Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Arthurian London

A Sacred Landscape
London is rarely mentioned in connection with the Post-Roman warlord Arthur which is at odds with Londinium being a major city of Roman Britain; we could justifiably expect to find, arguably, one of the most important literary figures of the period to have significant associations with the capital city. Yet classic Arthurian medieval literature, from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Thomas Malory, makes no claim on the capital city being Arthur's base. Furthermore, archaeological evidence for a Post-Roman presence in London is surprisingly slight, indeed most historians believe Londinium appears to have emerged from scratch with a complete absence of evidence for Geoffrey’s New Troy and Caer Ludein, the city of Lud.

It is suspected that Londinium went into rapid decline by the end of the 5th century and was practically abandoned following the Roman withdrawal of Britain in 410 AD. Even traces of Saxon London remained elusive to archaeologists for a number of years until excavations carried out by the Museum of London Archaeological Service (MOLAS) a mile or so to the west of the Roman town contained roughly within the square mile of the City walls found evidence of the early Saxon town underlying what is today the West End and the Aldwych, a name which itself may refer to the 'old town'. On the site of the extension to the Royal Opera House they unearthed evidence of ‘Lundenwic’ including a metre thick solid gravel road running through the site, which is thought to be the 'King's Highway'. In 2008 an Anglo-Saxon cemetery was discovered at Covent Garden indicating that Germanic migrants had begun to settle in the area at least as early as the 6th century and possibly in the 5th.

The Battersea Shied found  in
the Thames at Battersea Bridge
Although there is scant evidence of major settlement before Londinium, a prehistoric presence is attested by the large numbers of Bronze and Iron Age weaponry found in the river and along the banks of the Thames making it tempting to suggest, as some have, that this was once an important boundary with the weapons evidence of tribal warfare. An important boundary yes definitely, but a warfare frontier seems highly unlikely as most of these weapons, and other deposits, had never been used before being thrown to the watery depths. Some had been deliberately bent or broken, and would appear to be evidence of ritual deposits to Otherworld gods. A similar concept is found with the deposit of Neolithic stone axes; brittle and highly polished, they can never have been intended to be used as cutting implements. Indeed, many would have been completely useless as tools and would have shattered on impact, yet must have taken many, many hours to manufacture and were exchanged far and wide, and finally frequently deposited in rivers and marshes. The majority of the raw material removed from ancient mines and quarries has never been accounted for; suggestive that most weapons and tools must have been deposited in wetlands and remains to be found. The very retrieval of the raw material and then manufacture was such an arduous, painstaking task, with the craftsmen in ancient times toiling many hours mining, polishing or metalworking knowing that the finished product would simply be tossed into the water; the whole process, from the onset, must have carried religious significance. Were these items dropped into the water by family members for their ancestors to use in the Otherworld; a realm that is always the other-side of a water boundary? These deposits suggest the Londinium area around the ancient Thames (Tamesis) must have been regarded as a sacred river in prehistoric times, much like the Ganges remains today.

Bronze Age Barrows have been identified at Greenwich and recent evidence has shown that the south bank of the Thames, at Southwark, was used as a religious area for some 3,000 years following the discovery of the site of a Bronze Age barrow. A Roman well was found in Southwark cathedral with a cult figure, a hunter god possibly Cunomaglos, the Lord of the hounds, at the bottom of the shaft, and a few hundred yards from the cathedral an extensive Romano-Celtic temple complex has been discovered. We must consider the possibility that in prehistoric times the area around London was a ritual landscape and purposefully kept 'clean'.

The Living Head
The archaeological record of London indicates a break in activity between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Saxons. Evidence of Post-Roman Britons in London may yet be unearthed but is currently faint at best, yet an old Celtic custom being carried out in the city is recited in the Mabinogion. The collection of tales from medieval Welsh manuscripts known as the Mabinogion was thought to have been written down during the 13th century and later, but the tales are clearly much older than the existing manuscripts and display strong characteristics of pre-Christian Celtic religious iconography. The Four Branches depict the classic hallmarks of a primitive supernatural belief system, notably, with the tale of Brânwen uerch Llyr (Brânwen daughter of Llyr), containing the story of the ‘Living Head’ portraying the Celtic obsession with the head as a cult object.

In Brânwen uerch Llyr, the second Branch of the Mabinogi, Bendigedfran (Brân the Blessed) travels to Ireland to rescue his sister Brânwen, who is being abused by her husband the king. During the horrific battle for his sister Brân is fatally wounded, pierced in the foot. Realising he is dying he demands his companions cut his head off and take it with them back to Prydein (Britain). This battle is said to have killed all of Ireland except for five pregnant women and all of the army of the Island of the Mighty except for seven survivors who Brân's talking head guides to the other side, feasting on magical isles for fourscore and seven years yet never growing older.

Brân tells the seven survivors, Pryderi, Manawyddan, Gluneu Eil Taran, Taliesin, Ynawc, Grudyen the son of Muryel, and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen, to take his head to the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France:
The Head of Bran - Alan Lee

“And then Bendigeidfran ordered the severing of his head. 


'Take the head' said he 'and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head. Cross over to the other side.'”


“........They journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, inasmuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.”
[1]

The head of Brân is clearly a talisman, believed to possess supernatural powers of protection and even after its burial the head was still thought to retain its power in defending the Island of the Mighty. The Third Branch, The Mabinogi of Manawydan, opens with a continuation of the scene at the White Mount:

“After the seven men we spoke of above had finished burying the head of Bendigeidfran in the White Hill in London, facing France, Manawydan gazed at the township of London, and at his companions, and gave a heavy sigh, and felt great grief and longing in [his heart].” 

And thereafter the White Mount in London is not mentioned again in the Four Branches.

Celtic scholar Anne Ross suggests the form of the legend of the Talking Head as we have it in the Mabinogi has its roots clearly in the ancient Celtic past:

"This legend, appearing in a medieval Welsh tale, is unique in containing verbal verification of all that is implicit in the material representations of the human head. Bran is clearly a god in origin, and the story of the decapitation is probably a later rationalisation of an original cult legend about a wonderful supernatural head. In this head are combined all the powers with which the human head was accredited by the Celts. It is apotropaic (it averts danger of invasion); it is prophetic (it reveals future events); it is divine (it presides over the Otherworld feast at which the wonderful birds of Riannon, the Great Queen, British equivalent of the Gaulish horse goddess Epona, sing ceaselessly). The name Beridigeitfran, Blessed Raven, carries, a Christian connotation. It is probable that originally the element Pen was present, the original name being Bran the . . . Head." [2] 

The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) later refer to King Arthur removing the head because he thought himself able to defend the island alone, with no need for help from such things. The episode is recalled in the Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain:

The Head of Brân the Blessed, son of Llyr, which was concealed in the White Hill in London, with its face towards France. And as long as it was in the position in which it was put there, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island; The second Fortunate Concealment: the Dragons in Dinas Emrys, which Lludd son of Beli concealed; And the third: the Bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, in the Chief Ports of this Island. And as long as they remained in that concealment, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island.

And they were the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when these were disclosed. And Gwrtheyrn the Thin disclosed the bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed for the love of a woman: that was Ronnwen the pagan woman; And it was he who disclosed the Dragons; And Arthur disclosed the Head of Brân the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own.
[3]

The 9th century Historia Brittonum claims Vortimer fought four battles against the Saxons: “.......But Vortimer soon after died. Before he died he told his followers to set his tomb by the coast, in the port from which (the English) had departed, saying 'I entrust it to you. Wherever else they may hold a British port or may have settled, they will never again live in this land'. But they ignored his command and did not bury him where he had told them: for he is buried in Lincoln” [4]

This earlier account is at odds with the Triad in stating that his tomb was in one port from which the Saxon's departed, almost certainly in the south east, but one thing all accounts agree on is that the failure to honour the talisman led to the arrival of the Saxons.

The Blessed Raven
The name 'Bendigedfran ap Llyr' means 'Blessed Raven, son of the Sea' in Welsh: 'fran' from 'brân' = 'raven', and the element 'bendiged' = 'blessed' is ultimately derived from the Latin 'benedictus' and not the usual Welsh term for 'holy, otherworldy' = 'gwyn', possibly because the name Brânwen had already been taken by his sister. The term 'bendiged' is usually only found attached to medieval Welsh figures, like Cadwallader Bendiged or Vortimer Bendigeit (Gwerthefyr the Blessed) the son of Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn the Thin), as cited in the Triad above, who's bones were interred at the chief ports of the Island again to act as a talisman against invaders. [5]

It is claimed that Cadwallader founded the church standing on the north side of Ludgate Hill in 677 AD. However, the church of St Martin's at Ludgate Hill is first mentioned c.1138. The present church, rebuilt after its destruction by the Great Fire, is of 1677-86 and has always been attributed to Wren. This church is the legendary burial place of Cadwallader and King Lud.

We find further parallels in early Irish sources where the heroes are buried with their face toward the enemy. In addition to the accounts of Bendigedfran ap Llyr and Vortimer Bendigeit we find a local tradition of talismanic burial in North Wales extant in the 19th century. In this story Arthur falls dead under a hail of arrows whilst pursuing an unnamed enemy from Dinas Emrys, the place where Vortigern's dragons were concealed. The site of Arthur's fall is commemorated in the 'Pass of the Arrows' (Bwlch y Saethau) near the summit (Yr Wydffa) of Snowdon. Arthur is said to be buried here under a cairn of stones known as 'Carnedd Arthur', “so that no enemy might march that way so long as Arthur's dust rested there”. On the other side of the ridge is a valley called Cwm-y-Llan (Camlann?).  Arthur's knights that survived the battle are said to be sleeping in Ogof Llanciau Eryri (the Cave of the Young Men of Snowdon), below the cliff on the left-hand side near the top of Llyn Llydaw. [6] This is further evidence of belief in the potency of talismanic burial.

The White Mount - from the Mabinogion, Jones & Jones
Consequently we have Brân, the raven, at the White Hill, which is now known as Tower Hill, the site of the Tower of London, renown as a site for beheading. Today, perhaps we find a continuation in the talsimanic value of Brân's head at Tower Hill  with the popular belief that if ravens leave the Tower of London the monarchy and the tower itself will fall. The story goes that Charles II of England heard this prophecy in the 17th century and ordered the wings of six (sometimes seven) ravens in the Tower be trimmed, thus preventing their flight from the White Hill. Today the ravens of the Tower are cared for by the Yeoman Warders. But this is thought to be largely an invented tradition. The official Tower of London historian Geoff Parnell scrutinised over a thousand years of records and can could find no trace of the raven legend further back than the late 19th century. [7]

Yet, the link with the head at White Hill, the raven and the head of Brân must be more than coincidental and has persisted over a remarkable length of time.

Continued:
A Tale of Two Cities
Book the First: The New Troy
Book the Second: The Knyght Presoner
Book the Third: London Stone


Copyright © 2012 Edward Watson
http://clasmerdin.blogspot.co.uk/

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Notes & References
1. Will Parker, Second Brânch: Brânwen Daughter of Llyr, from The Four Brânches of the Mabinogi, Bardic Press: 2005.
2. Anne Ross, The Human Head in Insular Pagan Celtic Religion, Proceedings of the Society, 1957-58.
3. Rachel Bromwich, 37 R. Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain in Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, Wales University Press, Third Edition, 2006.
4.  John Morris, ed. and trans. History of the British (Historia Brittonum) by in Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Phillimore, 1980.
5.  Mary Jones, Celtic Encyclopedia, Bendigedfran ap Llyr
6.  John Rhys, Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx, Vol 1, 1901.
7. Tower's raven mythology may be a Victorian flight of fantasy – The Guardian, 15 November 2004


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