Chapter 13
Henry Blois and the Modena
Archivolt
The sculpture on the Duomo di Modena Cathedral in Modena in northern
Italy has puzzled Arthurian scholars for years. An entrance to the
Cathedral known by Arthurian aficionado’s as the ‘Modena Archivolt’ is the
earliest representation of an Arthurian theme in monumental sculpture.
The abduction of Guinevere is a very popular element of the Arthurian
legend, first appearing in written form in Caradoc of Llancarfan's Life of
Gildas. As I maintain and will show in progression, the Life of Gildas was
written by Henry Blois. There are three points initially to Henry Blois’
impersonation of Caradoc of Llancarfan which lead to his composition of
Caradoc of Llancarfan's Life of Gildas. The first is to settle a contention
regarding the antiquity of Glastonbury in a spat between Canterbury and
Glastonbury. In the text of William of Malmesbury’s GR and DA there are
two references which put Gildas at Glastonbury. Gildas is supposed to have
written his De Excido there.
1
These references are both interpolations
(which I shall show in later chapters), but by employing the name of Gildas,
it helps Glastonbury abbey establish its position in antiquity in the
ecclesiastical hierarchy.
The second reason for concocting the Life of Gildas may have to do with
land claims made by Henry Blois. In the fictional account of Life of Gildas,
undisclosed land is given to Glastonbury. After Gildas acts as peacemaker
between Arthur and King Melvas, he obtains promises of reverence and
obedience and assurances against future violation of the abbey or its lands.
1
There is no mendacious design behind Gildas’ work of history and it would seem to be written by someone in
the sixth century (who flourished in the year of our Lord 546) under that name. Gildas leaves no clue to where he
wrote the book or where he came from. His connection with Glastonbury is entirely concocted by Henry Blois
interpolations into DA, GR3 and the invention of Life of Gildas
Much of Caradoc’s Life of Gildas is based upon and formatted from the
genuine Life of St Cadoc. St Cadoc's story first appears in a Vita Cadoci
written shortly before 1086 by Lifris of Llancarfan. The Cadoc legend,
written long before Henry Blois depicts Arthur in HRB as a chivalric hero, is
a depiction of a saint’s life where Arthur is portrayed as wilful and inflamed
with love for a certain Gwladys. He is also depicted with his friends Kai and
Bedwir. There are many commonalities to the Cadoc legend and the
concocted Life of Gildas story where Arthur helps kidnap Gwladys; and
there is a King Maelgon who reigned over all Britain and other similarities.
The inspiration for the story line for the kidnap of Guinevere depicted on
the Modena Archivolt may well have derived from two sources to form the
composite story as found in the Life of Gildas. Firstly, a steward of Cadocus’
convent had his daughter carried off by King Maelgwn’s tax gatherers: a
certain King, of the name of Maelgon, reigned over all Britain, who sent some
of his young men to the region of Gwynllwg, that they might there receive
tribute. Who coming to the house of the steward of Cadoc, seized his very
beautiful daughter, and took her away with them.
Secondly it may well be based upon on an escapade concerning a
woman called Nest by which Henry Blois’s uncle King Henry Ist bore an
illegitimate son in the person of Henry Fitz Henry. Nest ferch Rhys or Helen
of Wales was the only legitimate daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of south
Wales. It is not clear if the illegitimate child was born in or out of wedlock,
but Nest was known to be highly sexed and had many lovers and the King
eventually married Nest to Gerald Fitz Walter of Windsor. A certain
Tarquin of Wales however, was informed of her at a feast in 1109 and
entered her castle and carried her off.
Anyway, we may speculate that these are the composite germs of the
Guinevere abduction episode. Scholars have been ingenious in their
reasoning as to how the engravings appeared on the Modena archivolt.
Tatlock is bemused by the archivolt for its undisputed early date: While
most of the names of course are due to the Arthur tradition, there is nothing
highly individual about a man and woman in a castle…the names may even
have been added later to an imaginary scene, perhaps when the portal was
reconstructed by someone who had heard or read some romance.
The proposition and suggestion is contrived by Tatlock. Geoffrey and
Caradoc are excluded in Tatlock’s rationalization. It would be an astounding
coincidence given Arthur’s garb in the engraving, if the carving was
matched to Artus de Bretania and the names added later as Tatlock
suggests. When the composer of both the Arthuriad and the Life of Gildas
are found to be one and the same, we can easily deduce it was
commissioned by Henry sometime after 1138when Henry Blois was bishop
of Winchester, probably on one of the many excursions to Rome.
The most probable time it was commissioned is in 1139 when Henry
became legate just after the discovery of his Primary Historia at Bec by
Huntingdon. The suggestion is that Henry passed through Modena and that
Henry arrived in Rome soon after.
On the north portal, known commonly as the Porta della Pescheria, the
archivolt and lintel are carved in high relief with secular scenes with an
Arthurian episode that appears in the supposed Caradoc of Llancarfan’s,
Life of St. Gildas. It also is mentioned in Chrétien de Troyes The Knight of
the Cart and Ulrich von Zatzikhoven’s Lanzelet.
The fact that it is in a work by Chrétien becomes highly relevant much
later when we discover that the court of Champagne is listening to Grail
stories told by a ‘Master Blihis’. It is not by coincidence that Henry Blois is
closely related to Marie of France,
2
Chrétien’s patron. The point right now is
that it is the kidnap of Guinevere’ episode which is closely connected with
Glastonbury, long before the famed discovery of Arthur at Glastonbury in
1189-91 which dislocates most scholars’ theories that Arthur’s connection to
Glastonbury was established by the unveiling of his grave at that location.
What has puzzled commentators is that the construction of the cathedral
began in 1099, but the sculpture depicting the Arthurian scene can be dated
between 1130 and 1140. Loomis
3
is simply wrong dating this 1099-1120
based on the fact that the edifice was consecrated in 1106. The Modena
cathedral was not finished until 1140.
Commentators have envisaged a real Geoffrey of Monmouth who was
geographically remote from Modena as the originator of the chivalric
Arthurian legend, so the archivolt has presented a conundrum as to how
this scene appears here one year after the discovery at Bec of the Primary
Historia and the legend portrayed was related by Caradoc about King
Arthur. Many theories have been posited such as a pre-existing tradition of
Arthur in Brittany (which there was) which has somehow spread to Modena
(which it had not).
The simple answer is that, Henry Blois, a wealthy Bishop traveller, on
his way to Rome c.1140, commissioned the Arthurian depiction to be
engraved on the archivolt to concur with an account he had fraudulently
composed in the Life of Gildas which puts King Arthur at Glastonbury. The
Life of Gildas adds credence to the chivalric Arthur legend Henry had
concocted in HRB, but Henry made a point of not mentioning Glastonbury
in HRB.
Henry Blois had a contretemps with Canterbury over the antiquity of
Glastonbury brought about by Osbern’s accusation. This is in fact the main
reason for commissioning Malmesbury’s DA and has much to do with
Eadmer’s letter which I shall cover in depth later. To prove his point, Henry
assumed the name of Caradoc and wrote the Life of Gildas; in which proof
was provided for the abbey’s antiquity by Gildas’s association with the
abbey. (Gildas was of known dateable antiquity).
A pertinent point here is that we know for certain Caradoc is dead
already because if not, Henry would not be impersonating him as the
2
See Appendix 36
3
Arthurian literature in the middle ages R.S Loomis p.60
author. As I show later on in the chapter on Caradoc, he dies c1129 so it
makes a clear mockery out of the colophon found in certain copies of HRB
that suggest he was ‘Geoffrey’s’ contemporary.
What is confusing to most commentators is that the abduction episode
first appears in the Life of Gildas but does not feature in HRB. There is of
course no Merlin on the archivolt either as the sculpture was finished
before Henry Blois had invented Merlin as part of HRB. Merlin never had
contact with Arthur in HRB and Merlin did not even get mentioned in
Huntingdon’s précis of the Primary Historia.
In the VM and HRB and in the insertion into Orderic already discussed, it
is Henry who is witnessed to promote the belief that Gildas is accounted as
the author of the work ascribed to Nennius. It is Henry Blois who promotes
Nennius as Gildas with purposeful intention because Gildas is thenceforth
connected to Glastonbury through Henry Blois own impersonation of
Caradoc. The rationale behind the polemic is that if it were Gildas who
references Arthur, rather than the obscure Nennius, then it would lend
more credibility to Henry’s depiction of the chivalric Arthur in HRB.
Scholars have suggested Gildas as the writer of Nennius is a common
medieval misrepresentation. What is obvious is that Henry tries to link the
chivalric Arthur of HRB to the Ambrosius Aurelianus of Gildas.
What I do want to stress to the reader is the purposeful confusion which
Henry Blois injects, by including Caradoc’s name in the inscriptions on the
archivolt. This same Caradoc features in his own romance called the life of
Caradoc included in the first continuation of Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval,
le Conte du Graal c.1160 by Wauchier
Caradoc is supposedly the writer of the book in which the abduction of
Guinevere’ is found and the intention might possibly be that the person
who commissioned the engraving wanted posterity to conflate ‘Carrado’
with Caradoc Duke of Cornwall from the HRB and with the supposed
authors name from which the tale comes. Conflation, confusion and the
anachronisms of characters is Henry Blois ‘Modus operandi’. What
probably transpired is that Caradoc was known to have written a life of
Gildas and left the only copy at Glastonbury where Henry Blois added to it.
This would then show that even a tract written before 1129 (Caradoc died)
bore witness to Gildas and Arthur’s association with Glastonbury.
However, Malmesbury did not mention the tract in the unadulterated part
of DA, so maybe Henry Blois composed the whole tract using the Life of
Cadoc as a template.
The action depicted on the archivolt centres on a moated stone castle
with a blank shield hung on the wall. The depicted castle is stone with
wooden external fortifications; a woman named Winlogee looking very sad
with a downturned mouth is in a tower with a man named Mardoc. A man
with a pick axe defends the tower and appears to some commentators to be
named Burmaltus. The name more probably applies to the last of the three
horsemen on the left and Burmaltus is confederate with Arthur and
synonymous with Bedwir in the Vita Cadoci. On the other side a horseman
exits named Carrado to repel the attackers. All the men on horses are in
Norman garb except Arthur who is in a kilt. The tower is besieged by Artus
de Bretania and Isdernus, while the other knight, identified as Carrado, is
confederate with Mardoc. Mardoc is the Melvas in the faux Caradoc Life of
Gildas (the Maelgon of Lifris’ account) and is battling three knights whose
inscriptions are Galvaginus, Galvariun,and Che. Obviously, Artus is King
Arthur, and Winlogee is Guenevere; Che is Kay; Galvaginus might be
Gawain
4
, and Carrado is Caradoc or Caradoc the Duke of Cornwall.
Isdernus who is not immediately identifiable, may just be Isidore, from
whom, we know, Henry Blois derived much of his nature material from the
Etymologiae (supposedly expounded by Merlin and Taliesin) in the VM. We
could speculate that by including Isidore in the inscription, it now dates the
scene back to the early six hundreds by the inclusion of a datable and
historical figure. The rationale behind Henry’s devise is that if Isidore and
Gildas are seen to be connected to Arthur, then this automatically would
substantiate Arthur in antiquity.
Galvariun might be Galahad; although scholars would naturally assume
he is of the later LancelotGrail cycle and unknown at this date, but it
should not be forgotten Henry was the composer of Perlesvaus. Until one
understands that it is Henry Blois who first proliferates and propagates
Grail material on the continent, most commentators are unable to grasp
there is only one original source. Mardoc may be Mordred or Melwas.
4
Tatlock equates Gawain with Walwen. William of Malmesbury says that in the reign of William II the
enormous grave of Walwen, worthy nephew of Arthur on the sister’s side, was discovered in Ros in Wales. He
had reigned in the part of Britain still called Walweitha and had been driven out by Hengistus’ kin; but Arthur’s
grave has never been found whence old foolish lies return again. p.206
Caradoc’s Life of Gildas is central to connecting Gildas to Arthur which not
only provides authority for the abduction episode but also places the
episode in historical terms by relation to Gildas. The life of Gildas not only
links Gildas to Glastonbury but also Arthur. This episode in stone on the
archivolt links the Grail heroes through Caradoc’s Life of Gildas to
Glastonbury as this is where the action supposedly takes place in Carradoc’s
account.
We might suggest Burmaltus is Barinthus, who, after the battle of
Camlann, navigated a wounded Arthur to Insula Pomorum in the VM. As we
are able to date the Modena inscription to c.1140 we can see that there is
already intent to build the Arthurian link to Glastonbury as the kidnap
episode supposedly transpires there. Yet by contrast, Glastonbury is not
once mentioned in HRB. The sculpting of the archivolt scene would have
been commissioned just after Henry wrote the life of Gildas. As we have
covered, Henry terminates his HRB where Caradoc’s Brut y Tywysogion
picks up. We also know that Henry Blois makes overtures in the Vulgate
HRB colophon to make it seem as if the Brut y Tywysogion follows on from
HRB, when in reality, Caradoc is not a contemporary of ‘Geoffrey but is
already dead when the Primary Historia was written…. and long before the
appearance of the Vulgate HRB and its colophon.
At the time the Modena archivolt was sculpted, there certainly was no
thought of writing a Vita Merlini and in 1139 Merlin was separate from HRB
(as his Libellus Merlini was probably envisioned), not yet even included in
the Primary Historia. However, Isidores name (if I am correct in Isdernus)
was inscribed on the archivolt long before the VM was written. Henry Blois
has an innate capacity to conflate and confuse historical events to seem
plausible history. He writes under the name Caradog of Llancarfan in his
version of the Vita Gildae: 'He [Gildas] arrived at Glastonbury during the
time that King Melwas reigned in the summer country ...it was besieged by the
tyrant, Arthur, with an innumerable host on account that his wife,
Gwenhwyfar, whom the aforesaid wicked King [Melwas] had violated and
carried off, bringing her there for protection, owing to the invulnerable
position's protection due to the thicketed fortifications of reeds, rivers and
marshes. The rebellious King had searched for his queen throughout the
course of one year and at last heard that she resided there. Whereupon he
roused the armies of the whole of Cornwall and Devon and war was prepared
between the enemies. When he heard this, the abbot of Glastonbury, attended
by the clergy and Gildas the Wise, stepped in between the contending
armies and peacefully advised his King, Melwas, to restore the ravished lady.
And so, she who was to be restored was restored in peace and good will.
When these things had been done, the two Kings gave to the abbot the gift
of many domains.'
At this early stage of secretive authorship, Henry plants corroborative
material which formed part of a fabricated tale, initially put in place to
counteract the antagonism from Canterbury and to corroborate the
personage of his created chivalric Arthur in the Primary Historia. Some
commentators may now conclude (now that they are appraised of Henry
Blois’ authorship of the Life of Gildas) that since Life of Gildas was composed
in response to Osbern’s accusation (in effect to establish the antiquity of
Glastonbury) the manuscript may have been written prior to Primary
Historia and therefore is the explanation of Henry’s omission of any
mention of Glastonbury in HRB. This may well be the case…. as the last
paragraph is definitely an addition to the work to coincide with a later
agenda of Henry’s post 1143 (after William of Malmesbury’s death) which
establishes the 601 charter of Ineswitrin to appear to pertain to the island of
Glastonbury.
As we shall understand in progression, the Life of Gildas along with the
Ineswitrin charter of 601AD mentioned by William of Mamesbury plays a
large part in this investigation. The etymological explanation of Ineswitrin
being the old name for Glastonbury is in an additional paragraph made
later in 1144 by Henry to his version of the Life of Gildas, because at that
time, he was presenting the 601 charter to papal authorities as a genuine
proof of antiquity of an ‘old church’ at Glastonbury.
In the ‘Dialogue of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar’ discussed by Evan Jones,
5
Melwas is from Ines Witrin originally. Gwenhwyfar says: "I have seen a man
of moderate size at Arthur's long table in Devon dealing out wine to his
friends."
In the chapters on the DA and GR we will discover just how important
the island of Ineswitrin is and its relevance to Glastonbury, because of the
existence of the 601 charter. What I can say definitively is that the above
5
See note 7
poem post-dates Henry Blois. With Henry’s fraud involved and his ability to
impersonate and backdate, it has been impossible to find the reason behind
such a plethora of material which correlates with an obviously bogus
history as presented in the HRB and the interpolated part of DA. It is only
when one understands Henry Blois’ input, that the whole enigma can be
deconstructed.
The tale of ‘Carrado of the Dolorous Tower’ for instance is an example of
the myriad of crossover material. The answer would be that ‘Carrado of the
Dolorous Tower’ is derived from Henry Blois’ Life of Gildas version of the
abduction of Guinevere but must be viewed as a descendant of the
engraving on the Modena Archivolt as Carrado is not mentioned in Life of
Gildas.
Henry Blois impersonates Caradoc after he died and while travelling to
Rome passes through Modena and witnesses the architecture of the new
cathedral in construction. He speaks to whoever is overseeing the project
and offers to pay for some of the decoration. Why would anyone deny a
bishop and someone from such a high noble family from procuring his
folly; especially if he is contributing to the beautification of the structure?
Henry decides to include the name of the person he has impersonated as
the author of Life of Gildas and leaves other instructions concerning names
and features to be included in the engraving after a sojourn en route to or
from Rome.
In the interpolations in DA, Henry reaffirms the story of Melvas which
he initially had composed in the Life of Gildas and commissioned on the
Modena Archivolt. In the Life of Gildas, we are told Gildas wrote his history
while at Glastonbury. Gildas is corroborated as being at Glastonbury and
even buried there…. according to Henry’s interpolations into William’s DA.
The real problem which arises from this is….in reality Gildas did not have
anything to do with Glastonbury. He is only connected by the concocted
works of Henry. William of Malmesbury of course does not even mention
the work of Caradoc. Another reason for the composition of Life of Gildas is
that when responding to Osbern’s accusation by writing The life of St
Dunstan, William of Malmesbury had not gone far enough in establishing
(embellishing) the abbey’s antiquity in DA. Malmesbury in DA also had only
shown a proof of antiquity to the year 601 by the charter which gave
Ineswitrin to the ‘Old Church’. Henry wanted a more archaic provenance.
At the extreme right of the archivolt, we see two figures labelled
Galvariun and Che. The odd thing about them is that they do not seem to be
ready for a fight carrying their lances over their shoulders.
This is probably just a strange coincidence, but Henry Blois’ father who
was Count of Blois, Count of Chartres and Count of Troyes, has on his seal a
very similar image of a Norman knight with his lance over his shoulder
which nearly replicates the Modena depiction.
Arthur is shown in what would have been thought to be old British
warrior dress based upon what the Scots or Welsh might have worn i.e. a
kilt. Arthur is depicted as having a beard. Coincidentally, Henry Blois was
castigated at times for wearing his beard too long. This may tie into one of
the strangest episodes in the HRB: For this Ritho had fashioned him a furred
cloak of the beards of the Kings he had slain, and he had bidden Arthur
heedfully to flay off his beard… Whoever commissioned the Archivolt was
cognisant that Arthur had a beard.
I will show that the Life of Gildas has many parallels with the Vita Cadoci
i.e. the Vita Cadoci supplies some of the inconsequential ‘filler’ material
which comprises padding for the Life of Gildas and it pads out Henry Blois’
main thrust in writing the book which is strictly propagandist toward
Glastonbury and in corroborating the person of Gildas and his association
with Arthur in antiquity.
Finally, the lintel carvings include a cross, birds, animals, and a man
riding a hippocamp. According to Eratosthenes (and noted by Strabo) the
temple at Helike in the coastal plain of Achaea was submerged by the sea,
but it was dedicated to Poseidon Helikonios, (the Poseidon of Helicon) and
the sacred spring of Boeotian Helikon we came across earlier. When an
earthquake suddenly submerged the city, the temple's bronze Poseidon
accompanied by figures of hippocamps continued to snag fishermen’s nets.
Hippocamps are rare in sculpture and even rarer in medieval carving. Yet,
whoever commissioned this wanted one and had read the classics. It would
seem likely that Henry Blois had read Eratosthenes. It was Eratosthenes
who endeavoured to fix the dates of the chief literary and political events
from the conquest of Troy. Of course, nearly the same feat is carried out by
‘Geoffrey in the construction of the HRB. Also on the lintel are the birds
from Isidore’s Etymologiae. We can deduce that through the content in the
VM and the archivolt’s ‘Isdurnus’ inscription, that Henry had also read
Isidore.
It is safe to conclude the archivolt was commissioned by Henry Blois yet
no-one suspected a Bishop as an inveterate fabricator of tales. It will
become clear to the reader the motives behind presenting Gildas at
Glastonbury and the reasoning behind the etymological addition
concerning Ineswitrin into the last paragraph of the Life of Gildas when we
cover this material further on.