By Kathryn Walton
While magic and historical figures seem like polar opposites to many today, in the Middle Ages, they were frequently connected. Medieval historical records even contain several accounts of former kings who used magic in their reigns: one king magically constructed hot baths, while the other used magic to build a bridge over the English Channel.
Magic and history seem like entirely unreconcilable concepts to us today. Magic is confined either to the realm of fiction, or to the superstitious and often falsified practices of select individuals. Serious politicians and serious historians do not consider magic as having a place in governance or in the historical record.
In the Middle Ages, however, magic was accepted as an aspect of governance and practicing magicians appeared in the historical records alongside the illustrious kings of England’s past. There are, of course, as we know, a few medieval and early modern rulers who employed magicians to aid them in various ways. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, famously employed the celebrated magician John Dee to help her determine auspicious dates and to help her govern more effectively.
Medieval kings could make use of magicians because magic was a subject of much less concern in the Middle Ages than it is today. Magical medical practices, as well as magical means of determining the future, would have been frequently employed at court. For more on the different kinds of magic you might see in the Middle Ages, see my feature on “Everyday Magic in the Middle Ages”.
More exciting forms of magic, however, appear in the historical records of medieval England. Chronicles, which were medieval historical narratives, often featured magic as part of a king’s life and reign. Probably the most famous example of this is King Arthur himself, who, of course, had an equally famous magician to help him secure and hold his kingdom.
While Arthur is mostly understood today as a fictional character, he first appeared in written form in the Latin histories of medieval England. The most extensive early account of Arthur pairs him with the famous prophet and magician Merlin. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain introduces the child prophet Merlin well before Arthur appears on the scene. This child is endowed with the gift of prophecy, but he also plays a prominent role in using magic to make various historical (or pseudo-historical) things happen. One of his first magical acts, for example, is to move the so-called Giants Ring from Ireland to Salisbury Plain where it stands as Stonehenge. Merlin later plays a role in disguising Uther through magic so that he can sleep with Arthur’s mother before their marriage (via extremely despicable means), and consequently ensure the famous king’s conception. Merlin’s presence in this historical text shows how easily magic fit within the historical record of the time.
Later chroniclers, however, go so far as to suggest not only that some kings were accompanied by powerful and influential magicians, but that some kings themselves were powerful and influential magicians.
My two favourite examples appear in a small, lesser-known chronicle now called The Anonymous English Short Metrical Chronicle. This text was written sometime in the early 14th century and is quite short for a chronicle. It, nevertheless, sets out to recount the true history of British kings.
It begins, as Geoffrey of Monmouth does, with Brutus and the founding of Britain. It then goes on to offer a reduced version of medieval history as created by Monmouth and the other chroniclers of the time. It basically tells readers all about how England and its various rulers came into being. It also tells how various places in England were founded and who they are named after. It tells of King Lud, for example, a wise and virtuous king who founded both Canterbury and London.
When it gets exciting (in my opinion), is when one of its two magical kings appears on the scene.
King Bladud: Clerk of Necromancy and Builder of Devilish Hot Springs
The first magical king to appear in this chronicle is King Bladud, an early King of Britain. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bladud succeeded Hudibras as the King of the Britons, reigning just after Solomon began to build the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Geoffrey of Monmouth reports that he is most famous for founding the city of Bath. He also, however, mentions that Bladud was “a most ingenious man who encouraged necromancy throughout the kingdom of Britain.” When Geoffrey uses the word necromancy here, he is not talking about magic that works through interaction with the dead. That is a more recent definition. The term necromancy in the Middle Ages was less ominous and frequently referred to those who simply practiced magic.
According to Geoffrey, Bladud’s most impressive magical act was to construct a pair of wings for himself with which he tried to fly. Unfortunately for Bladud, they didn’t work all that well, and he fell from the sky onto the Temple of Apollo in Trinovantum (the original name for London), where he was dashed to countless fragments.
The Short Metrical Chronicle makes a great deal more of the king’s magic. The author of that text claims that Bladud was a great master of the art of necromancy, and that he, in fact, was responsible for the creation (rather than discovery) of the hot baths at Bath. The text goes into great detail about the construction of the hot springs. It claims that Bladud used his great knowledge to create a device that was made of several tons of brass, glass, seven manners of salts, brimstone, wildfire, and other kinds of minerals.
The author goes on to say that Bladud ensured that the fire would keep going (and thus keep the baths hot) by giving one man per year to the devil to tend the fire. That man was charged with forever making the fire go and would continue to do so until doomsday. Bladud’s failed flight does not appear in this version, and the author finishes this magical king’s story by stating that he went on to have a full reign, living for 150 years.
So, the author shows that Bladud’s knowledge of magic allowed him not only to found the city of Bath but also to construct a magical device that ensured the perpetual endurance of the famous hot springs there.
The next magical king to appear in this text is even more magical, powerful, and interesting.
King Hingist: Builder of Demonic Bridges
According to The Short Metrical Chronicle, Hingist reigns shortly after Bladud. He is described as someone excellent and wise; he founds many cities, conquers many lands, and is very good to his people. But he makes himself even more wonderful through the use of magic.
Like many medieval English kings, at some point King Hingist decides that he needs to conquer a bit of France. Unlike many other medieval kings, however, he uses a rather ingenious and magical way to do so. He conjures up three hundred fiends of hell to build a bridge across the English Channel. He calls the fiends through magic, commands that they go to hell to get some stone, and then tells them to come back up and build this bridge.
The fiends work away under the king’s command and in no time at all the bridge is twenty miles long. At this point, the king of France gets a bit nervous about the bridge and sues for peace with the king of England. Over the course of their negotiations, and with the looming threat of the magical bridge, Hingist manages to secure all of Gascony and Normandy from the French.
Hingist goes on to have a long and illustrious reign. He conquers twelve kingdoms and has thirty-five children over the course of a very long life. He is renowned in life and in death as being a perfect example of a medieval king.
Was Their Magic A Problem?
Many today assume that all magic was condemned and chastised in the Middle Ages and that therefore, the magic of these kings must have been seen as problematic. It is true that both of these kings make use of magic that would have been seen as more nefarious or dark at the time. They conjure demons to help them, and so their magic would have been categorized as more evil.
What I find most interesting, however, is that the magic of these kings in no way impacts the very positive image of them presented in the historical record. Hingist especially is depicted as an ideal king who does all the things a good medieval king is supposed to do: he conquers various land, is good to his followers, fathers successful children, and lives a long and full life. Bladud too is not critiqued for his conjuring of demons but remembered for founding a delightful holiday spot.
Far from being condemned, these magical kings fit comfortably within the trajectory of medieval history that early chroniclers were trying to establish. They are not outliers, or evil doers, but are instead among the most positive historical figures. Their presence in this history reinforces the extent to which magic found a comfortable home in the everyday discourse of the medieval world.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
An Anonymous Short English Metrical Chronicle, edited by Ewald Zettl (Early English Text Society, 1971)