Sunday, 26 July 2015

King Arthur's Crown

Before embarking on his final campaign against the English  in 1282 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales and Lord of Aberffraw, deposited his crown and other relics at Cymer Abbey for safekeeping. When Llywelyn was killed later that year the English King Edward I made the Welsh “surrender certain particularly precious relics as tokens of submission, including a piece of the true cross and the legendary crown of Arthur.”

The Last Prince of Wales
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (c. 1223 – 11 December 1282), also known as Llywelyn the Last, was King of Wales from 1258, until his death in 1282. He was the son of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn Fawr and grandson of Llywelyn the Great, the last sovereign prince and king of Wales before its conquest by Edward I of England.

Llywelyn found Edward a formidable opponent. At over six feet tall Edward, (17 June 1239 – 7 July 1307), was known as “Longshanks” and later in his reign as “the Hammer of the Scots”. He raised the greatest armies of the English Middle Ages, and summoned the largest parliaments; notoriously, he expelled all the Jews from his kingdom. The longest-lived of all England's medieval kings, he fathered no fewer than fifteen children with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile. After her death in 1290 he erected the Eleanor Crosses at locations he stopped over while taking her body to London.

Earlier, the Prince Edward led the forces of his father, King Henry III in the main battles of 13th century Second Barons' War defeating and killing Simon de Montfort in a massacre at the Battle of Evesham. He travelled across Europe to the Holy Land on crusade, taking the cross in 1268, and left for the Holy Land in July of 1270. In may of 1271, Edward helped relieve the city of Acre from siege.

Harlech Castle
During his Welsh campaigns Edward I built a formidable 'Iron Ring' of castles, a days march apart, encircling the country. From the first campaign the English king erected the castles of Flint, Rhuddlan, Builth Wells and Aberystwth. Following Llywelyn's second uprising in 1282 Edward began construction of an Iron Ring of castles in North Wales at Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris and Caernarfon. These colossal fortresses were painted white and represent the most ambitious construction project in medieval Europe, designed to prevent the recurrence of any further Welsh uprisings, Edward is said to have spent more than 10 times his annual income on building castles.

According to the Flores Historiarum during the construction of the castle the body of the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus was discovered at Caernarfon. On the king's orders it was exhumed then reburied  in the local church, seemingly a repeat performance of the disinterment of Arthur five years earlier in 1278. Maximus was said to be the father of Constantine, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, was the grandfather of Arthur.

Edward's sense of England's destiny seemed to be influenced by the tales of the legendary King Arthur, and his grandson Edward III further developed the idea of the Round Table at Winchester.

The First Welsh Campaign
After agreeing to the the division of Gwynedd in the terms of the Treaty of Woodstock in 1247 Llywelyn was restricted to the lands west of the River Conwy (Uwch Conwy) while east of the river (Is Conwy) as far as Chester, known as "Yr Perfeddwlad" (the middle land), was under English control of King Henry which he gave to his son Edward.

Edward's leadership qualities were soon tested when Llewelyn ap Gruffydd declared himself ruler of North Wales and in 1256 rebelled against English control of his homeland. Edward and his father had put down the rebellion by 1257.

Not surprisingly the population of Gwynedd Is Conwy resented English rule. Prince Edward, now Earl of Chester, visited the area in 1256 but failed to deal with the complaints of the Welsh. Later that year, in November,  Llewelyn, with his brother Dafydd, crossed the Conwy. By early December, Llywelyn controlled all of Gwynedd Is Conwy up to the gates of Chester. In retaliation an English army led by Stephen Bauzan invaded but was decisively defeated by the Welsh at the Battle of Cadfan in June the following year.

By early 1258 Llywelyn was using the title 'Prince of Wales' which the English refused to recognise. Llywelyn now embarked on a campaign of recovery of Welsh lands but in 1263 his brother Dafydd changed allegiance and went over to King Henry. In 1265, Llywelyn captured Hawarden Castle in Flintshire and routed the combined armies of Hamo Lestrange and Maurice fitz Gerald in north Wales. The following year Llywelyn moved on to Brycheiniog where he routed Roger Mortimer's army.

In a position of strength Llywelyn opened negotiations with King Henry and was recognised as Prince of Wales in the Treaty of Montgomery of 1267 which marked the high point of his power. Ten years after his recognition as the Prince of Wales by Henry III, Llywelyn was to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the new king, Edward I. From the outset, Llywelyn seemed almost to go out of his way to court Edward's anger not least by by continuing to ally himself with the family of Simon de Montfort.

King Henry died in 1272 and Edward became King. In 1276 King Edward I declared Llywelyn a rebel and planned to retake Gwynedd Is Conwy. The following year he assembled an enormous army claimed to be over 15,000 men to march against Llywelyn. Edward twice came to Chester to summon Llywelyn to make peace, but each time was refused, on the grounds that the Prince of Wales "feared for his safety". Subsequently, Edward laid siege to Rhuddlan Castle, where Llywelyn was starved into submission.

Rhuddlan Castle
Subdued, but not beaten, Llywelyn began his own program of re-fortification by strengthening his grandfather's castles at Criccieth, Ewloe, and Dolwyddelan. In 1273 he started construction of a new castle at Dolforwyn, high above the Severn valley, posing a challenge to the royal frontier post at Montgomery. Llywelyn's refusal to abandon this project was just one incident in a catalogue of disagreements with the new king.

Edward's patience ran out and in 1276 he decided to settle accounts with the defiant Welsh Prince. Edward himself took to the field at Chester in July 1277, and by August he had some 15,600 troops in his pay. Faced with these odds, Llywelyn had no option but to sue for peace. The ensuing Treaty of Aberconwy represented a comprehensive humiliation for the Prince of Wales; stripped of his overlordship he had won ten years earlier, Gwynedd was again reduced to its traditional heartland to the west of the River Conwy.

From declaration of war on 12 November 1276 to the proclamation of peace on 9 November 1277 it had taken Edward just a short year to bring Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, grandson of Llywelyn the Great, to submission. But if Edward thought the Prince of Wales was beaten he was to be greatly mistaken.

Edward Visits Arthur's Tomb
Within a few months of humbling Llywelyn, at Easter in 1278 Edward took his court to Glastonbury Abbey to visit the tomb of King Arthur. Today, Arthur's existence is considered doubtful at best, but in Edward's time he was considered a historical personage. It was of course Edward's great-grandfather Henry II who had suggested the monks dig for Arthur's grave  at Glastonbury.

Two days after Easter the king ordered the tomb to be opened. At twilight Edward had the remains removed to the Abbey's treasury while a grander tomb was constructed; according to Leland who visited the Abbey in the early 16th century, it was a black marble sarcophagus with a lion at each end and an effigy of Arthur at its foot.

The following morning Edward personally wrapped Arthur's bones in silk, while Eleanor of Castile similarly prepared Guinevere's remains for reburial. Finally Edward and Eleanor affixed their seals as if to authenticate the contents. The skulls of Arthur and Guinevere were not re-interred but remained on permanent display for popular devotion.

The timing of Edward's visit to Glastonbury immediately following the submission of  Llewellyn was significant. During his Welsh campaign Edward had repeatedly heard claims of the return of King Arthur to lead the Welsh to victory. The visit to Glastonbury was Edward's statement for denying Arthur's survival and crushing any remaining Welsh hopes of a revival.

Edward's Second Welsh Campaign
Regardless, without Arthur's return the Welsh revival started a few years later when the war flared up again. On 21 March 1282, Llywelyn's brother, Dafydd ap Gruffyd, attacked Hawarden Castle and sparked off the war of 1282-83. Dafydd, who had allied with Edward, suddenly abandoned his alliance launching this attack on the English, forcing Llewellyn to join him. Initially, the Welsh achieved great success, besieging Flint and Rhuddlan and reaching as far as Chester in the north and the Bristol Channel in the south.

However, by the end of the year Llywelyn was dead, having been killed on 11 December in a chance ambush at Cilmeri at The Battle of Irfon Bridge (Orewin Bridge) near Builth Wells. A memorial stone now marks the spot. Llywelyn's body was interred at Abbey Cwmhir while his head was hacked off and sent to Edward at Rhuddlan before being taken to the Tower of London.

The defeat effectively ended the independence of Wales; Edward had conquered Wales and extinguished its native rulers. The Welsh crown was lost.

Coron Arthur
Following his defeat of the Welsh Prince Edward had been presented with a coronet that had belonged to Llywelyn (Talaith Llywelyn), which was said to be “Arthur's Crown” (Coron Arthur).

Llywelyn had deposited this crown and other precious items, such as the Cross of Neith, with the monks at Cymer Abbey for safekeeping at the start of his final campaign in 1282. As we have seen he was killed later that year. Following Llywelyn's death his brother, Dafydd, claimed the title of Tywysog Cymru, or Prince of Wales, but his reign was extremely brief and he was killed not long after his brother without being able to reclaim the precious items from Cymer Abbey.

At Conwy a group of Welshmen are said to have presented King Edward with 'part of the most holy wood of the cross which is called by the Welsh "Croysseneyht" which Llywelyn son of Griffin, late Prince of Wales, and his ancestors, princes of Wales, owned it'.

The Cross of Neith was later taken regularly by Edward on his travels and spent a considerable sum having its pedestal adorned with gems set in gold in 1293-4. Edward also had a chalice made from Llywelyn's treasure, which he ordered be given to the Vale Royal Abbey at Whitegate in Cheshire,  a religious house he founded in 1270. It has been suggested that the Dolgellau chalice, found in 1890 on the mountainside of Cwn Mynach, near Dolgellau, is the same chalice.

Cymer Abbey
Cymer Abbey is today a ruined Cistercian abbey near the village of Llanelltyd, just north of Dolgellau, Gwynedd, in north-west Wales. The Abbey was used as a base by Llywelyn's troops in 1275 and 1279. In 1283 Edward I occupied the Abbey and a year later gave the Abbey compensation of £80 for damage caused in the recent wars.

When Llywelyn's coronet came into the possession of the English they had it re-gilded and sent to London. Soon after, Edward's oldest son, Alfonso, presented it at the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.

Llywelyn's Coronet, or “Arthur's Crown”, was kept at Westminster along with the English Crown Jewels, until 1303 when they were all re-housed in the Tower of London after they were all temporarily stolen. It is widely thought that Llywelyn's Coronet was destroyed alongside most of the original English crown jewels in 1649 by order of Oliver Cromwell during the English civil war; however, an inventory taken by the new republican administration prior to the destruction of the crown jewels makes no mention of this coronet and there is no record of it in the lists of relics at Westminster made in 1467, 1479 or 1520.

Just as Arthur’s bones at Glastonbury were used by Edward I as evidence of his physical death thus countering the belief that he would one day return to lead the Welsh to victory, the mysterious “Crown of Arthur” can be seen as a symbolic representation of Welsh sovereignty now in the hands of the English. Edward I had removed from Wales the all the articles of Llywelyn's dynasty and symbolically enforced his authority over Wales by reburying Arthur and taking “his crown”.

Yet, as with all of Arthur's relics, the bones at Glastonbury disappeared with the Dissolution, Excalibur was given to Tancred of Sicily by Richard I the Lionheart, Arthur's Crown mysteriously disappeared and is never heard of again.

Was this really King Arthur's Crown? Tellingly, there appears to be a complete lack of an earlier Welsh history for the possession of Arthur's Crown.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

* * *

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Tales from the Tin Mines

Archaeological evidence indicates that the mineral resources of Cornwall and West Devon have been exploited for over 3,500 years. The Romans extracted the ore from tin streams to supply the Empire across northern Europe. Extraction continued in early and later medieval times reaching its peak in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when, as a result of the rapid growth of pioneering copper and tin mining, the landscape of Cornwall and West Devon was dramatically transformed. Its deep underground mines supplied two-thirds of the world’s copper. The substantial mining remains seen today in the south west of England make this is a unique landscape. The Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape was given World Heritage Site status by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in July 2006. Legends from the mines have become indelibly written into the lore of the land which bears testimony to the past as much as the engine houses that survive across the south western peninsula of England.

Inhabitants of the Mines
St Just is the most westerly town in mainland Britain and the nearest to Land's End, and although the identity of the Saint has long been forgotten, the legacy of this mining centre of the Penwith peninsula lives on with disused engine houses littering the coastline of Cape Cornwall. Miner's were superstitious men and many strange beliefs grew around the copper and tin mines of Cornwall.

Cornwall's deepest mine is 1,000 metres deep and some run for great distances under the sea bed, some levels so close that miners claimed to be able to hear the rumbling of boulders being moved by the tides above their heads. Copper and tin have been extracted from Cornwall since the Bronze Age, some 4,000 years ago and it would seem that since prehistoric times the act of removing this material was considered a ritual act. Tales of the supernatural arose around mines and miners as people who were revered in the act of entering the earth, the abode of the gods, and retrieving the ore of these precious metals to manufacture high quality weapons, cauldrons and ornamental metalwork, over many, many hours and days to be later cast into wetlands and rivers as votive offerings to underworld deities.
The chimneys of Levant Mine from Pendeen Watch.
(Sheila Russell - Wikimedia Commons)
Most, if not all, underground mine workings possess tales of supernatural entities. Most mines are said to be haunted by the spirits of the victims of the many accidents that were commonplace when mining was a crude, labour intensive activity. The Cornish mines are no exception, acquiring tales of hauntings right up to recent times. At Wheal Vor, near Breage, north west of Helston, a forewarning of accidents would occur in the appearance of a white hare. This white hare normally appeared above ground in one of the engine houses but the miners never managed to catch it. Small black dogs were also said to haunt the place. Following the death of a man and boy who were sinking a shaft when a charge of explosive blew up prematurely. There bodies were so badly mutilated that they were no longer recognisable and were hastily shovelled into the furnace of the engine. Since then the small black dogs started to appear.

The sprites of Cornish mines, particularly in the Land's End peninsula, are known as the 'Knockers'. Miners treated the Knockers with respect and it was believed that anyone who was disrespectful to them would suffer bad luck. When a mine closed it is believed that the Knockers lived on in the abandoned mine. The activities of Knockers is recorded at Ballowall and Balleswidden mines near St Just, and the Rosewall and Ransom mines at St Ives. Generally the Knockers were benevolent and their tapping guided human miners toward productive lodes provided they received a portion of the miners lunch, usually the “hoggan” from his pasty, or “fuggan”, a piece of his cake. Some believed they were the spirits of Jewish miners, introduced into the Cornish mines since the time of the crucifixion, as they were never heard working on the Jewish sabbath. Others claimed they were not the spirits of Jewish miners but of those who had crucified Christ who could be heard gently singing in the mines on Christmas Day, Easter Day, All Saint's Day and the Jewish Sabbath.

According to an account by Wiliam Bottrell in A Tinner's Fireside Stories, the faery miners who worked in Ballowall mine were; “miserable, little, old, withered, dried up creatures; the tallest of them no more than three foot six or thereaway, with shanks like drumsticks, and their arms as long, or longer, than their legs. They had big, ugly heads, with grey or red locks, squinting eyes, hook noses and mouths from ear to ear. The one older and uglier than the rest seemed to take the lead in making wry faces and all sorts of mocking tricks. When he put his thumb to his nose and squinted at Tom, all those behind him did the same. Then all turned their backs, stooped down, lolled out their tongues and grinned at him from between their spindle shanks.”

The miner Tom Trevorrow had insulted the Knockers by refusing to leave the hoggan for them. The old miners had told Tom that the levels he was working on were more infested with “knackers” than any other part of the mine. These mischievous sprites were seen on many occasion running around the blacksmith's shop and going down the Buck Shaft that entered the current level he was working in. The shaft was so named because of a black buck-goat, or Bucca in the shape of one, was seen to go down the shaft but never found below. The term Bucca can mean hob goblin, or imp and corresponds to the Irish “puca”, English “puck” or Welsh “pwca”.

The Tinners' Way, known as the Old St Ives Road, is thought to have been an ancient trackway
traversing some of West Penwith's loneliest and wildest uplands. Thought to start at the Neolithic axe factory at Kenidjack castle cliff, running to the trading port of St Ives and the Hayle estuary, tin and copper ore were no doubt transported along this track which passes many ancient Cornish sites.

Carn Kenidjack, The Hooting Cairn
By St. Just, not far from Cape Cornwall and the sea, is a flat, sinister tract of land between Chun Castle and Carn Kenidjack. Known as The Gump (Cornish for 'moor', we are told), a place said to be haunted by witches and demons, a place where the piskies used to hold their merrymakings andnlead mortals astray. It is here that An' Pee Tregger encountered the pisky on her way home to Pendeen from Penzance market on Hallan Eve, the nearest Sunday to Halloween.
Carn Kenidjack from JT Blight

A tale of The Gump tells of a strange light seen on the rocks of Carn Kenidjack by two miners on their way home across the moor from the now abandoned Morvah mines. As the sun was setting the two miners decided to take the shorter route past the Carn. Darkness had quickly fallen by the time they had reached the rocks. Lights flickered amongst the rocks and the miners could see large forms moving about the Carn and heard a demonic three-men's song ending with a piercing hoot. A hooded horseman on a black horse rode up behind them and told the miners he was going up to the Carn to watch the wrestling. Some strange force compelled them to follow the horseman.

They didn't know the horseman but recognised the manky black horse from their mine. On reaching the Carn they found themselves amongst giants with painted faces who formed themselves into a circle. Two of the giants stepped forward to wrestle when someone called out for a light. The horseman, now seated on the ground, pulled back his hood to reveal his eyes ablaze with light. The two miners realised it was the devil himself who had led them there. One of the wrestlers was hurt in a fall and lay motionless on the ground. The crowd hailed the victor while the two miners tended the loser. As he lay dying they said a prayer for his soul when suddenly the hill was plunged into total darkness. A strong wind blew around the petrified men, which then suddenly stopped and returned the Carn back to moonlight. The giants had all disappeared. The men could see a huge black cloud rolling out to sea, in its midst the eyes of the devil continued to shine brightly. The two men could not find their way off the hill until sunrise the next morning.

The Tregeseal Barrow is an oval mound of an unusual entrance grave type known as a Scillonian Chambered Tomb. The Scillonian group of entrance graves is so called because the greatest concentration of the tombs is found on the Isles of Scilly. Similar entrance graves, consisting of a narrow entrance leading into a rectangular burial chamber covered by a small round stone cairn, are also known in Brittany and the Channel Islands.

Overlooking the rugged granite cliffs to the south of Cape Cornwall, facing west toward the setting sun, is the prehistoric funerary cairn known as Ballowall Barrow.

Ballowall Barrow
Ballowall Barrow, or Carn Gluze or Gloose, is one of the largest and most complex of the prehistoric funerary monuments that cluster along the West Penwith coastline. Situated one mile west of St Just it is thought the barrow was constructed by local communities to provide a striking tomb for the dead with a spectacular sea-cliff vista.

Ballowall Common has been heavily exploited by miners for the many lodes of tin which underlie this area, and the monument was long been concealed and thus protected beneath mine waste. The large, multi-phased monument is unique. No other monument of this type has so far been identified in Cornwall although during the 19th century the Cornish antiquarian William Copeland (WC) Borlase mentioned the excavation of another cairn nearby which showed some similarities in construction. Unfortunately no trace of this second cairn now survives.

It is probable that a conventional Neolithic Scillonian Chambered Tomb was the first structure here, followed in the middle-Bronze Age by a central cairn and cists. Finally, a collar was incorporated into the original mound and chamber of the entrance grave. The top of the cairn is now missing but persists to a height of almost 10ft. The barrow was lost after being used throughout the Neolithic and Middle Bronze Age. The 67 ft diameter cairn lie hidden for generations under the spoil from local tin mining activity.
Ballowall Barrow overlooking The Land's End  (pic: author)
The excavations by WC Borlase in 1878-79 uncovered middle Bronze Age urns containing cremated bones in the cists. Borlase, a native of Penzance and great, great, grandson of the naturalist and antiquary Reverend William Borlase (1695-1772), produced his Naenia Cornubiae in 1872 from Blight's and Dr Borlase's notes, a valuable record of Cornish megalithic monuments.Yet,  unfortunately, by today’s standards, his excavation record of Ballowall Barrow is inadequate and unreliable; there are many discrepancies in the accounts of the work, and many of the finds are now lost making interpretation of the site difficult.

Local tales suggest that the mound was exposed and recognisable as such perhaps not long before Borlase’s investigation. Borlase is said to have been drawn to the site by tales from miners returning from work at night who had reported seeing strange lights burning on the neolithic Ballowall Barrow on the cliff top. These mysterious lights were interpreted as dancing faeries.

St. Helen’s Oratory
Among all these old mining works and tales of the supernatural is St Helen's Oratory, the remains of 6th century chapel at Cape Cornwall near the tip of West Penwith, in a field known as Parc-an-Chapel (the Field of the Chapel). The chapel can be seen from Kenidjack Head to the north and Carn Gloose to the south.

St Helen's Oratory, Cape Cornwall (pic: author)
Cape Cornwall was long considered to to be the “true Land's End” (Pen Kernow) until accurate mapping proved otherwise. However, it is without doubt from here that the best view of Land's End is be had without having to fight your way through the crowds.

The existing stone structure is a Scheduled Ancient Monument on land recently acquired by the National Trust. Archaeological recording during conservation works in 2001 identified as a derelict agriculture building standing on or near the site of a Medieval chapel or oratory. Conservation works used existing rubble to rebuild the structure to the form we see today.

A now lost Chi-Rho marked stone found on Cape Cornwall near this location suggests a Christian site may have been in existence here from the 5th century, but it is uncertain when the first chapel was established on the site. The inscribed stone was reportedly thrown down the vicarage well in St Just, presumably where it remains. A Latin cross of 4th century type was ploughed up from the abandoned Cape Cornwall mine leat and subsequently erected on the gable of the present building.

The chapel was first described by Dr William Borlase in the mid-18th century, was 45 feet long and 12 across, with a window toward the altar. The dimensions and orientation of the present construction are quite different from those given by Borlase which may be the result of several rebuilds since the 18th century.

Borlase thought that the Cape may have originally been called "the promontorie of Helenus" named after Helenus, son of Priamus, arrived here with Brute was buried here but the sea has washed away his sepulchre. Borlase seems to have erroneously based his reasoning on classical cultures of the east Mediterranean as was topical at the time. The name Helen may derive a missionary who founded the site. The island of St Helen's (Enys Elidius) in Scilly also has an early Christian chapel named for St Elidius.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

J T Blight, Week at the Land's End, 1861. (Reprint 1989).
William Bottrell,Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, 1873.
William Copeland Borlase, Naenia Cornubiae, 1872. (Reprint, 2010).
CW Dymond, Cornwall's Ancient Stones: a Magalithic Enquiry, Oakmagic, 1999.
Robert Hunt, Popular Romances of the West of England, 1903. (Reprint 2012).
John Michell, The Old Stones of Land's End, Garnstone Press, 1974.
Craig Weatherhill & Paul Devereux, Myths & Legends of Cornwall, Sigma,1994.
Craig Weatherhill, Belerion, Alison Hodge, 1981.
Craig Weatherhill, Cornovia, Alison Hodge, 1985.
St Helen's Oratory: Archaeological Recording during repair works, LUDU, Cornwall Council and the National Trust, 2011.

* * *

Friday, 10 July 2015

The Glastonbury Pilgrimages

A Roman Catholic pilgrimage was held in 1895 after the beatification of Abbot Richard Whiting, John Thorne, and Roger James, the three Glastonbury martyrs executed in 1539.

In 1897 the archbishop of Canterbury led an international pilgrimage to Glastonbury Abbey in commemoration of the 1300th anniversary of the arrival of St. Augustine in England.

Excavations at the abbey site from 1907 until 1921 under the controversial Frederick Bligh Bond raised national awareness of the significance of the abbey and led indirectly to the formation of the Anglican West of England Pilgrimage Association, which almost every year since 1923 has organised a pilgrimage to the site.

This year the Anglican Glastonbury Pilgrimage takes place on Saturday 11th July 2015, with the Clifton Diocesan Annual Pilgrimage to Glastonbury due to take place on Sunday 12th July.

On Sunday a liturgy takes place in the Abbey grounds to commemorate the martyrdom of Blessed Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, and his fellow martyrs, Blessed Roger James and Blessed John Thorne, followed by the start of the procession at 2.15pm. The procession exits the Abbey grounds through the Abbey House Gardens, it proceeds through the town centre via Chilkwell Street, the High Street and Magdalene Street, returning to the Abbey through the Magdalene Street Gates at approximately 3pm.

A Town Divided

“There was a brief hour during the Middle Ages when poetic imagination wove all Glastonbury's threads into a single cord. Its Abbey rose to an apogee of honour. Pilgrims called it a second Rome. It wove so mighty a spell that nothing would do at the Reformation but total ruin. And still, through all that history of mysterious warfare and mysterious truce, the landscape endures. The enchantments of mist and sunset transform it from one day to another, and its final secret remains elusive.” - Geoffrey Ashe, King Arthur's Avalon.

On taking up residence in the Somerset town of Glastonbury many find a division between the local Somerset folks who have lived there for generations, and the incomers of ‘the New Age community’.

After moving to Glastonbury author's such as Jon Cousins (The Glastonbury Documents) and dowser Sig Lonegren noted it was something more than just a divided community and has something to do with the dissolution of the Abbey. The ritual murder of the three Glastonbury martyrs on the Tor makes absolutely no sense in the context of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and forces the opinion that there must have been, what Glastonbury author Geoffrey Ashe calls 'Something Else', a secret that the Last Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, took to the grave.

The dysfunction felt in today's Somerset town has its roots in this macabre ritual act in 1539 when the heart of the town and its spirit was broken.

Cousins has contacted Churches in Glastonbury and the Anglican and Catholic Bishops of this diocese to see if they would be willing to hold a healing service of remembrance in the Abbey on the day of the martyrdom. The local churches and all of the people of Glastonbury of all denominations were invited to participate in this ceremony to bring the separate parts of Abbot Whiting back together in an act of healing. But oddly not one of the Churches wanted to be involved with the event.

An Alternative Glastonbury Pilgrimage
Further research has revealed that the execution of the three Glastonbury martyrs actually took place on Friday, 14th November 1539.

In 2014 an event was organised by Jon Cousins for anyone wishing to pay their respects to Abbot Richard Whiting and his fellow Glastonbury martyrs John Thorne, and Roger James. After gathering at Frederick Bligh Bond 's War Memorial on Glastonbury High Street (outside St. John's Church) at 11 am, to observe a Silent Minute at 11.14 am, on Friday, 14th November. From there the procession walked to the summit of Glastonbury Tor where a further Silent Minute was observed.

Following the event Cousins posted the following on his Remember Richard Whiting Facebook page:

“Thank you everyone who came to Remember Richard Whiting, John Thorne, and Roger James today - holding a Silent Minute at Bligh Bond's War Memorial at 11.14 am.
A few of us proceeded to the summit of the Tor, where we observed the Silent Minute again. Also remembered today were the mysterious 'parties' mentioned in Lord Russell's letter to Thomas Cromwell on 16th November 1539 - who were killed on the same day as the Glastonbury Three – 'all condemned and four of them executed at a place called the Were' (possibly Weary-all Hill).”

* * *

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Old Oswestry Hill Fort Under Threat

One of Britain's oldest border settlements in Shropshire, England, Oswestry is a place of ancient origin. From an early period the area around Oswestry has been the battleground of fierce border feuds between England and Wales.

The Battle of Maserfield is thought to have been fought near there in 642 (or 641) between the Anglo-Saxon kings Penda of Mercia and Oswald of Northumbria, although the site of the battlefield is still disputed by historians. The Northumbrians were soundly beaten by a combined Mercian-Welsh force with Oswald killed and dismembered; according to legend, one of his forearms was carried to an ash tree by a raven, and miracles were subsequently attributed to the tree, from which the name of the town developed (Oswald's Tree) and Oswald was considered a saint. A spring with healing properties, Oswald's Well, is said to have rose where the bird dropped the arm from the tree.

Border feuds continued through the ages. In the early 13th century King John launched his campaign from Oswestry to meet Llywelyn ap lorwerth in battle. Some four years later in 1215 King John burnt Oswestry to the ground in retaliation for John Fitzalan's betrayal. Twenty years later Llewellyn attacked Oswestry and razed it to the ground. In 1277 Edward I started the construction of the town walls in his capaigns against the Welsh. The town became a key location in the uprising of Owain Glyndwr when in 1400 his followers burnt Oswestry to the ground. Three years later Glyndwr used Oswestry as his base prior to the battle of Shrewsbury.

Oswestry has also been known as, or recorded in historical documents as: Album Monasterium; Blancminster; Blankmouster; Blancmustier; Croes Oswald; Oswaldestre; Meresberie. In The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales Gerald of Wales writes of the journey from "Chester to the White Monastery (Album Monasterium), and from thence towards Oswaldestre".

The location of Gerald's Album Monasterium, is uncertain as three churches in the county of Shropshire bore that appellation; the first at Whitchurch, the second at Oswestry, the third at Alberbury. The White Monastery was apparently on the southside of the town, near some ground near the called Monk's Acre. The ancient name of the church was Blanc-minster; it seems likely that the White monastery adjoined the White Church.

Yr Hên Ddinas
Oswestry's story begins with the 3,000-year-old settlement of Old Oswestry, Yr Hên Ddinas, (The Old Fort), one of the most spectacular and best preserved Iron Age hill forts in Britain, with evidence of construction and occupation between 800 BC and 43 AD. The Iron Age hillforts is the finest example from a string of running through eastern Wales and the Marches, its highly impressive defences of formidable multiple ramparts enclosing a site of over 40 acres.

Countryside surrounding Old Oswestry hill fort is not protected from development. 
Photograph: Jonathan CK Webb
The site covers 44 acres of which the defences occupy some 28 acres and 16 acres by the interior. The vast ramparts consist mainly of four ditch and bank systems, average in height 4.5 to 5.5m externally and 1.0 to 1.5m internally, providing the perimeter defences, increasing to seven ramparts along its western side, enclosing a rough pentagonal shaped area that may have contained a small settlement. The site has two entrances; one on the western side and one on the eastern side. The western entrance consists of a series of deep rectangular hollows on either side, a feature not found at any other hillfort in Britain. The complex ramparts may have been necessary as Old Oswestry sits on an unusually low hill for a typical Iron Age hillfort, yet there are stunning views from the ancient earthwork.

Situated 1 mile north of Oswestry, approached from an unclassified road off the A483, the hillfort is located between the Roman legionary fortresses of Viroconium (Wroxter) and Deva (Chester), it is likely that the hillfort remained in use at least until the Roman conquest, however, there is no evidence that the Romans ever attacked the site, perhaps an indication of peace with the local Celtic tribe, the Cornovii? Some hillforts were re-occupied after the Romans left Britain; indeed nearby Wroxeter seems to have undergone some re-fortifications in the Post-Roman period, yet it is not known whether the Old Oswestry hillfort was occupied again.

Although the Welsh name for Old Oswestry Hillfort, Yr Hên Ddinas, 'The Old Fort,' there is an alternative legendary name of Caer Ogyrfan, 'the City of Gogyrfan.' According to the Triads of the Island of Britain, Gogyrfan the Giant was the father of Gwenhwyfar, King Arthur's Queen.

In the 8th or 9th centuries AD the hillfort became sandwiched between two major Dark Age boundaries when it was incorporated into the enigmatic earthwork of Wat's Dyke with Offa's Dyke running parallel to the west. Wat's Dyke is said to be an early Mercian frontier earthwork extending for a distance of 38 miles from the estuary of the Dee at Basingwerk, Flintshire, to the Morda Brook at Maesbury Mill, Shropshire, with two sections adjacent to the Old Oswestry Hillfort.

New Threat to Old Hill Fort 
After surviving 3,000 years of turbulent history a new threat has appeared in the countryside surrounding Old Oswestry hill fort with Shropshire council intent on pushing through a housing development abutting the fringe of the hill fort, a scheduled ancient monument in the care of Historic England, citing government targets for new builds. Land immediately surrounding the 13-acre hill fort has no statutory protection. Threats to the rural settings of historic buildings and sites have multiplied as local authorities struggle to meet housing targets set by the government.

A spokesperson for Shropshire council told the Observer: “The sensitivity of the Old Oswestry Hill Fort and its setting have been recognised by Shropshire council throughout its local plan-making process, which started in 2010. However, Shropshire council does not accept that proposed development would result in substantial harm to the significance of the hill fort. National planning guidance therefore requires that any impact must therefore be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal.” The council stated that it is obliged to provide 27,500 new homes within the county between 2006 and 2026.

Despite opposition from English Heritage, Protect Rural England, Oswestry Civic Society, OPHAG (the local Oswestry Archaeological and Historic Group), local residents during public consultation and an online petition that has drawn more than 8,000 signatures objecting to the plans, Shropshire Council is forging ahead under strategic county planning Site Allocations and Management of Development (SAMDev) Plan with proposals for significant housing development within the
curtilage of this globally important Iron Age monument.

The main concern is the close proximity of the housing sites OSW002, OSW003 and OSW004 in the plan and the impact the development will have on the Hillfort and its setting. After tinkering with the figures since 2012, the revised numbers of dwellings for these sites are: OSW002 – land off Gobowen Road reduced from 80 to 36; OSW003 – Oldport Farm, Gobowen Road increased from 25 to 35; OSW004 (part) – land off Whittington Road reduced from 125 to 117 dwellings. Or, in other words, regardless of objections, Shropshire Council is steamrolling ahead with plans for the
development that will stretch up to the very edge of the Hillfort, destroying the view of the top and all around.

Senior archaeologists, such as Professor Barry Cunliffe of the University of Oxford, are concerned with these “ethically unacceptable” plans that they say will destroy one of the nation’s greatest Iron Age treasures. The archaeologists aim to highlight what they see as the grave threat to heritage sites across Britain posed by the liberalisation of planning guidelines and controls to encourage economic growth. It is suspected the government is using the battle over Old Oswestry Hill Fort as a “stalking horse” to test the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced in 2012 to speed up development schemes such as housing, roads and high-speed rail lines.

However,  campaigners argue that the decision to approve the housing scheme in the face of overwhelming opposition by Oswestry residents directly contradicts the spirit of the 2011 Localism Act. The act is intended to strengthen and enhance local, grassroots decision-making on matters such as planning.

Professor Cunliffe said, “The setting of the hill fort is the issue here. The objectors to the development have a very, very strong case. It [The proposed scheme] ruins the setting.”

Old Oswestry Hillfort was designated as a Scheduled Monument (number 27556) in 1997 and is now in the guardianship of Historic England (formerly English Heritage). A spokesman for Historic England said: “Old Oswestry Hill Fort is a very important site of national significance. Since 2007 Historic England, previously English Heritage, has consistently expressed its concern over proposed development sites near the hill fort and we have worked with the landowners and Shropshire council to find ways to reduce potential impact, including upon its setting.

Saffron Rainey, chairman of the Civic Society, said the group believed it was a ‘grave mistake’ to include the area in the SAMDev report. Rainey said, “the hillfort was part of Oswestry’s heritage and a valuable ancient monument comparable to Maiden Castle."

He added, “If you look at Maiden Castle in Dorset you wouldn't dream of building within half a mile of it.

Hill fort said to be where King Arthur’s Guinevere was born has lasted 3,000 years: now it’s under siege - The Guardian 27 June 2015

* * *

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Where The Rivers Meet

The Emergence of Sacred Geography in the Prehistoric Landscape
Rising on the southern edge of Biddulph Moor, the Trent is a major water course forming a natural boundary between the Midlands and Northern England before discharging into the Humber estuary. At about 8km north of Lichfield near Alrewas, the Trent is joined by the River Tame, its most important tributary and the main river of the West Midlands. Alrewas is situated next to the line of Ryknild Street, the Roman road running from Letocetum (Wall) to Derby. The name of the Tame is said to be of Celtic derivation said to mean “dark one” common in many British rivers such as the Thames, Team and Tamar. This is the traditional territory of the Tomsaete, or "Tame-dwellers", an Anglian military tribe living in the valley of the Tame and around Tamworth which later formed the kingdom of Mercia in the early 7th century.

The source of the River Trent, Biddulph Moor
Today this area of south-eastern Staffordshire at the confluence of the Trent and the Tame Rivers is one of the most intensively quarried landscapes in the country. The extensive aggregate extraction has revealed a remarkable archaeological record, including a Neolithic-Early Bronze Age ritual landscape, an Iron age and Romano–British settlement landscape, and an extensive Anglo–Saxon settlement and cemeteries.

A 72 square kilometres study area at Catholme Farm has revealed a complex of ritual monuments including a 'Woodhenge' type monument consisting of multiple rings of post-holes, a 'sunburst' monument consisting of a central ring ditch with radiating pit alignments, a very large ring ditch with apparently associated linear features and cursuses. These monuments, together with a series of smaller ring ditches, a possible cursus and a series of pit alignments, are collectively termed the 'Catholme Ceremonial Complex'.

Although evidence is slight, as is common in lowland landscapes in England, the earlier Neolithic perhaps sees the beginning of the creation of a cultural landscape on the higher ground between the Trent and Tame rivers. Two possible causewayed enclosures have been identified at Alrewas and Mavesvyn Ridware in the Trent valley, each with three close-set ditch circuits, both enclosing a maximum area of 4.15ha. For a long time these two possible causewayed enclosures were considered the most northerly outliers of what was once viewed as a primarily southern phenomenon until the identification of definite causewayed enclosures further north changed this perception.

It is in this period that the cultural landscape at the confluence of the Trent and Tame takes shape with the focus of this landscape would appear to lie at Catholme Farm on the extensive river terrace immediately to the north of the confluence of the two rivers. The identification of a ceremonial complex at Catholme Farm is based primarily on the identification of three monuments of presumed ceremonial function in close proximity to one another. These monuments have been identified from aerial photography and have been subject to intensive geophysical survey as part of the Where Rivers Meet Project, but no excavation has taken place.

Catholme Ceremonial Complex
The natural landscape setting was shaped by the activities of the Trent and Tame rivers during the Devensian glaciation, around 20,000 years ago. The sites lie just north of a confluence of three rivers; the Trent, Tame, and Mease where a cluster of prehistoric monuments has been termed the ‘Catholme Ceremonial Complex’, a unique group of monuments that span the period from the late 4th to the early 2nd millennium BC. Yet further monuments spread out to the west and south up the valleys of the Trent and Tame in the wider landscape extending the period of ceremonial activity considerably both backwards and forwards with the cursus forming the beginnings of the ceremonial activity at Catholme.

Henges are rare within the West Midlands, but a small hengiform monument with radiating pit alignments, named as the Sunburst Monument consisted of a 16m-wide ring ditch from which 12 radiating lines of up to five pits or large postholes extended over a total diameter of nearly 60m, is found at the Catholme complex. Shortly after 2000 BC an inhumation burial was inserted within the centre of the segmented ditch of the Sunburst Monument, the placing perhaps reminiscent of the Stonehenge Archer, seemingly a ritual killing which appeared to have been deliberately and carefully buried in the ditch of the Salisbury Plain monument.

Catholme Ceremonial Complex
The easternmost of the monuments consists of five concentric circles of pits or postholes, approximately 45 by 35 metres, probably representing multiple timber circles, enclosing a central open space of 22 by 15 metres. The pits or postholes are arranged in 36 radial lines. There is no evidence of a surrounding ditch.

It is conjectured that the Woodhenge Monument was constructed around the same time as the segmented ditch of the Sunburst Monument, in a single phase of activity comprising the erection of extremely large oak posts set in pits of 1.0 m in diameter and up to 1.2 m deep in five concentric circles around a central ceremonial area. The majority of the posts also form radiating alignments from the centre outwards in a similar style to the pits defining the first phase of the Sunburst Monument, perhaps purposefully mirroring that design.

The Woodhenge structure shares similarities with a number of others sites outside of the region, although it is extremely rare to have the posts so densely arranged. However, timber circles are within the West Midlands are extremely rare and perhaps shares similarity with the timber circles Woodhenge, Durrington Walls and Stanton Drew for example, of Wessex. There is a good argument that Stonehenge started life as a timber circle.

About 200m to the west, immediately adjacent to Catholme Farm, is a second potential ceremonial monument comprising a ring ditch with six lines of pits or postholes radiating from it in similar ‘sunburst’ pattern. About 100m further west is a sub-rectangular enclosure which has been interpreted as possibly representing a small cursus monument of a type similar to a monument found in the valley of the Warwickshire Avon.

This complex is delimited to the north and south by two well defined pit-alignments running east to west and forming a 200-250 metres wide ‘corridor’ which contains the monuments which today is effectively closed by the A38 road and Trent & Mersey Canal at its western end and by the railway at its eastern end. Extending further south, to what is now the National Memorial Arboretum, is a large multiple ring ditch adjacent to the Tame, just south of its confluence with the Trent.

The clustering of cursuses within the middle Trent valley has been likened to similar clusters on the Yorkshire Wolds at Rudston and on Cranborne Chase. Yet, unlike Rudston, the cursuses within the Tame-Trent confluence have no apparent specific focal point. However, the function of cursuses remains a matter for ongoing debate.

The earliest monument in the Catholme Ceremonial Complex is the cursus on its western edge, thought to have constructed in the late 4th or early 3rd millennium BC with the central feature of the Sunburst monument to have been dug after c.2000 BC, the Catholme Ceremonial Complex represents over a thousand years of activity within the wider landscape extending back to the earlier Neolithic and forward into the Iron Age and later.

Catholme Woodhenge copyright © University of Birmingham 
Romano-British Continuity
The site appears to have continued in use with an unenclosed settlement unearthed at Catholme comprising of at least eight typical Iron Age`roundhouses and several four- and six-post structures. Cropmark evidence of field boundaries and enclosures typical of the Iron Age and Roman periods extends into the Romano-British occupation in the early 4th century.

The nearest Roman urban centre to Catholme was Letocetum was situated just to the southwest along the Watling Street. Catholme would appear to fall between the Cornovii and the Corieltavi, with the border possibly following the line of Ryknield Street.  However, Roman impact in the Catholme area is slight, and essentially comprises Ryknield Street, about 800m to the east of the site, with evidence consisting of ceramic finds and the consumption of Romano-British styles of pottery.

Evidence of British Survival comes mainly from place-names such as Comberford, containing "cumbre" as a reference to Britons; Eccleshall indicating Anglo-Saxon recognition of a British institution; the names of the two main Roman centres were preserved, possibly indicating continuity at Penkridge (Pennocrucium) and Lichfield (Letocetum).

Anglo-Saxon Settlement
In common with much of the West Midlands there is scant evidence for rural settlement in Anglo-Saxon period Staffordshire. Archaeological evidence relating to rural settlement in the early Anglo-Saxon period in the County is largely limited to what can be gleaned from burial sites and odd isolated finds; known distributions suggest that Anglo-Saxon influence was limited to the extreme east of the County, and much of it was late.

Anglo-Saxon inhumation, cremation and mixed-rite cemeteries in the Middle Trent Valley are mainly datable to the late 6th - early 7th century period with little or no 5th century material, with the majority of the county having no known early Anglo-Saxon burial sites.

Outside of the written sources, evidence for rural settlement in the middle and late Anglo-Saxon period in Staffordshire is largely limited to excavations at Catholme where a large settlement of Grubenhauser and wall-post buildings was occupied from at least the 7th to 9th centuries, set within a framework of enclosures and trackways defined by shallow ditches, extending in the direction of the Wychnor cemetery, discovered in 1899 by workmen digging a sand-pit.

Situated at the western limit of the essentially East Midlands distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, the Wychnor cemetery, of 6th - 7th century date is known only from quarry-finds, containing artefacts of Anglo-Saxon type. Evidence from excavation, cropmarks and fieldwalking suggests that the excavated features may represent the final phase of a single settlement, located at the Tame-Trent confluence in the mid-Romano-British period, and migrating along the river terrace through the early Saxon period into the middle-late Anglo-Saxon period.

The evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period is dominated by the excavation of the 7th-9th century settlement at Catholme consisting of some sixty-five buildings perhaps representing only about half of the settlement. The Wychnor cemetery, 500m southwest of the settlement at Catholme, strongly suggests a relationship between the two, even if the finds from the cemetery (brooches, spearheads, shield-bosses and pottery vessels) suggest a 6th, or possibly early 7th, century date, perhaps slightly earlier than the settlement.

This apparent continuity of settlement from the Roman period suggests that the Anglo-Saxon settlements of the 5th and later centuries further east in the Trent Valley did not cause major disruption of the agricultural regime, even in the eastern part of the county, and the population of Catholme may have been substantially, even wholly, native.

The presence of Germanic style brooches and weapons in the Wychnor cemetery may indicate the arrival of an elite group of Germanic origin, but it may equally represent the adoption of Germanic cultural styles by the native inhabitants.

Situated at the extreme western limit of Germanic influence in Britain, this geographically significant location of the meeting of the rivers Tame and Trent at Catholme would appear to provide evidence of a 'cultural frontier' demarcating the limits of early Anglo-Saxon expansion in Staffordshire.

Gavin Kinsley, Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire: An Overview: Rural Settlement, West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Trent & Peak Archaeological Unit.
Henry Chapman, Mark Hewson, Margaret Watters, The Catholme Ceremonial Complex, Stafforshire, UK, The Prehistoric Society 2010.
Simon Buteux, Henry P. Chapman, Where Rivers Meet: The Archaeology of Catholme and the Trent-Tame Confluence, CBA Research Reports, 2009.
Where Rivers Meet: Landscape, Ritual, Settlement and the Archaeology of River Gravels,
University of Birmingham, 2006 (updated 2012) Archaeology Data Service (ADS).
Where Rivers Meet’ an Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund project overseen by English Heritage and undertaken by Birmingham Archaeology between 2002 and 2004.

* * *

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

* * *