In the dying days of May 2021 I walked from Cambridge to Troy. It was a long and hard journey, taking me two hours under a hot sun, as I crossed the river Scamander and climbed the hill once graced by the high-walled city. There, where Priam himself had stood to survey his realm, I gazed north, beyond the dykes that had protected the Troad, to the great mound where the Tomb of Ilus once lay.
At least, that was where I was according to Iman Wilkens in his Where Troy Once Stood (London, 1990), in which he imaginatively relocates Troy to the Wandlebury Ring, an iron age-hillfort that stands in the Gog Magog Hills, south-east of Cambridge. Wilkens is unconvinced by the conventional placing of the site of Homer’s epic at Hisarlik in modern Turkey. The book as a whole stands as a case study for how not to do historical enquiry, as dubious etymologies and forced readings of texts and archaeology lead one along a chain of associations worthy of Black Dynamite. Particular highlights include the idea that the siege of Troy must have involved Northern Europeans rather than ‘the more peaceful Greeks of the classical era’ (p.15, something that would be news to Thucydides, Xenophon and the state of Sparta), and that the references to rain suggested ‘that the climate of the Troad is more like that of England’ (p.39). As a result of some spectacular onomastics, the River Cam becomes the Scamander and Ely Cathedral the Tomb of Ilus.
It is safe to say that despite the chapter in which Odysseus and company get lost in the Caribbean on their way back to Ithaca/Cadiz, Wilkens’ book has not achieved wide academic acceptance. Nor is it immediately obvious that the landscape he places Troy in is in urgent need of historical embellishment. In addition to the Ring itself and the remains of a mansion built for James II within it, Wandlebury is flanked by the remains of two further hill forts at Cherry Hinton and Copley Hill. Below it runs a network of roads built by the Romans, including Wool Street, which linked their military bases in Cambridgeshire to Colchester, and the Icknield Way running from Suffolk to Berkshire. Walk half an hour north-east from the Ring and you’ll hit Fleam Dyke, one of four great earthworks raised in the area in the post-Roman period that cut across the Icknield Way. The great island of Ely has more than enough stories of desperate battles and sieges to fill another Iliad. The remains of Ilus would rest with those of Byrhtnoth, and his spirit with that of Hereward. In short, this is a corner of the earth with no shortage of human past.
And yet Wilkens is hardly the first to feel that this area could be improved by the glamour of distant lands. In the centre of Cambridge you will find Jerusalem, or at least a Church of the Holy Sepulchre, better known as the Round Church, built in the early twelfth century after the First Crusade, inspired by that in the Holy Land. Follow the Icknield Way south and you reach Baghdad, or Baldock, named thus according to local legend by the Knights Templar after the great city in the east. Local institutions also acquired deeper histories. Should one consult Dyer’s The Privileges of the University of Cambridge (London, 1824), you will find record of the charter granted to the university by King Arthur on 7th April 531, sparing it from all secular duties and taxation. The king was busy in London at the time, possibly deep in domestic drama, so this privilege was delivered by Gawain, of Green Knight fame. That the charter was entirely invented in the fifteenth century, in competition with Oxford’s claim to be founded by Alfred, is a bit of a blow for Cambridge’s Arthurian heritage but I have every confidence in Fraser’s ability to use it to reconstruct the history of the sixth century.* [Hey! – Ed.] Some of these stories would cross the Channel, and Gervase of Tilbury, writing in the thirteenth century, would amuse Emperor Otto IV with stories of nocturnal duels against supernatural knights within Wandlebury Ring (Otia Imperialia III.59, possibly Hector come again?).
Nor indeed is Wilkens the first to link Britain with Troy. Most famously Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136), tells of how the island was named after Brutus, the banished great-grandson of Aeneas, who first settled the land and founded London, or New Troy. Among the native giants slain in this process was one named Gogmagog. Geoffrey places this event in Totnes but given his notorious unreliability we can be forgiven for locating it in Cambridgeshire instead. Such an ancestry does not place Britons in a very exclusive club, alas, as other descendants of Troy include the Romans, Franks, Normans and basically nearly everyone else in Europe. Indeed, given the multitude that claim Trojan origins, it’s something of a wonder that the Greeks ever prevailed against them in the first place.
There were many reasons that people might seek to link a place to a distant past or a faraway land. Some are fairly obvious and easy to understand (the necessity of one-upping Oxford, for example). An ancient origin, particularly one that linked you to Troy and therefore Rome because of the myth of Aeneas, gave you a pedigree and therefore a dignity and status. This is something I thought about a lot as part of my role with the ERC-funded Impact of the Ancient City project. You learn a lot about the stories that people love and the histories that they value from examining the pasts that they seek to integrate themselves and their pasts into. Founding churches in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre gave your city a link not just to the beginnings of Christianity but also to the Crusades and the wider involvement of Western Europe in the east. Being patronised by Arthur meant that you were an institution at the very heart of the Matter of Britain, esteemed by the noblest and most celebrated king in the country’s history. And if you could claim descent from Troy, then you acquired a history and a place among the ranks of nations that was easy to fit into pre-existing stories about the world and put you on the right side.
Such efforts happened across Europe. A link to the Iliad was important for the status of a city in ancient Greece. In the second century AD, Pausanias expressed his doubts about whether the settlement of Panopeus qualified as a city because of its lack of physical infrastructure (Description of Greece 10.4.1-2). Panopeus’ case for city status was reinforced by its mention in the Iliad, as Schedius, king of the Phocians, who ‘dwelt in a house in famous Panopeus’, was slain by Hector in the battle for the body of Patroclus (Il.17.1307). Sometimes efforts to link a city to a well-known past could be charmingly ludicrous. My favourite is the Libro Fiesolano, a late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century history of Florence, which sought to develop an alternative Roman past for the city by saying it was founded by the son of Catilina, magnificently, and utterly plausibly, named Hubert Caesar.
It’s very easy to be sarcastic about all of this (as I’ve demonstrated throughout this post, never let it be said that I climbed the high road when the easy slide into a ditch was available). But it seems to me that any history of a landscape that only included what actually happened misses a great deal of importance. What I love about Cambridgeshire is that it is a land that has been created by human labour, sometimes literally in the case of the draining of the Fens. It is the result of centuries of human occupation and work, a place that generation after generation of people have built on, fought for and been buried in. We can see their hopes and their fears and their loves written into the countryside. When we write the history of this space, we are translating those passions from earth to paper. Such a transcription must include Iron Age forts and Roman roads, Anglo-Saxon dykes and medieval cathedrals. But it should also trace the contours of the human imagination, so that spectral knights, distant Jerusalem, open-handed Arthur and, most recently, Troy take their place in the examination of the ways in which people have understood this landscape.
* For more on this, see A. Putter, ‘King Arthur at Oxbridge: Nicholas Cantelupe, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Cambridge’s Arthurian Foundation Myth’, Medium Aevum 72 (2003), pp. 63-81.