Sunday, 21 June 2015

St Werburgh: from Mercian Princess to Patron Saint

Princess of Mercia
Thirty years of glorious reign came crashing down on the 15th  November 655 AD at the Battle of the Winwaed for Penda the Mercian king at the hands of Oswiu, king of Bernicia. Penda had ruled since 626, enjoying spectacular success on the battlefield with his Welsh allies, defeating Northumbrian kings Edwin and Oswald and setting the foundations for two hundred years of Mercian Supremacy.

Historians see the Battle of the Winwaed and the death of Penda as a defining moment in the demise of Anglo Saxon paganism. In the aftermath of the Winwaed Mercian expansion, dominant since the Battle of Maserfield in 642, remembered for the dismembering of King Oswald of Northumbria, was halted with Oswiu ruling south of the Humber in northern Mercia and installing Penda's Christian son Peada in the southern part of the Midland realm under Oswiu's overlordship. Peada married into the Bernician Royal line but by the spring of the following year was dead; according to Bede and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle Peada was betrayed by his own Queen, Oswiu's daughter, during Easter 656. Oswiu was now overlord of all Mercia.

Any hopes of long term control of Mercia by the Northumbrians was dashed in 658 when Mercian nobles led a rebellion and installed another of Penda's sons, Wulfhere, who they had kept in hiding since the Winwaed, as king of Mercia. Wulfhere established himself as overlord of Britain south of the Humber, becoming dominant through successful campaigns against Wessex which saw Mercia take control of London and the Thames Valley and as far south as the Isle of Wight.

Wulfhere married Ermenilda, the daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent and Seaxburh of Ely, a daughter of Anna, King of East Anglia. Seaxburh founded the abbeys at Milton Regis and Minster-in-Sheppey. She moved to the double monastery at Ely, the precursor to Ely Cathedral, where her sister Æthelthryth was abbess and succeeded her when Æthelthryth died in 679. She was apparently buried in a common grave where she lay for sixteen years until 695 when Seaxburh arranged the translation of Æthelthryth's relics to a white marble sarcophagus, taken from the Roman ruins at Grantchester, to the new church at Ely. On opening the grave her body was found to be incorrupt and she was declared a saint. The matrilinear succession at Ely transferred from Æthelthryth to her sister  Seaxburh, and would then pass to her daughter  Ermenilda and then her granddaughter Werbugh after the death of the king of Mercia.

Wulfhere had two children with Ermenilda, a daughter, Werburgh and a son, Coenred. Wulfhere was the first Christian king of all of Mercia and brought St Chad to the Midlands, though it is not known when he converted from Anglo-Saxon paganism. The foundation legend of Stone in Staffordshire claims Wulfhere had two further sons Wulfad and Rufin. According to the railings at Granville Square at the top of the high street the foundation was 670, so presumably Wulfhere converted after this date. The local story goes that the Royal Palace, the legendary Wulferecestre, was situated at Bury Bank, a huge Iron Age hill fort on the west bank of the Trent, two miles north of Stone. The two young Princes are said to have converted after meeting St Chad. Wulfhere was enraged and hunted down his sons killing Wulfad at Stone and Rufin at Burston. Ermenilda and sister Werburgh gathered up their bodies and interred them “under a great sepulchre of stones”, hence the name of the town, where they built a priory. Little evidence of the priory remains today, some walling remains in Abbey Street and a rib-vaulted undercroft in a house called 'The Priory' in Lichfield Street but these are dated to an Augustinian priory founded c.1135. The priory seems real enough even if the legend does not; in 2011 a 13th century bronze seal from the priory, was found in a field in Cobham, Surrey bearing the inscription "the seal of the church of Saint Mary and Saint Wulfad, Martyr of Stone". The modern St Michael and St Wulfad's church was built on this site in the 18th century constructed with stone from the collapsed 12th century priory.

The bronze seal from Stone Priory
Wulfhere died in 675; Henry of Huntingdon claimed it was due to disease. His brother Æthelred took the throne and his widow, Queen Ermenilda, retired to the Minster-in-Sheppey where she is said to have become abbess although little contemporary information exists. When her mother Seaxburh resigned as abbess at Minster and went to Ely, Ermenilda succeeded her. When Seaxburh died at Ely twenty years later Ermenilda became Ely's third royal abbess in succession. Her cult was extensive but contemporary records are silent on her time there, surprisingly not even the date of her death is recorded.

After her father's death Werburgh became a nun at Ely and probably succeeded her mother as abbess there. However, her uncle King Æthelred is said to have recalled her to Mercia and gave her charge of three nunneries in the realm. Werburgh is said to have founded or reformed the houses at Weedon (Northants.), Hanbury (Staffs.) and Threckingham (Lincs.) where she died on 3rd February c.700. At her request she was buried at Hanbury.

Translation to Chester
Although St Werburgh did not have any special connection with Chester in her life time her remains were moved there for safety when the Viking onslaught swept through Mercia. Ranulf Higden, who entered the Abbey of St. Werburgh in 1299, tells us that St Werburgh's remains were translated to Chester in 875 to protect it from the encroaching Danes, then at Repton. Higden states the Saint's uncorrupted remains were deposited in the old church of St Peter and St Paul there on 21 June which became the Saint's festival day.

St Werbugh's shrine, Chester Cathedral
Another monk from the abbey, Henry Bradshaw (d.1513), records in his hagiography of Chester’s patron saint that when Chester was restored c.907 by Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, she enlarged the church as a college of secular cannons and dedicated it to St Werburgh. Another translation at Chester in 1095 was the occasion of Goscelin of St Bertin to write her Vita.

The Abbey of St. Werburgh had considerable authority right up to the time of the Dissolution, no doubt owing its impressive appearance and the presence of the relics of St Werburgh. A shrine was constructed to house the Saint's relics in the early 14th century, where Bradshaw records a number of miracles and became a place of pilgrimage.

The Abbey of St Werburgh was dissolved in January 1540 but rather than being wrecked like most religious houses that fell to the mercy of Henry VIII's Commissioners just over a year later in July 1541 the church became the seat of the newly created diocese of Chester with the last Abbot of St. Werburgh’s becoming the first Dean of the Cathedral. Formerly Cheshire was part of the Diocese of Lichfield. Werburgh's girdle was among the relics listed by the Royal Commissioners. After the Reformation the shrine was turned into the bishop's throne. The fragments have been reconstituted and today stand behind the High Altar in the Lady Chapel of Chester Cathedral where Werburgh's remains are said to lie. At the west end of the Chapel stands the shrine of St Werburgh. Next to the Lady Chapel is the peaceful Chapel of St Werburgh.

St Werburgh's Chapel, Chester Cathedral
Midsummer Celebrations
No one knows for sure when midsummer processions started at Chester but they have been recorded since 1195. The Chester Midsummer Fair was held annually on ground owned by the Benedictine convent of St.Werburgh before the Abbey gate. At that time the Abbot was granted the rights to hold an annual fair in the abbey precinct, known as St Werburgh's Fair.

In the late 15th century the procession was known as the Midsummer Watch Parade when every summer solstice Cestrians would march through the streets carrying torches and wearing costumes. In Tudor times, Chester’s Midsummer Watch Parade was renowned throughout the country.

The midsummer parade included giants, unicorns, dragons and hobbyhorses in something similar to May Day celebrations. In the 17th century the Midsummer Watch Parade was abandoned but revived in 1989. The Giants, Beasts and other structures of today's parade are loosely based on contemporary records of the original. Today the parade takes place on the Saturday and Sunday closest to Midsummer and traditionally includes St Werburgh and flocks of geese, her emblem from an old legend. This year the Midsummer Watch Parade takes place on Saturday 20 & Sunday 21 June, starting from the Abbey Gateway at 2pm.

It often assumed that the Midsummer Watch Parade has its origins in earlier, long forgotten pagan rites, yet this date in Chester just happens to coincide with the translation of St Werburgh's relics to the Abbey and the celebration of the Mercian Princess who became Patron Saint of Chester.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

* * *

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Alban Pilgrimage 2015

Alban lived during the 3rd century in the Roman city of Verulamium. He gave shelter to a Christian priest fleeing persecution. Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest. But Alban, inspired in his new-found faith, exchanged clothes with him, allowing him to escape. Alban refused to renounce his faith and was executed in his place.

He was brought out of the town, across the river and up a hill to the site of his execution. Legend tells us that a spring of water miraculously appeared to quench Alban’s thirst and the executioner’s eyes fell out after he had beheaded Alban.

Saint Alban, feast day 22 June, is honoured as the first British martyr, and his grave, where the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban now stand, soon became a place of pilgrimage, a journey which has continued for over 1700 years.

This year the Pilgrimage begins at 11:00 on Saturday 20 June at St Peter’s Church with a procession through the city centre to the Town Hall where the Archbishop of Canterbury will address the people.

The procession continues along Holywell Hill to St Albans Cathedral where giant puppets will retell the story of Alban’s martyrdom with the re-enactment of Alban’s beheading taking place outside the West End entrance, followed by the procession into the Cathedral for the Festival Eucharist.

For further details see the website of The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

* * *

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Ancient Highways of Britain

The Peace of the Four Roads 
Henry of Huntingdon mentions the 'peace of the four roads' story in his early 12th century chronicle the Historia Anglorum. Henry tells us that the four highways Ermine Street, Fosse Way and Watling Street, together with the Icknield Way were constructed ‘by Royal authority’ across the island of Britain, ‘on which no one would dare attack his enemy’:

“Britain was so dear to its inhabitants that they constructed four great highways in it, from one end of the island to the other, built by Royal authority, so that no one would dare to attack an enemy on them. The first is from west to east and is called the Icknield Way. The second runs from south to north and is called Ermine Street. The third goes across from Dover to Chester, that is from southeast to the northwest, and is called Watling Street. The fourth, longer than the others, begins in Caithness, and ends in Totnes, that is from the beginning of Cornwall to the end of Scotland. This road, which is is called the Fosse Way, takes a diagonal route from southwest to northwest, and passes through Lincoln. These are the four principal highways of England, which are very broad as well as splendid, protected  by the edicts of kings and venerable laws codes” – Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People by Henry of Huntingdon, Book I (ed & trans Diana Greenway, Oxford 1996)

The source of the popularity of the 'peace of the four roads' probably lies in the account of Edwin's reign by Bede which seems to have followed a biblical model. In writing of the peace and prosperity that followed Edwin's victories of the early 7th century, Bede claims that a mother and her child could cross the island unharmed in conditions similar to those obtained under king Solomon, heir to the conquests of David.

Surpassing the ancient right of sanctuary, the motif of the 'peace of the four roads' remained popular in 12th century legal codes. Following Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his work, Historia Regum Britannie (c.1136), identifies the Four Highways as being part of the story of the mythical King Belinus, but only names the Fosse Way. More on this another time.

The Four Royal Roads
Law books and Anglo-Saxon Charters of the 12th century list Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, and Icknield Way as being Royal roads, 'Chimini regales’ where special protection was given to travellers. This special protection meant that people were able to travel safely along the route without fear of being ambushed or attacked, and if a person was, then it would be ‘considered to be an offence against the king himself’.

The Four Highways seems to have become indelibly written as fact in Medieval literature and the notion has persisted through the ages. The Icknield Way for instance, often confused with the Roman road Icknield Street, or Ryknild Street, running south-west to north-east through the English Midlands, first appears in 10th century Anglo Saxon charters before inclusion as part of the story of the Four Highways. This ancient trackway was generally accepted as being one of the original Green Roads of Britain, believed to date from the Neolithic period and associated with trade, exchange and long distance communication. This has led to the popular belief that the Icknield Way, running from Norfolk to the Wessex Downs, exists due to its name, as the trackway of the Iceni tribe of Norfolk, which the Romans reconstructed, and then commonly cited as the invasion route used by Anglo-Saxons coming in to the country around the area of the Wash and heading inland to the Upper Thames in post-Roman times.

The designation “street” suggestions a Roman origin; in Latin "via" was the word for road and “stratum” for layer. Hence, the Romans called their multi-layer roads “via strata,” the survival of which we still see today in the words strada (Italian), street (English), strasse (German), straat (Dutch), affirming the Roman presence in these countries. Indeed the reliefs of Trajan's Column portray scenes of Roman legionaries constructing a road through the Dacian forest.

Whereas the names of these early highways is suggestive of a Roman origin, many are suspected of following the lines of existing, pre-Roman trackways, rebuilt with layers (stratum) of stone and incorporated into the Roman road network.

The concept of the Four Ancient Highways seems to have influenced later fields archaeologists such as OGS Crawford who worked for the Ordnance Survey and one of the pioneers of aerial photography. Crawford identified four main ancient trackways crossing the chalk uplands of Britain: the South Downs Ridgeway; the North Downs Ridgeway; the Icknield Way; and the Jurassic Way, but there is some doubt today as to the use of these ridgeways as prehistoric long distance trade routes.

Crawford's four ancient ridgeways
For example, the so-called Pilgrim's Way running along the chalk Ridgeway of the North Downs originated at Winchester, journeyed onto Canterbury before ending at Dover. However, this was probably not the classic route used by the pilgrims of Chaucer's tale; in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer mentions four places along the Roman Road (Margary 1) from Southwark. Yet, as Crawford argues, the Ridgeway does provide a natural route from the south-east coast to the lowest Thames crossing point; but this alone does not qualify the route as an ancient trackway.

The concept of long distance travel in prehistoric Britain along the chalk ridgeways was influenced by set assumptions of the landscape and environment of much of Britain being covered by thick impenetrable primeval forest that could not have been cleared by prehistoric peoples armed solely with primitive stone tools. Thus, settlement was concentrated on the lighter chalk soils of the Downs of lowland Britain with the heavier clay soils not cultivated until the medieval period and heavier ploughs. Movement of peoples and material culture was probably limited to narrow strips of land connecting the chalklands.

The innovation of pollen analysis in the 20th century has led to significant reconstruction of the environment of the prehistoric landscape which has shown that the thick primeval forests of Southern Britain were mostly cleared by the Neolithic period. Accepted, it would have been more woodland and scrub than today's modern man-made landscape but it was far from the impassable damp oakwood that early archaeologists, such as Crawford, believed.

The perception of the ridgeways has changed in modern times with ancient trackways, such as the Icknield Way, now considered as several sections of short roadway of Anglo-Saxon period date with little evidence of one continuous long distance prehistoric superhighway to the Wessex Downs linking to the Ridgeway.

Today the idea of prehistoric long distance travel by 'ridgeway' is considered largely an archaeological misconception; current wisdom argues that long distant trackways were not necessary for far reaching trade; continuous short distance exchange, “down the line”, providing sufficient explanation for long distance travel of artefacts.

Further confusion arose when Crawford argued that the great dykes constructed across the Icknield Way to control movement and bar its course were further evidence of the tracks existence as a major, long distance route. Certainly the relationship between Roman roads and the dykes is not fully understood; indeed, some Roman roads are named 'dyke' such as Ackling Dyke in Wiltshire, or 'ridge' or 'rig' as in the Roman Rig earthworks of South Yorkshire. On occasion the agger, the raised bank of earth that formed the base of the Roman road, has been confused with raised linear earthworks. This was certainly the case in the gap between East and West Wansdyke where antiquarians assumed the dyke continued along the line of the Roman road between Verucio (Sandylane) and Bath by mistaking the agger of the Roman road was the bank of the dyke. In reality the Roman road between the East and West Wansdyke was probably sufficient simply as a boundary marker.

The Fosse at Radstock
Today, The Four Highways is considered a 12th century myth and the antiquity of the so-called 'ridgeways' as long distance trade routes doubted by many archaeologists who prefer to see short sections of ancient roadway joined up by the Romans to form long distance roads, such as Watling Street, running across the length and breadth of the country. Thus, we seem stuck with the popular misconception that the Romans brought the idea of roads to Britain.

A Bronze Age road in Shropshire
Excavation of ancient trackways is relatively rare but one event recently produced some interesting finds that have a significant bearing on the argument of the origin of Roman roads in Britain.

Archaeological evidence shows that well planned structures were being built from Neolithic times, through wet areas at least, such as the Sweet Track in the Somerset levels, itself laid over an earlier track. Increasingly sophisticated structures of timber and imported stone are found during the Bronze Age, as at Eton Rowing Lake (Berkshire), Fiskerton (Lincolnshire), Fengate/Flag Fen (Cambridgeshire), and several examples in the Thames estuary. Even gridded and metalled (gravelled) streets have been found in the later Iron Age tribal centres at Danebury and Silchester (Hampshire), from around 400 BC.

The Romans certainly used these pre-historic trackways that followed escarpments, banks and ditches, which they straightened and engineered, combining short sections as necessary to provide direct routes as instruments of conquest.

However, archaeological excavation has revealed that carefully surveyed and engineered all-weather rural roads were not exclusive to Roman technology. One such excavation was carried out in 2009 ahead of the expansion of Tarmac's quarry at Sharpstone Hill, Shropshire. This provided archaeologists the opportunity to excavate and record a long stretch of a known Roman road 4km south of Shrewsbury, near the village of Bayston Hill.

East from Viroconium (Wroxeter) the Roman road mostly followed an existing trackway that had been used by the ancient Britons for many years. Fording the River Severn at Wroxeter the track provided a link between the hillforts at the Wrekin and Old Oswestry. From the county border, the route was overlain by the Roman Watling Street, later the modern A5 road. On the west bank of the river, it headed for the ridge to the west of Cross Houses, which it followed north-west to Sharpstone Hill. From this viewpoint to the south other hillforts, such as Caer Caradoc at Church Stretton, and to the north the modern settlement of Shrewsbury are clearly visible. To the east the Wrekin rises spectacularly out of the marches plain like the cone of a sleeping volcano.

The Wrekin
In addition to this road an ancient trackway, the 5,000 year old ridgeway known as the Portway followed the ridge connecting the hillforts at Haughmond and Ebury to the north-east with the Burgs at Bayston, before continuing south-west to the Long Mynd plateau. At just over 8km long The Portway is the largest historical feature on the Long Mynd.

The Roman road here has long been described as running north-west from the Severn at Wroxeter, before heading west and south-west to Caersws in Wales, (Margary route 64), Wroxeter to Lavobrinta (Forden Gaer). Where this road crosses the Portway at Sharpstone Hill is the meeting place of three historic parishes.

Samples of the brushwood foundations and of charcoal from pits beneath the roadway were sent for radiocarbon dating which returned an unambiguous Iron Age date for construction of the road's first three phases, starting around 200 BC, with only the possibility of the uppermost metalled surface being Roman.

Evidence of dung beetles, churned mud and animal dung show that initial use of the route was as a track for livestock. Elder brushwood was laid over this mud up to a width of 4.5m, with earth quickly laid over this. The road surface consisted of two layers, gravel and small stones in a matrix of silty sand beneath, and river cobbles compacted into this above, creating an all-weather roadway of hard material about 5m wide. The surface was deliberately cambered down on either side to provide drainage, with the southern side kerbed by a gully which contained a row of holes for stakes, the line of a possible hurdle fence.

Following its initial Iron Age construction, the road was repaired in successive phases at 125BC–AD35, 110BC–AD70 and 105BC–AD105;  so that in time the road grew to over a metre high and over 7m wide, a substantial carriageway to accommodate vehicular traffic. The final phase, of late Iron Age or possibly Roman conquest date, appears to represent repair for wheel ruts rather than a full road rebuilding. River cobbles used for each of the road surfaces were not of local origin but imported some distance, probably from the River Severn over 3km away.

Where this roadway crosses the Portway at Sharpstone Hill is the meeting place of the three historic parishes. Here a large pit was found beneath the road surface, surrounded by several smaller pits. It appears the largest pit was dug to hold a post about 70cm across, probably a marker post. Charcoal samples of oak, ash, birch, alder and hazel from theses pits has returned a date range of 1740–1120BC; the trackways origins are therefore Bronze Age. Its continued use through the Iron Age challenges the assumption that any road that is relatively straight, built with an agger and with a cambered, compacted stone surface, must be Roman.

A Mesolithic road in Yorkshire
In 2014 a team of archaeologists who were working alongside the A1, the longest road in Britain, uncovered evidence of a Mesolithic settlement suggesting the route may have been in use for 10,000 years, predating previous estimates that claimed an ancient route in the same location was originally built by the Romans.

Excavations by the A1
The modern road runs alongside the Roman road known as Dere Street which extends from Eboracum (York) to at least as far as the Antonine Wall as the modern A1 and A68 roads. This was linked to London by a combination of other northern roads which together became known as Ermine Street, later known as Old North Road.

The archaeologists were carrying out excavations of a known Roman settlement near Catterick, in North Yorkshire, as part of plans to upgrade the A1 junctions from 51 to 56 to motorway status, when they discovered a number of flint tools that dated to between 6,000 - 8,000 BC. They also found a small Mesolithic structure that resembled a type of shelter where they were making the flint tools. The site, is envisaged as an overnight shelter used by people travelling north and south along the ancient by-way.

Clearly the popular belief that the Romans brought the idea of roads to Britain is a modern misconception. The Roman road system owes its inception to its native predecessor.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

* * *

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Saxon period Butter Churn lid found near Stafford

For some months now Network Rail has been digging up fields near my home in Staffordshire. The reason, we are told, is that the railway around Stafford, particularly at Norton Bridge Junction where the line divides in two towards Manchester and Liverpool, is a major bottleneck causing congestion and delay on this key rail route.

The £250 million Stafford Area Improvements Programme plan is to separate slow and fast moving trains by building a new section of track to take Stone and Manchester bound traffic over, rather than across, the West Coast Main Line. Works, which started in Spring 2014, include:

  • Over six miles of new 100mph railway
  • A new flyover, removing a key bottleneck at Norton Bridge Junction and separating intercity, commuter and freight traffic
  • 10 new bridges and one bridge enhancement
  • A major realignment of the B5026 highway
  • Road, river and footpath diversions
  • The diversion of two high pressure gas pipelines by National Grid

Another Staffordshire field obliterated at Norton Bridge
Suspicious locals swear it is the start of HS2 which will rip through the heart of Staffordshire without stopping at a single station in the county, but this is avidly denied by the project operators, the Staffordshire Alliance, a partnership of Atkins, Laing O’Rourke, Network Rail and VolkerRail. Work is due completion in 2017.

The  major excavation works have so far revealed a number of archaeological finds made in a section of waterlogged peat close to Meece Road. A number of Victorian stoneware bottles bearing the names of breweries from Bristol to Manchester have also been unearthed, probably left by the navigational engineers who built the line in the 1830s.

Evidence of prehistoric activity was uncovered at the same area which included worked wooden stakes and wood chips and a butter churn lid that was initially believed to have been from the same period. There have so far been no associated finds of pottery or metalwork to provide any clues to the date of the wooden finds.

The butter churn lid
In April Dr Tetlow, of Headland Archaeology, a specialist in prehistoric British wetland said, “We don’t have firm dates yet, but we’ve taken samples for radiocarbon dating and pollen analysis.” Dr Tetlow added, “Preliminary analysis of the wood indicates working with a metal tool and so we’re looking at a period just after the beginning of the Bronze Age around 2,500BC.

However, in this week's Staffordshire Newsletter the results of the radiocarbon testing have been released with the butter churn lid now dated to between 715-890 AD, the same period as the Staffordshire Hoard. Existing archaeological knowledge of this period for this area of the Midlands, the heart of Mercia, is scarce and Saxon period finds of organic materials such as wood are very rare indeed.

An information day will be held in June when visitors will be able to view some of the objects. Dr Tetlow is also preparing a paper on the finds for the Stafford and Mid-Staffs Archaeological Society.

Archaeological find at Norton Bridge turns out to be from Saxon period - Staffordshire Newsletter 21 May 2015

* * *

Saturday, 23 May 2015

A Stranger in the Hoard

Discovered in a field near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, in 2009, the Staffordshire Hoard  is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork yet found and sparked an explosion of interest in Anglo-Saxon art and culture. The Hoard consists of over 3,500 items, giving more than 5kg of gold, predominately of military decoration, the bulk of the hoard (60%) consists of parts of weapons; the majority stripped, somewhat crudely, from swords and helmets.

The Mystery Object: K130, K1055 and K545 joined together.
Ongoing research continues to reveal further details of the Hoard including the cross reliquary and a technique used by the Saxon goldsmiths to make their gold appear more golden than it really was. Yet on object defies identification (K130). A new gallery for the Staffordshire Hoard opened at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in October 2014 where hundreds of pieces are now on show, along with hands-on displays exploring how these intriguing items were used, before they were buried some 1400 years ago. Permanent displays can now be seen across the heart of Mercia at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery Stoke-on-Trent, Lichfield Cathedral and Tamworth Castle.

The new Staffordshire Hoard gallery at Birmingham
Some 86 sword pommels have so far been identified among the Hoard. Never before have so many sword pommels been found in one single context. The pommel is the fitting at the top of the handle, originally developed to prevent the sword slipping from the hand. These could be highly decorated for elite warriors; it would appear they were stripped from the weapons of a vanquished Anglo-Saxon army. Yet, significantly, there are no sword blades among the Staffordshire Hoard, in fact there is no Anglo-Saxon ironwork at all. The Hoard represents the most valuable pickings of battlefield looting.

Richly made with exceptional craftsmanship, 60% of the sword pommels from the Staffordshire Hoard are decorated with filigree and 25% with garnet cloisonné; a few display both techniques. Relief decoration is less common on pommels and a few pommels are undecorated being of copper alloy which have likely lost their gold sheathing.

Pommel K711
One, known as K711, is clearly different from the rest of the Hoard pommels. Possessing exceptional ornamentation, this silver gilt pommel cap has a bearded figure on the front and tusked boars on the back. The bearded man has been described as a Norse deity, possibly Odin. The boar has been identified as an emblem of Odin/Woden, the god of death and battle and listed in genealogies as the divine ancestor of Anglo-Saxon royal dynasties.

The bearded face, described as a god-head, looks out on the front face of the pommel, set between what experts describe as two animal legs. The design of a head, or mask, set between two beasts, is based on a popular motif in use from the Roman period, but in this case the beasts have been reduced to two single legs. Alternatively, a colleague suggested they could be wings and the head of a bird, two ravens which would confirm the identity of the god as Odin.

K711 back
The decoration has its closest parallels in Scandinavian art; the animal scheme and interlace compares well with that on a buckle from Sealand, Denmark, suggesting the sword arrived with an immigrant warrior. The top of the pommel is smoothed from wear indicating that the sword it decorated was very old. The pommel K711, probably dating to the late second half of the 6th century and one of the oldest objects in the collection, is clearly foreign to the rest of the Hoard.

The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard was the most spectacular Anglo-Saxon find since the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burials in 1939 from two 6th- and early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon cemeteries found near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Comparisons are inevitable, yet the gold objects found in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo weighed only 1.66 kg in total.

The majority of the gold ornaments at Sutton Hoo, sword and scabbard fittings, the buckle and belt mounts, crossed boar shoulder clasps, find parallels within the Germanic traditions which evolved in Europe, in some cases from 5th-century archetypes. The boar is a popular motif in Anglo-Saxon art, as is the male mask, seen on brooches and the Sutton Hoo sceptre. As a representation of ferocity, strength and courage, the boar is symbolic of the wearer’s qualities as a warrior.

Yet, the shoulder clasps found at Sutton Hoo have no clear typological precedents, being the most enigmatic of the gold paraphernalia preserved in Mound 1. These shoulder-clasps appear to have been detached from the garment to which they had once been fixed and purposely placed together in the middle of an empty space where the body should have been.

Shoulder clasps from Sutton Hoo
Each clasp consists of two symmetrical curved halves pinned together by meticulously engineered hinges, still in functioning order at the time of excavation in 1939. The complex design of each section, Germanic Style II interlace and crossed boars, is matched by flawless garnet cloisonné, millefiori glass and zoomorphic filigree. Although in keeping with imagery of the period, the crossed boars on the shoulder clasps remain unique. However, the Scandinavian influence at Sutton Hoo is undeniable as witnessed by the ship burials at Vendel in Sweden

Conjoined boars can also be found on the Continent in the form of small copper-alloy mounts on seax belts found in Alamannic and Frankish graves from the late 6th century to early 7th century. Furthermore a wide range of fittings are found decorated with paired boar head motifs, often associated with the heads of eagles or hounds. Individually these animals were associated with Germanic deities, but in combination they derive from classical hunting imagery and a key part of the repertoire of high-status jewellery and ornaments used by the Germanic elites in Europe, England and Scandinavia in the later 6th and first half of the 7th centuries.

Indeed, the interlace ornament on top of the Hoard pommel K711 has been described as similar to that on a sword from Schretzheim, in Bavarian Germany. The gravefield is identified as a 6th to 7th century Alamannic cemetery but the sword is believed to be of Scandinavian origin. The Hoard pommel  K711 is similarly out of place.

K711 is similar to cloisonné sword pommels of the late 6th and early 7th centuries found in Sweden which incorporated cryptic representations of boars and hounds (Hög Edsten, Bohuslän) and boar heads (Vallstenarum, Gotland). Does its presence in the Staffordshire Hoard signify a Scandinavian elite warrior in the employ of a Mercian warband; a Norse mercenary?

Helmets from Vendel (left) and Sutton Hoo 
The boar was certainly popular with warriors and kings in Sweden in the Vendel period, from about 600 – 800 AD. Helmet plates from the ship graves at Vendel show warriors with immense boar crests on their helmets and a man wearing what appears to be a boar mask complete with protruding tusks, bearing a close comparison to the helmet from Sutton Hoo which features boars on the eyebrows. The early kings of Uppsala are said to have possessed great boar helmets as treasures with names such as Hildisvin (Battle-Swine). The Gundestrup cauldron attests that boars were worn by warriors on the crest of their helmets.
Gundestrup cauldron

As we have seen the boar was admired by warriors as a symbol of ferocity and courage, but it seems the motif may also have been adopted for its talismanic properties.

The boar was the animal symbol of  two of the most important deities of Norse religion, Freyr and Freyja. The shining boar Gullin-bursti (“Golden-Bristled”) was the golden boar of the Vanir and one of the treasures of the gods. Gulin-bursti is described in Norse poetry as being forged in precious metal by dwarves and adorned with bristles of shining gold. He could run by day or night, no matter how dark the night because there was ample light from his shining bristles. This ability would enable the boar to carry the goddess Freyja to the underworld, the realm of blackness, when she wanted to gain special knowledge from the ancestors.

The helmet from the 7th century grave at Benty Grange in Derbyshire has a complete boar crest, about 9cm long, garnet set eyes and gold spots for bristles. Throughout Northern Europe it is the bristles of the boar, rather than the tusks, that is emphasised.

In the poem Beowulf the boar is said to protect warriors who wear it on their helmets and to to keep guard over their lives; Beowulf himself is said to have worn a boar helmet which no sword could pierce.

The decoration of god head and boars on sword pommel K711 would appear to have carried sacred significance for the warrior who owned it. The amount of wear apparent on the decoration of the pommel suggests it provided spiritual protection in many battles before its capture.

Edited 24/05/15

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Noël Adams, Rethinking the Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasps and Armour, in Intelligible Beauty
recent research on Byzantine Jewellery, edited by Chris Entwistle and Noël Adams, British Museum Research Publication 178, 2010.
Martin Carver, editor, The Age of Sutton Hoo, The Boydell Press, 1992.
HR Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Syracuse University Press, 1988.
Chris Fern and George Speake, Beasts, Birds and Gods: Interpreting the Staffordshire Hoard, West Midlands History, 2014.
Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard, British Museum Press, 2 edition, 2014.
Gareth Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo, British Museum Press, 2011.

* * *

Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Legend of Saint Brendan the Voyager

Saints on the Ocean
Today 16th May is the feast day of Saint Brendan of Clonfert (died c.577AD), one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland who founded the monastic school. Little secure information survives concerning Brendan's life, however, it seems fairly certain he was born in 484 near Tralee, in County Kerry, in the south-west of Ireland and he died at Clonfert around 577. He was educated under Saint Ita, "the Brigid of Munster" and went on to establish many monasteries, notably Ardfert in County Kerry, Annaghdown and Clonfert in County Galway. According to the Lives of later saints, Brendan voyaged to Britain, the Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Faroes.  Yet most of his evangelizing work is eclipsed by his journey into the Atlantic in his later years, which earned him the designation of Brendan the Voyager, or the Navigator, for his legendary quest to the "Isle of the Blessed”.

The 9th century text “The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator” tells how the Saint set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with pilgrims searching for the Promised Land of the Saints. Some have even suggested that St Brendan sailed right across the Atlantic and discovered America. Is it possible that a 6th century saint could have crossed the Atlantic in a curragh or is it all romantic nonsense?

The first mention of St Brendan occurs in Adamnan's Vita Sancti Columbae, written between 679 and 704, who also records the voyages of Cormac and other sea pilgrimages in the 7th century. Two key texts that record the legend of St Brendan are the 'Life of Brendan' (Vita Brendani) and the better known 'Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot' (Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis). Debate continues as to which tale came first, yet it seems likely the author of the Navigatio borrowed from the Vita. However, the two tales are clearly interrelated, whereas the Vita focusses on Brendan's life the Navigatio tells more of the voyage. Both texts tell of Brendan and his monks setting off from the west coast of Ireland in search of the Promised Land, in which they visit a number of islands and experience monsters and testing adventures before returning home. The Vita differs in that there are two voyages, the first unsuccessful, and there are fewer island episodes.

A visit from a fellow monk named Barinthus (Barrind) who has just returned from a voyage to the Land of Promise inspires Brendan's voyage. For seven years they journey across the ocean encountering the Devil and many enchanted islands, one of which turns out to be a whale which turns up regularly at Easter to allow the brethren to celebrate mass on its back. On the voyage they glimpse the horrors of Hell, Brendan heals the sick and calms a storm. Yet in all this time they survive without injury or loss and without provisions onboard. Eventually they come to an island with a beautiful church but cannot land. Finally, they head for home.

Faction or Fiction?
Several facts support the story of Irish saints voyaging into the Atlantic; the remains of ancient Christian chapels bearing the names of Irish saints, can be found all over the remote islands in the Atlantic to the north-west of Scotland and Ireland. Secondly; there is documentary evidence that there were already Irish people in Iceland when the Vikings first arrived there in the late 9th century.

Saint Brendan's Island is a phantom, or mythical, island said to have been discovered by the Saint and his followers where they held mass while they were travelling across the ocean. Receiving its first mention in the Navigatio Sancti, Saint Brendan's Island is supposedly situated in the North Atlantic somewhere west of Northern Africa and appeared on numerous maps during the Age of Discovery, most notably Martin Behaim's globe of 1492 used by Christopher Columbus on his journey to the Americas nearly a thousand years after St Brendan's voyage.

Allusions to sea voyages in the search for the Land of Promise with reference to Saints Brendan, Ailbe, Ibar, and Patrick, among others, is made in the Litany of Irish Pilgrim Saints, probably 8th century. Written in Irish or Latin, immram type tales form part of many saints' Lives; the Voyage of Saint Brendan could be called an immram.

Seaborne Pilgrims of Christ
Early Irish literature classifies these expeditions into otherworldly realms as echtrae and immrama. In the echtrae, literally an “outing”, the emphasis is placed on the heroes' entry into the supernatural world, where he experiences a timeless abode of perpetual good health and an abundance of food and drink; the realm of the echtrae is a pagan one. Whereas, the immram, literally “rowing about”, takes place across the sea with heroes wandering from island to island in an essentially Christian setting. The distinct apocalyptic tone, use of psalm verses and apocryphal Christian motifs forces the conclusion of an ecclesiastical origin for the immrama.

The development of voyage literature is tied to the journeys of early medieval Irish clerics, who from at least the 6th century voluntarily left their homeland to go on peregrinatio pro Christo (adventuring or travelling for Christ). Here pilgrims of Christ would go wandering in their curraghs seeking the solitude of terra deserta out in the ocean putting themselves totally in God's hands in a seaborne wilderness. By the 7th century the wandering Irish monks, the peregrini, had reached the Orkneys and the Shetlands, by the 8th century there is evidence for their presence in Iceland.

The Irish monk known as Dicuil described how, in the early 9th-century (c.825), a group of Irish priests spent most of the year on a northern island, thought to be Iceland, and had been able to pick lice from their clothes at night by the light of the “midnight sun”.  Dicuil explained that in summer, “it does not grow dark even for the shortest space of time”. A medieval Norse work, the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders), tells us that the Norse settlers encountered Irish monks when they first arrived in Iceland in 874; “.... before Iceland was peopled from Norway there were in it the men whom the Norse call the Papae: they were Christians… they left behind Irish books, bells, and crosiers…” Several Icelandic place-names have been linked to the "Papar" (from Latin papa, via Old Irish, meaning "father"), including the island of Papey, as well as the Vestmannaeyjar ("islands of the Westmen").

As with Iceland there is also suggestive evidence for settlers, possibly Irish monks, in the Faroe Islands before Viking colonisation in the 9th century. In 2013 Archaeologists from Durham University studied a site on the island of Sandoy, situated between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea, and found deposits containing patches of burnt peat ash. These ash spreads contained barley grains that were burnt in domestic hearths and were then spread by human activity onto the windblown sand surface between the 4th and 6th centuries and again between the 6th and 8th centuries, a common practice identified in the North Atlantic during this period to control wind erosion. The discovery signifies that the settlers were established on the islands and must have grown and processed barley and used peat to cook, dating human settlement to pre-Viking times. As in Iceland, there are several “papar” place-names in the Faroe Islands including Vestmanna (from Vestmannahøvn) meaning the "harbour of the Westmen" (Irish) and tombstones in a churchyard in Skúvoy are said to bear possible Gaelic influence.  Ample “papar” place-names can also be found in the Orkneys (Papa Stronsay) and Shetlands (Papa Stour) and two ‘papar’ locations in the Outer Hebrides to reach the same conclusion.1

So we have evidence for pre-Viking visits to the islands of the north-west Atlantic. But could St Brendan have really reached the Americas in a simple leather covered boat?

The Voyage of the Brendan
In 1976 the modern day explorer Tim Severin built a replica of the vessel that Brendan would have used, a leather covered curragh, and sailed from Ireland across the Atlantic, island hoping via the Hebrides, Faroe Islands and Iceland, to arrive in Newfoundland a year later. Severin encountered various sights such as icebergs and sea animals, like whales and porpoises, which he suggests are factual counterparts to the fantastic sights from the legends of Saint Brendan. Severin's adventure was recorded in the “The Voyage of the Brendan” which although not proving St Brendan's voyage as fact, certainly demonstrated that it was in fact possible.2

St Barri
The  Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis was a medieval bestseller, over a hundred manuscripts have survived influencing later works. Barinthus turns up again in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, c.1150, in which he describes an island Elysium as the place they took the mortally wounded Arthur after the battle of Camlan. The island is the abode of nine maidens, Morgen and her sisters, the goddess with great skill in healing. Barinthus is the pilot of Arthur's death barge who guides Myrddin and Taliesin on their voyage to 'The Fortunate Isle' because of his knowledge of the seas and the stars of heaven:

"The Island of Apples gets its name 'The Fortunate Island' from the fact that it produces all manner of plants spontaneously. It needs no farmers to plough the fields. There is no cultivation of the land at all beyond that which is Nature's work. It produces crops in abundance and grapes without help; and apple trees spring up from the short grass in its woods. All plants, not merely grass alone, grows spontaneously; and men live a hundred years or more.” 

Here Geoffrey clearly mixes elements of Celtic (Arthurian) and Classical mythology. Geoffrey's description of the Fortunate Isles comes largely from the Classical tradition, much of it to be found in Isidore, but is also clearly influenced by Celtic legends of the happy Otherworld. There is a significant passage in Pomponius Mela which reflects ancient Celtic tradition.3

It is often assumed that Geoffrey must have obtained his Barinthus from the Voyage of Saint Brendan, with his role that of the ferryman, a Celtic Charon. However, it has been argued that Geoffrey based his Barinthus on an earlier tradition in which he was god of the sea and the Otherworld.4

The Life of St David reveals a pre-Geoffrey Celtic tradition of St Barri which cannot be a mere adaptation form the Latin legend of Brendan. The tale reveals how one day St Barri borrowed a horse from St David and rode it across the sea from Wales to Ireland, suggesting that Barri must have been riding a sort of fish or sea-horse.

We find similar accounts in Irish mythology in which Manannán mac Lír is featured riding on a sea-horse across the ocean between Ireland and Wales, although what appears to be the sea to mere men is to Manannán the flowering plain of Mag Mell.5 Surely the tale reveals that Barri was in all probability originally a Celtic sea god, like Manannán, who became Christianised as a Saint. This is a common trait of the early Saints' Lives and other Celtic literature. Barinthus may therefore be an epithet, such as the Irish Barrfind, or Finbarr, which means literally 'white-topped'.6 Throughout Celtic mythological tales the denotation of 'white' implies Otherworldly connotations, usually applied to a deity.

Indeed, a more appropriate name for a god of the sea would be hard to find. It seems highly probable that Barinthus, or Barri, was in origin a sea-deity and consequently an early Celtic god of the Land beyond the Waves. The Barinthus episode fails to form an integral part of the Voyage of Saint Brendan; as is common in typical Celtic Otherworld voyage tales, he appears briefly at the beginning as an Otherworld messenger who suggests to the Hero the idea of the voyage.7

The Voyage of Bran
Essentially the immrama are not strictly concerned with the Otherworld; although they contain supernatural elements, they are firmly set in the Christianised world with a Christian hero. The early 8th century tale The Voyage of Bran (Immram Brain), although named as such, is not an immram but belongs to the group of older tales recounting an excursion to the Otherworld, collectively known as 'echtrae' in Old Irish. The story of Bran's voyage probably became confused and influenced by that of Brendan the Navigator (Navigatio Brendani), and the term immram became attached, incorrectly, to Bran's story.8

Bran's voyage starts when he sees a silver branch in front of him. Then an Otherworldly woman appears and sings a poem to him about the Otherworld where this silver branch had grown. In this land, it is perennial summer, there is no shortage of food or water, and no sickness ever strikes the fair people. The next day Bran departs for the voyage to the Land of Women across the sea at the woman's prompting. After two days, he sees a man on a chariot speeding across the water towards him. This is no man but the sea god Manannan mac Lir who tells Bran that he is not sailing upon the ocean, but upon a flowery plain, just as Barri appeared to St David. Significantly Bran is also a Celtic sea-god.

In the echtrae, tales of voyages to the Land of Promise, the adventure starts following the appearance of a deity, usually a goddess. The appearance of Barrind (as Barinthus) at the beginning of the Navigatio Brendani signifies that St Brendan's adventure is essentially a Christianised version of Immram Brain and therefore unlikely to have been a real event.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

1. Barbara E. Crawford, The Papar Project.
2. Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage: The Seafaring Classic That Followed St. Brendan to America, Gill & Macmillan, 2005.
3. John Jay Parry, trans. The Vita Merlini, Latin text by Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1925. Available at Sacred Texts.
4. Arthur C L Brown, Barintus, Revue Celtique, XXII, 1901.
5. Francesco Benozzo, Landscape Perception Early Celtic Literature, Celtic Studies Publications, 2004, pp.3-18.
6. Brown, op cit.
7. Ibid.
9. Barbara Freitag, Hy Brasil: The Metamorphosis of an Island: From Cartographic Error to Celtic Elysium, Rodopi, 2013. Kuno Myer mis-named the Voyage of Bran as an immram without any manuscript authority, although the tale contains the essential elements of an immram it is without doubt an echtrae.

* * *

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Fourth Crusade, The Shroud and the Grail

"Thus it was that Constantine's fair city, the common delight and boast of all nations, was laid waste by fire and blackened by soot, taken and emptied of all wealth, public and private, as well as that which was consecrated to God ..." - Nicetas Choniates, 13th century Historia.

In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade with the objective of restoring Christian access to the holy places in and around Jerusalem. During the following 200-year struggle for control of the Holy Land perhaps the most perplexing event is the notorious Fourth Crusade in the early 13th Century. The leaders of the Christian army from Western Europe had planned an assault on Egypt, but with their Venetian allies, attacked and laid waste the Byzantine city of Constantinople, the single most bloody and destructive episode of the Crusades against fellow Christians.

The mystery of this self-inflicted slaughter of fellow Christians is made even more confusing by the knowledge that the Pope has expressly forbidden the Crusaders' attack on the Greek Metropolis. What prompted the Latin army to change the target of their crusade and defy the Pope?

The Call to Arms
The Third Crusade (1189–1192) had effectively come to an end with the two great military leaders, Richard I, The Lionheart, of England and Saladin, fighting each other to a standstill. The Lionheart had reclaimed much territory for the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, including the key coastal cities of Acre and Jaffa, and territories of the Crusader kingdom conceded in the aftermath of the Battle of Hattin were restored, yet he had failed to recover the ancient city of Jerusalem. An uneasy truce was negotiated with unarmed Christians pilgrims permitted access to visit the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy city. Essentially the Third Crusade had failed in its prime objective to retake Jerusalem and recover the True Cross, last seen tied upside down to a lance and heading for Damascus following the massacre of the Crusader army at the Horns of Hattin in July 1187. There had been a tradition that the True Cross was carried into battle as a talisman; it was used at the battle of Ramleh in 1103 and in almost every major engagement in the decades thereafter.

By October 1192 The Lionheart had departed the Holy Land for France, vowing to one day return; six months later Saladin had fallen ill with fever and never recovered, dying in March 1993. It seemed the Holy Land was to enter a new era. However, the Lionheart's reluctance to pursue the recapture of Jerusalem would lead to the call for the Fourth Crusade six years later. Pope Innocent III had probably hoped that The Lionheart would make good on his vow to return to the Holy Land and join the Fourth Crusade but in March 1199 he was killed after being hit in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt during a siege at Châlus.

The call for a Fourth Crusade did not initially receive an enthusiastic response. However, by February 1200 Thibaut (Theobald) Count of Champagne and Count Baldwin of Flanders, along with his wife, Marie of Champagne, had taken the cross. At a meeting in Soissons in March the French nobles planned the crusade with a preference to travel by sea to the Holy Land and launch an invasion via Egypt. With the death of Thibaut in May 1201 the north Italian nobleman Boniface of Montferrat was appointed leader of the crusade. Boniface was of good crusading stock, as it were; his father William V of Montferrat took part in the Second Crusade and fought at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. He was a younger brother of William "Longsword", Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, and of Conrad I of Jerusalem, with his nephew Baldwin V crowned co-ruler of Jerusalem in 1183.

After some negotiations, The Treaty of Venice, (1201) was finally agreed in which the Venetians, led by the elderly 'Doge' Enrico Dandolo, providing a fleet and provisions for 33,500 men and 4,500 horses for one year for 85,000 silver marks. In addition, the Venetians agreed to join the crusade themselves providing fifty well-armed war galleys. All booty would be split evenly between the Venetians and the crusaders. The fleet would be ready to sail by June 1202.

The Venetians suspended all overseas trade and put enormous resources into the project to construct one of the largest fleets assembled in the period, purchasing thousands of tons of provisions, and building and fitting out war vessels at an amazing rate. Venice met its obligations to the letter; unfortunately, the crusaders did not. By the summer only around 13,000 men arrived in Venice, a much reduced number, with far fewer Franks than predicted, possibly influenced by the loss  of Thibaut of Champagne and some of the Flemish contingent finding their own way to the Holy Land, sailing direct from Marseilles. This lower numbers of crusaders led to a massive financial shortfall with the Crusade in debt to the Venetians by some 34,000 marks.

In a compromise the crusaders agreed to assist the Venetians in restoring the port of Zara on the Dalmatian coast, their political and economic rival, to their control. The fleet finally sailed in October 1202. When Pope Innocent III learnt of the Crusade's plan to attack Zara rather than relieve Jerusalem, he warned Boniface and his Venetian allies that they would face excommunication if they went ahead with the assault. The Crusade attacked Zara regardless which by November was under the control of the Venetian-Crusade alliance.

The Pope, having forbidden the attack, published an official decree excommunicating the entire crusade as he had threatened. The crusaders requested absolution, but the Venetians did not. With most of their provisions now consumed and little left of the year’s lease on the vessels, the crusade was in desperate straits. With the plunder from Zara being insufficient to pay off the Venetians, an opportunity for a “just cause” presented a solution for the crusaders.

In 1201 the young Alexius Angelus travelled to the west claiming he was the legitimate heir to Byzantium and requested the Crusade stopped off in Constantinople and overthrow the usurper and restore his father to the throne. Alexius’s father, Isaac II, had been deposed and blinded by his own brother, who was then crowned Alexius III in 1195. In return for the crusader's assistance Alexius offered 200,000 silver marks, to provide the crusade with 10,000 men for one year and establish a permanent garrison of 500 knights in the Holy Land. Prior to this he had visited the Pope promising to re-unite the Greek and Latin churches separated since the great schism of 1054. Innocent III declined to get get involved with internal dynastic struggles; his interest was the  re-conquest of Jerusalem.

However, the Venetians had their own agenda and were eager to direct the crusader's attention toward Constantinople; the Greeks had stifled their ambitions to dominate Mediterranean trade for decades. In June 1203 news reached Innocent III that the crusade was to divert to Constantinople. He wrote to the Crusade leaders explicitly forbidding any attack on the Christian city. The Pope's letter, when it did arrive, forced the crusaders to choose between obedience to the pope and fulfilling their obligations to the Venetians. However the letter arrived too late and for a second time the crusade disobeyed the Pope. The crusaders seemed to have lost sight of their original objective to recapture Jerusalem and set sail for Constantinople.

A crusader siege
Devastatio Constantinopolita
The Fourth Crusade arrived at the walls of Constantinople in June 1203. In July they attacked the northern walls of the city with the Venetians starting many fires in that area. Alexius III fled during the night, Isaac II was released from his prison and restored to the throne. His son, Alexius, was crowned co-emperor Alexius IV (1203-4) but was unable to pay the crusade what had been promised. Relations between the Latins and Byzantines quickly soured.

Tired of waiting, the crusaders demanded payment in November. Hostilities erupted as the crusaders began to collect their own payment and starting looting the city. Isaac II died and Alexius IV was unable to stop the crusader attacks. A palace official, Mourtzouphlus (heavy-brow), arranged a coup in February 1204 and had Alexius IV strangled to death. Mourtzouphlus was crowned Alexius V. This appalled the crusaders who saw Mourtzouphlus as a tyrannical usurper who must be removed from office. The crusader's clergy made a ruling that the murder of Alexius IV and the Byzantine failure to accept the primacy of Rome made Constantinople a legitimate target of the Crusade and the Latins prepared for a full scale assault on the city.

However, in defiance of Innocent III, who had forbidden any attack on Christians and especially on Constantinople, the assault began on 8th April 1204, when the Crusade attacked the northern harbour walls. Four days later On 12th April 1204, the crusaders made a second attack at the same location. Because of the efforts of a small group of knights, and an armed priest named Alleumes de Clari, the crusaders gained entry into the city. Thousands of western knights streamed in to the Byzantine capital setting it ablaze devastating one-sixth of the city, and regardless of their crusading vows, subjected it's Christian citizens to a gruesome three-day ordeal of violence, rape and plunder in which the city was stripped of its treasures; enormous amounts of gold, silver, precious gems, and holy relics were taken to be transported back to Europe. Perhaps the best known is the gilt bronze horses from the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which were placed above the entrance to the cathedral of Venice, St Mark's Basilica. One of the crusaders recorded the scene:

“When the city was captured [...] and the palaces were taken over, [...] they found in them
riches more than a great deal. [...] And the palace of Bukoleon was very rich [...] and in it
there were fully thirty chapels, great and small, and there was one of them which was called
the Holy Chapel, which was so rich and noble that there was not a hinge nor a band nor
any other part [...] that was not all of silver, and there was no column that was not of jasper
or porphyry or some other rich precious stone. [And] within this chapel were found many
rich relics: [...] two pieces of the True Cross as large as the leg of a man [...], and the iron
of the lance with which Our Lord had his side pierced, and two of the nails which were
driven through his hands and feet; and one found there in a crystal phial quite a little of
his blood and [...] the tunic which he wore [...] when they led him to Mount Calvary. And
one found there also the blessed crown with which he was crowned [...] and the robe of
Our Lady and so many other rich relics that I could not recount them to you [...].” - Robert de Clari on the Latin conquest of Constantinople, 1204.

The Fourth Crusade never did sail for the Holy Land. The crusaders remained in Constantinople building a new Latin Empire with Baldwin of Flanders elected its first Emperor on 16 May 1204 in the Hagia Sophia, the great church built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Following the ceremony, Constantinople and the Empire were then divided up, with one-quarter (two-eighths) going directly to the Emperor, three-eighths to the Franks, and three-eighths to the Venetians, who also bought the island of Crete from Boniface. The crusaders then set out in all directions to seize Greek lands.

In November 1204 Baldwin wrote to Innocent III advising of the capture of the Byzantine capital, evidently omitting much of the gruesome detail. The Pope is said to have initially reacted with jubilation, even though the crusade had disobeyed him, with the prospect of the unification of the Eastern and Western churches. Only later when he had heard of the three days of carnage did Innocent III react with disgust and condemn the crusade.

However, the Pope recognised the authority of the new Latin Empire in order to end the schism and unite the churches of east and west. He ordered the new Emperor to ensure the Latin rite took root throughout the newly acquired territories and installed three of his most trusted Orders in the area: the Templars; the Hospitallers; and the Cistercians. The two military orders took possession of various Byzantine territories at the disdain of the Emperor and his vassals who did not consider the Templars or the Hospitallers had any rights to the land as they did not participate in the overthrow of Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade is typically characterized as some great fiasco; although it quickly fell out of Papal control one is forced to question how this Crusade ended up so far from its intended destination – was there always a hidden agenda?

A Theory of Accidents?
The slaughter of the Christians of Constantinople has been described as the result of a festering distrust due to declining Crusader-Byzantine relations during the 12th century. The Second Crusade had considered attacking the Greek capital and Richard the Lionheart had taken Cyprus, a Byzantine protectorate, during the Third Crusade, before selling it on to the Templars. Was the failure of the Fourth Crusade manipulated by the Venetians as an anti-Greek conspiracy?

From the many views that have emerged, the finger of suspicion often points firmly toward the Venetians to whom the crusaders owed a large sum of money, and may have been involved in a secret conspiracy to divert the crusade to Constantinople since it was to their economic advantage; the Venetians now had control of the trade routes from the Adriatic to the Black Sea.

The Doge, Enrico Dandolo, is typically cast as the villain of the piece, the man who sparked the flames of  the sack of Constantinople in 1204; he was certainly the architect of the diversion of the Fourth Crusade to Zara in 1203. A man said to be driven by greed and hatred which stemmed from the seizure of Venetian residents at Constantinople and their goods in 1171. Although Venetian merchants had been allowed back in to Constantinople, they had never been fully compensated for their losses. The Massacre of the Latins at Constantinople in 1182 in which the bulk of the Latin community, estimated at over 60,000 at the time, was either wiped out or forced to flee, was an event which Venice had never forgotten or forgiven. The Venetians certainly had the motive and the powerful army of the Fourth Crusade presented the opportunity.

The Massacre of the Latins
However, modern scholars tend to accept Queller's theory that the Fourth Crusade was directed largely by incident and circumstance rather than planned decision. The Fourth crusade has been described as “a thousand or more decisions, often at cross-purposes” made by the leadership of the crusade on the spur of the moment and on the basis of little useful information. As the historian Riley-Smith writes, “The capture of Constantinople seems to have been the result of a series of accidents . . . There is no need even to explain the crusade in terms of the long history of bad relations between crusaders and Greeks; it was a response to a request from a Byzantine prince, made when the crusaders were heavily in debt because of an error of judgement on the part of the six delegates who had negotiated on their behalf with Venice.

This may be true in so much as the sack of Constantinople achieved two goals for the Latins; it installed the rightful heir to the throne of Byzantium; and, secondly, it freed the Fourth Crusade from their debt to the Venetians. Yet the leaders of the Fourth Crusade may have had their own, secret agenda from the very beginning.

The Grail Quest and Relics of the Passion
The city of Constantinople was a wealthy place and within its walls were the riches of an empire.
Immense booty was gained from Constantinople described as “every choicest thing found upon the earth” most of which was sent back to the crusader's homelands. Geoffrey of Villehardouin, the marshal of Champagne, claimed that never had so much booty been won in any city. Material riches were not the only loot; the Greek Metropolis housed many relics of the crucifixion – the recovery of relics of Christ's Passion had been amongst the objectives of previous crusades. So rich was the assemblage of relics at Constantinople it was considered the second Jerusalem.

In the Middle Ages relics were immensely powerful objects, considered to retain the spiritual power of martyrs and saints, in particular early Christian martyrs were the most revered.  Although, from a medieval perspective, relic theft was not necessarily wrong, since it was generally believed that relics could only be stolen if the holy figure wished them to be and would subsequently show approval by performing miraculous deeds at their new home. Many of Europe's most famous relics were looted from Constantinople in 1204: the supposed head of John the Baptist; pieces of the True Cross; hair of the Virgin; and innumerable body parts of various saints all went westward. The list seems endless.

The Imperial Palace of Boucoleon in Constantinople was to the south of the city. Inside this
Imperial complex was the Pharos Chapel. At that time, the chapel kept the most famous collection of relics of Christ, including the cross, the nails, the lance, the sponge, the cane, the crown of thorns, the sandals, the tunic, the stone from the tomb, the sudarium (face cloth) and burial cloths from the tomb. In his eyewitness account of the Fourth Crusade, Robert de Clari, who's brother Alleumes was one of the first through the city walls in the sack of 1204, notes the presence of many of the aforementioned relics, including the Virgin’s veil and John the Baptist’s head.

It would appear the relics of the Passion that were kept in the Pharos Chapel were very quickly taken under Latin control and protected from looting. But later a group of 22 relics of the Pharos collection were sold by the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, to his relative King Louis IX of France between 1239 and 1242 who built the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to house them. This was normal practice; the majority of crusaders who obtained relics during the Crusades sent them back to their local churches.

The city had been a repository for holy relics at least since it became capital of the Roman Empire in 324 AD under Constantine I. Needless to say, relics of Christ's Passion would be the most valued. Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, is said to have travelled to the Holy Land c.326-28 in search of relics of the Passion. She is attributed as having discovered the True Cross and other Passion relics that were brought back to Constantinople.

The Image of Edessa, recorded since at least the 6th century, a square or rectangle of cloth upon which a miraculous image of the face of Jesus was imprinted, the first icon or image of Christ, known as the Mandylion, was brought to Constantinople in 944. The Mandylion has been identified as the burial linen known today as the Shroud of Turin, a 14 foot length of linen cloth bearing the image of a man who appears to have suffered the physical trauma consistent with crucifixion, (folded in four so that only the face was visible), however this identification is disputed by other Sindologists. Whether we accept the Mandylion is the Shroud of Turin or not, it seems certain there was a burial cloth at Constantinople bearing a full figure image as Robert de Clari attests.

The First Crusade had recovered the Lance of Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Christ's side while he hung on the cross, discovered in 1099 during the Siege of Antioch. The Lance of Longinus became identified with the Bleeding Lance of the Grail procession by authors of the Continuations to Chretien de Troyes Story of the Grail in the early 12th century.

Regardless of claims of pagan origins, the Grail Romances were clearly focused on Relics of Christ's Passion as items of the Grail procession; the Holy Lance that drips blood; the chalice of the last supper. Further, the key Grail texts were written under the patronage of powerful Crusader lords. As such, the Grail appears linked to the Holy Land and Jerusalem and certainly to the Relics of the Holy Passion.

The patron of the first story of the Grail was Philip of Alsace, count of Flanders from 1168 to 1191, cousin to King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the leper king, and participated in a crusade in 1177 and departed again for the Holy Land with a Flemish contingent in 1190 where he died a year later from an epidemic at the Siege of Acre. In the prologue to Perceval, or Conte du Graal, Chrètien de Troyes pays homage to his patron for providing the source for the best tale ever told in a royal court. Although he never fully developed the objects of  his 'graal procession', general opinion agrees that if Chretien had finished his Story of the Grail then he would have described them as relics of the Passion; he hints at this by saying 'un graal' (a grail) contained a single mass wafer that sustained the Fisher King.

Philip's father was Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders from 1128 to 1168, who participated in four pilgrimages to the Holy Land, including the Second Crusade in 1147 AD. According to tradition, Thierry returned to his capital Bruges on 7th April, 1150 AD, 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.

Following Chretien, Robert de Boron Christianised the Grail even further; Chretien's simple serving dish, un graal, had now developed into The Holy Grail, a Christian relic of the Passion brought back from the Holy Land as used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of Christ at the deposition. At the end of his 'Joseph d'Arimathe' de Boron states he is in the service of Gautier of "Mont Belyal", identified as Gautier de Montbéliard who departed on the Fourth Crusade in 1202 and died in the Holy Land. Robert is said to have been originally from the village of Boron in the district of Montbéliard.

Originally written in Old French, in the first decade of the 13th century, the Perlesvaus, or the High History of the Holy Grail, is a continuation of Chrétien De Troyes' unfinished Story of the Grail, in a rather more mystical tone drawing on archaic Celtic legends. The author of Perlesvaus remains anonymous but has been suggested as a Glastonbury monk or a Templar knight. The prologue outlines the guardianship of the Grail through Joseph of Arimathea's family down to Arthur's times in much the same vein as Robert de Boron's story. Perlesvaus also boasts crusader patronage. Jean de Nesle, like Gautier de Montbeliard, Robert de Boron's patron, was one of the small group of Flemish crusaders who sailed directly from Marseilles during the Fourth Crusade.

The fourth major grail text is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the first treatment of the Holy Grail theme in German, which is associated with Hermann I, the Landgrave of Thuringia, a Crusader veteran, who accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor on crusade in 1197. Wolfram’s poem features a band of Grail guardians whom he calls 'templeisen', generally considered to be a reference to the military order of Knights Templar.

The Blachernae Shroud
The other church in Constantinople concerned with housing relics of the Hoy Passion was at the other side of the town, to the north, the church of Saint Mary of Blachernae, where Robert de Clari saw a burial linen with the figure of Christ raised up every Friday. Notably, his brother Alleumes was first to breach the wall in the northern quarter by the church of the Virgin which was said to have housed the burial linen. Other funeral linens were kept in the imperial chapel of Pharos as noted above, yet the shroud with the whole figure of Christ was very much related to the church of Saint Mary of Blachernae.

There are very few previous references to this cloth and its arrival in Constantinople. However, as we have seen above, it has been identified with the Mandylion brought to Constantinople in the 10th century. There is also a reference by Antoine de Novgorod who, in the year 1200, wrote about the image of the face in the Boucoleon Palace and of the Image of the Saviour in Blachernae. Robert de Clari uses the word 'sydoine' (Syndone, or Sindon) to describe the Blachernae cloth and clearly distinguishes it from other burial clothes without an image. The description of the image of the whole body suggests the cloth of Blachernae was what we know today as the Shroud of Turin, the very cloth that Joseph of Arimathea used to cover Christ’s body after the crucifixion.

The publicity surrounding the weekly exhibition every Friday made it a perfect target for looting during the sacking of the city in 1204. As Alleumes de Clari was first through the city walls in the northern sector near to the church of Saint Mary of Blachernae, where the Shroud was housed, it seems a small group of crusaders had deliberately targeted Christ's burial Shroud when they entered Constantinople in 1204. Robert de Clari testifies to its disappearance; “No one, either Greek or French, ever knew what became of this Shroud when the city was taken.”

In 1205, a year after the Crusader sacking of Constantinople, Theodore Angelus Comnenus, nephew of Isaac II, wrote to Pope Innocent III protesting of the looting; “The Venetians partitioned the treasures of gold, silver and ivory while the French did the same with the relics and the most sacred of all, the linen in which our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after his death and before his resurrection...the sacred linen [is] in Athens.

This linen was in the territory of Otho de la Roche who became Duke of Athens, in the Greek Latin Empire, in repayment for his actions during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. La Roche was a Burgundian knight and counsellor to Boniface of Montferrat, the leader of the Fourth Crusade. If this is assumed to be the same burial linen that de Clari saw bearing the full figure image, the Blachernae Shroud, then there is no further reference to the Shroud in the East after this letter.

The Shroud then disappears for some one hundred and fifty years before reappearing in the 14th century. There are numerous theories as to the whereabouts of the Shroud during those missing years. One such is the family tradition that claims the Shroud, after disappearing from Constantinople, was kept in Ray-sur-Saône castle by the de la Roche family.

The Shroud reappeared at Lirey in the 14th century when it was shown by Geoffroi I de Charny, considered the first owner of the Shroud, in the 1350's, following his marriage to Jeanne de Vergy, a descendant of Otho de la Roche, where the Holy relic was kept in a collegiate church in the Diocese of Troyes not far from Ray-sur-Saône castle. The Bishop of Troyes was not impressed and declared the relic nothing more than a painting, and opposed its exposition.

There are those who argue there is no evidence for the Shroud's existence before 1356, which very conveniently corresponds with the medieval date obtained through carbon dating carried out in the 1980's. And, equally, there are those that claim the Shroud was the same burial linen that Robert de Clari saw bearing a full figure image that was raised up every Friday at Constantinople,  the Blachernae Shroud, which was used to wrap Christ's body after the crucifixion. de Clari adds that after the sack of the city no one knew what happened to it. The missing years of the Shroud, from 1204 to the 1350's, have been the subject of much debate amongst Sindologists. Some claim that it was held by the Templars and the image of the face, or head, on the cloth was the secret idol they worshipped.

As a relic of the Passion, the Shroud must surely rank as the most sacred relic of all, and the Templars were said to be guardians of the Holy Grail. However, there is no public record of the Templars involvement in the Fourth Crusade, yet Innocent III placed them in the newly acquired Byzantine lands shortly after the sack of Constantinople. That the Shroud should end up in their hands is perhaps not so surprising.

It seems a rather fitting conclusion that the most sacred Holy relic of them all was first shown at Lirey, in the Diocese of Troyes, near to where the first Grail romance was written some two centuries earlier. We have seen that the patrons of the four key Grail texts were crusader lords, though not necessarily Templars; however, these writers certainly knew of the Templars achievements in the Holy Land. Thus, the Grail Quest ends as it begins; in Troyes.

Did the nobles of north-eastern France, the leaders of the Fourth Crusade, have one objective in mind from the very beginning; a series of accidents or a quest for relics?

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Notes & References
Michael Angold, The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context, Routledge, 2003.
Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades, Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Malcolm Barber, The Impact Of The Fourth Crusade In The West: The Distribution Of Relics After 1204, in AE Laiou, ed. Urbs capta: the Fourth Crusade and its consequences, Realités Byzantines (10). Lethielleux, Paris, France, 2005, pp. 325-334.
Richard W. Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Harvard University Press, 2004.
Noel Currer-Briggs, The Shroud and the Grail, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.
Barbara Frale, The Templars, Maverick House, 2009.
Barbara Frale, The Templars and The Shroud of Christ, Maverick House, 2011
Charles Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe, Yale University Press, 2012.
Patrick J. Geary, Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, 2011.
Michael Haag, The Templars: History and Myth, Profile Books, 2011.
Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, The Second Messiah: Templars, the Turin Shroud and the Great Secret of Freemasonry, Century, 1997.
Dhira Mahoney, ed. The Grail: A Casebook, Garland, 2000.
William A. Nitze, On The Chronology of the Grail Romances. I The Date of the "Perlesvaus"-(Concluded), Modern Philology, Vol. 17, No. 11 (Mar., 1920), pp. 605-618.
Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade: And the Sack of Constantinople, Pimlico, 2005.
Donald E. Queller and Thomas F. Madden, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, University of Pennsylvania Press; 2 edition, 1999.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History, Yale University Press, 1990.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, ed. The Atlas of the Crusades, Guild Publishing, 1991.
Ian Wilson, The Shroud, Bantam Press, 2010.

The Shroud of Turin
The first public exhibition of the Shroud of Turin in five years opened on 19 April 2015 in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, where the famous relic has been kept since 1578.
The exhibition will end on 24 June 2015.

For further information see:

* * *