Monday, June 30, 2008

Needed: English hero

French historians have caused a bit of a stir by their statement that the story of King Arthur is a legend, and one that has been used for propaganda purposes by nationalist English historians and writers ever since. Now, this is something of a blow, King Arthur is, after all, a national hero - someone to aspire to; a role model. So, now we're short one role model. Lets see if we can't find another one.

1. Edward III. Crecy and Poitiers were fairly heroic, and that is a terrific beard.

2. Henry V. A classic, but you can't overlook him. Was it 20,000 Frenchmen against 6,000 Englishmen?

3. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. As every schoolboy used to know: Blenheim, Ramillies and Malplaquet. Those Frenchies took a hell of a beating.

4. Horatio Nelson. 'Firstly you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own regarding their propriety. Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your king; and thirdly you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil.'

5. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. When several French officers, embittered by their recent defeat at Waterloo, turned their backs on Wellington at the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic wars, King Louis approached the duke to express his sympathies. Wellington thanked him, before wryly adding, "I have seen their backs before."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always had a soft spot for Earl Godwin. In 1051 there was a minor riot in Dover that caused the deaths of a few soldiers of Count Eustace of Boulogne, the king's brother-in-law. The king, Edward the Confessor, who favoured French clerics and advisers and resented the power of his mightiest English earl, ordered Earl Godwin to punish the people of Dover. Godwin simply refused to carry out the order.

As for King Arthur ... My understanding is that he first became popular as the hero of an orally transmitted story cycle (which has not survived in written form) told at Welsh courts in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, and was re-invented as the hero of a European courtly romance cycle from the mid-12th century onwards.

It's plausible that the earlier Arthur was deliberately promoted by Welsh princes as a unifying national figure, in an age when both England and Scotland were successfully morphing into unified kingdoms. It's already well accepted by historians (and not just in France) that the medieval Arthur was promoted as a national hero by English kings to legitimise their influence over Wales.

And what's next? Can we expect Gordon Brown, desperate to present himself as British rather than Scottish, to start droning on about the national significance of King Arthur? ;)

11:31 am  

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