no doubt citing Leland as a source of evidence that Arthur was born in Winchester. He cannot have been legitimately citing Leland as a source for the Arthurian-Round Table story.”

As noted, Leland later described in exceptional detail the christening of Prince Arthur. Yet he said absolutely nothing therein about the origin of the prince’s name. If Henry had his son named for the legendary hero Arthur, it seems to me that Leland would have made some allusion, even a vague one, to that fact. In the absence of any such allusion, it seems less likely that Henry was attempting to draw that correlation in advance. Similarly, on pages 250-253 Leland describes Arthur’s creation as Prince of Wales, at about age three, without any mention whatsoever of the prince’s Welsh predecessor of the same name. Admittedly, Leland’s concern is with the procedural details of the rituals and ceremonies, but I cannot imagine that he would so completely overlook the connection between the two Arthurs if such a connection were intended by Henry VII.

And in describing the creation of Arthur as Prince of Wales, there was an obvious opportunity to connect him to the legendary figure. In his most ancient forms, Arthur was a Welsh hero rather than an English one, so that it was both easy and logical for the Tudors to link themselves to an iconic Welsh hero-"ancestor" at the ceremony of Prince Arthur’s creation. Further, Sir Thomas Malory's hugely popular Le Morte d'Arthur, one of the first books printed in England by William Caxton, had first appeared in 1485, precisely the year in which Henry Tudor had defeated Richard III and become King of England. However, the book was first printed on 31 July 1485. Henry Tudor did not invade England until 7 August and did not defeat Richard III at Bosworth until 22 August. The timing is therefore purely coincidental. Both Malory and Caxton are unlikely to have courted Richard’s ire by publishing a book deliberately intended as pro-Tudor while Richard was still king and the outcome of his conflict with Henry was uncertain. It seems more likely that Henry exploited only later the coincidence of the timing and immediate popularity of the book. In fact, the evidence above indicates that Henry did not begin exploiting the popularity of Malory’s book until after Arthur’s creation as Prince of Wales in 1489 ... and perhaps not until the marriage of Arthur and Katherine of Aragon.

Julia Fox is correct in citing a symbolic connection perceived by Tudor contemporaries between Arthur and the star Arcturus, but the correlation occurred at the time of Arthur’s marriage, not at his birth. In 1622, Francis Bacon wrote a history of Henry VII that referred specifically to Prince Arthur being identified with the star Arcturus,

“In all the Deuises and Conceits of the Triumphs of this Marriage, there was a great deale of Astronomie [astrology]. The Ladie beeing resembled to HESPERVS, and the Prince to ARCTVRVS .... But you may bee sure that King ARTHVR, the Britton... was in no wise forgotten.” (The historie of the reigne of King Henry the Seuenth, Francis Bacon, p. 205)

Comparing Katherine to Hesperus has some logic, since the Greeks also identified that evening “star” (actually the planet Venus) with Aphrodite (Venus in the Roman tradition), goddess of love and beauty. Oddly, however, Hesperus was male ... though he was the father of Ceyx, whom Zeus transformed into a halcyon bird, symbolic of peaceful times.

The connection between Prince Arthur, the star Arcturus, and Arthur of Camelot is as convoluted, and potentially equally odd, as that between Katherine and Hesperus. King Arthur’s name was consistently rendered in medieval Latin as “Arturus” or “Arcturus,” instead of in its correct classical Latin form, Artorius. The name of the star is Greek rather than Latin, but it is possible that the medieval Latin “Arcturus” was a transliteration of the Greek “Arcturus.” “Arctos” is the Greek word for “bear,” while “Arcturus” means "guardian of the bear.” (The star Arcturus is in a constellation adjacent to the Big Bear (the “Big Dipper” to most of us), and thus Arcturus “guards” the Big Bear.) Further, the Welsh for “bear” is “arth,” while “arth-ur” means “bear-man.” The potential therefore exists for linking the Welsh hero “bear-man” named “Arth-ur” with the later literary figure known by the medieval Latinized name “Arturus/Arcturus,” and for then linking “Arturus/Arcturus” with the star Arcturus derived from Greek mythology. Oddly, however, the name of the star is itself derived directly from a myth that involves an illicit affair between Zeus and Callisto, the result of which was the birth of an illegitimate son, Arcas. It is difficult to imagine Henry VII deliberately naming his first born son after a star symbolizing the guardian of an illegitimate child.

So my bottom line, after this lengthy discussion, is that I believe Starkey is over-interpreting his evidence and buying into an anachronistic version of “history” that presents Henry VII acting in a premeditated fashion to shape prospectively a new Arthurian era embodied by himself and his Tudor descendants. I believe Henry and his sixteenth-century chroniclers instead capitalized after the fact on the purely coincidental popularity of Malory’s recently published book about the legendary Welsh hero-king and shaped the Tudor narrative to appear more Arthur-in-Avalon-esque. Similarly, I suspect that Fox’s claim that Arthur was named after the star Arcturus is a misinterpretation of Bacon’s account of Arthur’s marriage.

Carlyn, are you aware of Foose’s wonderful “live-blogging” of her reading of Starkey’s Virtuous Prince on this website? You might find it useful as you read the book yourself. http://tudorhistory.org/queryblog/2008/10/open-thread-on-starkeys-virtuous-prince.html

Foose said...

There was a book published several years ago that I pre-ordered under the title "Edward IV," but which, when it arrived, was called "Arthurian Myths and Alchemy: The Kingship of Edward IV," by Jonathan Hughes. I've been seeing its influence percolate slowly into mainstream history books and historical novels on the Tudors since then -- Starkey's "Virtuous Prince" seems to have an acquaintance with it, and Emma Darwin's recent fictional treatment of Elizabeth Woodville, "A Secret Alchemy," was very strongly imprinted with its ideas.

The book concentrates on the interest in Arthur among the English in the last part of the 15th century and the intersection of that interest with contemporary calculations among the alchemist-intellectuals of the court. In the last chapter, "The Legacy of Edward IV," the author comments:

"Alchemy and Arthurian myth converged when careful preparations were made to ensure that [Arthur] was born at Winchester ...Ripley's words in The Compound of Alchemy about the lying together of the white queen [Elizabeth of York] and the red king [Henry VII] and the conception of the child ... must have seemed like fulfillment of a prophecy of Merlin... The court astrologer compiled a horoscope and commentary on the appearance in the sky of the star Arcturus (where according to Lydgate King Arthur had ascended to live in heaven as the sun of Britain) as signifying the second coming of Arthur, the birth of the royal child at Camelot."

However, there's no source cited for this. Possibly the court astrologer is the same Italian that Starkey mentions in his book. But Lara's research indicates that the star Arcturus was not especially prominent (just curious, does your software make allowance for the calendar change from Julian to Gregorian?). Possibly Julia Fox read the same book before making her statement ...?

Tracey said...

The name Arthur was certainly not a common name for a King of England. Lots of Henrys, Richards, Edwards, and a couple of Williams'.

Is it possible that Henry VII wanted to draw a line underneath the past and begin his rule with a clean slate which meant beginning with an uncommon name for a Prince of Wales?

"Arthur" was far enough in the past to not invoke ire or rage from any previous ruling family...like Plantagenet or York. There would be no affiliation with either side of the "War of the Roses", and yet it was still a 'royal' name. Arthur the First would begin a new chapter in England's history.

Bearded Lady said...

PhD Historian – thanks so much for the detailed reply. I was really hoping Fox was 100% correct because it would tie up the question neatly. The Tudors were such skillful propagandist that it would just make sense to associate the Arthurian legend after the fact.

Lara, Is there a way to plot if Arcturus was prominent at the time of Arthur’s marriage? And I know this is a stupid question but I don’t wear the astronomer’s hat...what exactly constitutes a star being “prominent”?

Foose - yep been reading your posts on Virtuous Prince. That book you mentioned sounds really interesting. Would you recommend it? (I’ve had this fascination with alchemy lately!)

Tracey – that’s an interesting point. It was an uncommon name. But Henry seemed (to me) to want to advertise his heritage vs. making it more transparent.

Lara said...

Foose - The program I'm using uses the Julian calendar for all dates before October 15, 1582, so it did take that in to account. Although for stars it won't really make a big difference... it's more important for moon phases and planetary conjunctions. (And if you're trying to verify anything in England or the colonies between 1582 and 1752, you have to do a manual correction.)

I'm not sure what constitutes "prominent" in this case. This is a period where astrology and astronomy were the same thing, so there are other factors I need to consider. Heliacal risings, for example, were culturally important in some cultures such as Ancient Egypt. (The heliacal rising of Sirius coincided with the annual Nile flood.)

For the date of Arthur's wedding, Arcturus is setting at about the same time as the sun (which *might* be important in this case), but since it is a fairly northern star it is already rising again by about 3 a.m. (London time, which is where I set the program up for) and would be visible in the east at dawn. That could also be significant.

Unfortunately it has been too long since my history of astronomy class for me to remember some of this stuff off the top of my head. :)

Foose said...

There's a new book edited by Steven Gunn coming out later this year, "Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales: Life, Death, and Commemoration," which may address this question. The synopsis says:

"This volume, with contributions from historians, art historians, architectural historians, and archaeologists, pulls together current academic debate on Arthur's life and death and the symbols of his commemoration: individual chapters cover his life and marriage, his cultural world, his funeral and his tomb."

Bearded Lady, the Hughes book is very interesting and if alchemy and Arthurian legend and Edward IV are your thing, this is the book for you. It does give fascinating insight into an aspect of medieval thought that I think is often neglected, as modern people tend to dismiss alchemy as a childish blind alley. The tone is somewhat monomaniacal, however, as if the topic is less the author's scholarly thesis than his pet obsession.

Foose said...

Just a final thought -- Henry VII naming his son (possibly) for King Arthur may have had a counterpart across the channel, where Charles VIII named his eldest son Charles-Orland in the 1490s. Charles was apparently obsessed with chivalric romances, and Roland (Orland) is sort of the French alternative to the Arthurian legend, a noble character at the center of a cycle of legends centering around Charlemagne. Troubadours had been singing about the major legendary cycles -- the Matter of Britain (King Arthur), the Matter of Troy and the Matter of Charlemagne -- for a couple of centuries. It could be that European cultures of the 15th-century period were taking new looks at their past and cultivating a sort of proto-nationalism from old legends, which may be reflected in the names of Prince Arthur and Prince Charles-Orland.

Roland H. said...

I’m inclined to think that Arthur Tudor’s birth at Winchester was deliberate in tying him in with King Arthur.

The great hall of the old Palace of Winchester has a large (18 feet in diameter)‘King Arthur’s Round Table’. The ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ (under ‘round table’, 1977 edition) says that it dates from the 13th (or 14th) century, and was later repainted in the Tudor colors of green and white by Henry VII.

See: http://www.hants.gov.uk/greathall/great-hall2.html

That would indicate that Winchester, the ancient capital, did have a strong association with King Arthur. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York’s stopover would appear more than coincidental (not a mere hunting trip), and was planned ahead of time.

The leisurely journey to Winchester (the court left Westminster Palace ‘soon’ after June 5, and Arthur was born on September 20) mentioned by the antiquarian John Leland was most likely in consideration of the Queen’s condition. She was a little under 5 months pregnant when she left the capital, and had to proceed slowly, carried in a litter.

The fact that the pregnant Elizabeth made the journey in the first place also makes the trip to Winchester appear intentional. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for her to stay in London the whole time, and to rest till her baby was born? The child she was carrying was her first, and I would think that Henry VII would have wanted to be extra careful. Elizabeth would travel only if necessary - like to Winchester to give birth.

Also, before Arthur’s birth, Henry VII identified himself as a descendent of the Welsh King Cadwallader (his symbol of the red dragon was used by Henry and his troops at Bosworth Field). King Arthur was said to be of the same family line. Hence, Henry VII would have been eager to make a connection between the great Arthur Pendragon (another descendent of Cadwallader) and his soon to be born heir.

A final note - one historian I read, said that thank goodness, Henry VII didn’t name any of his sons ‘Cadwallader’!