Sunday, 25 August 2019

Taliesin: Poems of Inspiration

The Book of Taliesin
Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain
By Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams.
Published by Penguin Classics, June 2019 

The great work of Welsh literature, translated in full for the first time in over 100 years by two of its country's foremost poets.

“There are poems here that offer glimpses into fierce battles and the lavish spoils of war, poems to consolidate the poet’s fame and status at the royal courts he serves; poems in a very distinctive voice that shifts unpredictably through time and space, the voice of a poet who writes as though he literally shared the life of the things he celebrates and had witnessed the distant events he recalls;…… containing compositions ranging in date from the ninth – possibly even the sixth – to the thirteenth century…….the Llyvyr Taliessin…...gathers together the kind of songs that may have been sung in the Northern British courts of the sixth century with the poems of Taliesin’s various anonymous successors in an ongoing bardic tradition, which transformed him into a North Welsh prophet, a kind of Christian shaman….” - Lewis and Williams, p. xiii.

The Book of Taliesin (Llyfr Taliesin) is one of the most famous of Middle Welsh manuscripts, a compilation of poems dating from the first half of the 14th century. It was probably named as such by that 17th century collector of manuscripts Robert Vaughan of Hergest, Herefordshire. Written in a style dated to the first-half of the 14th century the manuscript, containing poetry drawn from several sources, the Book of Taliesin is considered to be a copy made by a single scribe of an older manuscript. The same hand was responsible for copies of the Romance of Geraint and Enid and a copy of a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae which has led to the suggestion that the scribe was a professional working in a scriptorium based at a religious establishment in south or mid-Wales, possibly the Cistercian monastery at Cwm Hir, near Llandrindod Wells in Powys. [Nerys Ann Jones, Arthur in Early Welsh Poetry, MHRA, 2019, p.122]

The persona of 'Taliesin' is something of a mystery (Who is Taliesin?); the first mention of a poet of this name (or title) occurs in the 9th century Historia Brittonum and the earliest poems contained within the Book of Taliesin are said to date from the 6th century. Clearly it cannot be the same man who also wrote the later poems contained therein and dated to several hundred years later. Scholars have toyed with the idea that Taliesin was a title for a bard, and could therefore be used by different people over a long period of time, perhaps a poet laureate type position?

In the introduction of this new book by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams the authors discuss the many guises of Taliesin, the 'historical' figure, the Shape-Shifter, the Prophet, and the Taliesin Legend, as recorded in the 16th century Hanes Taliesin - none of which poems appear in the Book of Taliesin. The authors continue with In Reading Taliesin, the Poet's Self Representation, and Obscurity in the Poems. The introduction ends with a consideration of the Manuscript and Translation.

We now get to the Taliesin poems, all sixty-one of them translated into English and gathered together in one volume for the first time in a hundred years. The Poems are divided into sections, starting with the Heroic Poems. These are the twelve works considered by the late Ifor Williams to be by the 'Historical' Taliesin, the 6th century poet wrote in praise of Urien Rheged.

Section two features the so-called Legendary Poems, such as the well-known Battle of the Trees, Teyrnon's Prize Song, Ceridwen's Prize Song, The Spoils of Annwfn and the Elegy for Uther Pendragon.

The third section deals with the Prophetic Poems attributed to Taliesin, including the Great Prophecy of Britain (Armes Prydein Fawr) composed in the 10th century, and clearly not be the work of the same Taliesin who wrote of Urien in the 6th century.

The fourth part includes the Devotional Poems, works of a religious nature, followed by two ungrouped poems; Disaster for the Island and In Praise of Tenby.

The authors dedicate the book to Marged Haycock, 'in gratitude and admiration', who's earlier works on Taliesin have clearly had much influence on the authors of this volume.

Oddly, Williams and Lewis's includes a Guide to Welsh Pronunciation but there is no Welsh in this book, and it will be perhaps disappointing to some that the Welsh language versions of these poems are not included. However, that said, the majority of readers will be grateful for the complete collection of Taliesin's works with full translation in English, accessible in one volume.

Essential reading.

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Sunday, 18 August 2019

Arthur in Early Welsh Poetry - Nerys Ann Jones

“those who do not know of the Brindled Ox, with its stout collar,
[and] seven score links in its chain.
And when we went with Arthur, wretched journey,
save seven [men], none returned from Mand[d[wy Fort.”
- Preidu Annwn

This is not a book about the historicity of King Arthur, writes Nerys Ann Jones in the introduction. Neither does it scrutinise the rise in Arthurian literature in Medieval Wales, but examines all the references to Arthur in early Welsh poetry and provides the reader with the necessary means to interpret them.

These poetic texts are found throughout four compilations of early Welsh literature produced between 1250 and 1350; The Black Book of Carmarthen, The Book of Aneirin, The Hendregadredd Manuscript, The Book of Taliesin. Many of these texts are thought to be older than their manuscripts sources, yet despite efforts by modern scholars, many of these works are notoriously difficult to date with any certainty.

It is therefore not possible to claim that these poems were composed before Geoffrey of Monmouth’ Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1138, a work that had immense impact on the Arthurian legend. However, these early Welsh poems can be considered largely free of its influence.

These poems portray Arthur in a number of roles; a leader of battles, a warrior with supernatural powers, slayer of giants and witches, rescuer of prisoners from the Otherworld. They bear witness to lost episodes about his father Uthr, his son Llachau, his wife Gwenhwyfar, and his companion Cai. None are narrative texts, yet are are defined by an allusiveness would have been appreciated by their intended audience throughout the Welsh noble courts.

We find here all the classic Arthurian early Welsh poems; The Stanzas of the Graves, Pa Gur, the Gwawrddur poem from the Book of Aneirin, Kat Godeu (The Battle of the Tress), Kadeir Teyrnon, The Elegy for Uthr Pendragon, Preideu Annwn, including poems from other manuscripts, such as The Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle.

Twenty-six references to Arthur are discussed in this volume. For each poem Jones provides a short discussion, illustration from the manuscript, relevant text in medieval Welsh with English translation and a comprehensive word list.

Table of Contents:

1 The Black Book of Carmarthen 
The Stanzas of the Graves
Mi a wum …
The Stanzas of Geraint son of Erbin
Englynion by Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr for the warband of Madog son of Maredudd
Pa gur …

2 The Book of Aneirin 
The Gwawrddur/Gorddur poem

3 The Hendregadredd Manuscript
The poetry of Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr and his contemporaries
Englynion by Cynddelw for the warband of Madog son of Maredudd
The poetry of Llywarch Brydydd y Moch and his contemporaries
Canu i Dduw attributed to Llywarch Brydydd y Moch
The poetry of Bleddyn Fardd and his contemporaries
Awdl by Bleddyn Fardd for Rhys ap Maredudd

4 The Book of Taliesin
Kat Godeu
Kadeir Teyrnon
Song of the Steeds
‘The Elegy for Uthr Pendragon’
Preideu Annwn

5 Poems in Other Manuscripts
The Dialogue of Arthur and the Eagle
Fragments of a Dialogue Between Melwas and Gwenhwyfar
The Elegy for Cynddylan
Index of Discussions of Arthurian Characters and Places

Arthur in Early Welsh Poetry edited by Nerys Ann Jones
Publisher: Modern Humanities Research Association (12 July 2019)

Other titles in the MHRA Medieval Welsh Literature series include:

A Selection of Early Welsh Saga Poems, edited by Jenny Rowland (2014) and Early Welsh Gnomic and Nature Poetry edited by Nicolas Jacobs (2012).

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Thursday, 8 August 2019

Tintagel: New Bridge Opens

English Heritage's new £4m bridge linking the 13th Century Tintagel castle to the headland was due to open on Friday 9th August but has been delayed to Sunday 11th August due to storms forecast for the weekend.

Good idea, or bad idea?

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Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Except Seven, None Rose Up

The Seven Survivors of Camlann

Plotting Camlann: Letters from the Dead

Arthur and the Saints
Arthur is intimately liked to the early Saints, appearing in nine different Saints’ Lives (Vitae) that are largely independent of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Most of these accounts, including Cadoc, Carannog, Gildas, Illtud, Padarn and the Breton Saint Goeznovius, were written in the 11th and 12th centuries, some 500 years or so after Arthur is said to have lived and, it must be admitted, of little historical value; five of these Lives were written at the Celtic monastery established by St Cadoc at Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales.

The majority of the Vitae portray Arthur as a tyrant, typified as a fractious warlord as a foil to display the excellent skills of the Saint. Yet these accounts of the deeds of the saints, fictitious or otherwise, were shaping the future Arthurian legend.

Gildas is often considered one of the few contemporary sources for late 5th and early 6th century Britain and frustratingly fails to mention Arthur by name. Explanation is providedby Gerald of Wales who claims that after Arthur killed Hueil the brother of Gildas he threw all his books into the sea. But Gildas is not writing a history; he bemoans the sins of the Britons who are being punished by God with the onslaught of the Saxons.

There are two versions of the Life of Gildas. The first was written in the 9th century by an unnamed monk at the Rhuys monastery in Brittany, the second "Life" was a work by Caradoc of Llancarfan in the 12th century and includes the first account of the abduction of Arthur’s Queen Guinevere by Melvas, king of the Summerland, who holds her captive at Glastonbury. Arthur musters the forces of Dumnonia and besieges her abductor but Gildas, then Abbot of Glastonbury, intervenes to peacefully resolve the matter. In response Arthur makes gifts of land to the Abbey.

The Age of the Saints
Christianity in Wales is said to have emerged in the late Roman period of the country. Initially the religion was banned in the Empire through a series of edicts. It is doubtful if the persecution of Christians as seen in the eastern empire, was felt to such a degree this far in the west. However, Gildas writes of the martyrdom of Aaron and Julius in Caerleon in South Wales around the same time as the first British martyr Alban at Verulamium. Debate continues as whether these martyrdoms occurred during the persecutions of Severus (208-211), Decius or Valerian (251–259), or Diocletian (304).

The Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon,
the site of the martyrdom of SS Julius and Aaron?

The persecution of Christians was to officially come to end during the during the reign of Constantine the Great (306–337) and Christianity began to develop as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. This was all to change with the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain in 410 when Christianity is said to have all but died out in the island. However, survive it did and the gentle flicker of the flames developed under Celtic influence rather than Roman with the emergence of the Celtic Saints in Western Britain.

After nearly two hundred years of freedom to develop unhindered the Celtic Church came under pressure to accept the religious practices of the Roman Empire once more when St Augustine arrived in Britain in 597. Augustine was on a Papal mission to convert the Anglo Saxons in the south and east of the country but he soon came in contact with the native church in the west.

Following a series of meetings with the Welsh Bishops, known as the Synod of Chester, the Celtic Church refused to accept his authority. Soon after the Celtic monastery at Bangon-on-Dee, just outside Chester, was attacked by the Northumbrian King Aethelfrith and raised to the ground with many hundreds of its monks massacred.

The Massacre of the Clergy of Bangor by Aethelfrith

Augustine has been see as complicit in this destructive act, perhaps in frustration at the Welsh Bishops’ rejection of his (Papal) authority, or a deliberate attempt to wipe out the native church. History has muddied the waters in identifying the real reason and date for the destruction of Bangor-on-Dee, otherwise known as “The Battle of Chester” (Urbs Legionis).

The Brut y Brenhinedd, a Welsh version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) records the battle as occurring at Bangor Orchard (Welsh = Perllan Fangor) which seems to suggest it was indeed the destruction of the Celtic monastery that Aethelfrith accomplished. This is supported in the Triad; Three Gate-Keepers at the Action of Bangor Orchard.

Dates for the battle vary between sources, several push the date typically to 613 x 616 to separate the event from Augustine who is said to have died in 26th May 604. Other Chronicles offer an earlier date.

The Welsh Annals list an important synod of St Augustine with the Welsh bishops at "Urbs Legion"  for the year 601 AD. Bede records a second synod in 603 AD:

“In the meantime, Augustine, with the assistance of King Ethelbert, drew together to a conference the bishops, or doctors, of the next province of the Britons, at a place which is to this day called Augustine's Ac, that is, Augustine's Oak, on the borders of the Hwicce and West Saxons..."

And yet here again we find our man Arthur: Chapter 56 of the Historia Brittonum, c.829 AD, (often referred to as simply 'Nennius'), also known as the Arthurian battle list, cites Arthur's ninth battle at the 'City of the Legion' (Urbs Legionis). The only known Dark Age battle at the City of Legion is Chester (Bangor-on-Dee). Clearly, the Dux Bellorum is out of place here; we can only assume the battle has been wrongly ascribed to Arthur.

Like the Battle of Chester, the early Celtic Saints in Wales are shrouded in mist; most Saints’ Lives date from the 12th century and Wales is lacking an account similar to the Book of Kells or Lindisfarne Gospels.

From the mist, Saint David emerges as the pre-eminent Saint of Wales, unique as the only British patron Saint to have been born in the land of his patronage. He was probably born in the early 6th century but little is known of his early life, his hagiography, like many saints lives, was not written down until the 11th century. There is a tradition that David was the nephew of King Arthur.

Before St David there were St Dyfrig and St Illtud. The earliest account of Dyfrig (Dubricius), appears in the 12th century. He is said to have been active in Ergyng (Archenfield, south Herefordshire) and much of southeast Wales. St Dubricius is said to have crowned King Arthur.

St Illtud is said to have re-founded the Celtic monastery Cor Tewdws, whose ruins are thought to lie under today’s St. Illtyd's Church in Llantwit Major.  The legendary college of Theodosius was founded c.395, said to be “the oldest college in the world”, but thought to be have burned down in the mid-5th century. According to the 12th century Book of Landaff, St Dubricius commissioned Illtud to re-establish the college, and the place came to be known as Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major). At its peak the college is said to have had a thousand pupils and educated many of the great Celtic Saints such as David, Patrick and Gildas.

St. Illtyd's Church in Llantwit Major

The Life of St Illtud claims he was a Breton prince and a knight of King Arthur and a Welsh account states he was given custody of the Grail, and consequently compared to Galahad.

Many of the Celtic Saints did not evangelise as such but would live the life of a hermit helping the poor and sick. We can trace their geographic spread by the number of llanau bearing a saint’s name. A llan was a sacred enclosure of consecrated ground required to bury the dead, such as Llanbadarn (St Padarn), Llandeilo (St Teilo) and Llandudno (St Tudno).

Arthur’s curious link with the saints is found in accounts of his passing and the lists of the Survivors of the battle of Camlann.

The Seven Survivors of Camlann
So far we have seen the three survivors of the battle of Camlann as listed in an embedded triad in the 10th century Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen; Morfran son of Tegid, Sanddef Pryd Angel and Cynwyl Sant, who was the last to leave Arthur.

Yet, by the 17th century the number of survivors from Camlann was listed as seven. Rachel Bromwich [Trioedd Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press, 4th Edition, 2014] questions if this was later Welsh tradition simply following the early Arthurian poem The Spoils of Annwn, from the Book of Taliesin, which lists seven survivors in a series of triplets, such as; “Except seven none rose up from the Fortress of the Mound”, and so on. However, the survivors of this raid on the Otherworld are not named, yet we assume Arthur to be one.

The ‘seven survivors’ may well be remnants from an ancient tradition as Bromwich suggests; the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, names seven survivors from the war between Ireland and the Island of the Mighty. A note in Evan Evans’s (1731-1788) notebook (Panton MS 13) gives seven names for the Survivors of Camlann. Bromwich considers Evans' text to be a copy of Lewis Morris' copy of 17th century manuscript Peniarth 185. The names in Evans’s text are quite different from the seven survivors listed in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi:

“Here are the names of the men who escaped from the battle of Camlan: Sandde Angel Form, because of his beauty. Morfran son of Tegid, because of his ugliness. St Cynfelyn, from the speed of his horse, St Cedwyn, from the World’s blessing, St Petrog from the strength of his spear, Derfel the Strong from his strength, Geneid the Tall, from his speed. The year of Christ when the battle of Camlan took place was 542.”[Bromwich, TYP] 

In his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth records but three dates; significantly he includes the date of the end of Arthur’s reign as 542. Evans may have been influenced by Geoffrey’s account with regard to the date, yet we do not know where he obtained his information; it may have been a Welsh tradition totally independent of Geoffrey. However, it is close enough to the 537 date given for the battle in the 10th century Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals).

In Evans’s manuscript we find the names are consistent in Sandde and Morfran from Culwch and Olwen, but Cynwal Sant has changed to St Cynfelyn, with the addition of three other saints, with Geneid the Tall unidentified, although it has been suggested he was Hefeydd Hir, one of the seven chieftains left in Britain when Brân departed on his disastrous journey to Ireland in Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr.

Next we will look at the four saints who survived Camlann.


The nine Saint's Lives:
Cadoc by Lifris of Llancarfan
Cadoc by Carranog of Llancarfan
Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan
Carannog (Carantoc)
Miracula Sancte Marie Laudunensis by Herman of Tournai

It is also worth mentioning that the Life of St Kentigern features the wildman Lailoken who may have inspired the northern Merlin legend; and the Life of San Galgano (and the formal record of the canonisation in 1185) which contains perhaps the origin of the sword in the stone.

* * * 

Friday, 12 July 2019

Glastonbury Pilgrimages 2019

This weekend sees the annual Glastonbury Pilgrimages taking place when pilgrims will process down Glastonbury High Street and gather in the Abbey grounds to celebrate Mass.

The Broken Heart of Glastonbury 
During the Late Medieval Period, Glastonbury had become a centre of pilgrimage, with an annual pilgrimage held on the 8th of September, to celebrate the birth of Our Lady. The halcyon days came crashing to an end on 15th November 1539, when the last abbot, Richard Whiting was executed on Glastonbury Tor, the Abbey wrecked and the ancient Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury lost.

On 5th December 1926, after an absence of nearly 400 years, the first Roman Catholic Mass was held in a church in Glastonbury since the Dissolution of the Abbey and the cruel murder of its frail old Abbot.

The small temporary Church built in 1926 led to the foundations of a new Church being laid in 1939, dedicated once again to Our Lady as a successor to the ancient Shrine at Glastonbury. This new church, St Mary's, The Shrine of Our Lady, stands just across the road from the ancient Abbey gates.

The first organised mass pilgrimage to Glastonbury was held in 1895 to celebrate the beatification of Abbot Richard Whiting, on the anniversary of his martyrdom when thousands of pilgrims climbed the Tor where Mass was held.

The modern concept of the Glastonbury Pilgrimage started in 1924 and took place after both World Wars and has been an annual event ever since.

This year the Glastonbury Pilgrimage Association Annual Pilgrimage will be held on Saturday 13 July followed by the Clifton Diocese Annual Pilgrimage on Sunday 14 July.

Friday 12 July
The Glastonbury Pilgrimage Association Annual Pilgrimage starts on Friday 12th July in celebration of Mary, Disciple of the Lord when a Vigil Mass will be in the Undercroft of the Lady Chapel at 6.00 pm.

Saturday 13 July
On Saturday 13th July events start at 9.30 am with the Orthodox Liturgy, celebrated in the Undercroft followed by a Solemn Celebrated Mass sung in the Nave of the Abbey Church at 12.00 noon. After lunch at 2.00pm there will be various stations for the Sacrament of Anointing and the Sacrament of Confession will be heard in a suitable venue to be announced. This is followed by the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the Abbey for Solemn Benediction in the Nave of the Abbey Church at 3.00pm.

Sunday 14 July
On Sunday 14 July The Clifton Diocese Pilgrimage starts in St Mary's church, the Shrine of Our Lady, at 11.30am.

A procession will be made around the abbey grounds, then out into the High Street and back to the Abbey via the main entrance, in Magdalene Street culminating in Mass in the Abbey grounds at 3.30pm.

Further Information:
Glastonbury Pilgrimage Association Annual Pilgrimage
Clifton Diocese Annual Glastonbury Pilgrimage
The Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury

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Sunday, 7 July 2019

The Secrets Behind King Arthur's Sacred Sites

Documentary on Channel 5 at 7:00pm first aired on Saturday 29th June, claiming to examine new archaeological evidence from sites associated with the legendary King Arthur which experts argue seems to suggest there may be truth behind the legends.

Included contributions from Christopher Gidlow (Revealing King Arthur), Graham Phillips (The Lost Tomb of King Arthur), Fiona Gale (County Archaeologist with Denbighshire County Council), Robert Tremain (English Heritage Tintagel) and Roberta Gilchrist (University of Reading) as Arthurian scholars and archaeologists attempt to solve the mystery if Arthur was a real person or a legend...... 

Investigating some of the most Mystical Places from Arthurian Legend
So much for the hype, did this TV documentary actually tell us anything new in the story of King Arthur or provide any new archaeological evidence for his historical existence?

The story begins setting the historical context for King Arthur: after the Romans withdrew from Britain, the Anglo Saxons arrived from Germany, settling in the south east of England. The Britons come of worse during the early Saxon wars until the end of the 5th century when a fightback led by King Arthur culminated in the British victory at Badon.

Writing some 600 hundred years after the event, the Welsh bishop, as the documentary calls Geoffrey of Monmouth, writes an account of the history of the Kings of Britain which is as much fiction as fact. Geoffrey tells the story of Arthur's conception at Tintagel by the magic of Merlin the wizard; why Geoffrey chose the north Cornish promontory has puzzled historians for centuries. Yet, so the narrator tells us, recent discoveries suggest the legend may be based on fact.

At Tintagel archaeologists have discovered about a hundred structures built in the Post-Roman period, long before the medieval castle was built there. Radiocarbon dating has revealed these structures were built in the 5th century. Ongoing excavations has uncovered high quality glass and pottery at Tintagel suggesting high status occupation at the time of Arthur's conception.

An inscribed slate, known as the “Artognou stone” discovered in 1998 at Tintagel is believed by some to relate to Arthur as the first letters of the word mean "Bear". The documentary then tells us that the 6th century historian Gildas mentions a great warrior known as “The Bear” who fights at the battle of Badon in 516 AD linking the Tintagel slate to the legendary King Arthur.

The Dragons of Emrys
The documentary now switches back to Merlin who whisks the boy Arthur away after his birth. We then move to Snowdonia in North Wales and the ancient hillfort of Dinas Emrys.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth this is the site where Vortigern attempted to build his fortress but the walls kept collapsing. Vortigern’s magicians advise him to sprinkle the blood of a fatherless child on the foundations and this will solve the problem. The young Merlin is identified as a suitable sacrifice.

The Dragons of Dinas Emrys
The boy Merlin tells Vortigern of the two dragons, one red, one white, asleep in a pool under the site of the intended stronghold which is the reason the foundations keep collapsing. Geoffrey moves on to Merlin Prophecies and the wizard goes on to become the greatest sorcerer.

Vortigern, however, is considered a historical character who ruled c.450 AD, thought by many to be the “Superbus Tyrant” mentioned by Gildas who invited the Saxons in to Britain. In the 1950s archaeologists discovered a subterranean pool underneath the ancient hillfort at Dinas Emrys with dating evidence for Post-Roman occupation of the hillfort; perhaps there is some truth behind the legend.

The documentary goes on; Arthur must then prove he has the right to rule and pulls the sword from the stone as described by Malory in the 16th century. Then we're off the Mitchell's Fold stone circle with Graham Phillips who tells us that in the Middle Ages arguments were resolved with duels fought in stone circles. We are shown megaliths with holes in which swords could have been pulled from. Then Merlin reappears to take Arthur to the Lady of the Lake from where he receives his magical sword Excalibur.

Many years later when Arthur lies dying after the battle of Camlann he must throw Excalibur back into the lake. The documentary admits that this is fantasy but it appears to be based on pre-Christian religion. We then move to the ancient site of Flag Fen, east of Peterborough. Here a timber causeway was built in the Bronze Age through the marshes from which many objects were thrown into the water, presumably as offerings to the water goddess. Phillips tells us that 1500 years ago there was a tradition in Britain during a funeral to throw a warrior's sword into sacred water which is where, he claims, the story of Excalibur originated.

Camelot was believed to Winchester because of the Round Table hanging on the wall of the Great Hall. Constructed from oak trees growing around 1270, Christopher Gidlow says its almost certain Edward I built the table. Gidlow argues that the Round Table kept the tradition of Arthur and his Knights alive for many years and convinced many, including Malory, that Winchester was Camelot.

In search of Camelot, Arthur’s Court, we arrive at Cadbury Castle hillfort in Somerset, abandoned after being attacked by Romans in the 1st century AD. Archaeologists found the hill fort was refortified around 500 AD. Was this King Arthur's Camelot? Significantly, no medieval writer mentions it until the 16th century.

Caerleon amphitheatre

The documentary now switches to South Wales and the Roman amphitheatre at Caerleon, the site Geoffrey of Monmouth identified as Camelot. The Romans abandoned Caerleon c.300 AD. If Geoffrey is correct then 200 years later Arthur used it as his court with the amphitheatre at Caerleon used as a meeting place for a fellowship.

Gidlow explains that the Round Table is not introduced to Arthurian legend until the 12th century by Wace (pronounced here as “Wazz”) and then Layamon who writes that 1600 knights sat around the table. Gidlow argues that Wace and Layamon must have had something like the amphitheatre at Cearleon in mind. Archaeologists have not found a royal palace at Caerleon but they have found evidence of a post-roman building there.

The Grail
We are now told the Grail was the cup of the last supper. According to legend the grail is brought to Britain and hidden in a castle at Corbenic. Arthur and his knights set out on a quest to find it.
The narrator tells us that the story of the Grail was inspired by Celtic legend; the story of Bran the Blessed who had a cauldron with the power to restore life. We are now at Castell Dinas Bran, above Llangollen in Wales, who's current buildings date to the 13th century, named apparently after Bran the Blessed, or to some it is Corbenic.

Fiona Gale, County Archaeologist, has carried out geophysical surveys and magnetometry at Dinas Bran in search of Post-Roman buildings beneath the 13th century castle. But Gale found no evidence for a building here dating to the Arthurian period.

10 miles from Dinas Bran is Whittington Castle which Phillips claims is a more plausible candidate for the Grail Castle. Phillips tells us that it is the “white castle in the white town” of the Romances. In the 13th century Fulk Fitzwarin is said to have held the Grail at Whittington Castle in a private chapel. Centuries later his family removed the Grail and hid it in the family estate. Phillips found a 2000 year old Roman scent jar which he believes is the cup held by Fitzwarin and the origin of the Grail stories.

Following the battle of Camlann in which he and Modred fell, Arthur is taken to Avalon. Many believed Avalon to be Glastonbury, so the narrator tells us, and we focus on the Tor, a sacred place for centuries. But no sign of Arthur’s tomb has ever been found on the Tor so we must look elsewhere.

In 1191 monks at the abbey claimed to have discovered his grave although today this is largely seen as a hoax. Gidlow thinks it unlikely the Glastonbury monks invented the story to raise money; he prefers to think that they had simply found the remains of some “imposing little man; as Arthur was topical at this time they simply assumed they had found him”. If Arthur is buried at Glastonbury we will never know until the whole site is excavated.

Glastonbury Excavations
In 1963 Ralegh Radford claimed to have found some cist graves which dated to the 6th century, and a pit which he believed was the site of where the monks dug in the 12th century. In 2015 Roberta Gilchrist, University of Reading, re-examined the Glastonbury excavation archive and found the cist graves disturbed by the pit were dug hundreds of years later - sometime between 12th -15th centuries, significantly later than Ralegh Radford had supposed.

In further studying the archive Gilchrist found that Ralegh Radford had missed some very large post holes that contained eastern Mediterranean amphorae fragments. The 5th - 6th century pottery indicated this was the site of a Post-Roman timber hall of high status within the Abbey grounds.

Evidence of Arthur?
The television documentary “The Secrets Behind King Arthur's Sacred Sites” attempts to bring together the latest archaeological evidence from key sites associated with the Arthurian legend. But does it provide evidence for the existence of Arthur?

Recent work at Tintagel has confirmed occupation in the 5th - 6th centuries. Ralegh Radford’s original interpretation that it was a monastic site has been disproven by modern archaeology; Tintagel was a high status Post-Roman site importing fine glass and pottery from the Mediterranean. Has any link been found to King Arthur who according to Geoffrey of Monmouth was conceived there by Merlin’s magic? Following Geoffrey, later writers suggested that Arthur was born there.

In 1998 an inscribed slate was found in a secure Post-Roman context on the island. The first three letters of the name on the Artognou stone do indeed suggest a link with “Arthur”, however the full name translates at “bear knowing”. In fact, contrary to what we are told in the documentary, Gildas does not provide the name of the leader of the Britons at the battle of Badon, and certainly makes no connection between the battle and the “Bear”; Gildas simply does not mention the leader of the Britons at Badon, which has led many to argue that it was not Arthur.

Gildas wrote the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) around the late 5th or early 6th century as a rant against the foolishness of the Britons who were being punished by God with the Saxon onslaught for their sins. In the second part of his sermon Gildas attacks five British princes that he describes as “tyrants”; one of these rulers, Cuneglasus, Gildas berates as “You bear, you rider and ruler of many, and guider of the chariot which is the receptacle of the bear".

In the genealogies Cuneglasus is a son of Owain Danwyn (or Ddantgwynn) which has led Graham Phillips (King Arthur: The True Story, Century, 1992) to suggest that Owain was King Arthur. However, Owain was a minor Gwynedd king of Rhos at Dinarth on the north coast of Wales, whereas Phillips tells us Arthur is king of Powys and locates the site of his grave at Baschurch in Shropshire.

Geoffrey takes his story of the dragons of Dinas Emrys from the 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons). In the original tale the fatherless boy identified as a suitable sacrifice is named Ambrose (Emrys in Welsh) – there is no mention of Merlin who is the pure invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth. However, archaeology has revealed a subterranean pool at Dinas Emrys but there is no recorded Arthurian association, beyond Geoffrey's tale of the boy Merlin, with the site.

As for the site of Arthur’s Court, the term “Camelot” was not introduced to the Arthurian legend until the 12th century. Geoffrey may have seen the Roman remains at Caerleon and envisaged a Post-Roman presence at the site; but Geoffrey never saw the old Roman amphitheatre as The Round Table and a meeting place for a fellowship of knights, indeed he doesn't even mention it. Yet archaeology has uncovered evidence for a Post-Roman timber hall on the site.

Cadbury Castle in Somerset is one of the countries largest hillforts, deserted during the Roman invasion of Britain and refortified in the 5th and 6th centuries before being finally abandoned. As with Tintagel, high quality pottery has been found on the site and evidence of a large timber hall suggests a high status site during the Arthurian period. But, despite a visit by Edward I in the 13th century on his way to Glastonbury Abbey, there is no evidence that the hillfort was associated with King Arthur before John Leland in the 16th century convinced himself it was the site of Camelot.

Despite multitudes of claimants, the Grail remains obscure. Yet the Romances always identify the stories as occurring in Britain. Fiona Gale found no evidence of Post-Roman remains under the 13th century castle remains at Dinas Bran. It is up to the individual to decide if there is any substance to Graham Phillips interpretation of the Fulk Fitzwarin Romance that the Grail was kept in a private chapel at Whittington Castle (in the white town) and this was the Roman scent jar that he discovered at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire (The Search for the Grail, Century, 1995).

Post-Roman hall at Glastonbuy Abbey
Finally we come to evidence of a high status Post-Roman timber hall in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. This is a significant development in our understanding of the site as previously it was thought that Post-Roman activity first occurred on the Tor which later spread to the Abbey precinct; the new evidence suggests the opposite.

Although Post-Roman activity has now been found at many sites associated with the Arthurian legend, such as Tintagel, Dinas Emrys, Cadbury Castle, Caerleon and Glastonbury Abbey, can any of this be interpreted as evidence of Arthur?

The Secrets Behind King Arthur's Sacred Sites will be available on Channel 5 catch up until 29 July 2019.

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Saturday, 29 June 2019

Vikings: Return to Repton

The Vikings had been carrying out coastal raids around the British Isles since the late 8th century. But their tactics changed in the second half of the 9th century; instead of hit and run raiding parties the Vikings now seemed intent on settling a Great Army on the land.

The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland record that Ímar (Ivar) was the son of Gofraid, King of Laithlinn (Norway?). Ímar had two brothers, Auisle and Amlaíb (Olaf), collectively described in the Irish Annals as “kings of the foreigners”, forming the Uí Ímair dynasty. Another Viking leader, Halfdan is often named as another brother.They were leaders of a particularly aggressive Scandinavian group active across Ireland and Britain, raiding into Wales and Scotland by the mid-9th century, taking York in 866 and ruling the city until 954, taking Dumbarton, the rock of the Britons in 870 after a 4-month siege, and being the dominant force in England for a short period in 878.

Ivar (Ímar) was given the title "King of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain" in contemporary annals and has been identified by historians as ‘Ivar the Boneless’, the Viking who led the Great Heathen Army in England in the 860’s, returning to Dublin in 870 with much booty and slaves after his success at Dumbarton.  This period of activity in England and Scotland corresponds with Ivar’s absence from the Irish Annals during these years. Furthermore, the death of both Ivar the Boneless and Ivar (Ímar) is recorded as 873 in Ireland, After his death, it is claimed, Ivar’s body was transported to England and buried at the Viking camp at Repton, where a significant grave of an individual was uncovered.

The Danes appear to have lost interest in Wessex and after overwintering at London 871-72 headed for York the following year. After overwintering at Torksey 872-73 they then moved to Repton in Derbyshire on the river Trent. Overwinter 873-74 they dug in and fortified this settlement with the church of St Wystan, desecrating the Royal Mercian mausoleum, centred in the ditch and rampart.

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.

Early Excavations
Repton was first excavated between 1974 and 1993 when Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle investigated the site. 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 (Wystan) 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 a mound (a charnel house) in the vicarage garden to the west of St Wystan’s church. Here they discovered a charnel deposit with the remains of at least 264 people, approximately 80% of which were determined to be male, mostly aged between 18 and 45, with many displaying evidence of fatal violent injury. Based on this analysis, it was thought that these might be the remains of the Viking Great Army who died in battle.

The archaeological context (including several coin finds dated between AD 872 and 875) and a few of the original radiocarbon dates from the site appeared to confirm the Biddles' theory, suggesting a 9th century date for the burials. However, other Carbon-14 dates indicated that some of the remains dated from as early as the 7th and 8th centuries. This was explained by the suggestion that the deposit had been mixed with reinterred burials from the Saxon cemetery, which may have been unearthed by the digging of the defensive ditch around the church.

Within the mound was the remains of a structure which held 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 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.

Biddle proposed that the mass burial had been purposefully arranged around this central burial, suggesting Ivar the Boneless, one of the leaders of the Great Army and ruler of the Irish Sea Vikings who died in 873 at an unspecified location.

Return to Repton 
It is over 40 years ago since Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle’s excavations suggested the Great Army of the Vikings had encamped at Repton during the winter of AD 873-74. But many archaeologists had thrown doubt on their interpretation of the site and many questions remained unanswered.

Dating evidence, including silver pennies dated AD 872-75, supported the argument for winter camp of the Great Army at Repton. However, the dating of some of the 264 people found in the mass grave had long puzzled archaeologists; some of these bodies were dated to as early as the 7th and 8th centuries, which doesn't fit the historical context.

Now, new investigations carried out by archaeologists from the University of Bristol under the direction of Cat Jarman and Mark Horton, are using bioarchaeological methods to resolve unanswered questions about the human remains.

In 2017 new geophysical surveys took place, followed by further excavations on the site of the so-called charnel house in the Vicarage gardens west of the church.

Cat Jarman determined that the dating discrepancy turned out to be due to marine reservoir effects (MREs). Cat explains that radiocarbon measured in archaeological samples comes from the carbon absorbed during life, mainly from diet. Carbon 14 in terrestrial and marine animals gives an apparent age difference of around 400 years, due to the mixing at sea of atmospheric carbon and older carbon from deep water:

“Therefore a fish would yield a date significantly earlier than say a sheep, even if they were alive at the same time. This difference is passed on along the food chain, meaning that remains of humans with marine diets can give radiocarbon dates that seem artificially older than their real age.”

After making corrections by estimating the percentage of an individual’s marine food consumption it placed the human remains at Repton precisely within the range of the coins found with the skeletons, indicating that the charnel deposit is consistent with a single event.

Sampling a large selection from the charnel deposit revealed they were not local people but likely from southern Sacandinavia supporting the interpretation that they were members of the Viking Great Army from Denmark.

Brothers in Arms
The double grave of G.511 and G.295 at Repton gives dates of AD 677–866 and AD 715–890 respectively. The early date for G.511 is inconsistent with our current understanding of the historical context and archaeological evidence. The grave goods leave little doubt as to the Scandinavian cultural identity of this individual, yet a date before AD 873 seems unlikely, as there is no evidence for a Scandinavian presence in Repton prior to this date.

DNA extracted from G.511 and G.295 revealed the individuals were related in the first degree on the paternal side; meaning they are either father and son or half-brothers. Osteological analysis shows that the older man was at least 35-45 years old and the younger man 17-20 years old at the time of death, suggesting the father-son relationship may be the correct interpretation. Isotope analysis indicates that G.511 and G.295 grew up in a similar location, possibly southern Scandinavia (Denmark).

Both men had suffured violent trauma at the time of death,  and probably buried within a few years of each other. G.511 suffered two spear wounds above his left eye and a deep cut to the left femur, likely to have removed his genitallia. A boar's tusk was placed between his legs so that he arrived in the afterlife with his virility intact. The boar tusk buried with G.511 yielded a calibrated date of AD 695–889.

New radiocarbon dates indicate the death of the two men to between 873 and 886; the archaeological evidence supports a date toward the beginning of the range. We can identify a father and son from the Historical sources that matches these two individuals. The Annals of Ulster records Olaf (Amlaib) as one of the Viking kings active in Ireland and Britain in this period but particularly dominant in Ireland in the 850's and 860's. Olaf was the brother of Ivar the Boneless who he campaigned with in Northern Britain from 870-871, besigung Dumbarton Rock before returning to Ireland.

Olaf returned to Scotland in 874 when he was killed by King Constantine. The following years Olaf's son Eystienn was killed by Halfdan at an unspecified location, probably the same Halfdan, Olaf's brother, named as being at Repton in 873 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Cat Jarman suggests Olaf and Eystienn as the best candidates for the individuals in graves G.511 and G.295.

Cat Jarman, Resolving Repton, Current Archaeology 352, July 2019, pp.18-25.
Catrine L. Jarman, Martin Biddle, Tom Higham & Christopher Bronk Ramsey, The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel, Antiquity 92 - 361 (2018): pp.183–199

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