Conscience of the King

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For the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, see The Conscience of the King.
First edition

Conscience of the King (1951) is a historical novel by the English author Alfred Duggan. The novel follows the speculative exploits of Cerdic Elesing, legendary founder of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, from his birth in 451 AD[1] of Germanic and Romano-British descent through his rise to power as first king of the West Saxons in England until his death in 534.

It is written in the style of an autobiography or personal memoir, and the character is portrayed as a conquering antihero who is not above acting against those who pose a threat to his independence and power, including members of his own family, and who even leads a marauding Germanic army to conquer his own native city and massacre its inhabitants. The title (taken from Shakespeare's Hamlet) is thus completely ironic. Cerdic does occasionally remark that he is worried that if either the religion of the Germanic tribes (who regard kinslaying and treachery as unforgivable crimes) or the Christianity in which he was brought up is true, he will spend eternity in Hell but he concludes dismissively that even if this is the case "It was fun while it lasted".

During his journeys he is accompanied by his son Cynric who shows great promise as both a warrior and the future heir to his father's throne, and is the only person in the entire book towards whom the writer/narrator shows any kind of genuine affection, partly because Cynric is simple-mindedly honest and faithful to his father, even failing to grasp Cerdic's occasional hints that Cynric should kill his younger sons so that they will not be rivals to his eldest son (as Cerdic was to his own elder brother). Cerdic comments, however, that if Cynric had exhibited any signs of the same political cunning that he possesses himself, he would have dealt with him as he did with his own kin and with his troublesome wife (Cynric's mother).

A recurring theme is the decline of civilisation; Cerdic often comments on the illiteracy of the Saxons and their simple adherence to custom, and on the advantages which his late Roman education gives him in thinking out his moves in advance. He also notes the decay of Roman buildings as they are abandoned and plundered and the dirt and uncleanliness of even Saxon nobles (whereas Roman nobles such as Cerdic himself in his youth bathed frequently). In his old age Cerdic sometimes thinks he would have preferred to be a Roman nobleman even though he would not have enjoyed as much personal freedom.

Historical background[edit]

Historical information on Cerdic is scanty and unreliable, mainly derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written four centuries after his time. Thus, an author seeking to write a full-length novel about him must fill enormous gaps with guess-work.

Many historians believe Cerdic's name to be a variety on "Caratacus", the name of the Celtic chieftain who opposed the Roman invasion of Britain. From this and from several of his ancestors having had names which appear more Celtic than Germanic, it is deduced that he was descended from a Romano-British noble family, which had set up a petty principality after the disintegration of Roman rule and which after the arrival of the Saxons became Germanized and/or intermarried with the invaders.

Duggan theorises that he was descended from a (historically attested) earlier Germanic ruler who settled in Britain with his people as mercenaries in the Roman service, at the height of Roman power. It is plausible to assume that descendants of such a chieftain, while fully assimilated in Roman culture, would have retained bits of Germanic lore, and particularly the prestigious pedigree ultimately tracing their ancestry to the god Wodan – which would be helpful to Cerdic in getting accepted by the Saxons.

This, however, contradicts the statement of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that Cerdic had landed in Britain with three keels (boats) manned by Saxon warriors – which would argue that he was a Germanic chieftain with no previous ties to the country.

Duggan reconciles this difficulty by assuming that Cerdic was brought up as a Romano-Briton, but that having quarrelled with his family he fled and went over to the Saxons, and eventually recruited them to come back as a conqueror – a plausible scenario, of which examples could be found at various times and places in history, though not attested in any historical source about Cerdic. However, a person capable of leading bloodthirsty foreign warriors to conquer his own homeland must be quite ruthless and amoral or immoral – and as such did Duggan portray Cerdic.

On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mentions Cerdic as closely co-operating with his son Cynric – and it is an unquestioned fact that he was the founder of a dynasty which endured for five centuries. From this it can be assumed that, even if Cerdic cared little for other people in general, he did make an exception with regard to his son – and that is made a central feature of the book's later parts.

In all, it can be said that Duggan has taken a historical novelist's liberty of inventing where historical facts are lacking – but his reconstruction is compatible with the scanty known facts.

Arthurian connection[edit]

In the later parts of the book, there is considerable attention given to Arthur – who in Duggan's depiction was in fact not a king but rather the leader of a band of cataphracts (heavy cavalry) which helped the surviving Romano-British rulers in their efforts to resist the tide of Saxon invasion. In Cerdic's version of events Artorius had served as a soldier in the Eastern Roman Empire and received training there before returning to Britain, and operates primarily in what is now Northern England.

Duggan follows the assumption made by many historians – but by no means conclusively proven – that Cerdic was the leader of the Saxon army which Arthur is said to have defeated at Mount Badon. The Battle of Mount Badon represents the defeat of an attempt by Cerdic to extend his kingdom along the Severn as far north as Chester; though defeated Cerdic escapes destruction through his strategic skills and the unwillingness of the British kings to co-operate fully with Artorius because they are jealous of him and one another. Artorius initially attracts warriors who share his ideological commitment to defeating the Saxons because they are heathen barbarians, but his successes attract a more mercenary element. The war-band eventually breaks up after a breach between Artorius and his second-in-command. (Cerdic says this is supposed to have been over the lieutenant's affair with his leader's wife, but he suspects it was really over loot; it should be noted that Cedric's own attitude to women is brutally instrumental so his opinion should not be accepted uncritically). Artorius ends his days as a hermit. Cerdic also attributes Artorius's eventual failure to inability to maintain the breed of heavy horses necessary to carry an armoured man in battle.

This would account for the later medieval depiction of Arthur and his followers as knights – since the cataphracts were, indeed, similar to the medieval knights in their weaponry and manner of fighting.

The above makes Duggan's book unique among the very considerable corpus of Medieval and modern Arthurian literature, in depicting Arthur from the point of view of his Saxon foes.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ This date is according to the novel but his actual birthdate is not certain.