Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Today is the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge fought on 25th September 1066, a striking victory for the English over the Norwegians but it is all too often overshadowed by the Battle of Hastings.

The Claim of Thrones
As we approach the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings on 14th October it is easy to overlook the events of 1066 in the build up to the defeat of the English resulting in the Normans taking the throne. The Battle of Hastings was the final conflict in a short month which saw battles fought between the English and Norwegians in Yorkshire just three weeks earlier. Harold's battle weary army had then to march south and face William's forces who had landed on the Sussex coast.

The plaque at Stamford Bridge commemorating the battle
The year started with the death of King Edward on 5th January 1066. Without a clear heir to the English throne several claimants came forward leading to the disputed succession of Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex who was elected king by the Witenagemot, an assembly of the ruling class of Anglo Saxon England. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle after Harold was crowned by the Archbishop of York he reigned for forty weeks and a day.

Two claimants to the throne immediately came forward: William, Duke of Normandy, and Harald Hardrada of Norway. William claimed that King Edward had promised him the throne by and Harold of Wessex had agreed. Harald Hardrada claimed their was an agreement between his predecessor Magnus I of Norway and the earlier King of England Harthacanute that if either died without heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway. Both William and Harald now prepared for invasion.

The Battle of Fulford Gate
Harald Hardrada's forces were swelled by the addition of Tostig Godwinson, Harold's exiled brother and Earl of Northumbria. Earlier in the year Tostig had raided south east England, but retreated when faced with Harold's navy. Tostig turned his attention to Norfolk and Lincolnshire but was  decisively defeated by Edwin, Earl of Merica, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Tostig's men deserted him in his hour of defeat so he fled to Scotland where he spent the summer with King Malcolm III.

Later that summer a Norwegian invasion force totalling around 10,000 men led by Hardrada and Tostig sailed up the River Ouse and advanced on York. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that on eve of St. Matthew the apostle, i.e. the 20th September, they engaged with a northern English army of around 5,000 men led by the Earls Edwin and Morcar at the village of Fulford. York fell to the Norwegians but under terms that the Norsemen would not force their way in to the city. The Norwegians then offered peace to the Northumbrians in exchange for their support in Hardrada's bid for the throne before retiring to Stamford Bridge, 7 miles east of York.

At this time King Harold was in Southern England, anticipating an invasion from France by William, Duke of Normandy. On hearing of the fall of York, Harold took his houscarls and all the thegns he could muster to Yorkshire, covering a distance of 185 miles in just four days, taking the Norwegians completely by surprise.

It is estimated that around 1,500 fell on the battlefield but no mass grave has yet been discovered. However, between 1985 and 1986 York Archaeological Trust carried out excavations at St Andrew's Church, Fishergate, York. From 402 skeletons uncovered 29, all male and in double graves and bearing evidence of weapon trauma, are thought to be the result of a single violent event. It has been suggested that these may have been victims of the Battle of Fulford Gate.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge
The exact location of the Battle of Stamford Bridge is not known but the favoured site is an area just south-east of the Yorkshire town known as “Battle Flats” on east bank of the River Derwent. A common theory is that the Norwegian army was split in two with forces to the east and west of the Derwent.

Location of Stamford Bridge
However, the sudden and unexpected arrival of Harold's Saxon army on the 25th September seems to have caught the Norwegians by complete surprise with the English army attacking the west side of the Derwent. The Norsemen were slain or fled across the bridge before Harold's main force arrived at the battlefield. The Anglo Saxon records that a single Norse warrior held the bridge:

“But there was one of the Norwegians who withstood the English folk, so that they could not pass over the bridge, nor complete the victory.  An Englishman aimed at him with a javelin, but it availed nothing.  Then came another under the bridge, who pierced him terribly inwards under the coat of mail.  And Harold, king of the English, then came over the bridge, followed by his army; and there they made a great slaughter, both of the Norwegians and of the Flemings.”

By now the Norsemen on the east side of the Derwent formed a shieldwall but as the Saxon army poured across the bridge the formation started to break being completely outflanked. A counter attack led by Eystein Orre, whose troops had been guarding the Norse ships at Riccall (9 miles south of York), described as “Orre's Storm” briefly checked the English advance. The battle raged on for hours beyond the bridge. With Tostig slain and Hardrada killed by an arrow through his throat the Norwegian army disintegrated and was all but wiped out by the Saxon army.

Local tradition claims the bones of the fallen lay about for some time uncared for in the fields after the battle of Stamford Bridge. Eventually they were gathered up and buried, so the story goes, in a plot  belonging to the priest of Bossall. Later, a chapel dedicated to St. Edmund was built on the site. In the spring of 1067 King Harald's body was taken from England by his son Olaf to be buried in St Mary's church at Nidaros (Trondheim) in Norway.

The battle of Stamford Bridge was a decisive victory for the English who had fought two major battles within five nights of each other. In the meantime just three days later on the eve of St. Michael's day, 29th September, Duke William landed his Norman army on the south coast of England at Pevensey.

The Death of Anglo Saxon England
With barely time to patch up their battle wounds and make good their weaponry Harold now marched his army south to meet William's forces on the 14th October, covering 270 miles in just three weeks immediately after the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

The scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
depicting the death of King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings
The battle is said to have been fought at a place now called Battle just outside the East Sussex town of Hastings. Harold was clearly hopeful of repeating his success at Stamford Bridge but the English army was defeated and the English crown passed to the Normans. As every schoolboy knows, Harold famously fell with an arrow in his eye. Battle Abbey was said to have been built “on the very spot” where William the Conqueror defeated King Harold.

There can be little doubt that the engagements at Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge, fought within just five nights of each other, had a significant impact of the strength of Harold's forces at Hastings some three weeks later.

If Harold's forces had not been taken north by the conflicts with the Norwegians in Yorkshire, and he had been better prepared to face the Norman invasion army on the south coast the result would almost certainly have been quite different.

* * *

Monday, 12 September 2016

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

12 September 2016, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire

The annual Horn Dance takes place today, Wakes Monday, one of few ancient customs to have survived into modern times. The antlers (or horns) are collected from the church in the morning, then the Horn Dancers, comprising six Deer-men, a Fool, Hobby Horse, Bowman and Maid Marian, perform their dance to music provided by a melodian player at locations throughout the village and its surrounding farms and pubs, taking in a walk of 10 miles or so. At the end of the day the horns are returned to the church.

No one seems to know when the Horn Dance ritual started, but it is recorded as being performed at the Barthelmy Fair in August 1226 and the currently used reindeer antlers have been carbon dated to the 11th century. But just how old is the Horn Dance?

The dancers, c. 1900 (Wikipedia commons)
So what's going on here: men dancing in horned headgear seems to be a through-back from a very ancient cult and immediately suggestive of Shamamism.

Not only was the red deer a major food source and antlers used as picks in the construction of ancient monuments but there appears to have been a red deer cult stemming back to at least the Neolithic in Northern Eurasia. It always strikes me as very convenient that the ancient people who constructed these ancient megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, left antler picks in the bottom of the trench or under a stone, providing a dating source for the construction of the monument. Perhaps it was more than that, after all why discard your tools?

Stonehenge Offerings: The deposition of cremations (skulls), burials of adult and child remains, antlers,bone pins, pottery and mace-heads. Also shown is the NE-SW axis and the southern most moonrise (bottom right)
 - after Castleden, 1993.
At Stonehenge we find the Aubrey Hole nearest the centre of the north-east entrance, AH55, was honoured with a deposit of two antlers, perhaps stressing the axis of the monument. Another, AH21, close to the southern entrance was found to also contain antlers.

Furthermore, between the sarsen circle and the ditch at Stonehenge are two irregular, concentric rings (or a spiral) of pits known as the Y and Z Holes. Discovered by William Hawley in 1923 these enigmatic pits are the last known structural activity at Stonehenge, dated to around 1,600 BC.
A jumbled stack of five broken stag antlers; two picks and three entire antlers were found in the bottom of Y Hole 30; significantly, again adjacent the monument axis. Radiocarbon dating has revealed the antlers are much older than other artefacts deposited in the same series of pits suggesting they had been curated elsewhere prior to deposition.

Clearly this is structured deposition; evidence of an ancient deer cult or just discarded prehistoric tools?

Much of the above I posted as a comment on Kris Hughes blog Go Deeper

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

* * *

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Crusaders, Cistercians and Templars

"Go forth confidently then, you knights, and repel the foes of the cross of Christ with a stalwart heart. Know that neither death nor life can separate you from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ, and in every peril repeat, 'Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.' What a glory to return in victory from such a battle! How blessed to die there as a martyr!" - St. Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of the New Knighthood.

The White Monks
Monasticism as a form of religious life, usually conducted in a community under a common rule, had been in existence in Britain since the 5th century. When Saint Augustine arrived in Canterbury in 597 AD, he introduced the Benedictine Rule to England. The Rule, written by Benedict of Nursia (c.480–550), considered the founder of Western monasticism, was widely popular for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot and popularly known as the 'black monks' by the colour of the choir robe (cuccula) worn over their habits.

However, by the 12th Century many Benedictines houses were considered to have become lax and no longer strictly followed the Rule of Saint Benedict. As a consequence the Cistercian Order was founded favouring solitude and the building of their monasteries in the remote places such as moors and mountain valleys. Around this time the Augustinian Order was also founded, followed by the Orders of Friars in the 13th Century.

The Cistercian Order, known as the 'white monks' for their undyed woollen habits, derives its name from Cistercium, the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux in eastern France. Here, in 1098, a group of Benedictine monks, under Robert of Molesme, founded Cîteaux Abbey with the focus on a return to literal observance of the Benedictine Rule.

In the early 1110s a young Burgundinian nobleman named Bernard, with 30 or so companions, entered the monastery at Citeaux. Bernard was to become one of the most admired and influential churchmen of his age and instrumental in the rapid proliferation of the Order. Three years later he left Citeaux and established an Abbey after Hugh, Count of Champagne, gifted a wild tract of land to the Order, in the Vallée d’Absinthe in the Diocese of Langres, some forty miles east of Troyes. Bernard cleared land here and named the abbey Clairvaux, meaning 'Valley of Light'.

Rievaulx Abbey
The first Cistercian Abbey in England was established in 1128 at Waverley on the River Wey in West Surrey by 12 monks from France.  In 1132 the first Cistercian house in northern England was established by twelve monks sent out from Clairvaux who founded Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. In the same year 13 monks who were expelled from the Benedictine house of St Mary's Abbey, in York, after attempting to return to the Rule of St Benedict, established the second Cistercian house in the north at Fountains Abbey in 1135. At its peak there were over 50 Cistercian Abbeys in England, most of these were dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530's. Today there are just three active Cistercian houses in Britain.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre 
The Greek historian of Christianity Eusebius of Caesarea records in his 'Life of Constantine' that in the 2nd century AD in the Old City of Jerusalem the Roman Emperor Hadrian had a temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite deliberately built over the rock-cut tomb of Jesus. Around 326 Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, ordered the pagan temple be destroyed and a Christian church to be built in its place. It is here that Helena is said to have rediscovered the "True Cross". The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed as two connected churches over the two most important sites in the Christian religion; Cavalry, the site of the crucifixion, and the site of Jesus's empty tomb.

The Church suffered badly from damage by fires and earthquakes over the ages, yet early Muslim rulers, such as the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, protected the city's Christian sites after Jerusalem's submission following the siege of 636-7. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained a Christian church, and when Umar visited the Church he is said to have stopped there a short while to pray.

However, in 1009 the most important site in Christianity was razed to the ground when the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the complete destruction of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in his intent to remove all Christian places of worship from the Holy Land. Reaction in Europe led to expulsions of Jews from many French towns. In 1027–8 the Fatimids and the Byzantine Empire reached an agreement in which the new Caliph Ali az-Zahir (Al-Hakim's son) allowed the Church to be rebuilt. The rebuilding was complete by 1048 with the Church site consisting of a court of resurrection with five small chapels attached to it, commemorating scenes from the Passion.

Yet, pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem during the 11th century reported finding much of the sacred site in ruins as control of Jerusalem continued to change hands  between the Fatimids and the Seljuk Turks. Christians had been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the 6th century to witness the birthplace of their religion but when the Seljuk Turks took control of Jerusalem Christians were barred from the Holy City. Loss of access to the most important site in Christianity was unacceptable to the Latin West.

The First Crusade
History insists that Pope Urban's motive in calling for the First Crusade was in response to the appeal of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos to the threat of Seljuk Turkish invasion of Asia Minor. However, there can be little doubt that the fate of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was of major concern, if not openly declared as the ultimate goal of the First Crusade.

Migrating tribes of Seljuk Turks began arriving from the East in the late-10th century and by 1055 they had taken Baghdad. In 1071 they defeated the Byzantine army at Manzikert in eastern  Anatolia which opened the whole of Asia Minor to conquest by the Turks, threatening the capital city of Constantinople. The same year the Turks also went south, taking territory in northern Syria from the Byzantines and Jerusalem from the Fatimids.

In 1074 the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII sent a request to Pope Gregory VII for military assistance, in desperation, willing to overlook the differences between the Latin and Orthodox churches that resulted in the Great Schism of 1054. However, Gregory did not feel it was the right time to send a crusade to fight in the east, although the papacy had approved the crusade in Spain eleven years earlier.

The Seljuk Turks westward advance continued and by 1076 they had taken Damascus from the Fatimids. In the same year, after the Fatimids had retaken Jerusalem, the entire Muslim population and a large number of Jews in the city were massacred by the Turks. Christians were spared from slaughter but expelled from the city. Clearly Anatolia and the Middle East was not a safe place for pilgrims venturing to the Holy Christian sites.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus had recovered land along the Black Sea coast and around the shores of the Sea of Marmara during the 1080's, now made a special appeal to Pope Urban II asking for mercenaries from the West.

On 27 November 1095, at the Council of Clermont, in France, at which several hundred clerics and noblemen gathered, Urban delivered a rousing speech summoning the people to embark on a righteous war and go to the aid of their fellow Christians in the East and take back Jerusalem, preserve the holy sites from desecration and to ensure continued freedom for pilgrims to journey to them.

Four main crusader armies, estimated at around 30,000 Christian warriors, left Europe in August 1096. After taking Edessa and Antioch on the way, they marched along the Mediterranean coast reaching Jerusalem in early June 1099. Following the siege of Jerusalem a massacre ensued as the knights of the First Crusade entered the holy city, taking The Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Fatimids on 15 July 1099. In the aftermath Godfrey of Bouillon was established as the new King of Jerusalem and, significantly, as Protector of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The First Crusade had been a remarkable success, even if eyewitness accounts of the bloodbath appear to demolish claims by historians of exaggeration in the scale of the slaughter. Failure would almost certainly have resulted in no hope of any further crusades, but the First Crusade proved that Latin armies could venture into foreign lands and take back control of Christian sites. It is often said that Pope Urban II died in 1099 after receiving news of the conquest of Jerusalem in July 1099, but he died two weeks before news of the Christian victory was received in Europe.

The call for the First Crusade has been interpreted as Urban's attempt to reunite the churches of Rome and Constantinople, however there is little evidence from his own writings to support this.  Historians argue that there was no immediate threat from the Islamic world with Islam and Christendom coexisting in relative stability for centuries.

The concept “to crusade” is rooted deeply in the theology of Medieval Roman Catholicism of Western Europe and has been the subject of much debate. The concept of the “crusade” was to engage in a war which was both holy and penitential; a war believed to be waged on God's behalf and from the belief that acts of penance could be performed because it was authorised by the Pope as the Vicar of Christ.

The First Crusade (1095–1099) was the first of seven major military campaigns fought over the next two centuries and succeeded in establishing the “crusader states” of Edessa, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Tripoli, easing Seljuk Turk pressure on the Byzantine Empire. Yet from Egypt to Syria there were calls for the expulsion of the crusaders; the war for the Holy Land had only just begun.

The Crusader States in Outremer

Soldiers of Christ
The Historian's view is that The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ (the first name of the Templars) had been born from the need to provide protection to pilgrims en route to Jerusalem in the aftermath of the First Crusade. However, gaps in the Templars history has led to a multitude of conspiracy theories with claims that they were a secret society holding a secret agenda for staying on in Jerusalem.

However, we do know that after Jerusalem had fallen to the crusaders in July 1099 a small group of Latin soldiers stayed on and began to follow a religious way of life in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place of worship built on the site of Christ's empty tomb. The group led by Hugues de Payens, from Champagne, and Godfrey of Saint-Omer proposed to Baldwin II, the Patriach of Jerusalem, that they should form a lay community for the salvation of their souls.

Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to visit the Holy Sepulchre frequently came under attack from bands of Muslims. Baldwin II was well aware of the dangers facing travellers to the holy city and persuaded de Payens and his companions that they should save their souls by protecting these pilgrims. The Latin soldiers decided that the New Kingdom of Jerusalem needed arms more than monks and subsequently formed a military-religious Order vowing to protect pilgrims on their journeys to Christian sites in the Holy Land. Christmas that year de Payens and his companions took vows in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to protect pilgrims, and the order of The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ was born. The risk to pilgrims was underlined at Easter 1119 when 300 Christian pilgrims were slaughtered on the road to River Jordan.

In 1120 The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ received approval at the Church Council at Nablus and Baldwin II granted them his palace in the former al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. As this building was known as The Temple of Solomon the group became known as “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon” with its members known simply as “Templars”. The new Order now seeked approval from the Pope; this was to come at the Council of Troyes in 1129.

The Templars were not only to give protection to pilgrims but also defended the new crusader states in Outremer ('the land overseas'). By the time of the Second Crusade their military power had grown to such an extent that they were instrumental in directing the military campaign.

In 1125 Hugh, Count of Champagne, embarked for a third time to the Holy Land, joining the Knights Templar which then barely comprised of more than a dozen knights or so, with their first Grand Master (magister militum Templi) Hugues de Payens who had accompanied him as vassal in Jerusalem 1114-16. With Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, de Payens created the Latin Rule, the code of behaviour for the Order of the Knights Templar. In 1129 at the Council of Troyes, convened by Pope Honorius II, Bernard of Clairvaux obtained official recognition and approval for the Order of the Knights Templar, seen as a defining moment in the origin of the movement. The Templars now answered directly to the Pope.

In the early 1130's Bernard of Clairvaux, realising the crusades needed fighting men not wailing monks wrote “In Praise of the New Knighthood”. After all Bernard had a vested interest in the Order as his maternal uncle Andre de Montbard was one of the founding members.

The Second Crusade
When the first crusader state of Edessa fell to the Selijuk Turks in 1145 Pope Eugene III (1145-53) wrote to  to King Louis VII of France (1137-80) calling for a Second Crusade to recover the territory. It seems Louis was already minded to go to the Holy Land, but his barons did not share his ambitions. Louis called on Bernard Abbot of Clairvaux, considered the greatest spiritual authority of the time, for support. On 31st March 1146 Bernard preached to a large crowd in a field at Vézelay, in Burgundy, with King Louis VII present. Unlike the First Crusade, the new venture attracted much nobility; inspired by Bernard's speech thousands took the cross and enthusiasm for the crusade soon spread across Europe.

Odo of Deuil, a witness to Bernard's stirring speech at Vézelay recorded that, “[Bernard] mounted the platform accompanied by the king, who was wearing the cross, and when heaven's instrument poured forth the dew of the divine word, as he was wont, with loud outcry people on every side began to demand crosses. And when he had sowed, rather than distributed, the parcel of crosses which had been prepared beforehand, he was forced to tear his own garments into crosses and sow them abroad.”

The choice of  Vézelay was no accident: it stood at the beginning of one of the four major pilgrimage routes through France to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of St James in north-western Spain; around 1050 the monks of Vézelay claimed to be in possession of relics of Mary Magdalene. The potent spirituality of the place clearly held great significance. In 1166, while in exile, Thomas Becket had delivered his Whitsunday sermon at Vézelay announcing the excommunication of the main supporters of his English King, Henry II, and in 1190 Richard I of England (The Lionheart) spent several months at Vézelay Abbey before departing for the Third Crusade.

A few months later in the summer of 1146 Bernard went to Germany to bring a halt to the anti-Jewish pogroms of Radulf, a fellow Cistercian. While there he also persuaded the German emperor, Conrad III (1138-52), to join the crusade. No reigning monarch had previously taken the cross but now, in a matter of months, Bernard had recruited two.

Following Bernard's call the Crusaders would embark on a Holy War from all corners of Western Christendom and journey by sea or land from the tip of England, down through France and Italy, crossing to Greece and Constantinople on course for the Holy Land. In the end the overall objective of the Second Crusade (1145-49) was to free Iberia from Muslim control and defeat pagans in north-eastern Europe in addition to the recovery of Edessa (Urfa).

On his election as the Third Grand Master one of Everard des Barres first tasks was to convene a meeting of the General Chapter of the Templars in Paris in April 1147 to discuss plans for the Second Crusade. King Louis VII, Pope Eugene III, several Archbishops and around 130 Templar knights gathered at the European headquarters of the Templars, the Paris Temple. It was around this time that Pope Eugene authorised the use of the Red Cross on the Templar uniform; the Templar Knights wore a white mantle over their chain mail, as the Cistercians had worn a white choir robe over their monk's habits.

This can leave little doubt that the Templars were the driving force behind this crusade from the very beginning. Indeed, Everard de Barres had gone ahead of the crusade to Constantinople to negotiate the passage of the French and German Latin armies with the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I Comnenus.

In mid-May 1147 Conrad III and his German army departed for the Holy Land. The French contingent under Louis VII and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, left a month later in mid-June. Conrad arrived in Constantinople in September, followed by Louis in early October. Conrad and his army then left Constantinople without waiting for Louis, only to have his main force destroyed by the Turks at Dorylaeum.

Louis opted for a more westerly route toward Attalia, but while passing through the passes of Pisidia in the Cadmus Mountains, his army suffered badly in the harsh winter conditions and he incurred heavy losses to the Seljuk Turks. Louis's army was on the verge of breaking up and he had little choice but to surrender control of the French Latin forces to The Master Templar Everard de Barres who divided the force into units, each under command of a Templar, and arrived safely at Attalia on the Mediterranean. Louis intended to take his main force to Antioch by sea, but there were so few Byzantine ships that he had to abandon the infantry, most of whom perished as they marched overland through Seljuk territory.

Arriving at Antioch in March 1148 Louis took what was left of his forces directly along the coast to Jerusalem instead of Edessa, the recovery of which had been the catalyst for the crusade. Now without any financial resources, Louis sent a request to the Templars for a loan of 2,000 marks. Everard des Barres set off to Acre to amass the funds. This loan was the first recorded financial deal made by the Templars who were to become bankers for the nobility of Europe.

Conrad, who had returned to Constantinople after being taken ill, finally arrived at Acre by sea with the remnants of his army. On 24 June 1148 both he and Louis met with Baldwin III, the king of Jerusalem (1143-63), and the Templars to plan strategy at the Council of Acre. King Baldwin and the Templars preferred target was Damascus because of its Christian history. Everard des Barres led his Templar knights along with the Latin forces on an unsuccessful siege of Damascus between 24 July and 29 July 1148. The siege ended in a humiliating defeat which led to the disintegration of the Crusade. Opinion differs as to whether the crusaders were beaten by the harsh desert conditions with no shade or water outside the thick walls of Damascus, or that many turned away on hearing that King Baldwin had promised to hand the city over to the Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders.

The Second Crusade failed in its primary objective, the recovery of Edessa, and failed to make any significant impact in the Holy Land with the unsuccessful siege of Damascus. The only positive results were in Iberia with the recovery of Lisbon and Almeria in 1147, and in Tortosa in which 400 years of Muslim rule came to an end when the Count of Barcelona took the city in December 1148 with the aid of crusaders returning from the East.

Andre de Montbard, now the Templar Seneschal, remained in Jerusalem after the Crusade. He despatched several letters to the Grand Master Everard des Barres requesting his return to Jerusalem with financial and military reinforcements. However, a reply was never received as des Barres had decided to give up his position as Grand Master, officially abdicating in April 1151, and becoming a Cistercian monk at Clairvaux Abbey where he died on 12 November 1174. In 1156 de Montbard gave up his role as the fifth Grand Master (1153–1156) of the Order and followed des Barres into retirement at Clairvaux, demonstrating the closeness between the two Orders.

Blame for the failure of the Second Crusade was placed firmly with the papacy who had inspired the crusade, but had done little to organize or coordinate it; yet historians tend to agree that the root cause of the failure was due to Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany being poor and inexperienced commanders who did not cooperate in their battle tactics.

Bernard's Apologia
After the failure of the Second Crusade Bernard felt compelled to issue an apology to the Pope in which he blamed the sins of the crusaders as the cause of their misfortune and failures. Consequently this was to be the last Crusade in which the armies were accompanied by large groups of pilgrims and other non-combatants; from now on the Crusades were to become more strictly military expeditions, with military objectives.

Bernard died on 20 August 1153, aged 63; Canonised twenty years later by Pope Alexander III in 1174; he was the first Cistercian monk to be named a Saint. By the end of the 12th century, the Order of the Cistercians had spread throughout Western Europe, supplanting the  Cluniac Order as the most influential and powerful Monastic Order. Such was the influence of Bernard of Clairvaux that he was regarded by many as the true founder of the Cistercians, who have often been called Bernardines. Bernard was buried at Clairvaux Abbey. When the abbey was dissolved by the French revolutionary government St Bernard's remains were transferred to Troyes Cathedral.

Significantly, the first Grail romance, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, written between 1181 and 1190, by the poet Chrétien of Troyes, is dedicated to Philip, Count of Flanders. Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders from (1168 to 1191), was also buried at Clairvaux Abbey. Philip had succeeded his father Thierry of Alsace, who was frequently away on crusade. Thierry participated in four pilgrimages to the Holy Land, including the Second Crusade. Tradition claims thar Thierry returned to his capital Bruges on 7th April, 1150, with the relic of the “Precious Blood” a cloth that Joseph of Arimathea had used to wipe blood from the body of Christ after the Crucifixion. The Basilica of the Holy Blood was built under the direction of the Count of Flanders to house the venerated relic of the Holy Blood.

Chrétien left his story of the Grail unfinished, perhaps purposefully, and never fully developed the objects of his 'graal procession'; opinion tends to agree that if he had finished his Story of the Grail then he would have described the items of the Grail Procession as relics of the Passion; Chrétien hints as much in writing that 'un graal' ('a grail': a serving platter) contained a single mass wafer that sustained the Fisher King.

Certainly the Grail stories following Chrétien feature relics of Christ's Passion as the items of the Grail  Procession. Following Chrétien, a Bavarian knight and poet known as Wolfram von Eschenbach (c.1170-1220) wrote a version of the Grail story entitled “Parzival”. In the Parzival, Wolfram refers to the Order of Graal Knights as “Templeisen” which is usually interpreted as a reference to the Knights Templar.

The Order of the Knights Templar was formed to defend pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, but their history is not exactly overflowing with examples of the Templars salvation of Christian travellers. Instead, it records many massacres and much bloodshed in their conquests, massive financial and military power; the gaps filled in by theories of arcane practices and covert agendas. And underneath all this lies the story of the Holy Grail, inescapably tied to the Templars.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Edited 03/09/16

Thomas Ashbridge, The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land, Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Thomas Ashbridge, The First Crusade: A New History, Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Barbara Frale, The Templars: The Secret History Revealed, Maverick House, 2009.
John France, The Second Crusade: War, Cruel And Unremitting, pp.60-63, in Thomas F. Madden, editor, Crusades: The Illustrated History, Duncan Baird Publishers 2004.
Michael Haag, Templars: History and Myth: From Solomon's Temple to the Freemasons, Profile Books, 2009.
Helen Nicholson, A Brief History of the Knights Templar, Robinson, 2000.
Jonathan Phillips, Martin Hoch, editors, The Second Crusade: Scope and Consequences, Manchester University Press, 2001.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, 2nd Revised Edition, Continuum, 2009.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Atlas of the Crusades, Times Books, 1991.
Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: Volume 1 - The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Penguin, 1991
Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: Volume 2 - The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187, Penguin, 1990.
Conrad Greenia, trans. In Praise of the New Knighthood (Liber ad milites Templi: De laude novae militae), St. Bernard of Clairvaux, from Bernard of Clairvaux: Treatises Three, Cistercian Fathers Series, Number Nineteen, © Cistercian Publications, 1977, pages 127-145.

* * *

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Valle Crucis and the Grail

The massive success of Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code (2003) led to a huge upsurge in interest in the Holy Grail and its so-called guardians, the Knights Templar.

In the introduction to 'Valle Crucis and the Grail' author Ian Pegler recalls a BBC website article from 2006 that said owing to the town's links with the Grail legend, Llangollen hoped to benefit from the success of the Da Vinci Code. In this book Pegler's objective is an examination of the Grail connections at Valle Crucis Abbey, barely a mile and a half from the Denbighshire town.

The BBC article made reference to 'The Keys to Avalon' by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd (Element, 2000), a controversial book that claims to relocate Arthur's true kingdom (Ynys Pridein) west of Offa's Dyke, an earthwork forming the ancient land boundary of Wales that the author's claimed was constructed by the Emperor Severus in the Late 2nd Century AD.

In 'Keys' it was claimed that the Grail was linked to Castell Dinas Bran sited on the hill high above Llangollen. Blake and Lloyd also claimed that 'Glaestingaburh' (the Saxon name usually used in reference to the Somerset town of Glastonbury) originally referred to a location in the Eglwyseg Valley; the site now occupied by Valle Crucis Abbey.

Those of us not convinced by Blake and Lloyd's alternative Arthurian history will perhaps read Pegler's work with some caution from the introduction onwards. (For a critique of The Keys to Avalon see this article by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews). But stick with it as Pegler raises some interesting points from Valle Crucis that certainly whet the appetite.

Glyn Egwestl
Any claims of confusion with Glastonbury is really unnecessary as the area around Llangollen offers plenty of heritage and legend of its own: Castell Dinas Bran; Eliseg's Pillar; Croes Gwenhwyfar; St Collen's Well; Craig Arthur on the limestone escarpment of Eglwyseg Mountain; and of course the sacred River of the Goddess flows through the centre of the town.

Pegler's book offers many tantalising glimpses of these mysteries, such as the possibility of a Roman villa underneath the cloister area located in the early 1900s by Reverend Owen. Burnt timber remains under this were speculated by Blake and Lloyd as the site of Joseph of Arimathea's first church in Britain. Pegler locates anomalies in this area by dowsing, but does not speculate on the possibilities.

found in the SW corner of the refectory at
Valle Crucis Abbey during excavations in 1970
The author hints at the Abbey's potential links with the Holy Grail such as the mysterious talking statue of Christ which gets all but a brief mention, as does the 'MORVS' head, and a 13th Century copy of the Koran found 'bricked up' at the Abbey possibly brought back from the Holy Land by a crusading Knight Templar. The author raises the possibility that a number of grave slabs at Valle Crucis may identify Templar burials at the site.

The poet Guto'r Glyn spent his last days at Valle Crucis and refers to the Grail in an elegy to Robert Trevor (c.1452) in which he mentions a 'man buried at Egwestl with the Holy Grail'. Sometime after 1480 Guto'r composed a letter on behalf of the Abbot of Glyn Egwestl (Valle Crucis) requesting the loan of a copy of the 'Sain Greal' owned by Trahaearn ab leuan ap Meurig, a nobleman of Penrhos Fwrdios near Caerleon.

Almost certainly this text was the Welsh translation made in Glamorgan, c.1400, of two French Grail Romances of c.1300, La Queste del Saint Graal and Perlesvaus, now known as Y Seint Greal. A copy was made of it sometime after 1485 which bears a colophon stating it was made from a book owned by Trahaearn. Why was the Abbot of Valle Crucis desperate to get his hands on this Welsh Grail text?

Pegler weaves a web of many loose threads but fails to bring any of them to a conclusion; I really expected some revelation that he had discovered some anomaly under the Abbey turf during his dowsing, but instead he writes that there were one or two other dowsed features which he felt was more discrete to deliberately leave out of the book.

This tantalising little book barely scratches the surface of the mysteries of Valle Crucis Abbey; the full story is yet to be told. 

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

* * *

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Warriors, Warlords and Saints

West Midlands History has announced the forthcoming publication of a major new work on the story of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia by Dr John Hunt from the University of Birmingham.

Warriors, Warlords and Saints

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia

John Hunt

From the publisher:

“Anglo Saxon Mercia was a great power in its day, although many aspects of it have been shrouded in myth and mystery. 

However, recent discoveries, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the Lichfield Angel, have shone a fascinating light into the world of Mercia and the Mercians. In the richly illustrated Warriors, Warlords and Saints: The Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, author John Hunt uses this evidence to paint a vivid picture of this political and cultural powerhouse which, at the height of its influence, ruled over much of England, and reached out across Europe into the Middle East. 

The Mercians themselves were complex. They were a force capable of both great violence and great art, fostering the embryonic English Church and yet fighting bloody wars with the rival kingdoms of Wessex, Northumbria and East Anglia. 

The story of the Mercians is integral to the story of Anglo Saxon England, from the end of Roman rule to the Norman invasion. It was a land peopled by ruthless kings, great ladies, brave warriors and famous saints who lived at a vital and compelling time in English history with Mercia at its heart.”

The Author
Dr John Hunt is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham and a member of the Centre for West Midlands History. He is the author of numerous books and articles on medieval history and archaeology.

West Midlands History 
History West Midlands (HWM) is an independent website providing free access to a variety of media exploring the rich and fascinating past of the historic counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire & Worcestershire.

The initiative was designed for anyone wanting to know more about the West Midlands region. All content is reviewed by academics led by Dr Malcolm Dick, providing a useful resource for students, tutors and anyone with an interest in the history of the region.

In 2013 West Midlands History published the first issue of History West Midlands magazine written by historians and researchers from the region.  Entitled “The West Midlands Enlightenment”  the inaugural edition explored the time of the 18th and 19th centuries when industrialists such as Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and John Wilkinson were changing the face of manufacturing and thinkers such as Erasmus Darwin were challenging the established view of the world. Later editions included Glass and Glassmaking, The Power of Steam, and a special edition featuring Anglo Saxon Mercia and the Staffordshire Hoard.

The publication of the magazine ceased on 1st April 2016, the Spring Issue 11 'Art and Industry' was sadly the last. Although the content and quality of the magazine had been universally praised, it failed to generate sufficient income to sustain the project.

However, their website states that History West Midlands will continue to actively support programmes and activities which enhance understanding and enthusiasm for the region's unique history and heritage and will be expanding their book publishing.

It is still possible to order a special gift package "Unravelling the mysteries of the Staffordshire Hoard" from the Online shop.

The package includes an Online version of the Anglo-Saxons & Mercia: Special edition magazine (Issue 6, Autumn 2014) revealing the story of Mercia; Beasts, Birds & Gods: The Staffordshire Hoard Booklet explaining the meaning of the art of the Hoard; and The Staffordshire Hoard DVD which describes in detail 10 objects from the Hoard.

The Anglo-Saxons and Mercia (Issue 6 Autumn 2014) features the Staffordshire Hoard, which since its discovery in 2009, has drawn mass attention to the rich culture of the so-called Dark Ages between the end of Roman Britain and the time of King Alfred, resulting in an explosion of public interest in the culture and art of the Anglo-Saxons. Long queues formed wherever The Staffordshire Hoard was exhibited, amazing people with the incredible artistry of the Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship and intrigued by the enigmatic creatures hidden within the decorations of these precious objects.

The articles in this special edition of the magazine focus on the kingdom of Mercia and explore the ways in which historians and archaeologists are currently building the picture of the origins of the kingdom with a special feature on the Material Culture of the Anglo Saxons, culminating in an exploration of the latest thinking about the Hoard.

WMH has recently published a children's book on the Staffordshire Hoard entitled “Saxon Gold”.

Further details can be found on the History West Midlands website.

* * *

Friday, 5 August 2016

St Oswald's Travels after the Battle of Maserfelth

AD 642.  This year Oswald, king of the Northumbrians, was slain by Penda, king of the Southumbrians, at Mirfield, on the fifth day of August; and his body was buried at Bardney.  His holiness and miracles were afterwards displayed on manifold occasions throughout this island; and his hands remain still uncorrupted at Barnburgh.1

The Battle of Maserfelth
Bede writes affectionately of Oswald's wonderful piety; a king, saint, and martyr who unified Bernicia and Deria. But the 8th century historian only shows interest in two of Oswald's major battles which mark the beginning and end of his reign; the first, the victory at a place Bede calls in the English tongue Heavenfield in 634 AD, where Oswald defeated and killed the British king Cadwallon; the second, at Maserfelth, where Oswald himself was slain at the hands of the Mercian warlord Penda eight years later on 5th August 642 AD.2

In celebration of his victory Penda ordered that Oswald's head and forearms be hacked off and fixed on stakes. The Mercian must have had reasons for mutilating Oswald's corpse, in what bears indications of some sort of pagan sacrificial tradition of desecration.

On the way to Oswald's Well in Oswestry
Penda is well known for regicide; five kings fell to his sword. Bede writes that when Sigbert of East Anglia went into battle armed only with a stick 'mindful of his monastic vows' he was killed, along with his kinsman Egric, by the heathen Mercians. According to the Historia Brittonum Penda 'treacherously killed' Anna of East Anglia. The Northumbrian king Edwin, meanwhile, was beheaded after falling in battle against Penda at Haethfeld (Hatfield Chase) in 633 AD. Penda is also said to be responsible for the death of Edwin's son Edfrith. However, Oswald's death is the only one described in any detail by Bede.3

Heavenfield  has been identified as Denisesburna, near Hexham by Hadrian's Wall where Oswald erected a wooden cross as a place of worship prior to the battle. Today a replica of the cross stands beside the B6318 road near Hexham. Following Oswald's victory over Cadwallon the original cross soon became a secondary relic with pilgrims collecting splinters and placing them in water as a curative potion.

Since at least the 12th century Maserfelth has been identified with Oswestry in Shropshire, and it has remained the popular choice for the site of Oswald's martyrdom. Yet, although Reginald of Durham first recorded this connection in his vita of Oswald, c.1165 AD, Bede never made such a connection. The derivation of Oswestry from Old English Oswaldestreow, “Oswald's Tree” coupled with the Welsh name for Oswestry, Croesoswald, “Oswald's Cross”, it has received general acceptance.

St Oswald's Well, Oswestry
However, it was not unusual to find Northumbrian kings campaigning this far south; Edwin is recorded as fighting the Welsh at Meigen on the borders of Powys and besieging the Isle of Anglesey; Aethelfrith is recorded as attacking Chester in 616 AD and killing two thousand monks. Yet scholars continue to debate the location of the battle of Maserfelth.4 Welsh sources refer to the battle as bellum Cocboy ( Historia Brittonum) and Maes Cogwy which provides no further help in identification of the battle site. If the battle was indeed fought at Oswestry then Oswald must have penetrated deep into Powys at Old Oswestry; yet his motive for arriving at such an isolated position far from his fatherland remains unclear.

The Journeys of St Oswald's Relics
A year after the battle of Maserfelth Oswald's brother Oswiu journeyed to the battle site and collected Oswald's head and forearms. The head went to Lindisfarne priory and was interred with St Cuthbert, finally resting at Durham Cathedral where it remains to this day. An uncorrupted arm went to Bamburgh and Peterborough claimed another. The stake on which his head had been impaled at Maserfelth bacame a secondary relic and was later used to cure a man in Ireland

Some years later, between 675 – 697, Osthryth (Oswald's niece) collected his remains, presumably just the torso and legs, from the battlefield and brought them to Bardney Abbey in Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire).

When St Oswald's body (minus the head and forearms) was first brought to Bardney the monks refused to accept it, because the Abbey was in the Kingdom of Lindsey, a disputed territory, the war zone, between Northumbria and Mercia, which Oswald had once conquered. St Oswald's relics were locked outside the Abbey gates, but during the night a beam of light shone from his bier reaching up into the heavens. The monks declared that it was a miracle and accepted the body, hanging the King's Purple and Gold banner over the tomb. When the monks washed the bones the ground onto which the water fell is said to have gained curative powers. Bede records that when a boy with the fever kept vigil by the tomb he was cured of his illness. St Oswald's shrine at Bardney was later covered in gold and silver and embellished with jewels by King Offa of Mercia.

Bardney lies a long way from Oswestry; indeed it is on the otherside of the country. If the battle of Maserfelth was fought at Oswestry then is it conceivable that Osthryth could journey across country and retrieve Oswald's body some 30-50 years later? The same doubt must be expressed for Oswiu's earlier collection of the head and forearms; could the Northumbrian king travel, apparently freely and unchallenged, through a frontier zone, crossing the hostile realm of Merica to the battle site on the Welsh border?

Oswald's Well, Oswestry
Tim Clarkson draws our attention to the fact that Bede writes that Oswald died “fighting for his fatherland,” (pro patria dimicans)5 which, he suggests, indicates that Maserfelth was a battle fought in defence of Oswald's 'core territory.' A unified Northumbrian fatherland would have extended to the Humber in the east and probably to the Mersey in the west; surely Clarkson is correct and it is likely that Maserfelth was on this border. A good candidate is Makerfield in Lancashire which sits on this frontier zone and preserves the name of the battle, but has been discarded on etymological grounds.6

Major conflicts between Northumbria and Mercia, such as Aethelfrith's final battle in 617, Edwin's demise in 633, Oswiu's defeat of Penda in 655, and the Mercian victory on the Trent in 679, were fought in this zone or along its periphery. Clarkson suggests that the lost battlefield of Maserfelth should be envisaged as a site in the Northeast Midlands.7

The recovery of Oswald's remains by Osthryth echoes a similar initiative undertaken by her sister Aelfflaed. Sometime after 680 AD the headless body of Edwin of Deira was discovered at the site of his final battle on Hatfield Chase, the location, apparently unknown to his kin although their Dieran territory shared a frontier with Hatfield, was finally provided by a local layman said to have lived in the vicinity of the battlefield. Aelfflaed shared the abbacy of Whitby Abbey with her mother Eanflaed. The relics became the focus of a cult at Whitby. Alan Thacker suggests that the finding and translation of the remains of Edwin and Oswald by two powerful women of the Northumbrian royal family is indicative of a single initiative rather than two distinct events.8

The Eagle and St Oswald's arm, sculpture above the well, Oswestry
In the early 10th century the retrieval of a saint-king's body is mirrored again by a powerful Mercian lady. In the year 909 AD the Mercian Register records the body of St. Oswald, under threat from Viking raiders, was translated from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire into the furthermost corner of Mercia. Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, and Æthelred ealdorman of Mercia, brought Oswald's remains to the New Minster at Gloucester and housed them in an extended crypt, itself perhaps a reflection of the Royal Mercian crypt at Repton.

The translation was seemingly to empower the new burh, sited in the ruins of the former Roman town. It would appear that Æthelflæd may have been responsible for the early development of Oswald cult here. The New Minster at Gloucester, made substantially of masonry from the ruins of Roman Glevum, was founded by Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred in either the last years of the 9th century or the first decade of the 10th century at the same time as the new burh.

The translation of St Oswald's relics was not an isolated event; Æthelflæd is thought to have been responsible for the relocation of the relics of several saints during the early 10th century in the establishment of her defensive chain of burhs within Mercia.

St Werburg’s relics were brought to the church of St Peter and St Paul in Chester from Hanbury in Staffordshire, in 907 AD when it too became a burh. The relics of St Ealhmund were brought to Shrewsbury from Derby and those of St Guthlac were probably moved from Crowland to Hereford. Æthelflæd was also responsible for establishing the cult of St Bertelin, said to be a Mercian Prince, during the construction of the Stafford burh. Significantly, each of these saints had a connection with the Mercian nobility.

Significantly Werburg was the daughter of Wulfhere, a Christian convert, and the Kentish princess St Eormenilda, and granddaughter of Penda, the slayer of St Oswald.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, translation by Rev. James Ingram (London, 1823). Mirfield is situated on the north bank of the river Calder, near Huddersfield in west Yorkshire.
2. Bede - Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD) Book  3.9.
3. Alby Stone, Penda the Pagan: Royal sacrifice and a Mercian king, Mercian Mysteries, No.16 August 1993.
4. Tim Clarkson, Locating Maserfelth, The Heroic Age, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006); Stancliffe, Clare. 1995. Where was Oswald killed? In Oswald: Northumbrian king to European saint, edited by Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge. Watkins, 1995.
5. Bede, HE 3.9.
6. According to AD Mills in the entry for 'Ashton' (A Dictionary of British Place-Names, Oxford University Press,2003) 'Makerfield' derives from the Celtic name for a 'wall' or 'ruin' and the Old English word 'feld' meaning 'open land'. Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire, is in the parish of Winwick which is situated just north of Warrington on the Mersey. At Winwick the church is dedicated to St Oswald and bears an ancient inscription to the Saint. About a mile north of St Oswald's church at Winwick we find 'St Oswald's Well' in a field alongside the A573 road.
7. Tim Clarkson, Locating Maserfelth, The Heroic Age, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006).
8. Alan Thacker, Alan, Membra disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult. In Oswald: Northumbrian king to European saint, edited by Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge, Watkins, 1995.

* * *

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Sword in the Stone

After the death of Uther Pendragon the realm stood in great jeopardy for a long while without an heir apparent; his son Arthur was just a boy who had been fostered by Sir Ector, as was the practice of the time. Then Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury and counselled him to gather all the lords of the realm at London at Christmas time for some miracle to occur which would indicate the rightful king of the realm.

The lords of the realm came to the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not, Malory says the French book he is using as his source does not say;

“when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.” 

After high mass the Lords attempted to remove the sword from the stone, but none could move it.

Upon New Year's Day all the knights gathered for a jousting tournament. Sir Ector arrived with his son Sir Kay and his foster-brother Arthur. Sir Kay had left his sword at his father's lodging so Arthur was sent to fetch it. Arthur found no one at home to give him Sir Kay's sword. When he came to the churchyard and saw the sword in the stone there he pulled the naked sword from the stone and then went back to Sir Kay and handed it to him. Sir Kay recognised the sword from the stone and took it to Sir Ector saying he must be rightful king of the land.

Arthur draws the sword from the stone
Sir Ector took the sword back to the churchyard and Sir Kay admitted he had not pulled it from the stone but his foster-brother Arthur had given it to him. The sword was placed back in the stone. Sir Ector tried to pull it out but failed. Arthur then pulled the sword out and Sir Ector stated that Arthur must be rightful king of the realm.1

Arthur later breaks this sword in a duel with Pallinore, then Merlin takes him to the Lady of the Lake who presents him with a new sword, the mythical Excalibur. At Arthur's death the sword is returned to the Lady of the Lake; after three attempts Bedivere finally throws Excalibur into the Lake where a hand reaches out the water and catches the sword and draws it under.2

The 'Sword in the Stone' is one of the most famous episodes of the Arthurian legend but its origins remain a mystery. Magical swords are common enough in Celtic mythology and many lakes and rivers in North Western Europe have been found to contain ironwork from the Bronze and Iron Ages, deposits interpreted as votive offerings, and as such may explain the Lady of the Lake element of the story. Yet the motif of extracting a sword from an anvil or stone is entirely absent from the Celtic tradition. Some historians have conjectured that the 'sword in the stone' originates from the casting of molten metal into a stone mould in the Bronze Age.3 The art of the blacksmith and the anvil are certainly significant in the origins of this legend as will shall see.

Origins of the Tale
The London Stone also known as the Stone of Brutus after the city's legendary Trojan founder, is often claimed to be the stone from whence Arthur pulled the sword, no doubt due to its close proximity to St Paul's, if that were indeed Malory's 'greatest church of London'.

The stone has been described as an outlier to a stone circle that once stood on Ludgate Hill, a sacred place from ancient times. Tradition claims a pagan temple once stood on the site and was destroyed around 597 AD to make way for the first Christian church to be built there in 604 AD, the precursor to St Paul's Cathedral. Another popular theory claims it was a Roman ‘milliarium’ the point from which all distances in Britain were measured. At one time London Stone stood at the centre of the street-grid laid out by King Alfred when he re-established Lundenwic in 886 AD, after the Vikings had destroyed much of the original Saxon town.4 Whatever the truth of the stone's origins, it from a source not native to London.

London Stone, a Grade II listed block of oolitic limestone, a material brought into the city by Romans and Saxons, stood encased behind an iron grill at WH Smith in  Cannon Street for many years having been moved from opposite St Swithin’s Church before its destruction during the Second World War. In a redevelopment of the area, the stone is now due to be mounted on a plinth as the centrepiece of the Square Mile. The stone currently resides at the Museum of London until the construction work is completed. Could this be the stone that inspired Malory's story?

The Sword in the Stone is entirely absent from the earliest Arthurian tales such as The Spoils of Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and the chronicles of Wace and Layamon. It does not enter Arthurian Romance until the work of Robert de Boron in his tale entitled 'Merlin', c.1200, and then appears in just about every account thereafter. In its origin de Boron has the stone drawn from an anvil atop a stone as shown in the last great Arthurian tale by Sir Thomas Malory.

In his Historia Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur as Uther's well known son and successor. Yet in later accounts Arthur's status as the rightful heir to the throne is less clear owing to his secret conception and fosterage. The Sword in the Stone is devised as a magical test by Merlin to prove Arthur as the rightful king. Robert de Boron has the sword as a symbol of justice and Arthur's ability to withdraw it from the anvil atop the stone a sign of God's approval.

Yet the Arthurian tale of the Sword in the Sword has no clear parallels in legend, indeed there are only two other examples of the motif of a sword that can only be moved by the right person: the 'sword in the tree' from the Völsunga saga; and an oral tale from India.5

The Sword in the Branstock 
A Germanic variant of this legend can be found in “The Sword in the Branstock” in which the sword is embedded in a tree rather than in an anvil or a stone.6

The Branstock
At the wedding of Signy and Siggeir, a man with one eye and wearing a blue cloak thrusts a sword into the Branstock, an ancient oak tree in the centre of the hall. The man declares that the sword will belong to whichever warrior can pull it free - then he leaves. He is identified by the wedding guests as the great Norse god Odin. Several of the warriors, including Signy's father, Volsung, attempt to pull the sword from the oak, but all fail. However, Sigmund, the tenth and youngest son, manages to pull the sword free.

The “Sword in the Branstock” exists in the “Sigurdsaga” part of the 13th century Norse Völsunga saga which tells of the origin and decline of the Völsung family. The saga tells the story of the legendary hero of Norse mythology Sigurd, the posthumous son of Sigmund who dies in battle against Odin when his sword, Gram, shatters.

Sigurd is fostered by Reginn the smith who makes a sword for him. But every sword Reginn forged for him, Sigurd broke by striking it against the smith's anvil. Finally Sigurd collects the broken pieces of his father Sigmund's sword, Gram, and brings them to Reginn. The smith repairs the sword and when Sigurd tests the blade against the anvil, this time it is the anvil that splits in two, down to its base. Sigurd uses the sword to kill Fafnir the dragon and then beheads Reginn after he learns the smith is plotting to kill him.
Sigurd splits the anvil
The earliest known pictorial representation of this tradition can be found on “The Sigurd Stones” a group of seven runestones and one picture stone from Sweden that depict scenes from the legend of Sigurd the dragon slayer. The Sigurdsristning (Ramsund Stone) is a carving on a flat rock believed to have been carved around the year 1030 AD during the Viking Age, being the earliest known Norse representation of the matter of the Sigurd legends found in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda and the Völsunga saga.

As Siegfried he is the hero of the German version told in the Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs) based largely on the old stories of historic events and individuals of the 5th and 6th centuries echoing the Old Norse legends such as the Völsunga saga.

Transmission from the East
However, the origins of the material in these sagas is considerably older, reflecting, in part, real events in Central Europe during the Migration Period, particularly the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns in the 5th century. Yet, although the Huns must have had significant contact with the Germanic peoples prior to the recording of the tales in the Völsunga saga, the Alano-Sarmatian peoples must have experienced interaction with their Germanic neighbours long before the Huns swept westward. As the story in the Völsunga saga continues the Huns feature prominently; it follows, therefore, that they obtained their knowledge of the sword cult from the Alans.

The Alans were a Sarmatian tribe, a Scythian subgroup of Iranian nomadic pastoral people, whose homeland was in the North Caucasus. Having migrated westwards, by the 1st century AD they were reported by Roman sources as the dominant group among the Sarmatians inhabiting an area from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

By around 50 AD the bulk of the Sarmatians were located in the vicinity of the Tisa and the Danube putting them in close contact with several Germanic tribes. The Roman historian Tacitus (Germania 46) tells us that there were several tribes who were so intermingled that he could no longer tell which was German and which was Sarmatian.

However, in the 4th century the westward onslaught of the Huns destroyed the Alan kingdom, and they are reported joining the Vandals and the Suebi and crossing the Rhine in 406 AD and invading Roman Gaul. Some moved on to Iberia, many settled in Gaul; the Alans of Orléans played a major role in halting the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD. In the aftermath, the Roman general Flavius Aetius settled large numbers of Alans in and around Armorica, Brittany, as attested by placenames such as Allaines, Allainville and Les Allains.

In “From Scythia to Camelot7 Littleton and Malcor argue that folk tales (the Nart sagas) of the Alano-Sarmatians who settled in Western Europe formed the core of the Arthurian tradition including a variant of the Sword in the Stone legend which was brought to Europe by the Alans during the 5th century AD. For example, of Lancelot's family, famed for their swordplay and possible descent from the Alans, they write;“no family is a bigger practitioner of thrusting weapons of war into stone and withdrawing them to prove their right to something than the knights of Lancelot's clan.8

Malcor expanded the possibility that Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer who lived in the late 2nd century, was the inspiration for the figure of Arthur in medieval European literature, a concept first suggested by Kemp Malone in 1924.9

Sarmatian heavy cavalry
At the time Castus enlisted, c.158, into Legio III Gallica was posted to Syria. Around eight years later he transferred to Legio II Adiutrix stationed on the Danube at Aquincum, capital of Pannonia Inferior. It is here that he first became acquainted with the Iazyges, a tribe of Sarmatians.

By 175 Castus was primus pilus of one of the three Danubian legions in the Roman victory when they conquered the Iazyges among the 8,000 Sarmatian cavalry that Marcus Aurelius conscripted into the Roman army. According to the historian Cassius Dio (72.16) 5,500 of these recruits were sent to Britain, with Castus later becoming their commanding officer in 181.

The bulk of the Iazyges detachment to Britain were stationed at Bremetennacum (Ribchester in Lancashire) under the command of Castus with Legio VI Victrix who manned Hadrian's Wall including the western forts at Camboglanna (Castlesteads) and Avallana (Burgh-By-Sands); two sites identified with Camlann and Avalon of Arthurian legend.

The Romans of the north suffered heavy losses through repeated Pict invasions of 180-185, killing the governor of Britain (probably Caerellius Priscus). But the defences of the western end of the Wall held and Castus was promoted to dux and despatched to Armorica to deal with an uprising c.185 AD. The military expedition to Armorica has been suggested as the inspiration for King Arthur's legendary invasion of Gaul as detailed by Geoffrey of Monmouth and often used in the argument to equate Arthur with Riothamus, the British king who crossed to Gaul with 12,000 men 'by way of ocean'.

A Sword Cult in the West?
Littleton and Malcor argue then for the existence of a sword cult among the Alans and that they had a significant impact on Germanic groups in the 4th and 5th centuries as they moved westward through Europe. The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (31.4.22) observed the ancient Alans practising a form of religion associated with their war god which included a ritual in which they embedded a sword in the ground. Clearly, this ritual is a survival of an earlier ceremonial ritual of the Scythians, who displayed a spiritual-like affection for their swords, performed in honour of their war god, as recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus (4.59-62) in the 5th century BC in which the sword is placed in neither an anvil nor in the ground but in a pile of wood placed upon an altar.

Littleton and Malcor conclude that the veneration of swords as divine symbols seems to have its origin in the peoples of the steppes with the cult taken westward by the Alans; the legend may have survived in regions of France they settled and later taken into Arthurian Romance by French writers. Littleton and Malcor suggest that the motif of the Sword in the Stone, seen for the first time in Robert de Boron's 'Merlin' may reflect an Alano-Sarmatian sword cult.

They further speculate that the extraction of swords plunged into the earth or wood atop altars could have existed as, an as yet unattested, initiation rite for youths seeking acceptance into the warband. As romantic and attractive as this concept may sound they reluctantly admit there is no evidence for such a rite among the tribes of the steppes.10

To this lack of evidence for an initiation ritual involving the withdrawal of a sword, we must add that the folk tales (the Nart sagas) told by the Ossetians, the descendants of the Alans, include many elements of the Arthurian Sword in the Stone legend, but are entirely deficient of the weapon being drawn from a stone or anvil.

Furthermore, research from Sarmatian occupied sites in Britain, such as Roman Ribchester, has as yet failed to provide evidence of a sword cult. Coupled with the deficiency of the act in Celtic mythology, clearly we need to look elsewhere for the origins of the the Arthurian tale of the Sword in the Stone.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, Book I, Chapter V. How Arthur Was Chosen King, And Of Wonders And Marvels Of A Sword Taken Out Of A Stone By The Said Arthur.
2. Malory, Book I, Chapter XXV. How Arthur By The Mean Of Merlin Gat Excalibur His Sword Of The Lady Of The Lake.
3. Michael Wood, Arthur: The Once and Future King, in In Search of Myths & Heroes, BBC, 2005.
4. John Clark, Curator Emeritus Museum of London, London Stone in seven strange myths.
5. C.Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, Garland, Revised edition 2000, pp.181-193.
6. C.Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor, The Germanic Sword In The Tree: Parallel Development Or Diffusion? The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 11, 2008.
7. Littleton and Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, op.cit.
8. Littleton and Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot, p.181.
9. Linda A. Malcor, Lucius Artorius Castus, The Heroic Age, Issue 1, 1999. See also Appendix 3 to From Scythia to Camelot.
10. Littleton and Malcor,  From Scythia to Camelot, op.cit.

* * *