Conscience of the King (novel)

Conscience of the King (novel)

"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 [This date is according to the novel but his actual birthdate is not certain.] 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.

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.

Historical background

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 deducted 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.

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 indeed 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.

However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mentions Cerdic as closely cooperating 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.

The Arthurian Connection

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.

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.

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 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.


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