“Once, in the days of time immemorial, there was a king of Greece who had thirty-three daughters. Each of these daughters rose up in revolt and murdered her husband. Perplexed as to how he had bred such rebels, but not wanting to kill his own flesh and blood, their princely father exiled them and set them adrift in a rudderless ship. Their ship was provisioned for six months. By the end of this period, the winds and tides had carried them to the edge of the known earth. They landed on an island shrouded in mist. As it had no name, the eldest of the killers gave it hers: Albina. When they hit shore, they were hungry and avid for male flesh. But there were no men to be found. The island was home only to demons. The thirty-three princesses mated with the demons and gave birth to a race of giants, who in turn mated with their mothers and produced more of their own kind. These giants spread over the whole landmass of Britain. There were no priests, no churches and no laws. There was also no way of telling the time. After eight centuries of rule, they were overthrown by Trojan Brutus.”
– Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009), p. 65.
The fictional representation of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power as narrated by Hilary Mantel in her Wolf Hall shows us, at the very least, that she has done her homework. The myth quoted above – which opens the second chapter of the book – is told not too dissimilar to how it would have been told in the sixteenth-century. If Mantel is to be believed (and she is, it is to be remembered, telling a fictional story albeit about real history) then Thomas Wosley did not put much stock in such stories. Whether or not that is true, there is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that not all took the origin stories about Britain seriously. It is true that the Tudor monarchy chose the stories of King Arthur and Merlin as the basis for their power. Henry VII even named his eldest son Arthur as a means to link his power with the rebirth of Britain’s most famous king of legend. It is also true that the stories were repeated often not only in poetry but also in Chronicles claiming to be fonts of fact and truth. Yet, as T. D. Kendrick has noted many of these chroniclers added the caveat that they were repeating the tales sent down to them and not necessarily claiming their authorial expertise in this portion of their text. The origin stories, for many, were traditions that might have some element of truth and which were to be repeated unless totally disproven.
In his Anglica Historia, Polydore Vergil exclaimed that the chief source for these origin stories – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae had created ‘many silly fictions’ by trying to place British origins above those of the Macedonians and the Romans. Others followed suit. In 1530 John Rastell argued that the story of Diocletian (the Greek king repeated in Mantel’s Wolf Hall) and his murderous daughters was a story that ‘semeth more mervaylous than trewe’ and that:
‘though it has continued here in England and taken for truth among us Englishmen yet other people do therefore laugh us to scorn’ (Rastell, prologue)
John Twyne claimed the story as nothing more than a laughable yarn and the poet, John Hardyng claimed it ‘not trew ne autenticke’. In his Chronicle of John Hardyng in metre published by Richard Grafton in 1543, Hardyng extrapolated that Diocletian’s daughters who were described originally in the Brut chronicle (which itself derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth) was a very similar tale to one he had heard regarding the fifty daughters of Danaus, King of the Greeks who had married his daughters to the sons of Aegyptus, King of Egypt. It was the same myth, just different setting. Hardyng explained:
But I dare say, this chronicle is not true,
For in that like time, in Syria was no king
Nay afterward, to time that Saul grew
Nay no king was in Syria ever living
That had that name, for Saul was the first king
Of Syria realm, at the end of the third age
In Samuels time, the prophet wise and sage.
During the sixteenth-century origin stories were reassessed and examined. They were not necessarily exercised out of all histories, nor removed from the popular beliefs concerning England’s past, but they were certainly not believed by all, or used simply as morality tales, no different than those of the fabled Robin Hood. This was a time when truth and fiction were increasingly becoming important terms used to split ‘real’ history from fables and legends. If the changes in understanding over origins are anything to go by, then the sixteenth-century was the point when historians really were beginning to reassess their role and purpose. They were not necessarily becoming ‘modern’, in our sense, but they were certainly not the same at the end of the century as they were at the beginning.
Thomas D. Kendrick, British Antiquity (Methuen: London, 1950).
John Rastell, The Pastime of People: The Chronicles of divers realms and most specially of the realm of England (London, 1530).
John Hardyng, The Chronicle of John Hardyng in Metre, from the first beginning of England, unto the reign of Edward IV where he made an end of his chronicle (London, 1543), p. vii.