Monday, 5 December 2016

Earliest known monastic life in UK uncovered at Beckery Chapel

The remains of seven individuals unearthed at Beckery Chapel, near Glastonbury in Somerset, during excavations in May by the South West Heritage Trust have been dated to the 5th or early 6th Century AD. Director of excavations Dr Richard Brunning hailed the discovery as the earliest archaeological evidence for monasticism in the UK, predating Iona Abbey in Scotland, founded in the late 6th Century, and nearby Glastonbury Abbey, which dates from the 7th Century.

Dr Brunning envisaged a small community of monks at Beckery, more like a large hermitage living  in a few basic buildings constructed of wattle and daub, nothing grand made of stone. The earliest monks died between 425 to 579 AD with burials continuing at Beckery until the early 9th Century AD. Further tests are planned to establish if the people buried in the cemetery were local or from distant areas.

Beckery Excavations May 2016 (South West Heritage Trust)
Excavations have revealed that a small Chapel or Oratory existed at Beckery on the western side of Glastonbury. It was first dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, but later known by the name of St. Brigid. Said to be in ruins by the late 18th century, today there is no visible indication of the site of this chapel above ground. St Bridget's chapel was situated on the highest part of Beckery Hill, or “island” in a field called Chamberlains Hill.

In the 12th century William of Malmesbury (De Antiquitate) and John of Glastonbury (Cronica), 14th century, claim that St Brigid visited Glastonbury in 488 AD. Significantly, this date is very close to the traditional date of the saint's founding of the Kildare Monastery in 490 AD. The interpolated edition of William's De Antiquitate states that St Brigid stayed at Beckery.  When she returned to Ireland she left behind some relics, her bell, wallet and weaving instruments that were apparently kept at the chapel. However, the earliest Lives of St. Brigid make no mention of her coming to Glastonbury.

The site at Beckery has been investigated twice before, once by the local antiquarian John Morland in the 1880’s and then in the late 1960's by Philip Rahtz.

Morland exposed two phases of stone foundations of the chapel and the adjacent priest's house. The foundations were explored in 1887-8 and proved to be those of two chapels, one within the other. Finds of tiles and two silver coins suggest a 13th century date for the outer and later chapel, and although nothing was found to test the age of the inner foundations, the extremely massive walls of this tiny chapel would be comparable with Saxon work. One inhumation burial orientated with head to the west and without a coffin, appeared to predate both chapels. About 20ft to the north-east are the foundations of an apparently later building.

Beckery Excavations May 2016 (South West Heritage Trust)
Beckery Chapel and a small part of the neighbouring priest's house were excavated by Philip Rahtz in 1967-1968, unearthing around 60 skeletons. Some prehistoric flints and pottery, together with a few Roman artefacts were found, but Rahtz identified three main phases of settlement:

The first phase consisted of post-Roman or Anglo-Saxon activity. A possible timber structure, which contained a cist grave, (HB18) could have been either a chapel or merely a tomb-shrine. No definite plan could be defined, but there were three areas where post-holes concentrated. A cemetery was found containing at least 63 skeletons, all male apart from one woman and two children, some graves being cut by a ditch, together with wattle and daub structure, dated tentatively to the middle Anglo-Saxon period. Carbon-dating of HB18 returned a range of between 765 AD - 730 AD.

The second phase Rahtz dated to the Anglo-Saxon period and early medieval to 13th century when the first stone chapel was constructed. This chapel continued in use until the 13th century. A wall parallel to the south wall of the nave may be connected with the dedication of a “penitent's crawl” into the chapel. John of Glastonbury wrote of a hole in the south wall of the chapel through which people would crawl for forgiveness of their sins.

The final phase in which activity spanned from the late 13th century to the 15th century. The chapel was rebuilt of blue lias with mortared course masonry with deep foundations, enclosing the earlier chapel almost completely.

Rahtz concluded that Beckery was a minor monastic site, possibly with a holy shrine, in existence from Anglo-Saxon times until the Dissolution. He found no evidence that there was any activity on the site in the 5th or 6th centuries, when according to legend, the site was visited by St Brigid who reputedly left some of her relics there, which subsequently became a place of pilgrimage. Hence, the Irish name for Beckery (Bec-Eriu) means ‘Little Ireland’.

The effect of this new discovery by South West Heritage Trust on the Glastonbury Legend, which claims that Joseph of Arimathea founded the first Christian church in England, is yet to be realised. Tradition claims Joseph founded a Christian community at the site of Glastonbury Abbey. However, no archaeological evidence of a 1st century early Christian community has ever been found at the site.

This new dating evidence places the first Christian community at Beckery firmly in the days of the legendary King Arthur who Medieval Glastonbury sources claim witnessed a vision of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus at the chapel. And isotope studies will reveal these first monks came from Ireland. It seems a re-write is due.

Beckery Chapel near Glastonbury 'earliest known UK monastic life' - BBC Somerset 5 December 2016

Edited 06/12/16

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Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Enigma of the Otranto Mosaic

Situated on the very “heel” of the boot of Italy, Otranto is a small town in the region of Apulia bordering the Adriatic Sea in the east. To the north the region extends as far as Monte Gargano the oldest shrine in Western Europe dedicated to Saint Michael following a visitation by the Archangel around 490 AD. The capital city of Apulia is the city of Bari, the departure point for the First Crusade.

The Cathedral of Otranto
Indeed, Bari was governed by the Byzantines until the arrival of the Normans, first reported in southern Italy in 999 on return from pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, the account of the Norman chronicler William of Apulia refers to Norman pilgrims arriving at the shrine of Michael the Archangel at Monte Gargano in 1016.  The Lombard nobleman Melus of Bari persuaded them to join him in an attack on the Byzantine government of Apulia. The following year the Normans are recorded as spreading southwards. By the mid-11th century they had recovered Sicily from the Saracens and by mid-12th century the Normans had conquered all the territory on the Italian peninsula south of the Holy Roman Empire, Malta and regions of North Africa.

A strong Norman-Byzantine-Arab culture advanced in the Kingdom of Sicily, and the Normans started constructions using a unique style of architecture known as 'Norman-Arab' by incorporating the best practices of Islamic, Lombard, and Byzantine building techniques into their own scheme. One of the best known examples of this new style is the Cappella Palatina, in Palermo, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily, which combines a variety of styles where Arabic arches compliment the Norman architecture and decor with Byzantine dome and mosaics.

The Cathedral of Otranto was founded in 1068 by the Norman Bishop Guglielmo, said to be built on the site of a Roman domus, a Messapian village and an earlier Christian church, in a mixture of Byzantine, early Christian and Romanesque architectural styles. The cathedral was consecrated twenty years later and dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

Yet, the Cathedral of Otranto records a dark day in the history of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. On 28th July 1480 an Ottoman fleet under the command of Gedik Ahmed Pasha landed on the shores of Apulia destined to invade Rome. Within two weeks, on 14th August, Otranto fell and 813 citizens, known later as the “Martyrs of Otranto,” were beheaded after refusing to convert to Islam. The mass execution is regarded as a milestone in European history as as the last significant attempt by a Muslim force to conquer southern Italy.

A year later on 13th October 1481 the bodies of the martyrs were found to be uncorrupt and were translated to the Cathedral of Otranto where their relics can still be seen today in a side chapel. Beautified in 1771 (the first stage of sainthood) The Martyrs of Otranto were finally canonised by Pope Francis on 12th May 2013.

Interior of the Cathedral of Otranto
The Ottoman attack damaged the cathedral facade but left the inside and its most precious treasure undamaged. Stretching for 200 feet from the entrance to the altar, covering the cathedral floor is the Otranto mosaic. Commissioned in 1163 by the archbishop Gionata, the mosaic was the work of a group of artists supervised by Pantaleone, a Basilian monk from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole, one of medieval Europe's great libraries and a veritable meeting place of cultures from the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Western Europe. The mosaic is the largest in Europe, largely intact and remarkably resilient to the passage of thousands of feet over eight centuries.

Covering the nave, the two side upper aisles, the apse and the presbytery, the 700 square-foot mosaic is constructed of polychrome tesserae cut from hard local limestone. Pantaleone used the 'Tree of Life' to represent the never ending struggle between Good and Evil, illustrating the story of man from the Fall to Salvation, featuring a range of scenes from the Old Testament and chivalric cycles, as well as figures from medieval bestiaries; the story of the world with a folkloric slant.

Two large elephants hold up the Tree which runs along the nave to the altar with parallel branches supporting angels, devils, beasts of the Apocalypse, signs of the zodiac and monstrous creatures with biblical and mythological characters, such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Diana the huntress, and King Arthur.

Constructed after Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (before 1138), but significantly before the wave of Arthurian literature exploded in Europe in the late 12th century following Chretien de Troyes Story of the Grail (around 1180). The mosaic securely establishes that the stories of King Arthur were circulating in Europe some years before the literary tradition, as attested by the Arthurian scenes on the archivolt at Modena Cathedral.

King Arthur on the Otranto mosaic
On the Otranto mosaic King Arthur is clearly identified by the inscription 'Rex Arturus' and shown wearing a crown (added in the 19th century), holding a sceptre or (doubtfully) a long club. Arthur appears with Cain and Abel in what has been described as an allegory of the Fall of Mankind. He is depicted riding on what is clearly a goat-like creature, horned with cloven hoofs, and confronting a giant cat.

The Celtic scholar Roger Sherman Loomis has described the goat-riding figure as a representation of Arthur as a supernatural lord of the Otherworld, a fairy king; as such an element of the 'immortal Arthur' based on the many cave legends that tell of him sleeping in a magical subterranean kingdom entered through a cave, such as Mount Etna in Sicily, Mount Snowdon in Wales or Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England.

According to a 14th century Majorcan poet the wounded Arthur dwelt in a Mediterranean island and was kept alive by an annual ministration of the Holy Grail. Certainly legends of the immortal Arthur dwelling in a subterranean kingdom were established in Sicily by 1190. Loomis argues that among the Welsh and Bretons, at least one conception of the Otherworld was an underground region peopled by a race of noble dwarfs whose supreme king is portrayed as riding on a goat; it should not be surprising to find Arthur astride a goat in the Otranto mosaic of 1165.

It would appear probable that the tale of Arthur as ruler of a subterranean Otherworld realm depicted riding a goat was brought to Italy by the Normans. But when considered with the goat-riding king fighting a monstrous cat it becomes almost certain.

Beneath the depiction on the Otranto mosaic of King Arthur riding the goat toward a monstrous cat rearing up in front of him, is a similar big cat mauling a similarly dressed man about the neck. This fearsome creature has been described as the Chapulu or Palug's Cat (Cath Pulac in Welsh). In one French version of the Chapalu tale Arthur engages in combat with the cat at a swamp where he is killed by the creature, which then invades England and becomes king.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007.
Norris J Lacey, editor, The Arthurian Encyclopedia, Garland, 1986.
Norris J Lacey and Geoffrey Ashe with Debra Mancoff, The Arthurian Handbook, 2nd Edition, Garland, 1997.
Roger Sherman Loomis, Wales and the Arthurian Legend, University of Wales Press, 1956.

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Thursday, 27 October 2016

Æthelstan, First King of All England

“In his day a Norseman called him the greatest man in the European world, to a Frenchman he was the most famous king of modern times, an Irishman thought him the summit of the honour of the Western World. From Iceland, from Germany, and Wales, poets sang of his deeds, renowned through the whole globe whom God set over the English as king plainly so that mighty in war he might conquer other fierce kings and crush their proud necks. And yet who knows of Æthelstan today?” - Michael Wood, In Search of Æthelstan

Æthelstan, born in 895 AD, was the eldest son of Edward the Elder and grandson of Alfred the Great. He spent his childhood in the care of his aunt, Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians. He was crowned as King of the Anglo-Saxons at Kingston-upon-Thames on 4th September, 925. Much of his reign was occupied, as were his forefather's, with the ongoing struggle against invading Vikings.

Æthelflæd with the boy Æthelstan, Tamworth Castle.
The autumn of the 865 had seen a major change in Viking strategy; instead of coastal raiding parties overwintering in Britain, the Danes had landed on the coast of East Anglia with the intention of settling. This huge force of Norsemen later became known as The Great Heathen Army.

Within six years the Great Heathen Army was about to overrun Wessex, the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom standing. King Alfred famously repelled the storm at the Battle of Edington in 878 when his Anglo-Saxon army of Wessex defeated the Heathens led by Guthrum.

Guthrum accepted baptism and returned to the east of the country where he ruled over the territories of East Anglia, Essex and Eastern Mercia. In time these lands would became known as the Danelaw. In 886 Alfred and Guthrum formalised a treaty defining the boundaries of their respective kingdoms, making provision for peaceful relations between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.

By the time of Æthelstan's reign, Edward the Elder and his sister Æthelflæd had recovered much of the Danish occupied territories in the Midlands and East Anglia in a series of campaigns in the 910s continuing their father’s policy of building a string of fortresses, known as burhs.

However, when Æthelstan came to the throne in 925 much of  the north of England was still under Danish control. Two years later in 927, Æthelstan ejected the Viking leader Gofraid ua Ímair from York and brought Northumbria under English control. He then marched north when on 12th July 927 the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that he exerted lordship over northern Britain at Eamont, near Penrith in Cumbria, when Ealdred of Bamburgh, Owain of Strathclyde, Constantine of Scotland and Hywel Dda of Deheubarth all accepted Æthelstan as the first English king to achieve lordship over northern Britain.

Following the meeting at Eamont Æthelstan summoned the five Welsh kings to Hereford where he imposed a heavy annual tribute and fixed the Anglo-Welsh border at the River Wye. He then turned to Exeter where he brought the Celts of Cornwall under his dominion.

The Battle of Brunanburh
In 937 Æthelstan led  a combined Anglo-Saxon army from Mercia and Wessex with his brother Edmund in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on British soil in which five kings and seven earls lost their lives. The battle was Æthelstan's greatest achievement and a defining moment in British history, bringing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into a unified England.

The Battle of Brunanburh saw Æthelstan's forces defeat the allied forces of Olaf III Guthfrithson (Gofraid of York's son), the Norse-Gael King of Dublin; Constantine II, King of Scots; and Owen I, King of Strathclyde. But despite its fame, the site of the battle remains a mystery.

Compelling arguments have been made for locations in Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Lancashire and Scotland by historians. However, Bromborough on Wirral is thought to be one of the most likely candidates. The name ' Bromborough' was used until the early 18th century and said to be derived from the Old English 'Brun's fort' (Brunan-burh).

Further, a poem in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle describes the escape route to the coast at Dingesmere, which is said to be the wetland or marshland associated with the 'Thing' ('þing' in Old Norse) the Viking parliament  at Thingwall (þing vollr = 'assembly field'), south west of Birkenhead on Wirral.

The defeated Viking army escaped through Thingwall wood then to Heswall Slack (slakki), and then to the Heswall shore at Sheldrakes, believed to be the site of the 'Thing’s mere', or Dingesmere, from where the Norsemen fled. The Irish Chronicles record the first peaceful settlements on Wirral by the Norseman Ingimund in 902. Yet, no sooner than the peninsula became full of Norse settlers repeated raids on Chester are reported.

The battle is referred to 'the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history before the Battle of Hastings' as Athelstan's devastating defeat of the combined Norse-Celtic force confirmed England as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom forcing the Celtic kingdoms to consolidate in the lands they have occupied to the present day.

The Empty Tomb
Æthelstan died at Gloucester on 27 October 939. No sooner had he died than the Vikings took back control of York until 954 when it was finally reconquered with Eric Bloodaxe being expelled by King Eadred, another son of Edward the Elder, and the region returned to full English control once more.

His grandfather Alfred and his father Edward had been interred at Winchester, but Æthelstan requested to be buried at Malmesbury Abbey alongside his cousins who died at Brunanburh. No other member of the West Saxon royal family was buried there.

Malmesbury Abbey
At Malmesbury Abbey there is a Tomb-chest commemorating Æthelstan. But today this tomb is empty, and the whereabouts of Æthelstan's remains are a mystery. The tomb made around 1300, some 360 years after Æthelstan died; it is debatable if his remains where ever contained within.

William of Malmesbury, who claimed to have seen the King's remains in the early 12th century, described him as being "of middle height, thin in person, his hair flaxen as I have seen by his relics, and beautifully wreathed with golden threads".

Æthelstan's relics were lost at the time of the dissolution of the abbey in 1539. They may have been destroyed or scattered by King Henry VIII's commissioners, or possibly secretly hidden by the faithful beforehand.

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Monday, 24 October 2016

The Hunters of Banna

Revolving many memories, till the hull
Looked one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.

But when that moan had past for evermore,
The stillness of the dead world's winter dawn
Amazed him, and he groaned, "The King is gone."1

The Strife of Camlann
The 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) records Arthur's twelve battles in which he was victorious in them all. Yet, Arthur's last and final battle in which he fell is not listed in the Historia Brittonum. The Battle of Camlann, was according to Welsh tradition, internecine strife, Briton fighting Briton, is first found in the 10th century Annals Cambriae (The Welsh Annals) attached to the manuscript Harleian MS 3859. Scholars of Arthurian studies have argued for centuries over the location of this last fateful battle, proposing sites from Cornwall to Scotland and just about anywhere in between.

In his seminal work ‘The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur’ Thomas Jones2 argues that the entry recording Arthur’s demise at the Battle of Camlann in the Annals Cambriae should be treated as authentic. However, as the Annals end at Year 954 they were clearly assembled in the 10th-century and we cannot rule out the possibility of a later interpolation by a manuscript copyist.3 The Welsh Annals entry reads:

537 - Gueith camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt, et mortalitas in Brittannia et in Hibernia fuit. 

[The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland].

The entry in the Welsh Annals is the only historical record of Camlann; it has no other source, unlike the second Arthurian entry, the Battle of Badon which appears in the 6th century account of Gildas and the later ecclesiastical history of Bede.

The use of the word 'Gueith' in a Latin chronicle (compare with the entry for the Battle of Badon =  Bellum Badonis) suggests a Welsh source. However, the reference to 'Guieth' is not unique to the Camlann entry, the term occurs five times in the Welsh Annals. Throughout the Annals the author is using two words for battle, ' Gueith' and 'Bellum' reflecting on his source, either vernacular or Latin respectively.4

The Welsh tradition of the Battle of Camlann is quite different from later accounts following Geoffrey of Monmouth who has Arthur fighting Modred who has taken the kingdom while Arthur is on campaign in Europe. In Welsh tradition the strife of Camlann is due to a quarrel between Gwenhwyfar and her sister Gwenhwyfach, and Modred, or Medraut as he is called, is not recorded as Arthur's nemesis.

However, a Welsh source does not necessarily demand a location in Wales they shout. A favoured location for Camlann in the quest for a Northern Arthur is the Roman fort of Camboglanna on Hadrian's Wall since Ekwall first made the suggestion in 1927, followed by OGS Crawford in 1935.4

Favoured no doubt for its location on a spur on the south side of the Roman fort which drops down steeply to the River Irthing winding its way through a very crooked glen indeed. This place certainly seems to qualify as the crooked riverbank implied by the etymology of the name “Camlann” derived from the Brittonic *Cambo-glanna ("crooked bank (of a river)"), as found in the name of the Roman fort of Camboglanna, (“crooked glen”).6

Birdoswald Roman fort - posts marking the site of the Dark Age hall
Attractive as the Camboglanna = Camlann proposition appears, the Romano-British name of “Camboglanna” would have evolved into “Camglann” in Old Welsh,7 whereas the  entry in the Welsh Annals appears as “Camlann” (without the “g”) as it would have appeared in Medieval Welsh. This has been interpreted as indicative of a later, rather than contemporary, insertion into the 10th century Annals.8

However, if it is accepted that Camlann can be derived from the ancient Celtic name of a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall named Camboglanna which fort is it?

For many years Camboglanna was identified with the fort at Birdoswald at the Western, Cumbrian sector of the Wall and this is the site still favoured by many Arthurian scholars as the location of Arthur's last battle.9 Yet, today the official English Heritage guidebook for Hadrian's Wall makes no mention at all of Camboglanna.10

Vallum Aelium 
Hadrian's Wall was built on the command of Emperor Hadrian, a demarcation of the end of Empire. Its function to separate Romans from barbarians. Hadrian's Wall is believed to have been abandoned after three hundred years when the Romans left Britain. But recent research has shown that parts of the Wall were occupied after the Roman withdrawal.

Hadrian's Wall
The Wall runs across the north of Britain for 73 miles (about 80 Roman miles), stretching from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Wallsend on the river Tyne in the east. In the west the defences, without the Wall, extend for a further 25 miles down the Cumbrian coast to Maryport. A huge ditch and bank earthwork, the Vallum, was built immediately south of the Wall providing a militarised zone.

The first plan was for a turf wall in the west, from the crossing of the river Irthing to the Cumbrian coast, and a wall of stone in the east. The decision was probably based on the availability of local stone. Work is thought to have started around 122 AD following Hadrian's visit to Britain and shortly after being built the Wall was temporarily abandoned around 140 AD when the frontier was moved north with the construction of the turf Antonine Wall (Vallum Antonini) stretching from the Clyde to the Forth. Twenty years later this turf wall was abandoned and the Legions fell back to Hadrian's Wall.

Hadrian's Wall was constructed in sections by three legions: II Augusta; VI Victrix; and XX Valeria Victrix as attested by several inscribed stones found along its length. There are also several inscriptions found on the Wall recording activity by the “civitates”, the cities of Britain. The so-called “Civitas Stones” are all undated but dates ranging from Hadrian's time to the late 4th century have been proposed for them. The civitas stones record that the civilians of the cities of the Durotriges, the Dumnonii, and the Brigantes all contributed to the building of the Wall. The two most westerly civitas inscriptions were found in that sector of the turf wall between the crossing of the River Irthing to Bowness-on-Solway, later rebuilt in stone in the 2nd century when the Legions returned from the Antonine Wall. However, the inscriptions may be linked to refortification works in the early 3rd century when the Emperor Septimius Severus was credited with building “a wall from sea to sea.11

In writing “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”, c.540 AD, Gildas is often accused of producing a garbled account of the construction of the Walls. Gildas tells us that Britain is stripped of  her soldiery and the flower of her youth when her armies crossed to the continent following the usurper Maximus, never to return. The Britons, “ignorant off the art of war”, then suffered at the hands of the Picts and the Scots and sent letters to Rome. A Legion was immediately despatched which recovered the island from the barbarians. The Britons are then instructed to build a wall across the island from one sea to the other. "But this wall, being made of turf instead of stone, was of no use to that foolish people", groans Gildas. No sooner had the Legion returned home when the old enemy overrun the whole country wreaking havoc and slaughter on the Britons.

Then, he goes on, the Romans with the help of “the miserable natives, built a wall different from the former, by public and private contributions, and of the same structure as walls generally, extending in a straight line from sea to sea, between some cities, which, from fear of their enemies, had there by chance been built.” They then erected towers at intervals on the southern coast [The Saxon Shore forts?] “then left the island never to return.

Gildas chronology is undoubtedly confused, he sees the construction of the stone wall after Maximus left Britain in 383 AD. But he is correct in stating that Hadrian's Wall was originally built of turf, without necessarily referring to the Antonine Wall, and then rebuilt in stone as was the case with the western sector from the crossing of the Irthing. As the civitas stones attest the Wall was built with public and private funds, it is possible a memory of the Durotriges involvement in the construction of the Wall survived to Gildas day in the territory of the Celtic tribe as this area is probably where Gildas lived and wrote.12

Today the remains of the original turf wall can still be seen near Birdoswald running behind the stone wall where the first two miles west of the Irthing were built on a different line, probably at the time when the Legions returned from the Antonine Wall. Nearby, at Lanercost many stones can be seen that were robbed from the Roman Wall during construction of the Priory in the 12th century.

Dark Age Continuity at Birdoswald
There can be little doubt that the Roman garrison in Britain was severely weakened by successive troop withdrawals by Maximus, Stilicho and Constantine III, but the opinion that the wall was deserted after the late 4th century has, in the light of recent archaeological work, been abandoned in favour of continuous use well into the 5th century.

Reconstruction of the Dark Age timber hall at Birdoswald
The Roman fort at Birdoswald is situated on top of an escarpment with the river Irthing deeply cut to the south. The first fort built here was probably a timber and turf construction, and as discussed above, lies in the turf sector of the Wall. This was replaced by a stone construction later in Hadrian's reign. The first Roman troop based here is not known but through the 3rd and 4th centuries the First Aelian Cohort of Dacians (Cohors prima Aelia Dacorum), founded by or named in honour of the Emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus, was stationed at the fort. This Cohort was originally recruited from what is now Romania and altars have been found at Birdoswald displaying the curved Dacian sword, the falx. This cohort was founded no later than 125 AD and, as no record of its existence in Dacia has been found, it seems to have been permanently deployed on Hadrian's Wall. Its commander, the praefectus, would have reported directly to the Dux Brittanium, the commander of the armies of northern Britannia. Twenty seven stone altars have been found at Birdoswald, of which twenty four are dedicated to Jupiter, “Best and Greatest”. One altar was dedicated to the native British deity, Cocidius (RIB1885)13 and another to the Roman god of the forest Silvanus (RIB 1905) dedicated by a group calling themselves the Venatores Bannienses, or “the Hunters of Banna”.

It comes as no surprise that this altar stone, designated RIB 1905, spent a period of time in the crypt at Lanercost Priory, which used many stones robbed from the Wall that can still be seen among the masonry there today.

After the Roman withdrawal from Britannia c.410 AD occupation of the fort at Birdoswald appears to have continued into the early 6th century by which time the former granaries had been demolished and the northern one replaced with a large timber hall, a construction conjectured by size and type to have been occupied by a local warlord as evidenced at South Cadbury hill fort in Somerset. Today the position of the timber pillars of the hall are marked by modern posts. The hall seems to have survived into the 6th century when the site appears to have gone out of use around 520 AD, although the West Gate was much altered and remodelled into the Medieval period.14

Apart the association of the name Camboglanna and its possible etymological evolution to Camlann in Medieval Welsh, no doubt the attraction to Birdoswald for Arthurians, at least in part, is the Dark Age Continuity at the Roman site, with the construction of the timber hall and then the abandonment of the site in the early 6th century, notably around the date of the Battle of Camlann in the Welsh Annals.

Yet, controversy has raged for years as to whether Camboglanna is Birdoswald or Castlesteads with many reconstructed Arthurian battle lists citing Birdoswald as the site of the infamous last battle of the Dux Bellorum.15

Camboglanna or Banna?
Castlesteads was situated a few miles west, next along the Wall from Birdoswald, although today nothing remains of the fort above ground which was cleared in 1791. The confusion between the name of the two Roman forts seems to have originated from a missing section of text (lacuna) in the Nottita Dignatum.16

The Notitia Dignitatum (Register of Offices) is a document of the late Roman Empire that details the administrative organisation of the Eastern and Western Empires. Known only from an 11th century copy called the Codex Spirensis, from which all known and extant copies of this late Roman document are derived. The Notitia depicts the Roman army at the end of the 4th century, but compiled at two different times: the Eastern section apparently dates from c. 395 AD; the Western from c. 420 AD.

The Notitia Dignitatum Occidentis (‘Register of Offices in the West’) lists several military commands: dux Britanniarum; comes litoris Saxonici per Britannias; comes Britanniarum; the governors of the five British provinces; and the staff of the vicarius in London. It is not only the earliest written evidence for 5th century military command in Britain, but it is the only documented evidence of the term Litoris Saxonici (Saxon Shore).

The command of the dux Britanniarum listed in the Notitia Dignitatum includes the limitaneus (frontier) forts along Hadrian’s Wall (per liniam valli) and the Cumbrian coast. From east to west, this includes at the Western sector of the Wall:

Tribunus cohortis primae Asturum, Aesica
Tribunus cohortis secundae Dalmatarum, Magnis 
Tribunus cohortis primae Aeliae Dacorum, Amboglanna 
Praefectus alae Petrianae, Petrianis 
Praefectus numeri Maurorum Aurelianorum, Aballaba 
Tribunus cohortis secundae Lingonum, Congavata
Tribunus cohortis primae Hispanorum, Axeloduno

During the 7th century an unknown monk in the Monastery at Ravenna in Italy compiled a list of all the towns and road-stations throughout the Roman Empire; this document is known as the Ravenna Cosmography. Listed at the western (Cumbrian) end along the Wall are the following forts:

Esica [Great Chesters]
Magnis [Carvoran]
Banna [?]
Uxelludamo [Stanwix]
Avalana [Burgh by Sands]
Maia [Bowness on Solway]

As can be seen from the two lists of forts at the western (Cumbrian) sector of the Wall the confusion is confounded by the Notitia Dignitatum which lists Amboglanna  between Aesica (Great Chesters) and Vxelodvnvm (Stanwix), whereas the Ravenna Cosmography records this fort as Banna. Owing to the inconsistency of spelling in these times it was once thought that 'Banna' was a misrepresentation of 'Camboglanna'. Therefore, if the Notitia and the Cosmography are referring to the same place then the fort between Great Chesters and Stanwix must be the fort known today as Birdoswald as Ekwall and Crawford claimed.

On the line of Hadrian's Wall 
The issue of Camboglanna or Banna being the fort at Birdoswald seems to have resolved by the inscriptions on the souvenir bowls (paterae) from the Wall.17 A patera is a shallow ceramic or metal libation bowl often with a handle, perhaps best described as a small ladle, for pouring a liquid in offering to deity. For example, peterae have been found at the Roman Baths in the city of Bath, inscribed with the letters 'DSM' or the words 'Deae Sulis Minerva' indicating they were dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.

The Rudge Cup was discovered in the well of a Roman villa in Froxfield six miles east of Marlborough in Wiltshire in 1723 and bears the following inscription:


These names present an itinerary of the Wall from west to east, listing the forts as Mais (Bowness), Aballava (Burgh-by-Sands), Uxelodunum (Stanwix), Camboglanna (Castlesteads) and Banna (Birdoswald). Significantly the Rudge Cup lists two forts after Stanwix.

In 1949 another patera was found, on this occasion at Amiens in France, an important halt for Roman Legionaries. Known as the Amiens Skillet  this patera bears the following inscription:


The Amiens Skillet includes the five forts on the Rudge Cup, with the addition of Aesica (Great Chesters). The list differs from the Notitia Dignitatum and the Ravenna Cosmography in that it omits Magnis (Carvoran), which should come between Banna (Birdoswald) and Aesica (Great Chesters), but probably left out because Magnis was not actually on the Wall but was south of the Vallum, having been originally built to guard the Stanegate.

In 2003 another Roman patera was discovered in Staffordshire. Known as the Ilam Pan, or Staffordshire Moorlands Patera, this latest discovery is probably the earliest. An enamelled Roman bronze vessel of 90 mm diameter with Celtic triskele design, The Ilam Pan bears the following inscription:


The Ilam Pan lists the names of four Roman forts on the western sector of the Wall written as the ancient form of the name as 'Val[l]i Aeli' (the 'Aelian frontier'), using part of Hadrian's name which was in full Publius Aelius Hadrianus.

Notably the four forts listed on the Ilam Pan do not match the first four forts listed on the Rudge Cup and Amiens Skillet. The second fort on the Staffordshire Bowl is Coggabata (Drumburgh), whereas the other two bowls have Aballava (Burgh-by-Sands) as the second fort. The reason for this discrepancy is unclear, but the omission of Coggabata from the Rudge Cup and Amiens Skillet may be due to its small size and may have been considered an insignificant fort. The words 'Rigorevali Aeli' have been interpreted as 'On the line of Hadrian's Wall', as Aelius is the family name of Hadrian. 'Draconis' is thought to refer to either the manufacturer of the bowl or the person it was made for, a man named Draco.

These three paterae from the Wall have been described as military souvenirs and their combined inscriptions confirm the sequence of western forts; Aballava (Burgh-by-Sands), Uxelodunum (Stanwix), Camboglanna (Castlesteads) Banna (Birdoswald), and Aesica (Great Chesters).18

reductio ad absurdum
These souvenirs from the Wall have recently been identified as 'Grails' and said to be Arthurian artefacts; the Ilam Pan is called the “Dragon Cup of Camlann” because it is inscribed with the name Draco and the site of Camboglanna. It is suggested that Draco could have been a rank used by the commander (Dux) of the troops on the Wall near Camboglanna, thus we have “Arthur Draco....the Arthur Pendragon of legend”. The Rudge Cup is described as the “Cup of Avalon” because it names Camlann (Camboglanna) and Avalon (Aballava) on the inscription.19

The Hunters of Banna
When the evidence of the paterae is considered with the altarstone set up by the Hunters of Banna discovered at Birdoswald  in 1821 the case for Banna is conclusive:


The inscription has been translated as “To the holy god Silvanus the hunters of Banna (set this up)” (RIB1905).

RIB 1905 proves the fort at Birdoswald was indeed Banna
Further, the confusion between the Notitia and the Cosmography is resolved by Hassall's suggestion that the omission of the name 'Banna' from the list of forts “along the line of the wall” combined with the omission of the otherwise well-attested name of the unit at Camboglanna (cohors II Tungrorum) results from a lacuna by later copyists of the Notitia. A reconstructed text (shown in bold) would read as such:

Tribunus cohortis secundae Dalmatarum, Magnis
Tribunus cohortis primae Aeliae Dacorum, [Banna 
Tribunus cohortis secundae Tungrorum, C]Amboglanna 
Praefectus alae Petrianae, Petrianis 
Praefectus numeri Maurorum Aurelianorum, Aballaba 20

This affirms the names of the forts on the line of the Wall: Magnis [Carvoran]; Banna [Birdoswald]; Camboglanna [Castlesteads]; Petrianis [Stanwix]; Aballaba [Burgh-by-Sands].
With some certainty then we conclude that the Romano-British name Camboglanna was the Roman fort at Castlesteads situated above the river known as the Cam Beck, which may provide a better explanation for the name. Archaeologists and historians are now agreed that Birdoswald was actually the fort bearing the Romano-British name 'Banna' derived from the pre-Indo-European word for peak.21

On the line of Hadrian's Wall
However, despite the best efforts of authors of Arthurian pseudo-historical reconstructions favouring a northern setting for the final battle at Camlann, apart from a similarity of name, there is very little else at Camboglanna (Castlesteads) to suggest any sort of connection with King Arthur.

And yet for all the evidence that has been available for at least forty years, Arthurian works published as recently as this year continue to identify Camboglanna as the Roman fort at Birdoswald.22

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur, from Idylls of the King, 1859-1885
2. Thomas Jones, The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, Nottingham Medieval Studies 8, 1964, pp. 3-21.
3. See Thomas Charles-Edwards, in ‘The Arthur of History’, in R. Bromwich, et al,  Arthur of the Welsh, UWP, 1991, pp.25-27, 28; Geoffrey Ashe, entry for ‘Camlann’, in N.J. Lacy (ed.) The Arthurian Encyclopedia, Garland, 1986, pp. 76-78.
4. N. J. Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History, Routledge, 2005.
5. Eilert Ekwall, English River Names, Oxford University Press, 1927 (Reprint edition, 1968); OGS Crawford, Arthur's Battles, Antiquity 9, 1935.
6. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press, 1961, p. 160;
7. Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, Penguin, 1979, p.67. Geoffrey Ashe, op.cit.
8. John T Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
9. Simon Keegan, The Lost Book of Arthur, Newhaven Publishing, 2016.
10. David Breeze, Hadrian's Wall, English Heritage Guidebooks, 2006.
11. David Breeze, The Civitas Stones and the Building of Hadrian’s Wall, Transactions C&WAAS CW3, xii, 2012, pp.69-80.
12. Ken Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800, Leicester University Press, 1999, Appendix.
13. The First Aelian Cohort of Dacians was stationed at Bewcastle before Birdoswald, the forts connected by the Maiden Way. The fort at Bewcastle was named Fanum Cocidi; the “Shrine of Cocidius”.
14. Tony Wilmott, Birdoswald Roman Fort, EH, 2005, p.12-13.
15. Keegan, op.cit. pp.136-7.
16. M Hassall, Aspects of the Notitia Dignitatum, Oxford, 1976.
17. David Breeze, editor, The First Souvenirs: Enamelled Vessels from Hadrian's Wall, C&WM AAS, 2012.
18. Ibid.
19. Keegan, op.cit. pp.30-33.
20. M Hassall, Aspects of the Notitia Dignitatum, Oxford, 1976; quoted in  Rivet & Smith, Place-Names of Roman Britain, Batsford, 1979, and Breeze & Dobson, Hadrian's Wall, Penguin, 4th Edition, 2000, pp.294-295.
21. Rivet & Smith, Place-Names of Roman Britain, Batsford, 1979, pp.261–2, 293–4.
22. Keegan, op.cit. pp.136-7.

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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.

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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

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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

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