Merlin's Cave

King Arthur and the House of Hanover

as discovered by Sir Guinglain the Fair Unknown...

I HADN'T expected that my thesis would involve Arthurian matters. The eighteenth century Hanoverian kings of Great Britain and their practical, financially conscious, even avaricious ministers are not remembered for having been particularly interested in the myths and legends celebrated by their forebears. However, during my research I have discovered that, although the eighteenth century did not see a full-blooded revival and a new Arthurian literary cycle, the 1730s in particular did see King Arthur and Merlin adopted as part of the imagery used to promote the British royal family.

Of course, after Malory King Arthur had never disappeared. The Elizabethan and Jacobean ages had seen the arrival on the scene of Tom Thumb - originally a figure of Arthurian romance - and also the Shakespeare (attrib.) play The Birth of Merlin. Most famously of all came Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen, which although unfinished, carried through the identifications made by earlier English sovereigns and tied Prince Arthur to the search for Gloriana, an idealized Elizabeth I. Spenserian influence remained strong in the early eighteenth century, as a new dynasty sought to prove itself the consummation of the achievements of its Tudor and Stuart predecessors.

When George II came to the throne in 1727 he brought with him as his consort Caroline, a formidable woman who dominated the court until her death in 1737. Caroline was easily projected as the Saviour of Protestant Britain, appropriating many of the images associated with Elizabeth I. In 1705 she had rejected the hand of the Austrian Archduke Charles, pretender to the Spanish throne and subsequently Holy Roman Emperor, as such a marriage would have involved her renouncing her Protestant faith. This act of self-sacrifice was much remarked upon by Protestant propagandists. As a woman, she could be represented as Britannia, while still through her actions firmly identifying herself with the pragmatic and rational monarchy of the Hanoverian kings. Like her father-in-law, George I, she supported early experiments in smallpox inoculation, and interested herself in government business, ensuring that her husband kept faith with Sir Robert Walpole's government.

In contrast to the Germanic ambience of George I's court, George II and Caroline were keen to be seen as British. English became the preferred language of the court, as opposed to French or German, and it was rumoured that portraits of English kings from William I onwards were to be hung in Kensington Palace. It was perhaps only a matter of time before Caroline, in her ongoing beautification of Richmond Park, turned to Arthurian legend.

The eighteenth-century understanding of the matter of Britain was post- Spenserian. As Spenser had transformed the Arthur of the romances into an ideal Elizabethan gentleman, writers of the later Stuart period, such as John Dryden and Richard Blackmore, had written Arthurian dramas that fitted the political situation of their own times. Under the rationalist George I, Blackmore wrote a medical treatise which included a lengthy preface rejecting the efficacy of the royal touch as a cure for the King's Evil. Indeed, a grotto which Queen Caroline had constructed in Richmond Park in 1732 featured images of John Locke and Isaac Newton, representatives of a scientific pantheon. However in 1735 Caroline oversaw the building of a further grotto - Merlin's Cave.

Merlin's Cave received a great deal of coverage in the press. It showed Caroline as a patron of people and culture, figures in the grotto depicting members of the royal household as Merlin; his secretary; Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, the first Tudor and alleged descendant of Cadwallader, last of Geoffrey of Monmouth's British kings; Elizabeth I, "who came to Merlin for Knowledge"; the goddess Minerva; and a witch. Queen Caroline thus borrowed the dynastic mythology of Elizabeth I, and applied it to her own family. Some publications accompanied reports of the grotto with extracts from Spenser, or summaries of Merlin's career gleaned from Geoffrey or Malory.

Although intended to help show George II and his family as the true inheritors of the Tudors' British heritage, as opposed to the exiled Stuarts over the water, Merlin's Cave provided ammunition for the opposition. The Craftsman, the most widely-circulated anti-Walpole newspaper, reported an encounter with Merlin who, saying "I was heretofore, what Thou art now, the Oracle of my Country" proceeded to criticise Britain's domestic and foreign situation. Other writers, such as the playwright Lewis Theobald, saw Merlin as "The Devil of Stonehenge", and viewed him as a malicious influence, corrupting Vortigern and Arthur as Walpole led George and Caroline astray.

Merlin's cave was actually a rare example of Arthurian imagery being used by supporters of the government in the 1730s. More often the ghosts of chivalry were invoked in the name of Frederick, Prince of Wales, eldest son of George and Caroline, much praised by 'Patriot' poets. These writers looked to Alexander Pope, who had first made the building of grottoes fashionable, as their model, but rather than retiring from public life, sought to stimulate it by appealing to the lost values of the past. Frederick was looked to as the heir not only to historical heroes of chivalry, such as Henry V and Edward III, but also to King Arthur himself. Although not performed in Frederick's lifetime, a masque, The Institution of the Order of the Garter, was written by Gilbert West, a writer who received a pension from the Prince. It showed Frederick as the defender of 'Gothic' mediaeval values, Arthur (and his fourteenth-century disciple, Edward III) becoming a protector of a free society of virtuous nobles, ruled by a dynasty of Patriot Kings. Frederick, it was implied, would one day sweep the corrupt from office and rule over Britain with a new Round Table, the descendant of Arthur and the Plantagenets.

It's difficult to envisage Whig or Tory politicians adopting the mantles of Galahad, Percivale or Lancelot, but the ideal was there, even if in a debased form suitable for the propaganda of the age of the pamphlet war. Merlin's Cave itself was demolished in the early 1760s, although the name lives on, apparently, as that of a pub in Gerrards Cross. Perhaps ironically, the grotto was removed by George III, son of the Arthurian Frederick, as he attempted to put his father's ideas of active, but constitutional royal government into practice.

Further reading

The Gentleman's Magazine for 1735 contains many items on Merlin's Cave, some reprinted from other titles of the day.
Christine Gerrard's book on the Patriot literary opposition to Walpole (OUP, 1994) looks at the uses of Arthurian and chivalric legend against the government and in favour of a Patriot monarchy headed by Frederick.