Thursday, 1 June 2017

St Wigstan: The Story of a Murdered Anglo Saxon Prince

According the the Resting Paces of the Saints (Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande ærost reston) St Wigstan lies in the monastery of Repton near the river Trent.

Death of A Mercian Prince
We know little of Wigstan, he is entirely absent from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the early kalendars, the Old English Martyrology, and of course lived after Bede's time. Later Medieval accounts of his life claim he was descended from the Mercian kings; he was son of Wigmund, in some sources named as the Archbishop of York, whose father was Wiglaf, king of Mercia, and Wigstan's mother Ælfflæd was the daughter of Ceolwulf I, king of Mercia 821 to 823, the last of an ancient Mercian Royal line descending from Offa.

St Wigstan, south porch of St Wystan's Church,
Repton, Derbyshire
Yet, Wigstan is recorded among the early Anglo Saxon saints in the Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande ærost reston (The Resting Paces of the Saints). This text, in its current form, is found in two 11th century manuscripts listing the resting places of 89 saints, almost all Anglo Saxon. Studies have shown that the list was copied into the current manuscripts in 1031, but contains much older sections. The list appears to be in two parts; the first names 39 saints and their resting places located by references to nearby rivers. Yet the references to rivers is absent from the second part. Rollason (1981) notes that the first part records mainly saints of the 7th and 8th centuries with some of the 9th century, nearly all enshrined in the places mentioned before the end of the 9th century. Whereas the second part contains mainly saints from the 10th century. Rollason (1981) argues that the first part of the list of resting places is a compilation in its own right dating from the 9th century and it added further saints in the 10th century. That Wigstan appears in this early list, recorded as lying in the monastery of Repton near the river Trent, is seen as evidence for his existence.

Study of St Wystan's church at Repton supports the evidence of the list of Resting Places. Architectural investigation of the church has revealed that during the Anglo Saxon period two passageways were knocked through to the crypt, presumably to provide access for pilgrims to the saint's shrine. Archaeological investigations at the church found a group of richly decorated Anglo Saxon burials around the east end of the church, probably high status Mercians enjoying the sacred profits of resting near the saint.

The crypt was constructed in the first half of the 8th century (before 740), and is thought to have originally been a baptistery, as it is built on top of a natural spring. It was later converted for use as a mausoleum, with the first interment being that of King Æthelbald of Mercia, who was murdered at Seckington Castle in 757.

The crypt was incorporated into the later St Wystan's Church, now the Anglican parish church, which was constructed on the site of Repton monastery, founded in the 7th century as a community of both monks and nuns by the Mercian Royal family. Werburgh, daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia from 658 until 675, is cited as one of Repton's first abbesses. The east-end of the monastery church (the chancel), and the crypt, were renovated by King Wiglaf of Mercia. This site became a burial vault for several Mercian kings of the 8th-9th century, including Æthelbald (d.757), and Wiglaf (d.839). The early Mercian part of this church has been described as "one of the most precious survivals of Anglo-Saxon architecture in England".

Later accounts of Wigstan's life claim that on his father's death in 849 AD he inherited the throne but turned it down in order to serve God. He appointed his mother Ælfflæd as regent. Following Wigmund's death, a Mercian noble named Beorhtwulf (= bright wolf), usurped the kingship and forced Ælfflæd to marry his son, Beorhtfrith. Wigstan refused to allow the marriage, since Beorhtfrith was a kinsman of Wigmund's and was also Wigstan's godfather.

Florence of Worcester (d.1118) records the event:

“Beorhtfrith, son of Beorhtwulf, king of Mercia, unjustly put to death his cousin, St Wigstan on the Kalends of June [1st June], being the eve of Pentecost. He was grandson of two of the kings of Mercia; his father, Wigmund, being the son of King Wiglaf, and his mother, Ælfflæd, the daughter of King Ceolwulf. His corpse was carried to a monastery which was famous in that age, called Repton, and buried in the tomb of his grandfather, King Wiglaf. Miracles from heaven were not wanting in testimony of his martyrdom; for a column of light shot up to heaven from the spot where the innocent saint was murdered, and remained visible to the inhabitants of that place for 30 days.”

The story of Wigstan's murder on 1st June can be found in the Passio sancti Wigstani, the earliest recensions may well derive from a 9th century original; the tale they tell is supported by the Worcester Chronicle (entry 849-50), and claims that Beorhtfrith went to visit Wigstan seemingly in peace but, when the two greeted each other, he struck Wigstan on the head with the shaft of his dagger and his servant ran him through with his sword. Later accounts of Wigstan's murder claim the spot was revealed by a shaft of light.

Wigstan's body was taken to the Mercian monastery at Repton, where he was buried in the crypt alongside his grandfather King Wiglaf and his father Wigmund. Miracles soon followed and the crypt quickly became a place of pilgrimage and from the 9th century Wigstan was considered a saint.

The Anglo Saxon crypt, St Wystan's church, Repton
Site of the Martyrdom
The site of the martyrdom was called “Wistanstowe”, somewhere in Mercia, usually identified with the village of Wistow in Leicestershire. The Old English suffix “stow” indicating a meeting place. Other sites have been identified as Wistanstow, in Shropshire, and Wistow in Cambridgeshire. Yet, according to the legend, the true site of Wigstan's murder is betrayed by the miraculous appearance of human hair on the anniversary of his death, 1st June. This was said to occur annually for many years, and led to Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury investigating the phenomenon in 1187.

The stained-glass windows in the parish church of Wistanstow (Shropshire), designed by notable British artist Margaret Agnes Rope, show the miraculous pillar of light leading to discovery of the earthly remains of Wigstan.

It would appear then that Wigstan was murdered in a Mercian power-struggle in 849. Thacker (1985) suggests that it seems likely that Wigstan was the victim of a dynastic struggle between his family and that of his uncle Beorhtwulf and his son Beorhtfrith, who may have inherited claims to the Midland Kingdom from an earlier Mercian sub-king Beornwulf (823-25) and possibly the Beornred desposed by Offa in 757.

It seems the prestige of marriage to a princess descended from the last branch of the ancient Royal house of Mercia was the reason for Wigstan's murder.

The Mercian Monastery
The choice of  Repton as the place Wigstan's body was taken is significant owing to its associations with the ancient Mercian Royal family. Æthelbald chose his burial place at Repton, the place were Guthlac entered religious orders before departing for a solitary life. Indeed, the cult of Wigstan appeared at the centre of a large Royal Anglo Saxon estate focused on Repton and Glenn, some thirty miles distant, and close to other cult centres at Wistow and Wigstow.

There is certainly strong architectural and archaeological evidence for a 9th century shrine and cult at Repton, almost certainly that of Wigstan (Thacker, 1985). The increase in pilgrims required additional staircases to be constructed to facilitate multiple access to the crypt.

The monastery was abandoned in 873 when it was overrun by the Viking Great Army who made Repton their winter headquarters that year. When they left they destroyed the monastery, only the mausoleum survived.

The Winter Camp
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that a large force of Danes landed in East Anglia in 865 destroying the kingdom, then moved on to Northumbria and Mercia. This Great Army (micel here) was said to be led by the three sons of the semi-mythical Ragnar Lodbrok. This was a change in tactics for the Vikings who, up to now, had been content carrying out coastal raids on wealthy monasteries and churches, but now seemed intent on conquering and settling in England.

After plundering England for seven years this massive Viking war band located their winter camp in Lincolnshire; an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 872 records ‘Here the army took winter quarters at Turc’s island’. The precise location of the winter camp defied detection for many years but recent excavations led by Julian Richards and Dawn Hadley (2016) have confirmed the location as Torksey, on the River Trent, about 10 miles northwest of Lincoln. Here metal detectorists uncovered one of the richest sources in England of Anglo-Saxon coins, including over 100 tiny copper-alloy stycas from Northumbria in addition to Arabic coins (dirhams), chopped up silver bullion and pieces of hackgold. They also found smithing tools, spindle whorls and needles, fishing weights and over 300 lead gaming pieces. This rich assemblage all came from six large fields immediately to the east of the Trent where a steep cliff above the river formed the boundary of the camp. During times of flood this it would have formed a natural island between the river on one side and marshland; Turc's island.

Turc's Island after Hadley and Richards, 2016
The strategic position and natural defences of Torksey did not go unnoticed by the Anglo Saxons and after the Viking army left the site became a Saxon borough or 'burh'. Both coins and pottery (the distinctive Torksey ware), were produced on the site in the early 11th century, which according to Domesday Book was a royal holding in 1066.

After overwintering at Turc's island, the following year the Danes sailed up the Trent to Repton in Derbyshire. In 873 the monastery was looted by the Great Army forcing the nuns and monks to desert it, taking the relics of St Wigstan with them.

When Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle (1992) investigated the Repton site in the 1970s and 1980s they found evidence of a D-shaped enclosure with a massive V-shaped ditch, 4m wide and 4m deep. This enclosure used the Trent as a boundary on one side (closing the 'D') and the Mercian royal shrine of St Wigstan as a gatehouse to control access on the opposite side.

Evidence for the Danish presence was found around the east end of the church. During the Biddles' excavations a number of furnished graves were uncovered at the site in the churchyard, immediately north and south of the crypt; one contained silver pennies securely dating the grave to the mid-870s.
The most significant grave, originally marked by a 12 in square wooden post, was found north of the church containing the skeleton of a 35-45 year old man, about 6 ft tall.

This individual showed evidence of weapon trauma; he had received a blow to the skull, and a sword-cut to the thigh had severed the femoral artery. Around his neck a leather string held two glass beads, a leaded bronze fastener  and a small silver Thor's hammer. Between his thighs had been placed the tusk of a boar and lower down the humerus of a jackdaw.

Between 1980-86 the Biddles also investigated reports of a mass burial discovered around 1686 by Thomas Walker who discovered a two-roomed subterranean structure some 15 ft square, originally roofed by 'decayed wooden joyces', possibly the abandoned mausoleum constructed to hold the body of the Mercian monarch Merewahl who died in 757AD.

Inside this structure was a stone coffin, containing 'a Skeleton of a Humane Body Nine Foot long.' Speculation has led to claims that this was the body of Ivar the Boneless. Around this singular interment the disarticulated remains of over 260 people were found - the original report claimed there were 'One Hundred Humane Skeletons, with their Feet pointing to the Stone Coffin.' The entombment is without parallel in Europe during the Viking age, and it is interesting that one saga notes that Ivar died and was buried in England 'in the manner of former times', an allusion to the fact he was interred in a barrow. At least some of these individuals must have been part of the Great Army who died at Repton during the winter of 873-874.

Repton winter camp 873, after Biddle & Biddle, 1992
Barely 3 miles to the southeast of Repton, on higher ground overlooking the Trent, a group of 59 small burial mounds was discovered at Heath Wood at Ingleby. Julian Richards identified some of these burials as cremations and goods found with the bodies also appeared to have been through the cremation fires; sword and buckles, nails and wire embroidery all suggested these had been Danish cremations. This Danish cremation cemetery is quite unique in Britain and was in use between 873-7, the time that the Great Army were active in this area of Mercia.

When the Great Army left Repton, destroying the monastery buildings and setting fire to the church, they went on to complete the conquest of Mercia in 874, driving the Mercian king Burgred into exile and replacing him with Ceowulf II.

A Ray of Light at Evesham 
The relics of St Wigstan that were removed by the fleeing monks and nuns during the Viking attack on Repton in 873, were later returned, although there is no evidence that the monastery ever recovered to any great extent. King Cnut had the saint's remains removed from Repton again in the 11th century to be reburied at Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire.

The Normans were sceptical of the sainthood of the many local saints of Anglo Saxon England and decided to subject the relics of local saints to “ordeal by fire”; if the remains burnt then they did not belong to a saint, but if they survived the test they were indeed genuinely Holy.

In the year 1077, Walter of Cerisy, the first Norman Abbot of Evesham, was surprised at the number of relics held at the monastery which he duly subjected to ordeal by fire. When it came to the turn of the relics of St. Wigstan, the heat of the fire had no effect on them, but the relics began to shine. Walter returned Wigstan's relics back to their shrine, when he dropped the saint’s head on the ground which then started to sweat, while a sweet fragrance spread throughout the church. Wigstan was truly a Holy martyr. From that moment on Walter is said to have accepted the holiness of the Anglo Saxon saints.

A 'Vita Sancti Wistani' (Life of St Wigstan) was included in the Chronicle of the monastery of Evesham (Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham) written in the main part by Thomas of Marlborough, abbot from 1230 to 1236. The earliest parts of the Chronicon, concerning the Mercian St Egwin (d.717) were written by the 12th century prior Dominic of Evesham who had also written a 'Life' of St Wigstan. The Chronicon was continued to the year 1418 by an unknown hand.

As we have seen above, most of what we know of St Wigstan is derived from later sources; Florence of Worcester's 12th century account may well have been the source of Thomas of Marlborough. Yet, these later accounts may well have been based on a 9th century text.

Two 'passions' of St Wigstan have survived, one in the 14th century manuscript of saints lives' held at Gotha in Germany. The other was preserved in the British Library manuscript Harley 2253.These two accounts are both similar to the version of Thomas of Marlborough but differ in slight detail; one claims the top of Wigstan's head was sliced off (perhaps like Thomas Becket at Canterbury). However, neither of these 'passions' makes reference to the translation to Evesham in the 11th century, and therefore must be earlier than Thomas's account. Rollason (1981) suggests a version is likely to have been written at Repton in the 9th century before the Danish attack.

In 1207 the tower of Evesham Abbey church collapsed, falling debris smashed the reliquary of St Wigstan breaking the skull of the martyr. Part of the broken skull and a bone from the arm were sent to Repton at the request of the canons. These relics of the saint were enshrined in their new priory church at Repton, now demolished, rather than in the ancient church which is now the parish church of St Wystan.

The Anglo-Saxon Chancel at the east end of St. Wystan's Church, Repton
and below it the famous crypt. 
Wigstan's relics were kept at Evesham until the Reformation when the Monastery was dissolved and destroyed in the 16th century and the relics of all its saints disappeared.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Martin Biddle & Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle, Repton and the Vikings, Antiquity 66, 1992.
John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell & Brewer, 2011.
Dawn Hadley and Julian Richards, The Winter Camp Of The Viking Great Army, Ad 872–3, Torksey, Lincolnshire, The Antiquaries Journal, 96, 2016.
David Rollason, The Search for Wigstan, Vaughan Paper 27, Uinversity of Leicester, 1981.
Alan Thacker, Kings, Saints and Monasteries in pre-Viking Mercia, Midland History 10, 1985.

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Friday, 19 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

On general release in the UK from 19 May 2017.

Described as a non-traditional, modern retelling of the Arthurian myth, Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an epic fantasy, planned as a six-part franchise, as a big-budget rendition of Arthurian legend. This is the first major Arthur film since Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 outing with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.

Filming for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword included dramatic locations in Snowdonia (Tryfan, Nant Gwynant, near Beddgelert, and Capel Curig) North Wales and the Isle of Skye.

When his father is murdered Vortigern (Jude Law) seizes the crown. Deprived of his birthright without knowing, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up as a streetwise youth raised in a whorehouse on the streets of Londinium. But when he pulls the sword from the stone his life is turned upside down and he is forced to acknowledge his true legacy.

There’s no Merlin here, Ritchie is probably saving the emergence of the wizard for one of planned five sequels, but we do find David Beckham playing a guard named 'Trigger'.

Followers of Arthuriana will  be compelled to see this Guy Ritchie take on the classic legend which has opened with mixed reviews; this a "marmite" film; you'll either love it or hate it.


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword review – medieval banter, slapdash mythology

"Guy Ritchie’s film is low on originality, but might please devotees of his shtick.
The slapdash mythology, with its super-size CGI elephants and slithering octopus-women, is a lazy Lord of the Rings rip-off that barely attempts to convince. A murky video game aesthetic and impatient, maniacally fast cutting do it no favours."

- Simran Hans The Observer 21 May 2017

"Elephants twice the size of a mutant T-Rex rampage in the open air"

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword review: Guy Ritchie's combat-heavy Camelot is a very silly place

"....misshapen and inert, your imagination and memory never come close to being sparked by it. Just sticking with the plot soaks up every ounce of concentration you have.........His acquaintances include such classic Arthurian figures as Chinese George (Tom Wu) and Goose Fat Bill (Aidan Gillen)."

"[The] hero’s journey takes the character in directions the film is never able to make sense of."
"The problem with a King Arthur blockbuster is that it needs sweep and scope, and the attempts at spectacle here feel far outside the director’s comfort zone."

- Robbie Collin The Telegraph 19 May 2017

Vortigern (Jude Law)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, film review – Epic fail

"Guy Ritchie’s attempt to create a mythic franchise stumbles out of the gate. Having no feel for nor apparent interest in the mystical, Ritchie devolves responsibility for the wonderment to CGI monsters."

"Flailing out of his depth, Ritchie clings to the life raft of what he knows. Substituting caricature for character, he barely scrapes the emotional surface of Arthur’s quest to adapt to the kingly demands of his fate. Raiding the comfort zone pantry for cheap laughs, he finds the cupboard bare."

"By midway, it had occurred that were he hired to make a Christ movie, he’d have Jesus say, “Thirty pieces of silver? Judas, mate, are you pulling my bell-end? You should’a held aht for 90."

"When Arfur tells a woman, “Put your ring back on, honey tits,” you fear Ray Winstone is about to pitch up as Merlin and ask who the daddy might be."

"It is a film as long on tediously stylised fight scenes and portentous electro-folk music as it is short on emotional involvement." 

- Matthew Norman Evening Standard 19 May 2017

Arthur's modern looking wardrobe seems out of place

 Rotten Tomatoes Reviews:

"This latest take on the Arthurian classic is epic in many ways, none of them good."

"The movie becomes a long, unstoppable, barely sufferable explosion of digi-battle scenes, digi-pachyderms, digi-snake-monsters, digi-Armageddon."

"Ritchie's movie is handicapped by its obedience to the rules of modern franchising, putting aside much of the most potent Arthurian lore to instead tell a protracted Round Table origin story."

"In a poor film, the use of David Beckham in a minor but significant role stands out as an own goal. It's a towering misjudgement and a good example of the way filmmaking for Ritchie is really just an extension of socialising."

- Rotten Tomatoes

The sword in the stone

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Monday, 15 May 2017

New Book: The Warrior Queen

The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great
by Joanna Arman

Published by Amberley Publishing 15 May 2017

From the Publisher:

Æthelflæd, eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, has gone down in history as an enigmatic and almost legendary figure. To the popular imagination, she is the archetypal warrior queen, a Medieval Boudicca, renowned for her heroic struggle against the Danes and her independent rule of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. In fiction, however, she has also been cast as the mistreated wife who seeks a Viking lover, and struggles to be accepted as a female ruler in a patriarchal society.

The sources from her own time, and later, reveal a more complex, nuanced and fascinating image of the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. A skilled diplomat who forged alliances with neighbouring territories, she was a shrewd and even ruthless leader willing to resort to deception and force to maintain her power. Yet she was also a patron of learning, who used poetic tradition and written history to shape her reputation as a Christian maiden engaged in an epic struggle against the heathen foe.

The real Æthelflæd emerges as a remarkable political and military leader, admired in her own time, and a model of female leadership for writers of later generations.

Joanna Arman is currently a PhD Student at the University of Winchester specialising in Women's History; exploring topics such as 15th century Queens, female landowners in Medieval records or the impact of the Magna Carta on women's marriage rights. She has a passion for the Anglo-Saxon period and researched Æthelflæd of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great, as the subject of her MA research.

See: Æthelflæd: The Making of a County Town  (Stafford 913 - 2013)

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

New Book: Britain in the Age of Arthur

A Military History 
by Ilkka Syvanne

Published by Pen & Sword 30th July 2017
£20.00 Introductory Offer (RRP £25.00)

From the publisher:

King Arthur is one of the most controversial topics of early British history. Are the legends based on a real historical figure or pure mythological invention? Ilkka Syvannes study breaks new ground, adopting a novel approach to the sources by starting with the assumption that Arthur existed and that Geoffrey of Monmouths account has preserved details of his career that are based on real events. He then interprets these by using common sense and the perspective of a specialist in late Roman military history to form a probable picture of what really happened during the period (roughly AD 400-550). This approach allows the author to test the entire literary evidence for the existence of Arthur to see if the supposed events of his career match what is known of the events of the period, the conclusion being that in general they do. Arthurs military career is set in the context of the wider military history of Britain and Europe in this period and along the way describes the nature of armies and warfare of the period.

Dr Ilkka Syvanne gained his doctorate in history in 2004 from Tampere University in his native Finland. His doctoral thesis was published as The Age of Hippotoxotai, Art of War in Roman Military Revival and Disaster 491-636 (Tampere University Press, Tampere 2004). He has also written numerous articles on late Roman/Byzantine warfare, and contributed seven entries for Blackwell's Encyclopaedia of the Roman Army (2011). From 2007 to 2016 he was Vice Chairman of the Finnish Society for Byzantine Studies. Dr Syvanne is An Affiliated Professor of the University of Haifa and lives in Kangasala, Finland.

Other books by Ilkka Syvanne available from Pen & Sword:

Military History of Late Rome 284-361 (16th September 2015)
The first volume, of 5 planned, covers the period 284-361, starting with recovery from the 'third-century crisis' and the formation of the Tetrarchy, providing a detailed account of the changes in organisation, equipment, strategy and tactics among both the Roman forces and her enemies in the relevant period, while also giving a detailed but accessible account of the campaigns and battles.

The Military History of Late Rome AS 361-395 (30th May 2017)
The second volume in the series gives the reader a comprehensive narrative of late Roman military history from AD 284-641.

Caracalla: A Military Biography (30th May 2017)
Ilkka Syvanne explains how the biased ancient sources in combination with the stern looking statues of the emperor have created a distorted image of the man and then reconstructs the actual events, particularly his military campaigns and reforms, to offer a balanced view of his reign

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

St George and the Order of the Garter

Today, 23 April, is St George's day, patron saint of England, but he is far removed from the exemplar “British Knight” that many believe him to have personified.

Knights and Saints
The influence of St Edmund as the patron saint of Anglo Saxon England began to wane under the Normans. He was finally replaced after the English successes under the patronage of St George during the Crusades and victories on the battlefield in France during the Hundred Year's War.

While the veneration of St George as a soldier-saint can be traced back to the 7th century, the first depictions of St George the Dragon Slayer go back only to 10th or 11th century Cappadocia (Central Turkey). A dragon was commonly used to represent the Devil in the Middle Ages. A late legend claims that St. George killed a dragon on the flat topped Dragon Hill at Uffington, Berkshire, where the beast's blood spilled today no grass grows. However, many of the legends associated with St. George lack historical substance and are generally considered fictitious; indeed the slaying of the ‘Dragon’ is one of many stories of the saints preserved in the Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275 after being brought back to Europe by Crusaders in the 12th century.

St George and the Dragon (Carpaccio, 1502)
It is often claimed that Crusaders returning from the Holy Land were responsible for introducing St. George’s to western Europe, but there is evidence of a cult before the Crusades, however slight, in early medieval Germany, Italy, France and England. Today he is the patron saint of many countries and cities in both eastern and western Europe.

The person typically identified as St. George is an unnamed man martyred in 303 AD during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284-305) as recorded by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the mid-4th century. This man is commonly thought to have been Georgios Gerontios, a tribune in the Roman Army who refused to renounce his Christian faith and tore down Diocletian's edict of persecution. He was subsequently imprisoned, tortured and finally beheaded on the 23rd April 303 in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city in what is now Turkey.

However, the connection of the saint with Nicomedia is inconsistent with the early cult of St George at Lydda in the Roman province of Syria-Palaestina, also claimed to be the place of his birth and his martyrdom, an important cult site to the Crusaders.

The first Christian Emperor Constantine the Great is said to have constructed a basilica over the St George's tomb at Lydda, but this church was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the crusades. Between 1150 and 1170 a cathedral was said to have been built over the tomb by Richard I (the Lionheart) of England only to be destroyed by Saladin in 1191; yet there is little evidence to support this claim.

However, “visions” of St George were recorded twice during the First Crusade, at the sieges of Antioch, 1098, and Jerusalem, 1099. The story goes that the crusaders received miraculous help at the siege of Antioch from a great army coming to their aid on white horses, clothed in white and bearing white banners, outpouring from the nearby mountains. The leaders of this phantom army were recognisable by the names on their banners; St George; St Demetrius; St Mercurius.

Richard the Lionheart is said to have received a personal vision of the saint at Acre during the Third Crusade. After these “appearances” St George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers and many military orders.

The Cross of St George, was first recorded as the ensign of the Republic of Genoa, before it was used by the crusaders. From the time of the Second Crusade (1147–1149) the red Cross of St George became associated with the Knights Templar, a military order that emerged out of the ruins of Jerusalem after its capture in the First Crusade.

The English king Henry II and the French king Philip II used red and white crosses to identify their respective soldiers during the so-called “Kings' Crusade” of 1187. The red-on-white then became a recognisable symbol of the crusader from about 1190. Indeed, the banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers by the reign of Richard I (1189 – 1199). The flag of England is derived from St George's Cross.

In the 1270's the Red Cross was worn by English soldiers during the reign of Edward I.  In 1348 Edward III established a premier order of Knighthood in England, with Saint George as its patron. At the “Battle of  Agincourt” in 1415 many of Henry V's English soldiers believed they witnessed Saint George fighting alongside them as they routed the French. Shakespeare recorded the success of St George with Henry V ending his speech before the battle with the famous phrase, “Cry God for Harry, England and St George!

The Order of the Garter
With such a fine military pedigree it was no surprise that Edward III chose Saint George as the patron saint of his Order of the Garter in 1348, the oldest surviving Order of Chivalry in the world, adopting the red-on-white cross for his Royal Standard. It was around this time that Edward proclaimed St George as Patron Saint of England; significantly, Edward created the Order of the Garter on St George's Day, 23 April.

Edward III, the Order of the Garter
Around this time chroniclers were complaining of the behaviour of knights with many criticised for promiscuity and committing lawless acts. In 1346, before the Crécy campaign, Edward III had forbidden his men from wanton ravaging and the destruction of holy places, but to no avail. It seems the exclusive Order of the Garter was created in an effort to return to chivalry and honour following Edward's victory at Crécy.

Without doubt the creation of the Order of the Garter and the return to chivalry was inspired by the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with Edward III, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Edward I, actively promoting himself as the New Arthur. His son Edward, later the Black Prince, was raised on the traditions of Arthurian Romance.

As Edward I had visited Glastonbury in 1278, for the translation of King Arthur's relics to a new marble tomb in front of the high altar, Edward III also visited the Somerset town in 1331 in a intentional act planned to associate his reign to both the Arthurian tradition and the reign of his grandfather.

Edward III’s Somerset itinerary was remarkably similar, but not identical, to that of Edward I, travelling from South Cadbury to Glastonbury. He spent 19 December 1331 at at South Cadbury and Cadbury Castle, the potential site of Camelot, before travelling to Glastonbury between 20 December and 22 December. Finally he moved on to Wells on 23 December, where he spent Christmas. There are no records of any further visits by Edward III to Glastonbury Abbey, though in 1345 he granted permission for one John Blome to search the abbey grounds for the grave of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus and legendary founder of the Abbey, and through the Grail stories an ancestor of Arthur, and guardian of the Holy Grail.

This was the Golden Age of Glastonbury Abbey, a site of pilgrimage for the cults of King Arthur, whose bones were discovered there in 1191, and Joseph of Arimathea, whose bones were not.

King Arthur's Round Tables
At the end of the “Round Table” festival at Windsor Castle in January in 1343, Edward III announced his intention to found an Order of the Round Table with three hundred knights with St George as their Patron, with a corresponding building and chapel, "in the same manner and estate as the Lord Arthur, formerly King of England".

The Round Table is King Arthur's famed table in the Arthurian legend, around which he and his famous Knights would gather.  The Table has no head, so that everyone who sits there has equal status. Yet Geoffrey of Monmouth does not mention this round table in his Arthurian epic The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae), and there is no mention of it in the early Welsh texts.

The Round Table was first described in the Roman de Brut by the Anglo-Norman poet Wace in 1155, a chronicle based on Geoffrey's earlier work. The symbolism of the Round Table developed during the Arthurian Romances and came to represent the chivalric order of the Knights of the Round Table.

During the Middle Ages, festivals called “Round Tables” were celebrated throughout Europe in imitation of Arthur's court; the earliest known was held in Cyprus around 1220. These aristocratic festivals consisted of tournaments with jousting knights performing Arthurian roles, concluding in a great feast.

The Round Table in the Great Hall, Winchester
A large wooden tabletop, eighteen feet across, known as the “Winchester Round Table” now hanging in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, bearing the names of various knights of Arthur's court is thought to have been created for a Round Table tournament. Dendrochronology has determined that the Winchester Table was constructed between 1250 – 1280, during the reign of Edward I, an Arthurian enthusiast, known to have held Round Tables many times in his reign: at Kenilworth in 1279, Warwick in 1281, Nefyn in 1284 and Falkirk in 1302. At least two of these, Nefyn and Falkirk, were personally arranged by Edward himself. He hosted one himself at Windsor around 1290, which was thought to be the occasion for the creation of the Winchester Round Table.

The iconic Round Table hanging in the Great Hall seems to have influenced Thomas Malory's identification of Winchester as the site of Camelot. Malory composed his Le Morte D'Arthur while in Newgate Prison, London, between March 1469 and March 1470 and published by William Caxton in July 1485. In 1934 the headmaster of Winchester College W. F. Oakeshott discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in the library of Winchester College that is closer to Malory's original than Caxton's printed edition.

It would appear that Caxton did not use the Winchester manuscript in preparing his printed text. Caxton divided Malory's original work of four sections into twenty-one books of roughly equal length and omitted the colophons found of the tales containing autobiographical information about the author, including Malory's reference to himself as the “knyght presoner”.

The legs were removed from the Winchester table in 1348 and the top hung on the castle wall as a symbol of the chivalric concept of the fellowship of Arthur's Round Table. Two centuries later Henry VIII had the table repainted with himself in Arthur's seat above a Tudor Rose.

By 1348, Edward III had abandoned his earlier plan for an Order of the Round Table consisting of 300 knights, and announced the creation of the Order of the Garter, with an exclusive membership limited to just 25 Knights, with the first places reserved for those commanders who had helped him to win the Crécy campaign; the exact same number of places around the Winchester Round Table.

The Garter and the Motto
Today, the official seat of the Most Noble Order of the Garter sits at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where its chapters have assembled since its creation by Edward III in 1348. The Sovereign and the Prince of Wales being permanent members, together with 24  Companion Knights.

The Garter Knights wear a mantle made from dark blue velvet fastened with blue and gold rope strings. Upon their shoulders the Knights wear the badge of the cross of St. George upon a shield encircled with the Garter.

The origins of the Order’s blue garter and motto, “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense” (Shame on Him Who Thinks Evil of It), are uncertain but shares much with the 14th century English Arthurian work “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In this anonymous chivalric romance Gawain resists the temptations of the Lady of the Castle of Hautdesert, accepting only kisses from her. On the third day after resisting her further advances she presents Gawain with a magic green girdle that will protect him from being slain. With his forthcoming duel with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, Gawain takes the girdle but does not pass it on to the lord of Castle Hautdesert (Bertilak), with whom he has an agreement that whatever each of them wins during the day they will exchange that evening. Gawain's dishonesty is his sin.

When it is revealed that the Green Knight is actually Bertilak and that the attempted seductions were a test of Gawain's worthiness, the knight is shaken with guilt, but Bertilak praises him for never giving into sexual temptation by the Lady of Hautdesert

Bertilak invites Gawain to return to the castle but Gawain refuses and sets off for Camelot, wearing the girdle for his shame. On arrival he tells Arthur the story who then decides that all the knights of the Round Table will wear a belt of green as a badge of honour in support of Gawain and proclaiming as their motto “Honi Soyt Qui Mal Pense” (Shamed be the One who Thinks Evil).

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

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Monday, 17 April 2017

Joseph in Perpetual Sleep

The Man who buried Jesus
Easter is the most important event in the Christian faith; the death and resurrection of Jesus on the third day of his burial after his Crucifixion on Good Friday. The days leading up to Easter Sunday are known as Holy Week which commences when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and concludes with the Easter Triduum on Maundy Thursday and the night of the Last Supper, commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as told in the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Descent from the Cross
 (Rogier van der Weyden)
Joseph of Arimathea suddenly appears on Good Friday for first time in an albeit brief appearance in the New Testament. As a member of the Council (the Sanhedrin) and a secret supporter of Jesus, Joseph is never mentioned as being present at the Crucifixion. In the evening after the death of Jesus, Joseph requests permission from Pilate to remove Jesus' body from the Cross and provide a proper burial for him. Hence, Joseph is popularly known 'as the man who buried Jesus':

“When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.

Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb”. [Matthew 27:57-60]

The Gospels agree on the events after the Crucifixion, but only John (19:39) includes Nicodemus as Joseph's aid in the burial of Jesus. He then disappears, as quickly as he arrived; Joseph's history begins and ends with the burial of Jesus. Sceptics maintain he is not a historical figure at all and was introduced into the Gospels as a literary creation who is purely mythological. Further, they claim, there is no evidence for Joseph's town of Arimathea, Luke refers to it as simply “a town in Judea”; its location is unknown and does not exist outside of the Gospels.

Over time legends developed about Joseph, who, being the man who took the bleeding Christ from the Cross, is always associated with the relic of the Holy Blood in the ensuant art and literature, always depicted collecting the blood of Jesus at the Deposition, never the Crucifixion. Toward the end of the 12th century the French poet Robert de Boron merged the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus with Chrétien de Troyes' Story of the Grail. Chrétien never specified the meaning of the grail procession but hinted at its connection with the Eucharist when he wrote of 'un graal' (a serving platter or dish) that contained a single mass wafer that sustained the maimed Fisher King. Chrétien never mentioned Joseph of Arimathea, however, as he left his version of the story unfinished we will never know for certain what he intended. However, Robert developed the story further with the vessel becoming the Cup of the Last Supper, the Holy Grail.

The boy Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea
 (Pilton Church banner, Somerset)
According to the Grail Romances, after the Crucifixion Joseph is imprisoned by the Jews for forty years, where he is visited by Jesus who gives him the Cup of the Last Supper and sustained by a single mass wafer placed in this vessel each day by an Angel. Eventually Joseph is released and leaves the Holy Land and on arriving in Britain erects the first Christian church at Glastonbury. Later tradition claims that Joseph brought with him to Britain two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus which lie in his tomb with him.

Western legend does not mention Joseph of Arimathea in England until the 13th century which appears to be a direct response to his emergence of the Grail stories. The legend continued to develop with popular claims that the term 'nobilis decurion' identifies Joseph of Arimathea as a tin merchant who brought the young Jesus with him on trading voyages to south west Britain. Yet this tradition can only be traced to the 19th century at the earliest. If the arrival of Joseph in the West was a late development what of the tradition in the Near East?

Was Joseph buried in the Holy Land?
Alternative tradition from the Holy Land claims that Joseph was preaching in Galilee after the Crucifixion, then after dying in his homeland was buried in Jerusalem. Indeed, excavations under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City of Jerusalem, said to have been built on the site of Christ's tomb where Helena found the True Cross in the 4th century, have revealed additional ancient Jewish tombs.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
According to Eusebius of Caesarea, in the 2nd century the Roman emperor Hadrian built a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus to deliberately obliterate the place where local tradition believed was the site where Jesus had been crucified and buried. About 326 AD the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, ordered that the temple be replaced by a church constructed over the tomb discovered by his mother Helena. On demolition of the Roman buildings in the 4th century, a series of rock-cut tombs was discovered. One of the tombs was identified as that of Joseph of Armithea.

Constantine's Church was razed to the ground in 1009 by order of the Fatamid Caliph al-Hakim during his campaign against Christian sites in the Near East, including the shrine of St George at Lydda. The destruction of the Church was said to be so complete that its remains could only be detected by archaeology. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus restored part of the Church in 1048, but most of the present building is the result of 12th-century Crusader reconstruction. The fate of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre featured in the motivation for the First Crusade, which was retaken when Latin knights entered Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.

A full program of restoration work began in 1959 with the complete archaeological exploration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within the Syriac Orthodox Chapel of St Joseph and Nicodemus two rock cut tombs were discovered during this restoration work, which, although they have no identifying features, tradition claims belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

A 7th century Syrian-Nestorian chronicle (dated 670-680) asserts that Joseph's sarcophagus was discovered near the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 605. The chronicle claims that the Jews asked the Persians for permission to seek under the grave of Jesus for treasure. Here they found a sarcophagus inscribed, “This is the sarcophagus of the councillor Joseph, who gave a tomb for the body of Jesus.

However, Joseph's relics were apparently brought back from the Holy Land by Fortunat, Patriarch of Grado (802–820) and enshrined at Moyenmoutier Abbey in Lorraine in the 9th century. The 13th century Chronicle of Sens records that during the time of Charlemagne (c. 747 - c. 814), Fortunat fled from pagans in the Holy Land taking with him the body of Joseph of Arimathea and other sacred relics, eventually becoming Abbot of Moyenmoutier in the Vosges mountains. As we have seen [Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury] there was a Cult of Joseph of Arimathea in this region of France, the very homeland of Robert de Boron and his patron Gautier de Montbeliard who joined the Fourth Crusade and died as Constable of Jerusalem in 1212.

Before the end of the 10th century Joseph's body was taken from Moyenmoutier by visiting monks (monachis peregrinis). It is doubtful that Joseph's relics were taken by Glastonbury monks, even though they claimed to have 'recovered' the relics of St Dunstan after Canterbury had been sacked by Danes in the early 11th century, as they were not aware of the man from Arimathea's presence at the Abbey until the 13th century and even then the monks never claimed to know the location of his burial. There is certainly no record of such a venture in the Glastonbury records.

The Holy Blood, The Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges
In 1247 king Henry III of England took possession of the relic of the Holy Blood, preserved supposedly from the time of the Crucifixion. On 13 October he is reported as carrying it barefoot from St Paul's to Westminster Abbey in a crystal phial, sent to him by Robert of Nantes, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem (1240–1254). Yet, again where we find the Holy Blood we often find Joseph of Arimathea. It would appear the Royal family of Jerusalem seem to have collected relics of the man who buried Jesus.

Between 1878 and 1879 the Exuviae sacrae Constantinopolitanae (Religious Spoils of Constantinople) of Count Paul Riant appeared in Geneva. The publication of these two volumes assembled for the first time all the historical documents relating to the transportation of the religious relics stolen from the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1202–04). Riant claims that Joseph of Arimathea's body is preserved in the Royal Chapel of Jerusalem.

Tales From the East
It would seem the Near East has a stronger claim for Joseph's relics than Glastonbury and several sites claiming to be his tomb when England actually has none. Indeed the Glastonbury Legend has striking similarities to the 5th century Georgian legend of Lydda, which links Joseph with Philip.

In 1247 William of Malmesbury's history of Glastonbury Abbey from 63 to 1126 (De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae) was copied by the Glastonbury monks with “additions”. The amended introduction read, “St. Philip was in Gaul, as Freculphus tells us. He sent twelve disciples to preach in Britain, and as is said, he placed at their head his favourite disciple, Joseph of Arimathea”. In William's original work he did not mention Joseph of Arimathea.

A Georgian manuscript dated from the 5th century contains probably the earliest mention of Joseph's missionary work associated with St. Philip in that together the two men built a church at Lydda dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Joseph is said to have collected the blood of Jesus on the burial wrappings at Golgotha. This is closely reflected in the Glastonbury Legend; is it possible that the old Lydda tradition of Joseph and Philip as missionaries and their construction of a church to the Virgin was taken and altered by Glastonbury?

It is an odd coincidence that Joseph of Arimathea does not appear in the tradition of south west England until the emergence of the Grail Romances in the late 13th century in which he is responsible for bringing the Holy Grail, the vessel of the Holy Blood, to the West. It is clear that many of the authors of later Grail sequels that followed Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron did not truly understand the meaning of the Grail but it is always associated with relics of the Passion brought to Europe from the Holy Land by crusader knights, many of whom were the patrons of the Grail Romances.

From Robert's work it is clear the Holy Grail is the relic of the Holy Blood and Joseph of Arimathea is the carrier of that relic to the West. Joseph is depicted with two relics: collecting the Holy Blood at the Deposition in a bowl or dish; and the other is Jesus' blood soaked burial shroud.

The Templecombe Head
Holy Grail, Turin Shroud
There is a strong argument that the story of the Holy Grail is based on the Turin Shroud, the burial linen that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus' body in after the Crucifixion and would have performed as a receptacle for the Holy Blood. When this blood congealed on the linen it would have been scrapped off and placed in vials as a sacred relic. The Shroud was taken to Edessa around 50 AD before moving to Constantinople in 944 from where it was taken by the Templars in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade before reappearing in France in the 14th century. It was during these missing years that images of a face appeared in Templar preceptories across Europe and led to the Order being accused of worshipping a head. Ian Wilson (2010) has shown that these images strongly correspond to the face on the Turin Shroud, that is Jesus. Images have been found in Britain, perhaps the best known the panel at Templecombe in Somerset, discovered during the 1940s.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the Shroud was located in Somerset at some time, indeed Daniel Scavone (1999) has come up with an ingenious theory in which he argues that texts placing Joseph and the Grail in Britain, actually refer to Edessa, which was also known as 'Britium', where the burial shroud of Jesus was held from 50 to 944.

This confusion of the name of Edessa (Britium) may also explain references to the legendary 2nd century British King Lucius who is traditionally credited with introducing Christianity into Britain. Lucius is first mentioned in a 6th-century version of the Liber Pontificalis (Book of Popes), which says that he sent a letter to Pope Eleutherius seeking to be made a Christian. Bede repeats this and adds that Lucius' request was granted and the Britons followed him in converting to Christianity.

In 205 King Lucius Abgar VIII, the first Christian king of Edessa, constructed the Birtha (Latin Britium), or citadel of Edessa. Subsequently,  the citadel of Abgar was known as 'Britio Edessenorum'.

In the original text of William of Malmesbury, c.1125, on the early history of Glastonbury, following Bede, he writes that missionaries were sent to Britain by the pope at the request of British King Lucius in 166. As we have seen above, later additions to William's work in the 13th century add that Philip, who was who was in Gaul, sent Joseph with twelve disciples as missionaries to Britain, where they built a church to the Virgin.

From the above we can see that all elements of the Joseph of Arimathea tradition can be accounted for in the Near East at an earlier date than the Glastonbury Tradition. Additionally, there is certainly a stronger case for Joseph's burial in the Holy Land. Yet, it must be conceded, all the known tombs ascribed to Joseph are empty.

Much of the claim for Joseph of Arimathea's presence in England is drawn from interpretations of the Prophecy of Melkin which appears for the first time in John of Glastonbury's 14th century Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey. Melkin's Prophecy is an enigmatic text written in garbled Latin which, although it has proved impossible to accurately translate, clearly asserts that Joseph's tomb has not yet been discovered. Melkin claims that Joseph is buried on a “linea bifuracta”; this is typically translated as a “forked line” in the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey, but this has also been interpreted as a linen burial shroud.

Melkin is usually considered a Welsh bard who lived before Merlin. But in light of the above, in which we have seen the origins of the Holy Grail, did Melkin's Prophecy also originate in the Near East?

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Valerie M Lagorio, The Evolving Legend of Joseph of Arimathea, Speculum Vol. 46, No. 2, 1971, pp. 209-231.
Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Harvard University Press, 2004.
Emma Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, Princeton University Press, 1998.
Ian Wilson,The Shroud, Bantam Press, 2010.
Barbara Frale, The Templars and the Shroud of Christ, Maverick House, 2011.
Noel Currer-Briggs, The Holy Grail  and the Shroud of Christ, ARA Publications, 1984.
Daniel Scavone, Jospeh of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and the Edessa Icon, Arthuriana, The Journal of Arthurian Studies, Vol 9. No. 4, 1999, pp.1-31.

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Friday, 14 April 2017

Visions of Montacute

Mons Acutis
The name of the Somerset town of Montacute derives from the Latin words 'Mons Acutis' meaning pointed, or sharp hill. Montacute is about 14 miles south of Glastonbury, both have prominent hills and each can be seen from the other. References to a now lost 7th century charter asserts that Baldred granted 16 hides to Glastonbury at Logweresbeorh (Montacute). William of Malmesbury (followed by John of Glastonbury) also refers to the ancient name Logweresbeorh for Montacute and associates the site with the personal name Logwar which appears on one of the two pyramids in the ancient cemetery at Glastonbury in between which King Arthur's grave was discovered. This is just one strange occurrence that has been recorded at Montacute which appear analogous to events at Glastonbury.
St Michael's Hill, Montacute
The Castle and Priory
Tofig (Tovi), the great Danish standard-bearer of King Cnut, had large estates in Essex and in Somerset. On the hill-top of his land at Logweresbeorh in Somerset there was found about the year 1035 a miracle-making crucifix concealed under a large slab of stone, and this was regarded by Tofig as so precious that he determined to build a church for its preservation on his estate in Essex. Tofig then handed this precious site over to the church and by 1066 it had been placed in the guardianship of the Abbot of Athelney.

Being a natural conical hill Montacute was well suited for fortification, and after the conquest William the Conqueror gave it to his half-brother Count Robert of Mortain, who built a castle there of typical Norman motte and bailey construction, a 9 metre high scarp forms a motte with the bailey on the south east slope, the other three sides formed the outer terrace. Today the site of the Norman castle is known as St Michael's Hill, named after the castle chapel that survived into the mid-17th century. It seems the choice of Montacute for the castle was a political statement as the site of the discovery of the Holy Cross, c.1035. The local people saw this as disrespectful to the sacred site and attacked the castle but their revolt came to nothing.

Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Harold Godwinson held the cross in great esteem; he richly endowed the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham,  Essex, with the Holy Cross becoming an object of veneration and pilgrimage. Harold stopped at Waltham Abbey on his way south to Hastings from the battle at Stamford Bridge and his English troops used “the Holy Cross” as the battle cry at Hastings.

In the late 11th century Robert gave his manor of 'Biscopestune' (Bishopston) consisting of the church at Montacute, the castle and burgh to the abbey of Cluny, following pressure from the King that if he did not do so, he would take the land from him.

In 1102 AD a Cluniac Priory was founded at the bottom of the hill at Montacute with a church dedicated to St Peter built in association with the priory. The stonework for construction of the priory by provided by the short-lived castle which was now dismantled. By 1200 a chapel dedicated to St Catherine had been added next to the monks cemetery.

We know little of the Priors of the Cluniac Priory of St. Peter and St. Paul at Montacute yet it is a persistent claim that Henry de Blois, abbot of Glastonbury 1126-71, was associated with the priory, although he is not listed among them. At its height in the 13th century there were 25 monks recorded at the Priory but at the time of the Dissolution in 1539, sixteen monks and the abbot were pensioned off. Today, all that remains of Montacute Priory is the gateway which is incorporated into the 16th century Abbey Farmhouse.

Following the Dissolution the church of St Catherine became the parish church. Henry VIII's antiquarian John Leland visited the area between 1535 and 1543, recording a tradition of an earlier Saxon stronghold and described the site of the Priory as “ruinous”. Earthworks in a field south of this church are thought to cover the foundation of the Priory and its buildings.

The Norman castle chapel, dedicated to Saint Michael, continued in use until at least 1315. In the 18th century a folly was built on the castle chapel's foundations and named after the original chapel; today St. Michael's Hill Tower stands as a local landmark with views across the Somerset countryside.
St Michael's Tower, Montacute

The Legend of the Holy Cross of Waltham
Around the year 1035 a Montacute blacksmith had a dream one night that he should go and tell the parish priest to go to the top of St. Michael’s Hill, where something was buried.

The next day he decided that it must have been something he had eaten and thought no more about it. However, a few nights later he had the same dream again; more vivid than the time before and even worse; an apparition that frightened him near to death visited him. Waking in a cold sweat he told his wife that he had to see the priest at once. She told he would be ridiculed by the whole village.

On the third occurrence the apparition took hold of him and left him with wounds on his arms. He rushed off to wake the parish priest, who, on being told the story of the three visitations and seeing the wounds, took the whole thing seriously. The commotion had woken many residents who gathered outside the church and formed a procession to walk to the top of St. Michael’s Hill.

Many had brought spades and started digging; it was not long before someone struck a large, flat stone which they gently lifted. Beneath it they found a large black flint cross, finely carved with  an image of the crucifixion. Under the right arm of the cross lay a smaller crucifix and under the other, an ancient bell and a book (liber niger).

They took the bell, small cross and bible down to the church for safe keeping, but he big cross was very heavy, they would need equipment to move it. Some stayed and erected a shelter to keep the cross and the guards dry. 

Tofig, King Cnut’s standard bearer who was in the area, so a messenger was sent off to find him. The small cross would stay in the church but no one seemed certain where to take black flint cross. Tofig arrived and organised the removal of the cross from the hill and had it loaded onto a wagon pulled by twelve red oxen, together with the bell and gospels, but no one seemed sure where to take it; Durham, Winchester, Glastonbury, London and Reading all mentioned, but the oxen refused to haul it.

Then Tofig decided to take the black flint cross back to his estate at Waltham in Essex and build a greater church to house the relics and the oxen immediately moved off in that direction. When it arrived at Waltham it was set up and became the glory and the greatness of the Abbey of Waltham Holy Cross.

King Harold enlarged the Abbey and the Holy Rood became the special object of his devotion and the rallying cry of his men at Senlac. Before it he knelt on his way south to fight the Norman invaders and received warning of his impending doom. (see Gordon Rendell)

Smoke and Mirrors
The Montacute excavation of the Holy Cross is reported as taking place around 1035, but the earliest account was not written until after 1177, shortly before the excavation of King Arthur's grave at Glastonbury in 1191. The two events are similar in several key details:

  • At Montacute they unearthed a large black flint cross under a stone slab (mire magnitudinis), a smaller cross, a bell and a book (liber niger).
  • At Glastonbury an inscribed leaden cross was found under a slab (mirae magnitudinis) identifying the grave with King Arthur who lies buried here in Avalon.
  • The lettering on this Arthurian cross as depicted by Camden is identical to the “Sagittarius” lettering on the 12th century tympanum on the north door of St Mary's church at Stoke-sub-Hamdon (Aeldred Watkin in Carley, 1985).
  • Tents were erected around the excavation site at Montacute until the relics were removed from the earth.
  • At Glastonbury Adam of Damerham reports that screens were erected around the excavation site in the monks cemetery.

James Carley (1985) suggests that the parallels between the two excavations may indicate that the Montacute event acted as a model for the later Glastonbury excavation.

Was Joseph of Arimathea Buried at Montacute?
The testimonies of two men who worked at Glastonbury Abbey at the time of the Dissolution suggest a further connection between Glastonbury and Montacute.

William Good who served as an altar boy at St Joseph's chapel at the Abbey, recalls that although Joseph was buried in Somerset no one was exactly sure where; “the monks never knew for certain the place of the saint's burial, or pointed it out; they said the body was hidden most carefully either at Glastonbury or on a hill near Montacute, called Hamden Hill”.

In the 16th century William Weston recorded a meeting with a man of about 80 years of age who also served at the Abbey before the Dissolution. Before the Royal Commissioners arrived at Glastonbury he was able to save a richly decorated cross and a nail said to have come from the Crucifixion and brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea. Even after the Dissolution, he continued to journey to a high hill associated with St Joseph as an act of pilgrimage.

In his home this man kept a lamp burning that faced this hill. However, this hill was was not Hamden Hill as William Good had stated, but Montacute Hill where the ruins of the medieval chapel of St Michael lay. (Carley, 1994) In time the story became slightly confused and the nail of the Crucifixion was apparently found at the chapel and a tradition grew that Joseph of Arimathea was buried at Montacute. (Thomas Gerard, Description of Somerset, 1633).

The site at Montacute has not undergone full archaeological investigation but partial excavation has shown that archaeological remains are present relating to the use of the summit. Indications on the ground suggest the tradition of a Saxon stronghold as recorded by Leland in the 16th century may well be correct, although this requires further investigation. In 1989 a small excavation found evidence for a building on the summit, thought to be the medieval chapel. Evidence for the demolition of the castle may exist in a layer of rubble found containing early medieval pottery.

Bards and Burials
The events at Montacute and Glastonbury, the discovery of the Holy Cross and King Arthur's grave, share much in common that it suggests a common source. According to Gerald of Wales the details of Arthur's grave in the Glastonbury cemetery were passed to King Henry II by a Welsh bard. The details of Joseph of Arimathea's grave exist in an enigmatic text by the bard Melkin, who, we are told, lived before the time of Merlin.

This presents two possibilities:
  • The Prophecy of Melkin, as it exists today is a truncated text, originally, in its fuller form, detailed the graves of both King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea; or,
  • The Prophecy, which cannot be traced back earlier than John of Glastonbury's “Cronica”, is a re-working of an older prophecy about Arthur, adapted by Glastonbury to accommodate Joseph of Arimathea.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996.
James P Carley, A Grave Event: Henry V, Glastonbury Abbey, and Joseph of Arimathea's Bones, 1994, in Glastonbury and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, Boydell, 2001.
James P Carley, The Discovery of the Holy Cross of Waltham at Montacute, 1985, in Glastonbury and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, Boydell, 2001.
James P Carley, The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury's “Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesiae”. Translated by David Townsend. Boydell Press, 1985.
The Legend of Montacute by Gordon Rendell

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