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Tag Archives: British History

What Do You Do With A Dead Monarch?

“Finally, after forty-eight years, Cadwallo, this most noble and most powerful King of the Britons, become (sic) infirm with old age and illness, departed this life on the fifteenth day after the Kalends of December. The Britons embalmed his body with balsam and aromatic herbs and placed it inside a bronze statue which, with extraordinary skill, they had cast to the exact measure of his stature. They mounted this statue, fully armed, on a bronze horse of striking beauty, and erected it on top of the West Gate of London, in memory of the victory of which I have told you and as a source of terror to the Saxons.”

-Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Briton, pg. 280

Great monarchs leave legends that stand through the ages and their people find ways to memorialize them. Sometimes tombs are built to their glory whose architecture elevates them to works of art, sometimes cities or great buildings are named after them. They may be immortalized in song and story, or in portraits painted by the finest artists.

Or sometimes their corpses are entombed in bronze and set up on top of a church to scare the bejesus out of their enemies.

On a side note, I know how I wish to be interred upon my death.

Something I particularly like about this passage is that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s phrasing could mean that the weapons and armor of the statue may not have been part of the statue’s casting, but real armor made for the statue to wear. That idea makes the image of the statue coming to life, leaping off the church, and charging headlong into an army of Saxons even more compelling. Especially if it’s followed by a horde of spectral Welsh warriors following their king into one more battle.

This also provides a heck of an adventure hook for a game. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to steal the magical armor and weapons off the king’s statue as it sits on top of the church in the center of town. You need to do it without being seen by the populace, without alerting the clerics and paladins in the church, and most importantly without waking the king entombed within the statue.

The XP will be fantastic, but I suggest you have a backup character ready.

Cadwallo, more commonly known as Cadwallon ap Cadfan, is one of the last great legendary kings of the Britons discussed by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Stories tell of his battles against the Saxons and his reclamation of large parts of Britain. The tale of his final resting place has shades of the “Kings in the Mountain” concept, placing him in the company of Arthur, Barbarossa, and Tecumseh. It’s a trope that I’m quite fond of.

Here are some other adventure hooks for using dead monarchs:

The Sentinel – The statue of the monarch watches constantly for his hated enemies. When the statue sees them it roars with rage, alerting and emboldening his troops while striking fear into the hearts of the enemy. The purpose of the statue’s enchantments is to protect the city, but enterprising adventurers may convince the new king to dismount the statue and carry it before his army while waging war against the dead king’s foes.

Conversely the adventurers may be from the bloodline hated by the dead king and their mission would be to silence the guardian.

Heads of State – The kings and queens of a certain realm are legendary for their wisdom and deep knowledge of history. It is said that the wisdom of the former monarchs never dies, but is passed on to each new sovereign. This is true, but not in the fashion the populace believes. Through ancient rites the heads of each monarch is mummified and their spirits bound by necromancy. The Macabre Court is kept in a secret audience chamber within the royal palace, accessible only to those who bear the royal seal, and through them the kings and queens can seek council from the dead.

Now one of the heads has gone missing, a very old head from the dawn of the kingdom. The head of a ruler whose iron will dominated the land and united or crushed all other rulers under her banner. A head whose voice has become argumentative over the years, who feels the kingdom has lost its courage and become too civilized and too weak.

Blade of Kings – When the king falls in battle it lays a curse upon the knights who failed to protect him. To lift the curse the fallen king’s body is cremated and his ashes mixed with molten steel. Master smiths then forge the steel into a sword which must be wielded in battle by the new monarch, the lord marshal, or the champion of the realm.

Dire times have fallen on the land. Not only was the king slain by raiders but they captured his body and now hold it for ransom. Rumors abound that the realm’s enemies have begun to mobilize while the young queen calls for adventurers willing to track down the brigands and recover her father’s body. Without the royal sword she will be unable to lift the curse and lead her knights in battle.

The Royal Gaze – In days long past the royal house made a pact with a mysterious being that has given the family a strange and powerful ability. When a member of the royal family dies their body is laid out under the full moon. As the moonbeams touch the eyes they are turned into sapphires of the highest quality. The monarchs have the gems set into works of fine jewelry which they give as gifts to other rulers and nobles.

The origin of the jewels is a closely kept secret, as is the fact that whomever wears the royal crown can see through the gems. What even the royal family does not know is that the dark entity who gave them this gift can see through their living eyes. This information is written on a contract kept in a sealed scroll case deep in the royal dungeon. Revealing this document would throw the court into chaos.

*****

Have you used royal bodies or relics in your game? How did you do it and how did it go?

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Posted by on December 16, 2014 in Fantasy, Gaming, History

 

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Thoughts from History of the Kings of Britain

Last week I talked about the book, The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

There is a ton of great inspiration you can find in this book that’s just perfect for gaming. Today we think of the Mediterranean as a densely populated region, but in the legendary time of Brutus it was a wilderness in which he could hope to find a new home for his Trojan people.

“Meanwhile the Trojans sailed on for two days and one night, with a favourable wind blowing. Then they touched land at a certain island called Leogetia, which had remained uninhabited since it was laid waste by a piratical attack in ancient times. Brutus landed three hundred armed men on the island to see if anything at all lived there. They found no one, but they killed all sorts of wild animals which they had discovered between the forest pastures and the woodlands.”

They came to a deserted city and there they found a temple of Diana. In the city there was a statue of the goddess whcih gave answers if by chance it was questioned by anyone.”

-Page 64

This could just as easily be the setup for a story by Clark Ashton Smith as a chronicle of history. An ancient lost city, a forgotten temple, it’s an adventure waiting to happen. Proving that they are good adventurers, Brutus’ troops don’t play with the magic statue right away. They return to the ships, deposit the things they’d discovered, and plan what to do next. Brutus decides to make sacrifices to the gods and ask Diana’s help.

“O powerful goddess, terror of the forest glades, yet hope of the wild woodlands, you who have the power to go in orbit through the airy heavens and the halls of hell, pronounce a judgement which concerns the earth. Tell me which lands you wish us to inhabit. Tell me of a safe dwelling-place where I am to worship you down the ages, and where, to the chanting of maidens, I shall dedicate temples to you.”

-Page 65

For a man of the medieval church, Geoffry was remarkably cool with paganism. As long as it was pre-Christian and British. Like all things Saxon, he has nothing nice to say about their religion.

“Brutus, beyond the setting of the sun, past the realms of Gaul, there lies an island in the sea, once occupied by giants. Now it is empty and ready for your folk. Down the years this will prove an abode suited to you and to your people; and for your descendants it will be a second Troy. A race of kings will be born there from your stock and the round circle of the whole earth will be subject to them.”

-Page 65

Thus was Brutus set on the quest for Albion. Though as it turns out Diana isn’t completely right and there are still a few powerful giants living there. Which works out well, as it give Brutus and his people something to heroically strive against once they arrive.

Empty lands are a recurring theme in the book. There are realms that have been empty since ancient times, such as Ireland, Albion, and Leogetia, but there are other areas that rise up and then fall in a much shorter period of times. When good kings rise up Geoffry describes them as repopulating lands and even cities that had been abandoned under weaker kings, or from the pressures of war and disease. The most dramatic case of this is found at the end of the chronicle:

“When Cadwallader fell ill, as I have begun to tell you, the Britons started to quarrel among themselves and to destroy the economy of their homeland by an appalling civil war. There then followed a second disaster: for a grievous and long-remembered famine afflicted the besotted population, and the countryside no longer produced any food at all for human sustenance, always excepting what the huntsman’s skill could provide. A pestilent and deadly plague followed this famine and killed off such a vast number of the population that the living could not bury them.”

“The few wretches left alive gathered themselves into bands and emigrated to countries across the sea.”

-Pages 280-281

Once the plague ran its course there was a race to repopulate Britain which was won by the Saxons.

For gaming purposes this is a stark example that every ruin doesn’t need to be an ancient one. Dungeons, castles, even entire realms can fall in short order and leave behind plunder for those brave or foolish enough to go adventuring for them. It also shows how quickly evil forces can invest these realms. In some ways this works better than the ancient dungeon model, as it provides a good reason why the player characters would expect to find loot that others hadn’t already plundered.

Some of these elements are present in Michael Curtis’ excellent Stonehell Dungeon, where the dungeon only recently became open due to the overthrown of the mad king who used it as a prison.

Imagine a game where Greyhawk had been ravaged by a magical plague, something akin to Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Something so horrible that the people fled the city as fast as they could. Now, five years later, the party has reason to believe that the curse has been lifted. With that knowledge they have the chance to delve into the city before it is repopulated.

Another theme that shows up repeatedly is the unsteady nature of the feudal world. Absolute monarchs rule absolutely, and just beneath them are many people who want a shot at that power. Nobles constantly try to topple the king and alliances shift like sand in a windstorm. Yesterday’s ally may be today’s mortal enemy and there is enough murder and duplicity to satisfy any Game of Thrones fan. (Though it lacks Tyrion’s witticisms.) A king had to be cautious and always keep one eye behind him, especially if he left his realm for an extended campaign.Thus was Arthur stopped from taking the crown of Rome not by its legions, but by having to turn back and deal with Mordred’s betrayal.

Image from http://www.pdclipart.org/

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2014 in Books and Comics, Gaming, History

 

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The History of the Kings of Britain

I’m back!

Last week was family vacation time for me. It was Thanksgiving Week for those of us in the U.S. and when I wasn’t eating tons of food I was catching up on my reading. One of the books that I devoured was The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and what a fun read it was.

To any readers in Britain, my hat is off to you. The legendary history of Britain is far cooler, and bloodier, than I ever realized. It’s an epic full of treachery and mysticism where nearly every page is filled with battles involving thousands of warriors soaking the fields in blood.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a religious figure who lived in the 1100’s and was most likely Welsh. His two most famous works are The History of the Kings of Britain and The Prophecies of Merlin, which at some point he combined into the former work to act as a bridge between the reign of King Vortigern and the brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, setting the stage for King Arthur’s rise. Geoffrey does not claim authorship of The History, rather he claims to have translated it from, “(a) certain very ancient book written in the British language,” which he received from Archdeacon Walter of Oxford.

One of the first things to be clear on is that the British Geoffrey is talking about are either the Welsh or those who settled in what became Brittany. Everyone else is a foreigner. Normans? They don’t enter into the story. Celts? They’re newcomers that the British gave Ireland because it had been uninhabited since the giants vanished. Picts? They’re barbarians from the continent. Saxons?

Geoffrey of Monmouth had a lot to say about the Saxons. None of it particularly nice. They’re the well-spoken version of Orcs in his history of Britain.

Did I mention that Geoffrey was probably Welsh?

According to legend, British history began with the fall of Troy. The surviving Trojans settled in Greece, where a boy named Brutus was born. Brutus is banished after he accidentally kills his father, so he and his followers set out on an epic journey to find a new homeland. Along the way they end up fighting many battles, finding more Trojan survivors, and eventually coming to a mysterious island whose population has vanished. In the ruins of a city they find a temple to Diana, who gives Brutus a prophecy of where he may found his kingdom. Following Diana’s guidance, Brutus and his followers sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic, sailing north along the Gallic coast where they find even more Trojan survivors and hear of a wondrous and fertile island called Albion, which matches the description of Diana’s vision. Brutus leads his people to Albion where they defeat the giants living there and establish the city of Troia Nova, which would later become London. Brutus becomes the first king in this new land and his people take on his name and becoming the Britons.

 The Brutus Stone located in Totnes, England, is said to be where Brutus first set foot on Albion’s soil. Given its distance from the coast Brutus must have had long legs.

From this fantastic beginning Geoffrey spins tales of kings of great power and nobility as well as those who are petty and duplicitous. Giants and dragons lurk in the early tales with visions and prophecy enough to please any fan of the Greek legends. King Leir’s story is here, writ large and bathed in blood. The brothers Belinus and Brennius battled each other for the throne but later united to oppose the might of Rome. The brothers sacked the Eternal City, Belinus returning to the kingship of the Britons while Brennius stayed and ruled Rome with an iron fist. Doomed Vortigern, who discovered the boy Merlin. Vortigern played for power, rising to the kingship through treachery and murder, only to watch his kingdom crumble. In the end his name was cursed by both Briton and Saxon and he was burned to death in his fortress tower. Following him came Aurelius, Uther, and finally the glorious reign of Arthur. King Arthur, who ruled an empire of 30 kingdoms, who destroyed the forces of Lucius Hiberius, Emperor of Rome, and who would have worn the imperial crown had he not been forced to turn back by the betrayal of Mordred and Guinevere.

Geoffrey’s Britain never recaptures the golden era of Arthur. Civil wars, betrayals, invasions, and crimes that turn god against the Britons cause the fall of the once-great kingdom. Finally a plague ravages the land so severely that almost every inhabitant is killed or flees. When the plague subsides it is the Saxons who return first, growing ever more numerous and powerful. A few British kings still rise up to stem the Saxon tide, but the time of true British rulership is at an end.

Fans of Thomas Malory’s romantic Arthurian tales will be surprised at how different these stories are. There is no Camelot, no round table, no Sir Lancelot. Kay is not Arthur’s ill-tempered step-brother, but his trusted seneschal and a leader of great renown. Bedivere is Arthur’s cup-bearer and most famous warrior. Arthur’s nephew Gawain is most recognizable, being as strong, courageous, and hot-tempered as his later portrayals show. King Arthur himself is quite different. There is no Sword in the Stone or Lady of the Lake in his story. He is a less romantic figure, but in many ways a mightier one whose empire is far more vast than it is under Malory’s pen. The biggest difference is Merlin, who plays no role in Arthur’s life but is a major figure in that of his three predecessors.

The History of the Kings of Britain is a delightful read and full of inspiration for any gamer, particularly those of the Old School Renaissance. In upcoming posts I’m going to look at a few aspects that I found particularly inspiring for use at the game table. This is a brutal history of poisoned cups, burned cities, and armies tens of thousands strong.

 
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Posted by on December 1, 2014 in Books and Comics, Fantasy, Gaming, History

 

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