Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Gildas and the Romans

"The Island was still Roman in name, but not by law and custom. Rather, it cast forth a sprig of its own bitter planting, and sent Maximus to Gaul with a great retinue of hangers-on and even the imperial insignia, which he was never fit to bear: he had no legal claim to the title, but was raised to it like a tyrant by rebellious soldiery....

After that Britain was despoiled of her whole army, her military resources, her governors, brutal as they were, and her sturdy youth, who had followed in the tyrants footsteps, never to return home. Quite ignorant of the ways of war, she groaned aghast for many years, trodden under foot first by two exceedingly savage overseas nations, the Scots from the north-west and the Picts from the north." - Gildas - De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, cc.13-14.


The Ending of Roman Britain
As every schoolboy knows, the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD and left around 410 AD. In between was peace, civilisation, happy days; before and after the Britons were simple savages experiencing bad times; with famine but without an economy. But of course, the transition from Britannia to England was far from straightforward.

The year 383 marks a significant step toward the end of Roman rule in Britain. In this year Roman troops were withdrawn from northern and western regions of Britain for the last time. The ending of Roman Britain was not a singular datable event. Three dates are given for the terminus: 407 AD when Constantine III left Britain; 409 AD the year the Romano-Britons expelled Roman magistrates from their cities; and 410 AD, the date of the Rescript of Honorius, when the Emperor sent letters to the cities of Britain, telling them to take up arms and defend themselves.

Following the ejection of the Roman administration from Britain in 409 AD a historical vacuum ensued, a period without reliable contemporary insular sources. This Dark Age has been termed “Sub-Roman Britain” based on the inferior pottery of the 5th and 6th centuries, or more acceptably “Post-Roman Britain” in mainly non-archaeological contexts. The duration of this period is generally said to span from the end of Roman Imperial rule in Britain, the early 5th century to the arrival of Saint Augustine in 597 AD.

This historical vacuum, spanning almost two hundred years, the transition from Roman Britain to the Anglo Saxon era, is of immense importance to Arthurian scholars. Conveniently, the period has been termed the “Arthurian Age” to the disdain of academics. But the term has fired the public imagination and continues to be used by popular authors in the title of their books.

Our one substantial, and near-contemporary, source for this period is Gildas, who authored De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in the mid 6th century. Much has been written by modern historians concerning when and where Gildas wrote. Yet, one thing is certain, as a key historian of the “Arthurian Age,” Gildas would have been a contemporary of King Arthur but he fails to mentions him entirely. The early 9th century text the Historia Brittonum names Arthur as the victor at the Battle of Badon; Gildas assigns the victory to Ambrosius Aurelianus; is this the historical Arthur?

Hadrian's Wall (Oliver Benn/Getty Images)
The Chronology of Gildas
According to Gildas the end of Roman Britain and the coming of the Saxons was divine retribution for the sins of the Britons (cc.13-21):

Britain is denuded of her garrison who went with Maximus never to return leaving Britain at the mercy of the Scots and the Picts.
The Britons appeals to Rome for help. A legion is immediately despatched and drives the raiders back beyond the borders. A turf wall is constructed across the island from sea to sea.
As soon as the legion returned home the barbarian raids re-commenced.
A further appeal went out to Rome who again drive the raiders beyond the sea from which they came to plunder year after year.
This time the Romans left the country saying they could not be bothered with such laborious expeditions telling the Britons to arm themselves and look to their own defences. They built a wall in a straight line from sea to sea and erected towers on the south coast, where they moor their ships.
The Romans then left the island never to return.
No sooner had they gone than the raids by the Picts and Scots started again. The Britons left their cities and abandoned the Wall. The enemy pursued them and butchered the Britons like sheep, who turned their arms on each other in domestic feuds so that the whole island was destitute of provisions.

The Britons appeal to Rome for the third time: "To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons..............The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." But no help came.
The Britons suffering the effects of severe famine, hid out in the mountains, caves and woods, but rallied and took the fight to the Barbarians and overthrew the enemy who for a while was checked.
For it has always been a custom with our nation, it is at present, to be impotent in repelling foreign foes, but bold and invincible in raising civil war. The Picts returned to their winter quarter but before long would return to plunder and for the first time seated themselves at the extremity of the island. Then luxury befell the island.



The Saxon Shore (Wikipedia Commons)
Gildas does not claim to write a history and provides no dates. However, we can provide a rough chronology as we know when Maximus departed Britain (383) and Aetius, thrice consul (446) but he does muddle the building of the Walls. The northern (Antonine) wall was constructed with turf and stone c.140's running for 39 miles across the central belt of modern Scotland from north of the Clyde to the Firth of Forth, whereas construction of Hadrian's Wall, stretching for 75 miles from the Solway Firth to the mouth of the River Tyne in the east, began in 122 AD. He appears to misplace the erection of the towers on the south coast; does he mean the nine Saxon Shore forts listed in the Notitia Dignitatum (Brancaster, Norfolk to Portchester, Hampshire) established by the late 3rd century, or the five coastal watchtowers (Huntcliff to Scarborough) erected on the North Yorkshire coast linked to restoration of the Wall in the 4th century following the Barbarian Conspiracy?

Rome and the Barbarians
The 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus records that Nectaridus, the Count of the Saxon Shore, was killed during the so-called Barbarian Conspiracy of 367 AD, when Picts, Attacotti, Scotti and Saxons attacked Britain simultaneously. Fullofaudes, Dux Britanniarum, commander of the armies of the north, was also captured. Order was finally restored when Count Theodosius came in Britain in 369 AD, in all likelihood accompanied by a young Hispanic officer named Magnus Maximus.

The Notitia also included a list of forts on the northern coast of Gaul as part of the Saxon Shore system. However, when the list was compiled in the early 4th century Britain was already abandoned by the Roman Legions. Debate continues as to the meaning of the name of this maritime defence system; were the forts occupied by Saxon foederati or constructed to protect against Saxon pirates raiding along the Channel? The Notitia suggests the first instance is likely to be correct, using the term Saxon as a generic term for Barbarian soldier. At one shore fort (Branodunum) for example , we find a Dalmatian cavalry unit was stationed. However, the original garrison may have been the First cohort from Aquitania whose homeland bordered the province of Gallia Lugdunensis which may explain the Roman name said to derive from the local Celtic language meaning "fort of the raven". Epigraphic evidence suggests earlier they formed the original garrison of the Carrawburgh fort on Hadrian's Wall before transferring to Brough on Noe, then Bakewell prior to Brancaster.

The Roman policy of employing Barbarians on frontier zones may have provided the principle mechanism for the immigration of many Barbarian peoples into Britain. Eight cohorts of Batavian cavalry are known to have been in the Roman invasion force of 43 AD. Dio Cassius records groups of Germanic Marcomanni being resettled in Britain by Marcus Aurelius in the late second century and Zosimus tells us of many Burgundian and Vandal captives being sent across to Britain in the 3rd century.

By this time regular contingents of Barbarian peoples were being used in Britain as numeri or cunei, bearing the names of their tribes of origin with large numbers stationed in the north and east of England. Epigraphic evidence attests a cohort of Batavians at Carrawburgh during the 3rd and 4th centuries in addition to Tungrians stationed at Castlesteads and Birrens, and the Cuneus Frisiorum at Housesteads. Crocus, King of the Alemanni, employed as a general in Roman service and almost certainly the leader of a large force of Germanic foederati settled in the Vale of York, is recorded as being instrumental in the proclamation of Constantine I as Emperor at York in 306 AD. These are just some of the better known examples, there are many more.

How many of these Barbarians employed in the Roman army remained in Britain after the garrison was repeatedly stripped of its troops to support the ambitions of successive usurpations is impossible to say. However, it is difficult not to speculate on the potential impact that Barbarisation of the Roman Army may have had on the make up of the British population.

The Departure of the Romans
Maximus became a distinguished general under Count Theodosius and in 380 AD was assigned to Britain, defeating an incursion of the Picts and Scots in 381 AD. He is fondly remembered in Welsh tradition as Macsen Wledig of the Mabinogion. In 383 AD Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. He left for Gaul and is often accused of stripping the British garrison of its troops in pursuit of his imperial ambitions. The year 383 marks the end of Roman rule in northern and western Britain.

The actions of Maximus are repeated a quarter of a century later when in 407 AD Constantine III was acclaimed Emperor in Britain, likely a response to events in mainland Europe when a collective force of Barbarians, comprising Vandals, Burgundians, Alans and Sueves, breached one of the Empire's most secure limines by crossing the Rhine on 31 December in 406 AD to invade Gaul. The Byzantine historian Zozimus (Nova History, Book 6.5.3), drawing on Olympiodurus' largely lost fifth century history, records:

The barbarians above the Rhine, assaulting everything at their pleasure, reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some of the Celtic peoples to defecting from Roman rule and living their own lives disassociated from Roman law. The Britons, therefore, taking up arms and fighting on their own behalf, freed the towns from the barbarians who were pressing upon them: and the whole of Armorica and other provinces of Gaul, imitating the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, expelling the Roman officials and establishing a sovereign constitution on their own authority.”

Zosimus' account has been the subject of considerable debate. Not least the date of the Rhine crossing has been argued was the last day of 405 AD and as such the catalyst for a succession of three short-lived British usurpations commencing with Marcus and then Gratian. Both were relatively quick in passing but the third promotion of the British garrison, Constantine III, was more successful, yet he is totally ignored by Gildas. Constantine III crossed into Gaul, in all likelihood taking with him the last of the regular Roman troops in Britain, in direct response to the Barbarian horde ravaging through Gaul after crossing the Rhine. His regime disintegrated following a series of military reverses in 409 AD, followed by the British ejection of Roman administration in 410 AD.

Zosimus (6.10.2) records that the legitimate Emperor Honorius sent letters to the cities of Britain, advising them to look to their own defences. This is usually, erroneously referred to as signifying “The Roman Departure from Britain” but as we have seen above, the bulk of the Romans had already departed the island long before. The Honorian Rescript was in all probability official acknowledgement that Britain was now lost to Imperial rule. Constantine III's days came to an end when his last troops guarding the Rhine abandoned him; he was taken prisoner and beheaded on the way to Ravenna in 411 AD.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's legendary history, Historia Regum Britanniae and the Welsh Brut, the third Constantine appears to have been conflated with Custennin Gorneu (Constantine of Cornwall), who Geoffrey names as the successor to Arthur as King of Britain. The only contemporary account we have of Constantine of Cornwall is from the Epistle (cc.27-33) of Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae in which he rebukes five British kings charging him as the "tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia" accussing him of disguising himself in abbot's robes and attacking two "royal youths" praying before a church altar.

The appeal to Aetius suggests the Post-Roman governance in Britain still thought a return to Imperial administration was a possibility as late as 446 AD, but it was not to be and Britain moved from Antiquity into the Medieval period on her own in the face of the Barbarians.


Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk/


References
Thomas S Burns, Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians, Ca.375-425 AD, Indiana University Press, 1995.
P J Casey, Carausius and Allectus: The British Usurpers, Yale University Press, 1995.
Rob Collins, Hadrian's Wall and the End of Empire: The Roman Frontier in the 4th and 5th Centuries, Routledge, 2012.
Nic Fields, Rome's Saxon Shore: Coastal Defences of Roman Britain AD 250-500, Opsrey, 2006.
James Gerrard, The Ruin of Roman Britain: An Archaeological Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Adrian Goldsworthy , The Fall Of The West: The Death Of The Roman Superpower, Phoenix, 2010.
Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, Oxford University Press, 2007.
David E. Johnston, Ed., The Saxon Shore, CBA Research Report No 18, Council for British Archaeology, 1977.
Michael Kulikowski, Barbarians in Gaul, Usurpers in Britain, Britannia 31, 2000.
Michael Lapidge & David Dumville, Eds., Gildas New Approaches, Boydell Press, 1984.
Michael Winterbottom, Ed. & trans., Gildas: The Ruin of Britain (Arthurian Period Sources), Phillimore, 1978


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Monday, 31 March 2014

The Theft of St Dunstan's Relics

In 1508 AD a new shrine was set up in a conspicuous position in the abbey church at Glastonbury, the inauguration attracting a large number of visitors. This shrine was said to have contained the bones of St Dunstan, consequently a long and acrimonious dispute with Canterbury ensued.

A Heavenly Sanctuary on Earth
Glastonbury Abbey was no stranger to controversy when it came to its claims of the saints who rested there; Indract (of Ireland); Gildas (The Wise); David (of Wales); Patrick the Old and Brigid (of Ireland); Guthlac (of Crowland);  Edgar (King of Wessex); and many of Northumbria's most revered saints; Aidan (Lindisfarne); St. Hilda (Whitby); Ceolfrith, and Sigfrid (Wearmouth); Bede (Jarrow); Paulinus (York). Most of whom have better contested burial places elsewhere.

But perhaps the most well known discovery at Glastonbury was the exhumation of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere in 1191. Later, in the 14th century, claims would emerge that Joseph of Arimathea, a relation of King Arthur through his mother's line, was buried there too.

In the early 12th century William of Malmesbury had been invited by the monks of Glastonbury to write a history of the Abbey with the intention of showing the antiquity of the house and its unbroken history since its inception. By 1126 William, a highly regarded historian of mixed Norman and English descent, had already completed two works, Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England) and Gesta pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops) and during the next few years he wrote the Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan).

William compiled De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (Concerning the Antiquity of Glastonbury) between1129-35, in which he wrote that on the site of the Abbey there stood a church constructed of "wattle and daub” which he called "the oldest church in England," a symbol of the ancientness of Glastonbury's Christianity. By William's time the historical origins of the Old Church (vetusta ecclesia) had been lost but legend claimed that it had been built by two early missionaries sent from Rome. William recorded the Glastonbury assertion that during the 2nd century, in response to a plea from King Lucius, Pope Eleutherius dispatched the missionaries, Faganus and Deruvianus (Phagan and Deruvian), to the island of Britain to preach the Gospel.

No original copies of  De Antiquitate have survived but we know of its original text from large sections that had been transcribed into the Gesta Regis Anglorum. The earliest version of the "De Antiquitate" that has come down to us is a 13th century copy heavily interpolated by the Glastonbury monks which adds significant elaboration not present in William's original document. In addition to producing a general history of the Abbey, William also composed the vitae of four its greatest saints, Indract, Patrick, Benignus and Dunstan.

Dunstan the Holy Man of Glastonbury
Dunstan was born near Glastonbury on the estate of his father, Heorstan, a West Saxon noble. Cynethryth, his mother, was miraculously forewarned of the sanctity of the child she carried "would be the minister of eternal light". According to the later 11th century biographer, Osbern of Canterbury, Dunstan was born in "the first year of the reign of King Aethelstan", i.e. 924-5. However, this date has been challenged and many scholars considered his birth to have been earlier in the 10th century.

Dunstan's first biographer known simply as "B" tells us that Dunstan received an excellent education from Irish pilgrims who frequented Glastonbury, learned men who came to the Abbey to worship at the tomb of their blessed Patrick; could the Apostle of the Irish really be buried at Glastonbury?

B also tells us that as  abbot Dunstan enforced the Rule of St. Benedict at Glastonbury as a part of his reform there. He served as an important minister of state to several English kings, as Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan is remembered for restoring monastic life in England and reforming the English Church. Shortly after his death in 988 he was canonised as a saint and enshrined in the cathedral church at Canterbury.

Furta Sacra
To claim to have rescued relics from dangerous or an unworthy place was a widespread practice in the Middle Ages, the most extreme acts known as “furta sacra”, holy theft; and Glastonbury was a particularly active subscriber.

On 8th September 1011, Canterbury was attacked and besieged by Danish Vikings. After holding out for almost three weeks, the defences were finally overwhelmed on 29th September. Many of the inhabitants were massacred, the city sacked and the cathedral set ablaze. Archbishop Alphege (Ælfheah), who had promoted the cult of St Dunstan at Canterbury, was taken hostage and later martyred at Greenwich in April 1012.

Fearful for Dunstan's relics, Glastonbury claimed a party of four monks from their Abbey arrived at the abandoned cathedral in Canterbury and “rescued” the bones from neglect. Dunstan's relics were then apparently hidden away at Glastonbury for  some 170 years and not written about until after the fire that devastated the Somerset Abbey in 1184. This is a significant date in the “discovery” of relics at Glastonbury and seemingly the watershed when the major interpolations began to take place in De Antiquitate with William's work completely refashioned by about 1230. A further revision took place later to accommodate the emerging story of Joseph of Arimathea into the Abbey's history.

William of Malmebury tells us that the collection of relics at Glastonbury was so fabulous that it was a “heavenly sanctuary on earth”. But in  his original work he cites relatively few saints at rest there; six are clearly original to William, Indract, Benignus, Brigid, Aidan, Coelfrith and Hild, with two more, Vincent and Apollinaris, may also be from the original text. Later interpolations take the number of holy relics to 39. Two later manuscripts, known as Trinity and Titus, list 300 and near to 450 respectively. Clearly the collection of relics at Glastonbury was a growth industry.

An interpolation into the De Antiquitate explains the reason for the recovery of St Dunstan's relics; on visiting Glastonbury, so the story goes, a (chronologically misplaced) King Edmund described the neglected remains of their former abbot lying in the desolate cathedral at Canterbury and encouraged the abbot of Glastonbury to rescue Dunstan's bones. According to the story the four monks of Glastonbury had accompanied Dunstan to Canterbury and remained there until his death in 988. They apparently laid him in his grave in the cathedral so knew exactly where to find his body, identifying his body by a ring on his finger.

Then followed nearly two hundred years of silence in which Glastonbury never publicly announced its claim to possess the bones; everyone knew St Dunstan rested at Canterbury. The motivation behind the late Glastonbury claims had to be a direct consequence of the need to raise funds for rebuilding work following the devastation of the fire in 1184 and attract more pilgrims to the Abbey.

Significantly, William had made no mention of this story in his own Vita S. Dunstani which was composed to please the monks of Glastonbury, by countering the Canterbury claims of Osbern's Vita. Surely if such a tale was extant at this time William would have included in his Vita. Unless of course William doubted the Glastonbury claims himself and was sympathetic to Cantebury's argument.

Needless to say, Canterbury was not impressed by the Glastonbury claims. The contemporary Eadmer of Canterbury wrote to the monks of Glastonbury soon after 1120, ridiculing the claim, "I was not a little confounded to hear such a foolish and even laughable story," and condemned the act as sacrilege if it were not itself a fraud.

Eadmer's apparent disapproval of the Glastonbury claim is met with a strange twist of irony; he had described in his Vita Wilfridi how Archbishop Oda having found the church at Ripon deserted in 948 after King Eadred had destroyed it took the opportunity to remove Wilfrid's relics and bring them to Canterbury. The same account appears in a foreword written by Oda for Frithegod's 10th century poetic Vita Sancti Wilfrithi. Wilfrid's relics were originally placed in the High Altar at Canterbury but after the fire in 1067 they were moved to their own shrine. However, according to Byrhtferth's Vita Sancti Oswaldi, Oda's nephew, Oswald, Archbishop of York, preserved the relics in a new shrine at Ripon and rebuilt the monastery as a supporting community.

Today, the action of the Glastonbury monks in “rescuing” the bones of St Dunstan seems quite outrageous but during the 9th to 11th centuries it was widely accepted that the remains of a saint might be legitimately removed from their place of rest and appropriated by another church. The theft of holy relics, furta sacra, could only take place with the consent of the saint, approval  being displayed in the subsequent miracles that followed.

Miracles at Canterbury
Less than a hundred years after Dunstan's monastic reforms in the 10th century, the Church of England experienced an even greater upheaval as a result of the Norman Conquest. Within a few short years of the Norman arrival, the Saxon archbishop of Canterbury was replaced by a Norman cleric. Lanfranc of Pavia, an Italian by birth, educated as a Benedictine monk in France who later served as Abbot of St. Étienne, Caen, before being appointed the first post-Conquest Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070.

Shortly after his arrival Lanfranc started the rebuilding of the fire damaged cathedral church at Canterbury. Lanfranc's rebuilding program affected most religious buildings to such an extant that little Anglo-Saxon architecture survives in English cathedrals; within half a century every cathedral church in England had been rebuilt. The changes in architecture also saw changes in personnel with Lanfranc accelerating the process of substituting Normans for Englishmen in all preferment's of importance.

One of Lanfranc's first actions was to rescue various sets of holy bones from the ruins of the old cathedral church at Canterbury that had burned down in 1067 and move them to safety, although he did not rescue the relics of Anglo-Saxon saints so that they might form a spiritual focus for new cathedral, yet Dunstan and Ælfheah seemed to have received preferential treatment. Osbern describes how the the bones were moved to an oratory dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, together with the body of St Dunstan whose reliquary-cofin had been exhumed. Eadmer recalls that the bodies of the saints in the eastern part of the church were moved to the western end, where after a three day fast the most precious bodies of the bishops of Christ, Dunstan and Ælfheah, were elevated. They were then translated to their place of burial.

Lanfranc opened Dunstan's tomb in 1070 and found a body dressed as a bishop. The solution according to Glastonbury was simple, they had substituted Dunstan's remains with the corpse of a deceased former abbot of Glastonbury thereby concealing the holy theft.

Osbern reports miracles occurring at the shrine of St Dunstan at Cantebury that he personally witnessed, a shrine which Eadmer tells us was surmounted by a pyramis, meaning simply a raised monument, suggesting it was visible to all and not secluded in a crypt. When Dunstan cured Lanfranc, after the doctors had feared for his life, the archbishop told the monks to lock themselves in the cathedral and offer up thanks for his cure at the saint's monument. The act must have been influential in Lanfranc's gradual acceptance of the cults of English saints.

The controversy concerning ownership of Dunstan's relics continued in to the early 16th century when the Archbishop of Canterbury Warham wrote to the Abbot Beere in 1508, after Glastonbury had erected a new shrine to Dunstan. Warham's letter explained that Canterbury's shrine to St. Dunstan had recently been opened and found to contain a complete skeleton of a man in full archiepiscopal dress, described on a lead sheet therein as "Sanctus Dunstanu Archiepiscopus".

Bere's response was that he was unwilling to prevent the pious from venerating St Dunstan at Glastonbury. However, he was willing to concede that the Glastonbury shrine might not contain all the saint's bones as some smaller ones may have been taken back to Canterbury where Warham may have seen them. Furthermore, he would counsel Canterbury not to publicise their so-called relics until they could be certain they were not counterfeits. Warham demanded Bere to appear before him with the so-called Glastonbury relics. Bere ignored the archbishop's demands.

Regardless of the protestations from Canterbury, the Glastonbury shrine to Dunstan continued to occupy a prominent place and turned out to be the last important monument to be erected at the Abbey relating to the cult of saints. Thirty years later the commissioners of Henry VIII had begun their destruction of the medieval shrines of England and any remains at Glastonbury purportedly belonging to St Dunstan were scattered to the four winds.


Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk/
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Notes & References
James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Revised Edition, Gothic Image, 1996.
James P Carley & Martin Howley, Relics at Glastonbury in the Fourteenth Century, pp.569-616, in James P Carley, ed. Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, DS Brewer, 2001.
John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell Press, 2011.
Richard Sharpe, Eadmer's Letter to the Monks of Glastonbury Concerning St Dunstan's Disputed Remains pp. 205-16, in Lesley Abrams & James P Carley, eds,The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey: Essays in Honour of the Ninetieth Birthday of CA Ralegh Radford, Boydell Press, 1991.

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Monday, 17 March 2014

Saint Patrick

Today is the celebration of St Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland. The day is a principal holy day in the liturgical calendar, a holy day of obligation and has become a celebration of Ireland itself. Yet the origins of the man who became the most important Saint in Ireland are as enigmatic as his burial place.

Today 17th March is the feast day of Saint Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, who died on this day at Downpatrick, in 493 AD. In modern times St Patrick's Day has become an international celebration of Ireland. Patrick is said to have used the shamrock in his preaching as a representation of the Holy Trinity. The shamrock has become the symbol of St Patrick's Day.

Most of what we know of Patrick is based on the accounts from hagiographies from the seventh century or later in which we enter the realm of legend. Patrick is said to have banished all snakes from Ireland, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a forty-day fast. He is to have carried with him a walking stick or staff made from ash wood. Legend claims that when he pushed this stick into the ground it took root; this place came to be known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick). This is a trick typical in many saint's Lives, such as Joseph of Arimathea's staff and the tale of the Holy Thorn at Weary-all Hill, Glastonbury.

Little is known of Patrick's early life, though it is celebrated that he was born in the late fourth century, towards the ending of Roman Britain, into a wealthy Romano-British family. Patrick provides no dates in his writings that have survived, although they have been interpreted as suggesting that his ecclesiastical conversion did not take place before the early 5th century. Two Latin letters, the Confessio and the Epistola, have been authenticated as being written by Patrick.

In the Confessio Patrick provides a brief account of his early life, writing that he was born in Roman Britain at`Bannavem Taberniae', and that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest: "I had as my father the deacon Calpornius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, who belonged to the small town of Bannavem Taberniae; he had a small estate nearby, and it was there I was taken captive". In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick claims his father was a decurion, a town councillor.

At the age of 16 he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, remaining a captive for six years where he worked as a herdsman. He escaped by sea to an undisclosed land, eventually returning to his home in Britain. He began his studies for the priesthood and said to have been ordained by St. Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, whom he had studied under for years. Following his episcopal ordination he was sent to take the Gospel to Ireland. He returned to Ireland in 432 and credited with founding Ireland's first Christian church at Armagh.. Patrick preached and converted all of Ireland for 40 years.

`Bannavem Taberniae' is improbable Latin and is usually amended to Bannaventa Berniae, an unknown location, which has been identified as being near in the north of Britain, east of Carlisle, possibly near to the Roman Fort 'Banna', now known as Birdoswald, towards the western end of Hadrian's Wall. Others locate the place of Patrick's birth at Ravenglass in Cumbria; the similarity of the Roman name 'Glannaventa' needing no further explanation. However, these suggestions do not stand up to scrutiny; the western coasts of southern Scotland and northern England would offer little attraction to a raider seeking quick access to loot and slaves. Furthermore, there was a Roman town called 'Bannaventa', one mile northeast of the village of Norton in Northamptonshire, situated on the Roman road of Watling Street, but this is considered an unlikely target for seaborne raiders as it is deep in land.

Bannaventa Berniae appears to be a Latinisation of a Celtic placename where 'Banna' is Latin for spur or promontory of rock, with 'venta' being the name used by the Romans as a prefix for three civitas capitals: Venta Icenorum (Caistor St. Edmund, Norfolk);Venta Belgarum (Winchester); Venta Silurum (Caerwent, Gwent). Venta has a disputed meaning, it is argued that its is derived from the Brittonic *uentā,meaning something like ‘field’ or ‘market’. The Latin word 'Vendo' means 'to sell', as in the modern word vendor (seller) and the late Latin word 'vendito' means 'market sale' possess the same root. Therefore, it is usually accepted that Venta means a 'market place, or meeting place'. Thus, the names of the three civitas capitals mean the market towns of the the Iceni, the Belgae and the Silures respectively. However, Patrick could have been taken from anywhere on the west coast of Britain subject to raids by Irish pirates; from the south west of England to the Western Isles of Scotland.

South Wales or the south western peninsula of England has been argued for the location of Bannavem Taberniae as these areas were subject to incursions by Irish raiders in Patrick's time. Somerset was highly Romanised, offering a plausible location for Patrick's family estate, unlike some of the more remote locations suggested above. An alternative candidate for Patrick's home town is the late Roman settlement near the village of Banwell, five miles east of Weston-super-Mare, on the North Somerset Levels.

It seems we will never know for certain Patrick's birthplace as controversy continues to surround the chronology of his life and his achievements. The typical, and most popular, view is that Patrick was the only apostle of Ireland who converted the whole country to Christianity single-handedly. He was certainly active in Ireland during the second half of the fifth century. The Irish annals record Patrick's arrival in Ireland at 432, but this date may be confused with the arrival of Palladius in 431. The matter is confused further by the Book of Armagh which says Palladius was known to have also been called Patrick.

Palladius may have accompanied St Germanus of Auxerre to Britain in 429 in response to the Pelagian heresy. After returning to Rome he was despatched by Pope Celestine to Ireland shortly after. He appears to have landed and mainly worked in Wicklow, where three places (Tigroney, Donard, Dunlavin) claim to have churches founded by Palladius. His apostolate does not seem to have lasted long and he moved on to Scotland where he is said to have ended his days at Forddun, Aberdeenshire. It seems fairly certain Palladius was the first bishop of Ireland, but after he moved to Scotland, Patrick seems to have replaced him. However, recent research disputes the traditional dates, suggesting Patrick may have lived a generation or so later.

The chronicle tradition claims that Patrick died in 493. Yet, historians still can't make up their minds about Patrick and the latest wisdom declares that he died on 17 March 461. Several sites claim to be his final resting place, Glastonbury a notable alternative. However, the people of Ireland claim their patron Saint is buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba.


It is said that on the day Saint Patrick died  the sun did not set, but shone for twelve consecutive days and nights. His body was wrapped in a shroud and placed on a cart, drawn by two unrestrained white oxen. The oxen wandered to Downpatrick where it is claimed he is buried. A granite boulder marked with a cross and simply inscribed 'PATRIC' marks his grave.




Notes & References
Harry Jelley, Saint Patrick's Somerset Birthplace: A Serious Study into the Birthplace of
Saint Patrick in the Fifth Century, Cary Valley Historical Publications, 1998.
David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011.
David N. Dumville et al, Saint Patrick, Boydell Press, New Edition, 1999.
Thomas F. O'Rahilly, The Two Patricks: Lecture on the History of Christianity in Fifth-century Ireland, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1981.


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Friday, 7 March 2014

Vikings: life and legend exhibition

6 March – 22 June 2014
Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

This major exhibition enters the world of warriors, seafarers and conquerors and shows the many fascinating aspects of a history that is both strangely alien yet remarkably familiar; swords and axes, coins and jewellery, hoards, amulets and religious images show how Vikings created an international network connecting cultures over four continents.

  • The first major exhibition on Vikings at the British Museum for over 30 years.
  • Features many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK alongside important Viking Age artefacts from the British Museum’s own collection and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland.
  • New interpretations place warfare and warrior identity at the centre of what it meant to be a Viking; cultural contact was often violent, and the transportation of looted goods and slaves reflects the role of Vikings as both raiders and traders.
  • This exhibition will be the first in The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, part of the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre that opens later in 2014. The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery is the British Museum’s first purpose built space for temporary exhibitions.

The Viking Age began on 8th June 793 AD with a raid by heathen men bringing plunder and slaughter on the island monastery at Lindisfarne. The raid off the coast of northern England was the start of a period of major change across Europe. The extraordinary Viking expansion from the Scandinavian homelands  to create an international network connecting cultures over four continents during this era, creating a cultural network with contacts from the Caspian Sea to the North Atlantic, and from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean. Famous for their seaborne adventures, appropriately at the heart of the exhibition will be a 37-metre-long warship, known as Roskilde 6, excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark during the course of work undertaken to develop the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in 1997. Dating to around 1025, powered by 40 pairs of oars, it is the longest Viking ship ever discovered.


Many other new discoveries, including recently excavated skeletons from a mass grave of executed Vikings near Weymouth in Dorset, providing a close-up encounter with ‘real’ Vikings, warriors that filed their teeth,  and illustrate what happened when things went wrong for Viking warriors on British soil. The display will include the latest research on the skeletons showing how our understanding of the Vikings is still being changed by new excavations and recent research. A grim reminder that the Vikings were not always the invincible warriors depicted in legend.


The Lewis Chessmen form a remarkable group of iconic objects within the world collection of the British Museum. Thought to have been made in Norway, about AD 1150- 1200, the chessmen were found buried in the Western Isles of Scotland, probably for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland. Of the 93 pieces known to us today, 11 pieces are in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and 82 are held in the British Museum. The chess pieces are made from walrus ivory and whales' teeth worked in the forms of seated kings and queens, bishops, mounted knights and pawns in the shape of obelisks.


The Vale of York Hoard, consisting of 617 coins, 6 arm rings and a quantity of bullion and hack-silver, will be shown in its entirety at the British Museum for the first time since it was discovered by metal detectorists near Harrogate in 2007 and jointly acquired by the British Museum and York Museums Trust.

All this and not a horned helmet in sight!


Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Supported by BP.


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Monday, 24 February 2014

Winter Storms uncover Mythical Land of Cantre'r Gwaelod

This winter's storms hammered the UK and particularly Cornwall and the southwest. West Wales failed to escape the wrath of mother nature with the Ceredigion coast also receiving a battering in January by hurricane force winds. The Met Office issued a rare "red warning", the most severe level of threat, for "exceptionally strong winds" in west Wales.

Winds of over 100 mph battered the Welsh coast forcing the closure of roads, rail lines and schools. In Aberystwyth unusually high tides combined with the storm whipped up 50ft waves  reaching nearly as high as the buildings on the sea front. The promenade suffered with waves throwing shingle onto the promenade, battering the buildings on the front smashing the lower-floor windows of the seaside resorts, twisting railings, smashing through the sea wall and mangling the 1920s beach shelter. Twice the winter storms forced residents to be evacuated from buildings on the front.


The huge storms and powerful winds that have battered the coast of Britain in recent weeks have caused years' worth of erosion and damage said to “have changed the coastline forever”.

Just up the coast at Borth the power of the storm stripped the sand from a beach revealing the remains of oak trees dating back to the Bronze Age that had been hidden for thousands of years. The tree stumps on the beach between Borth and Ynyslas are said by some to be responsible for the legend of "Cantre'r Gwaelod", which according to myth was a kingdom submerged under the waters of Cardigan Bay and often described as the "Welsh Atlantis".


Before the storms recent photographs show a strip of pristine sand. Now the same spot shows a multitude of tree stumps of ancient oaks and pines dating back thousands of years spanning for miles.

The Mythical Land of Cantre'r Gwaelod, the Bottom Hundred, was said to be a fertile land with sixteen cities stretching twenty miles out to sea and some forty miles in length, from the estuary of the river Teifi at Cardigan in south-west Wales, to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) off the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula in the North.


The land of Cantre'r Gwaelod was protected from the sea by a dyke and sluice gates. During the time when Gwyddno 'Longshanks' Garanhir  was Lord of the Cantred, the keeper of the dyke was a man named Seithenhin, who one night, after drinking too much, forgot to shut the sluice gates. The sea came rushing in and few of the inhabitants escaped.


Further pictures at Surreal seascape revealed by the storms -  Mail Online 20 February 2014


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Friday, 14 February 2014

The Feast of Saint Valentine

On 14th February, in the days of Emperor Claudius II, the priest Valentino was executed in Rome. Valentine was martyred and named a saint after his death.

Valentine's story starts in Rome under the rule of Claudius II, also known as “Claudius Gothicus”, who was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. After the Emperor Alexander Severus was murdered by his own troops the Roman Empire fell into massive turmoil. The so called 'Crisis of the Third Century' (235–284 AD) witnessed the Empire splitting into three competing states and facing near collapse.

It was essential Claudius maintained a strong army but was having difficulty recruiting new soldiers to his military forces. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families. To solve this problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. The priest Valentine, realising the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.

This is evidenced by the discovery of the bodies of two young lovers in a perfectly preserved sarcophagus, the inscription revealing the marriage of Sabino, a pagan Roman soldier and Serapia, a Christian girl from Terni, by Saint Valentine in defiance of the emperor which has become the centrepiece of the legend of Saint Valentine of Terni.

Basilica di San Valentino, Terni, Italy.
The Basilica was begun in the 17th century and completed in 1854.
Today couples from many places come to Terni every February 14 to take or renew their marriage vows.
When Valentine's actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death and beheaded. The priest's execution was carried out on 14th February, on or about the year 270.

Legends vary on how the martyr's name became connected with exchanging romantic messages, but it claimed that while in jail, Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer's daughter, who had become his friend, and signed it "From Your Valentine."

The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in the 15th Century Nuremberg Chronicle, alongside the woodcut portrait of Valentine the text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II. Various dates are given for his martyrdom, 269 or 270.

In truth, the exact origins and identity of St. Valentine are unclear. He does not occur in the earliest list of Roman martyrs, compiled by the Chronographer of 354, a 4th Century illuminated manuscript also known as the Calendar of 354. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February." One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Terni and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.

Saint Valentine, left, Christ , centred, and Saint Zeno,
Mosaic from Chapel of S. Zeno, Basilica di San Prassede, Rome,
resting in an arch above the niche containing a piece of the Pillar of Flagellation.
The trail to this elusive saint leads to the Basilica di San Prassede, in Rome, where he is found in one of the few surviving Byzantine mosaics in Rome. The northernmost gate to the city, the Porta del Popolo, is the place where Saint Valentine was beheaded, the gate was later renamed the Porta Valentini to commemorate this moment. The flower crowned skull of St Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. The remains of the original Basilica di San Valentino are about a kilometre outside the gate, from which three entrances lead into the rock of the hill and the catacombs of Saint Valentine.

The date of his death may have become mingled with the Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love held around the same time. On these occasions, the names of young women were placed in a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed.

Remains of Basilica of San Valentino and Entrances to Catacombs of Saint Valentine
The Feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 AD by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God” thus bringing an end to the Feast of Lupercalia declaring that 14th February be celebrated as St Valentine's Day.


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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Brigid's Eternal Flame

One of the most complex Goddesses of the Celtic pantheon, yet Brigid is one of the most powerful religious figures of Irish history. The tales of Brigid the Goddess and Christian Saint are irrevocably entwined and impossible to separate out as fact or fable, but from elements of her Christian story we find clear indications towards a pagan origin. In the story of Saint Brigid she was said to be a Druid's daughter who predicted the coming of Christianity and was then baptised by St. Patrick. She became a nun and later an Abbess who founded the Abbey at Kildare. As Abbess, Brigid was said to have had the power to appoint the bishops of her area, a role not usually delegated to such a rank, oddly her bishops were also required to be practising goldsmiths.

There can be little doubt that Saint Brigid is based upon a Celtic Goddess who was presented in Christian attire by the early church fathers in order to win over her pagan Irish followers. As a pagan Goddess She is known by her many names, Bride, Bridey, Brighid, Brigit, Briggidda, Brigantia; the traditional patroness of healing, poetry and smithcraft. Her name meaning literally “the high one” or "the exalted one”.

Veneration of St Brigid appears to have incorporated many elements of a much older, possibly pre-Celtic, tradition. Sun and fire are particularly stressed in the early lives of the Saint which were no doubt based upon older sources which appear to reflect traces of ancient lore relating to the Goddess. Significantly, the Gaelic word for Kildare is 'Cill Dara', which means the 'Cell, or Church, of the Oak'. Here Saint Brigid built her Abbey around 480 AD, on a hill beside a great oak tree. This was always an important gathering place and pilgrimage site in earlier centuries; the site became the centre of a great cult of the Goddess Brigid, who presided over healing, inspiration, poetry and smithcraft. She is provider of plenty, giver of life and identified with fertility and fire. Priestesses are thought to have gathered on this hill at Kildare to tend their ritual fires while invoking the Goddess to protect their herds and to provide a fruitful harvest.

Tradition tells us that Brigid kept a shrine at Kildare, Ireland, with a perpetual flame tended by nineteen virgin priestesses, later called Daughters of the Flame. No one knows how long the flame had been tended by the priestesses, however, it is likely to have pre-historical origins. This perpetual flame was said to have been tended by nineteen Virgins symbolising the nineteen-year, metonic, lunar cycle; a period of 235 lunar months, or 19 years at the end of which the phases of the moon repeat in exactly the same order and on the same days as the preceding cycle. Needless to say, the moon was very important to astronomer-priests of pagan religions, the number 19 being found again and again throughout pagan mythologies and megalithic sites around the world. For example, at the world famous megalithic monument at Stonehenge we find 56 Aubrey Holes about a metre inside the ditch.Throughout mythology we find a cauldron possessing magical properties on an Otherworld island tended by nine maidens, the number nine being half a metonic cycle to the nearest whole number.

With the advent of Christianity in Ireland it quickly became apparent that the Goddess Brigid was so deeply etched on the Irish people that it would be impossible to eradicate her. The Christian solution was to make her a Saint and in the 6th century, a monastery was built on the site of the temple where the vigil of the eternal flame had been held. Consequently, a sacred fire continued to burn in Kildare from early Christian times and the custom of keeping the fire alight continued; the fire representing the new light of Christianity, the Daughters of the Flame kept her flame eternally lit, ensuring it was never extinguished.

On the north side of St Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare, are the restored foundations of
Brigid's ancient fire temple. The fire was lit on the 1st February, St. Brigid’s day.
This flame was symbolically relit in 1993 and is now tended at 
Solas Bhride.

In the 12th century the Welsh Chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) visited Kildare and recorded that the fire of Saint Brigid was still burning and attended by twenty "servants of the Lord" a clear reference to the tradition that each day, for nineteen days, a different priestess (or nun), would keep vigil over the sacred fire but on the twentieth day Brigid would tend the flame herself. By the time of Gerald's writing the fire had been burning continuously for at least 600 years, probably several hundred more, yet had apparently never had its ashes cleaned out, yet the ashes never seemed to increase in size.

No male was ever allowed to come near the eternal flame and neither were these women permitted to associate with men, consequently all their supplies were brought to them by women from the nearby village. Thus, surrounding the fire was a hedge that no male could ever cross. One legend recalls of a man who attempted to cross the hedge and ended up going insane. Another tells of an attempt to cross the hedge but just as his leg crossed the threshhold, his comrades pulled him back. Unfortunately the leg that did cross the hedge became maimed and he was crippled for the rest of his life. No trace of this legendary hedge with magical properties has survived today, but it clearly provided protection to the flame from male invaders by cursing them to either go insane, die, become maimed, or even have their penis wither.

However, in 1220 AD, a Bishop disagreed with policy of non-admittance of men to the Abbey of Saint Brigid of Kildare. The Arch-bishop of Dublin, Henry of London, insisted that as nuns were subordinate to priests they must open the abbey to inspection by a priest. They refused and requested the inspections be carried out by a female official such as another Abbess. The Bishop was not impressed with this show of disobedience and decreed that the keeping of the eternal flame was a Pagan custom and consequently demanded that the sacred flame to be extinguished. The flame was thought to have been briefly extinguished but was quickly relit by the local people and the Eternal flame survived up to the suppression of the monasteries in the sixteenth century.

It was at this time that King Henry VIII demanded the destruction of many monasteries and the Eternal flame was extinguished but never forgotten. Brigid remained the most popular Irish saint along with Patrick and on Saint Brigid's day, 1st February, in 1807, the Bishop of Kildare, Daniel Delany, commenced the restoration of the the ancient order of the Sisterhood of Saint Brigid with the clear intention to revive her legacy.

During Vatican II, the so-called modernisation of Catholicism in the 1960's, it was declared that there was insufficient proof of Brigid's sanctity or even of her historical existence; consequently the Church's gradual program against Brigid was finally successful and She was de-canonised. Today She is often called just "Brigid of Ireland" and it can be difficult to obtain images or even holy cards of Saint Brigid outside of Ireland.

In 1993 at a conference, entitled “Brigid: Prophetess, Earthwoman, Peacemaker” held in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Saint Brigid’s Peace Cross Project, Mary Teresa Cullen, the then leader of the Brigidine Sisters, re-kindled the Eternal flame in a ceremony in Kildare’s Market Square. Since then, the Brigidine Sisters have tended the flame in their centre, 'Solas Bhride' (Light of Brigid) in Kildare.

In 2005 Kildare County Council commissioned a sculpture to house the flame in Kildare Town Square. The sculpture comprises a twisted column, flourishing at the top into a bronze, acorn cup holding the flame nestled amongst oak leaves. Surely, we have come full circle with the oak leaves symbolising the Druidic element of the legend of Brigid and the name of Kildare, 'Cill Dara', the Church of the Oak.

As Breo-Saighead (Fiery Arrow), Brigid was known as The Flame of Ireland; She is clearly the best example of the survival of an ancient Goddess into Christian times; disowned by the church, dismantled by the very hands that rocked her cradle, yet still held in high reverence by the people.


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Note:
1. The number 56 is the nearest whole number to three metonic cycles; 19 + 19 +18 = 56. More accurately 3 metonic cycles of 18.61 = 55.83.

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