Saturday, 12 June 2021

Geoffrey and the Giants’ Dance

 "The discovery of a dismantled stone circle—close to Stonehenge’s bluestone quarries in west Wales—raises the possibility that a 900-year-old legend about Stonehenge being built from an earlier stone circle contains a grain of truth."  - Mike Parker Pearson, et al, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales, Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): 85–103.

The Bluestone Trail
Much has been written recently about the claimed discovery of the “original” Stonehenge in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, following the television program Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed first screened on BBC Two on 12 February 2021. The documentary followed the revelations of Mike Parker Pearson and team in the Antiquity journal, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales (Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): pp.85–103).

The media quickly picked up on the claims that the earliest megalithic circle at Stonehenge was first built in the Preseli Hills (Mynydd Preseli) more than 5,000 years ago, before it was dismantled and its stones dragged over 140 miles to its present location on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.

The huge sarsen stones, making up the outer circle and inner trilithon horseshoe, were sourced locally and brought from Marlborough Downs about 20 miles distant around 500 years later. The construction of the sarsen ring appears to be in common with most prehistoric stone circles that used local materials. Nevertheless, moving the massive sarsens weighing as much as 20 tons each was no mean feat. Yet it is the 80 or so smaller bluestones, the largest weighing around 4 tons, at Stonehenge that have puzzled archaeologists since the British geologist Herbert Thomas identified their source in south west Wales a hundred years ago. 

In 1923 Thomas established that the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge originated in the Preseli Hills where he envisaged they may have originally formed a “venerated stone circle”. He identified a site called Carn Menyn in the Preselis as the source of the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge. 

Good Science or Bad Science?
Since then it is now known that there are at least 20 different rock types that constitute the “bluestone group” of stones, an unsatisfactory generic term used by archaeologists to describe all the non-sarsen stones at Stonehenge, such as spotted dolerites, unspotted dolerites, rhyolites, and tuffs. Modern science has identified the sources of two types of the Stonehenge bluestones at outcrops at Carn Goedog (near Carn Menyn) and Craig Rhos-y-felin  in the Preseli Hills.

The Stones of Stonehenge project team led by Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) claims to have identified the site of a dismantled bluestone circle situated between these two proposed quarry sites. The Antiquity paper argues for the existence of a bluestone circle at Waun Mawn that was dismantled in prehistory and re-erected as Stonehenge. 

Archaeology is perhaps the most speculative of all the sciences as one must put the archaeological finds into a context. Parker Pearson is a master of the archaeological story, a skill he has crafted since Stonehenge Riverside Project days when he proposed that the people of Durrington Walls were the builders of Stonehenge. Influenced by funerary practices in modern day Madagascar Parker Pearson saw the timber constructions at Durrington Walls as the land of the living and the stone circles of Stonehenge as the abode of the ancestors. The two sites linked by ceremonial avenues aligned to the midwinter sunrise and sunset by the river Avon.

The big flaw in this is that when a senior academic puts forward a theory such as the first Stonehenge was a bluestone circle at Waun Mawn it can very quickly become established fact among popular opinion, when there is little, if any, proven evidence to confirm the theory in this case. The team have been accused of stretching the evidence and making it fit their scheme; I leave criticism of the archaeological methods to those better qualified than me. Here I am more interested with the prospect of Geoffrey of Monmouth's tale of the Giants’ Dance and how this may have influenced the archaeologists.

Merlin and the Legend of the Stones
Herbert Thomas's discovery of the geological origin of the Stonehenge bluestones led several academics to look again at Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century tale. Archaeologists Stuart Piggott (1941), Aubrey Burl (2006), Timothy Darvill & Geoffrey Wainwright (2009) and now Parker Pearson have all speculated that there may be a grain a truth in Geoffrey’s tale of the Giants Dance. The possibility certainly seems to have influenced the authors’ of the Antiquity paper:

"In the oldest story of Stonehenge’s origins, the History of the Kings of Britain (c. AD 1136), Geoffrey of Monmouth describes how the monument was built using stones from the Giants’ Dance stone circle in Ireland. Located on legendary Mount Killaraus, the circle was dismantled by Merlin and shipped to Amesbury on Salisbury Plain by a force of 15,000 men, who had defeated the Irish and captured the stones. According to the legend, Stonehenge was built to commemorate the death of Britons who were treacherously killed by Saxons during peace talks at Amesbury. Merlin wanted the stones of the Giants’ Dance for their magical, healing properties." [Parker Pearson et al, The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales (Antiquity 2021 Vol. 95 (379): pp.85–103]

There are many flaws in Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae); much of what he wrote he seems to have simply made up to fill out a good yarn; today, at best, it is considered a pseudo-historical account. Did Geoffrey really believe the stone circle was erected during the Arthurian era, the period known by the (now out-of-favour) term the Dark Ages 400-600 AD? 

In the Antiquity paper Parker Pearson argues that the area of Wales where the bluestones came from was considered Irish territory in Geoffrey’s day. This is simply not correct; during the 12th century the newly arrived Norman Lords were busy settling Flemings in south-west Wales.

The earliest account we have of Stonehenge is found in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, (History of the English), written around 1125, in which he lists the stone circle by its English name as one of the four marvels in England:. 

“The second is at Stonehenge, where stones of remarkable size are raised up like gates, in such a way that gates seem to be placed on top of gates. And no one can work out how the stones were so skilfully lifted up to such a height or why they were erected there.”

Amazingly it has been suggested that Geoffrey of Monmouth didn't invent the story of the stones of the Giants’ Dance but simply recounted known folklore; yet it is inconceivable that an oral tradition could have survived from the Neolithic, some 4,000 years before he put quill to parchment in the 12th century. Yet the account is not found in any source before Geoffrey and we must conclude that his 900-year-old story of Stonehenge is pure fantasy; in his day Geoffrey could not have possibly known that the smaller bluestones came from Wales.

Geoffrey’s Sources
Evidently from his account of the Giants’ Dance Geoffrey was not familiar with the geography of the area around Salisbury Plain and it is doubtful if he had even visited the stone circle. Geoffrey clearly models his convent at Ambrius with the Priory at Amesbury but appears confused between the location of Mount Ambrius and the Temple at Ambrius; he seems to use both terms to describe the same thing.

According to Geoffrey the Britons met with Hengist’s Saxons at the monastery at Ambrius on the kalends of May for a peace conference. During the meeting the Saxons pulled out concealed daggers and slaughtered 460 British nobles. The murdered Britons are given Christian burial by St Eldad, bishop of Gloucester (unknown outside Geoffrey) “not far from Kaercaradauc, now Salisbury….. near the monastery of Ambrius, the abbot, who was the founder of it.” Geoffrey tells us that at this place was a convent that maintained 300 friars, situated on the mount of Ambrius.

It is here on mount Ambrius that the king Aurelius Ambrosius has Merlin re-assemble the Giants’ Dance as a memorial to the slaughtered British nobles. When Aurelius dies he is buried “near the convent of Ambrius, within the Giants’ Dance.” His brother Uther Pendragon takes the throne of Britain. When Uther drinks water poisoned by the Saxons at Verulam his body is taken to the convent at Ambrius where he is buried close by Aurelius within the Giants’ Dance.

Following Uther’s death his son Arthur becomes king and fights a series of battles, the pinnacle of Geoffrey’s opus. After being mortally wounded in his last battle against Modred, Arthur is taken to the isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, not buried among his kinsfolk within the Giants’ Dance as one might expect. Clearly here Geoffrey was familiar with the Breton and Cornish legend of Arthur’s return; you can’t bury a man who isn’t dead.

At this point in Geoffrey’s tale one could be forgiven for questioning whether the Giants’ Dance is actually Stonehenge; all we can be certain of at this point is that it is a stone circle somewhere near Salisbury. But where is mount Ambrius? Stonehenge is situated on a plain, not a hill or a mountain by any means.

However, the location of the Giants’ Dance is revealed after Arthur’s kinsman Constantine takes the throne and on his death is buried close by Uther Pendragon “within the structure of stones, which was set up with wonderful art not far from Salisbury, and called in the English tongue, Stonehenge.

The name Ambrius is clearly created by Geoffrey to provide a connection with Amesbury, about 5 miles from Stonehenge, where there has been a religious house since the 10th century. Amesbury Priory was founded by the Saxon Queen Ælfthryth in 979 AD as a house exclusively for women. Shortly after Geoffrey’s time when Henry II dissolved this house in 1177 there were some 30 nuns, a far cry from Geoffrey’s 300 friars. Henry used the priory buildings for the foundation of a double priory of the Fontevrault Order, which he introduced into England, known as Amesbury Abbey.

It would appear that when Geoffrey refers to the convent of Ambrius he means the Priory at Amesbury, and when using the term mount Ambrius he is referring to the site where the Giants’ Dance was reconstructed, that is Stonehenge. But as stated above Stonehenge is hardly on a hill, let alone a mountain.

As we have seen above, Geoffrey has the British nobles buried “not far from Kaercaradauc, now Salisbury”. Kaer Caradawg was used as a name for Old Sarum hillfort, about 2 and a half miles miles north of Salisbury cathedral.

The Iron Age hillfort at Old Sarum, 2 miles north of Salisbury was known as Sorviodunum to the Romano-Britons. Sacked by the Saxons in 552, refortified by King Alfred in the 9th century, the Normans constructed a motte and bailey castle in 1070. Shortly after the cathedral was constructed but was badly damaged just five days after completion in 1092. The Old Sarum cathedral was refurbished and expanded in the 1110s by bishop Roger of Sarum.

The cathedral was moved to “New Sarum”  (Salisbury) in 1220 when, as legend claims, an arrow was shot from Old Sarum and where it landed the new church would be built. However, the distance is too great for a single arrow shot and it is claimed that the arrow hit a white deer that continued to run and finally dropped on the spot where the cathedral stands today. As the site around the new cathedral grew Old Sarum was abandoned and the stones robbed. New Sarum was made a city in 1227 and by the 14th century was the largest settlement in Wiltshire.

It therefore follows that if Old Sarum became New Sarum (Salisbury) when the settlement relocated, then if Kaercaradauc (Kaer Caradawg) was Salisbury it must previously have also been the name of Old Sarum. By this reasoning it seems very likely that Geoffrey confused mount Ambrius with the new cathedral and hillfort at Old Sarum (Kaer Caradawg) and clear evidence that he never visited the site of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain.

A late Triad refers to The Three Perpetual Choirs of Britain as being sited at the Isle of Avalon (Glastonbury), Caer Caradoc (Old Sarum) and Bangor Is-y-Coed (Bangor-on-Dee, near Wrexham) with 2,400 singers in each choir, a hundred for every hour of the day and the night. Following a translation (or more correctly a re-interpretation) by Iolo Morgannwg, the earth mysteries writer John Michell argued that Bangor Is-y-Coed  should be identified with Llantwit Major. Michell proposed further choir locations forming a huge decagon 63 miles across centred on a Whiteleafed Oak was in existence in ancient days for the enchantment of the land.

In the The Dimensions of Paradise, Michell wrote; “Three of the choirs were located at Stonehenge, at Glastonbury, and near Llantwit Major in Wales. Others appear to have been at Goring-on- Thames and at Croft Hill in Leicestershire….” Michell claimed the decagon formed a straight line from Glastonbury to Stonehenge, then down the line of the Stonehenge Avenue and the Midsummer sunrise to Goring-on-Thames forming an internal angle of 144 degrees. Michell had determined there was ancient temple at Goring but this has proven to be incorrect

However, the connection with the line of the Stonehenge Avenue is intriguing and we will return to this point later in discussing Parker Pearson’s claim for why Stonehenge was constructed at this place.

Stones from Africa
Geoffrey claimed “the giants of old brought them [the stones of the Giants’ Dance] from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country.” He added that these were healing stones; by washing the stones they would put the sick into the water and they were cured of their ills. There is no doubt that this statement has encouraged some [see: Darvill & Wainwright] to see the bluestones as possessing healing properties and this is the reason why so few have survived at Stonehenge today. There is no folklore outside of Geoffrey to support such a concept. The bluestones have been chipped away by souvenir hunters since at least Roman times simply because some types are considerably softer and flakier than sarsen.

Why Africa? Geoffrey’s claim that giants brought the stones from Africa is medieval make-believe of course, but he had to provide a link to these large mythological figures to justify the name, the Giants’ Dance. However, during Geoffrey’s time the Islamic world was at its cultural peak, a Golden Age, in which major advances in the sciences such as alchemy, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, had major influences on the Western world. Linking to the Islamic world also enhances the mysticism of the stones.

Stones from Ireland
Geoffrey tells us that the Giant's Dance was at Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland where it stood as a  structure of stones of a such vast magnitude that Merlin scoffed none of his age could raise them. This seems a very apt description of the massive sarsen stones at Stonehenge (not the smaller bluestones) topped with a ring of interlocking lintels, a very impressive structure indeed.

Mons Killaraus” can only be the hill of Killare in County Westmeath, Ireland. Killare was situated at the foot of the Hill of Uisneach, the sacred centre of Ireland, the axis mundi, where sky touches land and three worlds meet; the gateway to the mythical Otherworld. This place is associated with druids, the fire festival of Bealtaine and said to be the burial place of the mythical Tuatha Dé Danann, the supernatural folk of the goddess Danu. The hill is connected by a ceremonial road to the Hill of Tara, an ancient site that has been in use for more than 5,000 years as a place of burial and assembly. According to Geoffrey the purpose of the Giants’ Dance is exactly the same; a place of assembly and then a royal cemetery.

The Hill of Uisneach consists of a series of monuments and earthworks including a megalithic tomb, burial mounds, enclosures, standing stones, holy wells, the earliest dating to the Neolithic period. The passage tomb known as St Patrick’s Bed is claimed to be the oldest structure on the hill. On the south-west side of the hill is a huge stone known as Ail na Míreann (The Stone of Divisions, or Cat Stone) said to be the point the four ancient Provinces of Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster, met. This is the home of the sovereignty goddess, Eriu, who, according to legend, is buried under the Catstone. The stone is also said to be the entrance to the mythical fifth Province of Ireland; Midhe. 

As the mythical centre Uisneach fits requirements in all measures; but the big question is of course did a stone circle once stand here in ancient days? There are claims, but little evidence, that Ail na Mireann was ringed by a stone circle. But ultimately this myth always leads back to Geoffrey of Monmouth and there is no current evidence to support this. The only way to be certain is to carry out archaeological surveys but there is little appetite for such intrusions on this most sacred of sites.

The Sacred Centre
The convergence of five ancient roads at the Hill of Tara, linked to Uiseneach by a ceremonial avenue, indicates the spiritual and political importance of the site; burial place and seat of the High Kings of Ireland. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Henry of Huntingdon recognised the significance of the ancient roads of Britain that we should expect to converge at, or very near, Stonehenge if it were to be the sacred centre:

“So important was the safely of Britain to its loyal people that, under royal authority, they constructed four great highways from one end of the island to the other, as military roads, by which they might meet any hostile invasion. The first runs from west to east, and is called Ichenild. The second runs from south to north, and is called Erninge Strate. The third crosses the island from Dover to Chester, in a direction from south-east to north-west, and is called Watling Street. The fourth, which is longer than the others, commences in Caithness, and terminates in Totness, extending from the borders of Cornwall to the extremity of Scotland; this road runs diagonally from south-west to north-east, passing by Lincoln, and is called the Foss-way. These are the four principal highways of Britain, which are noble and useful works, founded by the edicts of kings, and maintained by venerated laws.” [The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, Book I]

Geoffrey seems to have used Henry’s Chronicle as a source for the four paved Roman roads (see JSP Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain, pp. 34, 121, 281). On the ancient roads of Britain Geoffrey says: 

“The king [Belinus] ……………….. summoned all the workmen of the island together, and commanded them to pave a causeway of stone and mortar, which should run the whole length of the island, from the sea of Cornwall, to the shores of Caithness, and lead directly to the cities that lay upon that extent. He commanded another to be made over the breadth of the kingdom, leading from Menevia, that was situated upon the Demetian Sea, to Hamo's Port, and to pass through the interjacent cities. Other two he made obliquely through the island, for a passage to the rest of the cities.”

In following Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey is describing the main Roman roads of Britain, none of which intersect at Stonehenge. In medieval times the centre of the country was considered the intersection of two of these principal Roman Roads, Watling Street and The Fosse Way at High Cross in Leicestershire where a stone monument was erected in 1712 marking the site of a wooden cross which had stood there for several centuries. Originally a larger, decorated structure was sited at the centre of Watling Street near to its junction with the Southern Fosse Way. 

According to the ancient British Tale of Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd measured the length and breadth of the island and found the centre to be at Oxford. However the sacred centre, omphalos or navel, is not necessarily a geographical centre but a spiritual point. There are several sites that could qualify for the scared centre and Stonehenge, with its many concentric rings, is certainly among them; surrounded by prehistoric barrows Stonehenge is a central point in a huge cemetery.

But who knows where the Neolithic people considered the sacred centre of Britain? Even if we consider the prehistoric trackways of Britain, such as the Great Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, there is no evidence that they all led to Stonehenge as the sacred centre. The nearest we find is the Harrow Way, or Hard Way, an ancient trackway dating from the Neolithic period that runs from the mouth of the River Axe in Devon to near Dover in Kent, the eastern part known as the “pilgrims way” adopted as a Holy route to the shrine of Thomas Becket. The line of the Harrow Way where it passes Stonehenge is not agreed by any means.

The Harrow Way would appear to shadow the line of the A303 near Stonehenge. However, it diverts from the A303 before Stonehenge and fords the river Avon at the village of Ratfyn, just north of Amesbury. The Harrow Way then climbs the Kings Barrow ridge before joining the line of the Stonehenge Avenue into the stone circle and emerging through the Neolithic barrows of Normanton Down, through Berwick St James, before rejoining the line of the A303 at Chicklade Bottom. Further west the Harrow Way joins the Great Ridgeway at Beaminster Down before hitting the Devonshire coast.

If Stonehenge was constructed at the sacred centre it would explain the reason for a prehistoric trackway running across southern Britain from east to west to the centre of the stone circle and may well be the reason why Stonehenge was constructed where it is rather than Parker Pearson’s solstitially aligned glacial striations.  

Geoffrey’s tale of the Giants’ Dance describes the translation of one structure marking the sacred centre of a country to another land. No doubt he had heard of the sacred centre of Ireland and imagined an equivalent structure was needed in southern Britain as we have seen above, he selected elements from various sources to construct his story of the Giants’ Dance. However, we may ask what inspired Geoffrey to add this element of a grand memorial to the fallen to his Historia?

A Memorial to the Fallen
Without doubt the kernel of Geoffrey’s story of a memorial to the murdered British nobles is taken from the History of the Britons (Historia Bittonum, c.829AD), popularly known as "Nennius". Yet the original account fails to mention Stonehenge or a memorial constructed for the fallen. These embellishments to the story are not known from any other source and therefore must be due to Geoffrey’s creative spirit. Clearly he wanted a fitting memorial the British nobles murdered by the Saxon invaders. 

Fast forward from the post-Roman days of Ambrosius to Geoffrey’s own time in the 12th century. Only 70 years before Geoffrey produced his Historia an army of nobles had been killed fighting heroically to the death for the Crown of England by the invading Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The late 12th-century Chronicles of Battle Abbey records a speech made by William I (The Conqueror) which he delivered immediately before the battle pledging to found a monastery if God granted him victory. The Chronicles, which date from around 1180, states the abbey was "founded by the Conqueror in expiation for the sin involved in the conquest".  Consequently, within 5 years of William’s victory the Abbey of St Martin (now know as Battle Abbey) was built with the high altar of the abbey church reputedly sited on the exact spot where King Harold died on Senlac Hill.

On William’s death he bequeathed many gifts to the Abbey including his royal cloak and a portable altar used on his campaigns. William had endowed the Abbey to such an extent that it became the 15th wealthiest religious house in the country.


    • Geoffrey took the idea of the peace conference between Britons and Saxons from the History of the Britons (Historia Bittonum).

    • He saw Stonehenge as a fitting tribute to the British nobles murdered at the conference.

    • Geoffrey does not appear to be familiar with the geography of Stonehenge and claims it was erected on mount Ambrius when the monument is sited on a plain.

    • He models mount Ambrius on the ancient hillfort at Old Sarum (Kaer Caradawg) where a new cathedral had been built shortly before he wrote his History of the Kings of Britain.

    • Geoffrey models the convent at Ambrius which he claims housed 300 friars on the Priory at Amesbury that had 30 nuns.

    • He relates Stonehenge to the Sacred Centre of Ireland at Uisnech

    • Prehistoric roads converge on the Hill of Tara which is linked to Uisnech by a ceremonial avenue.

    • The ancient trackway known as The Harrow Way runs east to west across southern Britain and through the centre of Stonehenge, entering the stone circle through a ceremonial avenue.

    • He claims the huge stones of the Giants’ Dance came from Africa and were erected by the giants of old.

    • In Geoffrey’s day the Islamic lands were experiencing a golden age and everything coming out of Africa was considered mystical.

    • He modelled his grand memorial devoted to the murdered British nobles slaughtered by an invading race on the Abbey built shortly before he wrote his Historia dedicated by William I to the English nobles slaughtered at the battle of Hastings by the invading Normans.

When you break out and analyse the elements of Geoffrey’s elaborate tale of the Giants Dance it becomes quite clear that he did not follow an ancient tradition at all but carefully constructed a story taking inspiration from events in his own time. We come to the unavoidable conclusion that Geoffrey had no idea the bluestones of Stonehenge came from south-west Wales and archaeologist are quite wrong to think there was ever a “grain of truth” in his story.

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Saturday, 22 May 2021

The Thomas Becket Exhibition

 Murder and the Making of a Saint

By the mid-12th century Thomas Becket was one of Henry II’s closest friends and most trusted advisers. Yet within twenty years the relationship had turned sour and Becket, now Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral by four knights associated with the King.

This exhibition at the British Museum from 20 May to 22 August 2021 tells the dramatic story of Becket’s life and the murder that shook the Middle Ages.

Born about 1119 on Cheapside, London, on 21 December, the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle, Becket began working as a clerk in the service of Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury, when King Henry II first noticed him. He was soon promoted and by 1154, Theobald named Becket Archdeacon of Canterbury. Held in such high esteem by the King that when Archbishop Theobald died on 18 April 1161 in his palace in Canterbury Becket was quickly named as his replacement. 

Becket was ordained as a priest on 2 June 1161 and the very next day consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. The rapid appointment did not hold the approval of many in the English Church who saw Becket as unfit for office on numerous accounts and quickly won the resentment of the monks of Canterbury Cathedral who would normally elect the archbishop. 

On his appointment Becket immediately began to distance himself from royal policy and argued over Church lands with the nobility. He constantly sent requests to the Pope to assert the authority of Canterbury over York. It was as if overnight he had become the opponent of the king switching allegiance from the Crown to defender of the privileges of the Church.

The rift between the two men became absolute in 1164 when Henry introduced a set of legislative procedures known as the Constitutions of Clarendon in an attempt to restrict ecclesiastical privileges and reduce the authority of the Church and the Pope in England.

The sixteen articles forming the constitutions was the King’s attempt to establish clear demarcation between Church and royal authority. Yet the issue of heinous clerics led to the relationship between the two men deteriorating further throughout the summer. Henry was informed that in the nine years since he became king over one hundred murders and many other criminal acts committed by clerics had gone unpunished.

With Becket opposing the king at every opportunity Henry aimed to have the archbishop removed for being in breach of the Constitutions of Clarendon. Judicial proceedings were brought against Becket at Northampton castle but he refused to listen to the final judgement and walked out of the room. He fled England not to return for five years.

Henry made efforts at reconciliation with Becket at Montmirail  and then Montmartre in 1169 to no avail. The following summer he crossed The Channel bringing his eldest son to Westminster Abbey where the younger Henry was anointed king by the archbishop of York.

Becket was furious at the king’s actions and hesitantly crossed to England on 30 November 1170 intending to discipline the bishops who had taken part in the ceremony. He went on to excommunicate anyone who had ever wronged him and imposed severe sentences against those who had taken part in the Young Henry’s improper coronation.

When Henry, feasting at his Christmas court in Normandy, heard what Becket had done he is said to have he uttered the words:

will no one rid me of this troublesome priest? 1

Within days, the archbishop had been murdered. On 29 December 1170, Becket was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights with close ties to King Henry II, an act that sent shockwaves across Medieval Europe. Soon after his grisly death, Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III. 

The Exhibition
Marking the 850th anniversary of his brutal murder, this special exhibition at the British Museum presents Becket's tumultuous journey from a merchant's son to an archbishop, and from a revered saint in death to a 'traitor' in the eyes of Henry VIII more than 350 years later. 

The exhibition provides the visitor with a unique opportunity to get close to the man, the murder and the legend through an incredible array of objects associated with Becket; from illuminated manuscripts, some of which include eyewitness accounts of the murder, to jewellery and sacred reliquaries. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum collection as well as important loans from major collections across the UK and Europe, including an entire medieval stained glass window on loan for the first time from Canterbury Cathedral. 

>> The Thomas Becket Exhibition: Murder and the Making of a Saint
The British Museum - 20 May to 22 August 2021

Further Reading:
The Sword that Killed Thomas Becket
The Mystery of Becket’s Bones

1. This phrase has been incorrectly recorded throughout history. Henry II actually said: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!” - Dan Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings who made England, William Collins, 2013.

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Saturday, 15 May 2021

The Green Knight

The Green Knight is an American epic fantasy adventure film produced and directed by David Lowery based on the 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance. The anonymous poem is one of the best known Arthurian tales, its plot combining the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. David Lowery's Green Knight is a fantasy re-telling of this classic story in a fresh and bold spin on a classic tale from the knights of the round table.

The Green Knight tells the story of Sir Gawain, King Arthur's headstrong nephew, played by Dev Patel, who embarks on a quest to confront the gigantic green-skinned stranger who bursts into King Arthur's hall laying down a challenge to the knights. In this fantasy version Gawain contends with ghosts, giants, thieves, and schemers in what becomes a deeper journey to define his character and prove his worth in the eyes of his family and kingdom by facing the ultimate challenger. 

The film was originally scheduled for release in 2020 but was cancelled owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now due for release in August 2021.

>> The Quest for the Green Knight

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Saturday, 27 March 2021

The Arthurian Legend Stamp Collection

In 1485 Sir Thomas Malory's epic account of King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table and the Quest for the Holy Grail were published by William Caxton as Le Morte D'arthur.

To commemorate 500 years since the publication of Malory's stories, on 3rd September 1985 the British Post Office issued a set of 4 stamps designed by Yvonne Gilbert showing Arthur consulting Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere fleeing from Camelot, Sir Galahad and his Quest for the Grail and the sword Excalibur gifted from the Lady of the Lake. The stamps were available individually or in a presentation pack.

1985 Collection

However, the 1985 issue only told half the story; key elements such as Arthur's final battle with Mordred and the journey to Avalon were sadly missing. 

Now, for the first time since the appearance 1985, the Arthurian Legend has made a comeback and a set of 10 stamps first day of issue 16th March 2021.

There appears to be no particular reasons for this issue, the stamps do not appear to be linked to the release of a film or book, simply a celebration of the enduring Arthurian legend.

2021 Collection

The new issue features 10 stamps in the set designed by Jaime Jones with new illustrations of key moments in the Arthurian legend:

Merlin and the baby Arthur.
Merlin holds baby Arthur, the future king, whose origins remain shrouded in mystery, and in Merlin’s power, until Arthur is revealed to be Uther Pendragon’s rightful son and heir.

Arthur draws the sword from the stone.
Arthur’s birthright to the crown of England, according to later romance traditions, is confirmed when he pulls out the sword in view of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the whole court

Arthur takes Excalibur.
Arthur’s famed sword, Excalibur, is the gift of the Lady of the Lake, and a symbol of his tutelage by Merlin and his mission in the world.  Destined for greatness, Arthur excels in all human virtues.

Arthur marries Guinevere. Despite Merlin’s warnings, Arthur chooses Guinevere as his wife. Her dowry, Malory tells us, is the Round Table, which Arthur will use to build a fellowship of knights united around the values of loyalty and equality.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Arthur’s nephew and chief counsellor, Sir Gawain, here swings his axe to chop off the head of the Green Knight, whose deadly Christmas game of blows startles Arthur’s court and challenges its values.

Knights of the Round Table.
Around the Round Table, knights from Europe and all nations in the British Isles share the same values of loyalty and unite as equals to protect the weak and defend the realm.

Sir Lancelot defeats the dragon.
Emblematic since Arthur Rackham’s illustrations dating from the early 20th century, Lancelot’s slaying of the dragon shows God’s grace granted to Lancelot in the fight with the Devil/darkness, despite Lancelot’s own sins.

Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail.
Sir Galahad, the purest knight, is the epitome of perfection among Round Table knights, and the opposite of his father, Lancelot. 

Arthur battles Mordred.
Arthur and Mordred meet for the last time in battle, fulfilling their destiny: Arthur’s, to be mortally wounded by his own son, and Mordred’s, to commit the sin of patricide and treason.

The death of King Arthur.
Following the battle of Camlan the mortally wounded Arthur is ferried to Avalon on a barge by three queens. 

Royal Mail are offering the First Day Cover cancelled with the alternative Winchester postmark, which according to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D'arthur was the site of Camelot.

The presentation pack provides a "fact-packed" souvenir written by Professor Raluca Radulescu of Bangor University, a specialist in Arthurian romances including Sir Thomas Malory.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Review: Grail and Cosmos

Arthurian Explorations
Alby Stone

Today Alby Stone concentrates on writing fiction but many of us know him better from his fascinating and highly original non-fiction works such as the books published by Bob Trubshaw’s Heart of Albion Press: Ymir’s Flesh: North European Creation Mythology (1996); Straight Track, Crooked road: Leys, Spirit Paths (1998); and, Shamanism; Explore Shamanism (2003).

In later years he returned to his first love of writing fiction, and in late 2012 and early 2013 self-published a trilogy of novels: The Forgotten Stars; Secret Songs; and The Hand of Fire

I first stumbled across Stone’s work some thirty years ago as a regular contributor of articles for Bob Trubshaw’s earth mysteries magazines Mercian Mysteries and At the Edge, including such gems as: The Nine Sisters and the Axis Mundi; Penda the Pagan - Royal sacrifice and a Mercian king; The Cosmic Mill; Hellhounds, Werewolves and the Germanic Underworld.

Prior to the books mentioned above, he continued his association with Bob Trubshaw and produced several booklets for Heart of Albion Press back in the early 1990’s. Sadly these works are currently out of print with second hand copies sometimes attracting extortionate prices.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that three of these booklets with interrelated themes have been assembled together with an article from the now defunct periodical of the Pendragon Society as Grail and Cosmos: Arthurian Explorations (Independently published 2020, 162 pages), the common theme being King Arthur and the Grail:

  • A Splendid Pillar (1992)
  • The Bleeding Lance (1993)
  • The Questing Beast and Other Cosmic Dismemberments (1992)
  • A Head on a Platter (Pendragon Society, 1997)

In the introduction to A Splendid Pillar, Stone writes:

“The pre-Christian mythology of Celtic Britain has exerted a significant and widely acknowledged influence on the form and content of the medieval Arthurian romances……. The best example of this phenomenon is the Holy Grail itself, which can be traced back to the divine or magical vessels of Celtic myth: the cauldron in Branwen daughter of Llyr, which could resurrect the dead; the drinking horn of Gran Galed; ‘whatever drink might be wished for was in it’; the cauldron of Dyrnwch Gawr, which would not boil meat for a coward; the golden cup borne by the goddess who personifies Sovereignty in Irish tradition; the capacious cauldron of the Dagda; and so on.

“Yet, less than three decades after the Grail made its firs appearance in literature …… it had become transformed into a potent and inspirational symbol of Christianity, identified with the cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of Christ at the Crucifixion, associated with the Eucharist, and imagined as a touchstone of Christian faith and virtue.

“Even so, the Grail has retained all its heathen properties, more or less intact….”

This very much sets the tone for Grail and Cosmos. The Splendid Pillar is of course the axis mundi, a predominant of most traditional cosmological systems Stone tells us; conceptualised as the central point of the earth’s surface where the sky meets the underworld, the point to gain admittance to the Otherworlds; the realms of the gods or the spirits of the dead. Stone argues that in the Grail romances images of the axis mundi occur in two contexts; the Grail Castle and in adventures experienced on the way to the castle.

The Second Continuation of Chretien de Troyes' Perceval, for example, tells us that when trying to find the Grail Castle for the second time, Perceval arrives at the summit of Mount Delerous and sees a great pillar surrounded by fifteen crosses, He meets a girl here, the daughter of Merlin, who directs him on the correct path. Stone takes us through variant pillars in the tales of the Grail before concluding that this provides clear evidence that stories and characters of the pagan Celts has penetrated the medieval Grail romances. 

Yet, although these depictions are not directly relevant to the story, Stone asserts that they are introduced to guide or lead the quester to the Grail Castle, essentially providing information useful to the quest as in representations of the cosmic axis that facilitate travel to the Otherworld.

When the Grail is paraded through the hall of the Fisher King it is accompanied by various objects; tables, knives and platters, a candelabra, and a strange white lance that drips blood from its tip. In introducing the enigmatic weapon to the Grail romances Chretien described this as simply The Bleeding Lance

Stone sees the origins of the lance as strictly pagan although the Continuators’ of Chretien’s unfinished tale associated it with Christian imagery as the lance of Longinus, the weapon that pierced Christ’s side as he hung on the cross. The Celtic scholar RS Loomis is quoted by Stone as saying this was ‘natural but absurd’ and proposed alternatively that it was actually the spear of the Irish divinity Lugh. Loomis based his argument on the fact that the knight’s visit to the Grail castle strongly resembles Conn’s visit to Lugh’s palace in The Phantom’s Frenzy (Baile in Scail). Loomis supports his theory with reference to two other Irish texts that mention a fiery spear belonging to Lugh that is immersed in a cauldron of blood to keep it sedated and prevent it harming those who came near it.

After taking us through several comparisons, Stone reminds us of a tale of King Arthur in the 13th century Perlesvaus, or Le Haut Livre du Graal (The High History of the Grail), in which he is attacked by the Black Knight with a flaming lance that can only be quenched by the king’s blood. Arthur kills the Black Knight and his corpse is dismembered then carried away piece by piece.

This leads us fittingly to the third tale in Stone’s anthology, The Questing Beast and Other Cosmic Dismemberments which discusses in detail the two dismemberments in Perlesvaus: The Questing Beast and the Black Knight. Stone sees both incidents as based on archaic myth.

The Questing Beast is an obscure creature, smaller than a fox, whiter than fresh fallen snow. Perceval witnesses a bizarre event when he comes to a clearing in the Lonely Forest with a red cross at the centre, where there is a white-clad knight holding a golden vessel at one end while opposite is a maiden also clad in white garments and bearing a gold vessel.

The snow-white beast runs into the clearing terrified by a ‘litter of twelve in her belly yelping like a pack of dogs’. She goes to the white-clad knight then the maiden before turning to Perceval who is warned by the knight not to interfere with the beast’s destiny. The beast goes to the red cross and gives birth to twelve dogs which then immediately start to tear her apart. They leave the clearing and the white knight and white maiden gather up the flesh and blood of the beast in their gold vessels, then worship the red cross before leaving.

The other episode of dismemberment in Perlesvaus is the Black Night that we met above. Stone only sees two items in common with the two events: they both feature dismemberment in a forest clearing, followed by removal of the victims remains. However, the Black Knight episode and the fiery lance appear to be from older Celtic tradition.

Stone sees the presence of the white-clad knight as representative of the Irish god Lugh and the maiden in white as a goddess representing the Sovereignty of Ireland as they are depicted in the tale of The Phantom’s Frenzy, while the Black Knight’s lance suggests he also may be a manifestation of Lugh himself. From here Stone goes into some detail about sacrifice and Indo-European cosmogonic myth.

Finally, we come to the curious episode of A Head on a Platter as told in the 13th century Welsh romance known as Peredur, an offshoot from Chretien’s original Story of the Grail. In Chretien’s unfinished tale he describes the Grail, the centre piece of a ritualistic ceremony, as simply ‘a graal’, a common Old French word for a wide serving dish. In Peredur, which does not mention the Grail by name, it is a large platter (dysgl), in a shorter procession sequence, carrying a man’s head swimming in blood. 

Stone sees the bloody platter of Peredur in context with the lance that drips blood from its tip in the Grail procession. He argues that the lance is descended from the fiery spears of Irish myth that must be quenched in cauldrons of blood. These magical weapons are associated with lightning and made from fire. In turn he sees King Arthur’s sword that we know as Excalibur through the Romances as derived from Irish ‘caladboig’ (lightning sword) with its roots firmly based in Indo-European tradition.

This short book (150 pages) is essential reading for anyone interested in the sources of the Grail stories.

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Monday, 1 February 2021

Brighid’s return from the Otherworld

Today 1st February is Lá Fhéile Bríde, Brighid’s Day. It is of course also the traditional Gaelic festival of Imbolc or Imbolg, marking the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and the first day of spring.

The festival was Christianised and adapted as the feast of St Brigid yet many rituals still associated with the Saint’s Day clearly betray their pagan Celtic origins. 

Brighid is said to return from the Otherworld on 31st January, the eve of Brighid’s Day; after sunset she will emerge to walk the land bestowing protection, fertility and health on people and animals. But it is not only Brighid who returns after dark. 

It is also the night the Good People will emerge from the hills as the veil between the two worlds is breached. In some areas of Ireland a sheaf of corn or an oat cake were left outside on Brighid’s Eve to thank the Good People for the harvest and to ensure forthcoming good luck. 

On the dawn of Imbolc light from the rising sun enters several Neolithic mounds (passage tombs) including the Mound of the Hostages at Tara and strikes a slab at the back if the tomb as if opening a doorway to the world of the ancestors.

Brighid is said to be the only saint to return annually and her appearance on the eve of the fire festival, Imbolc, is testament to her roots going back to the ancient Celtic goddess.

There are many folk traditions associated with her return on Brighid’s Eve in Ireland, one well known custom is the Brideog procession in which a straw doll is paraded from house to house.

Brideog procession by Niamh Ní Ruairc (Wytchwood Creations) 

Another tradition is that a piece of cloth, known as the Brát Bhride (Brigid’s cloak), that is put outside at sunset on 31st January. The Brát Bhride which consisted of a ribbon, a garment, or a piece of linen, was typically placed on a nearby bush, or a window sill or tied to the handle of the front door. The colour of the Brát Bhride varied on the area, often it was a piece of red ribbon tied outside the door.

The brát is left over night and at sunrise, damp with the dew, is said to have been touched by Brighid during the night who would bestow it with healing properties which remained in the cloth, becoming more powerful over time.  The brat must be lifted before sunrise and in some areas washing it was forbidden. The brát would be laid on people to heal various ailments, curing infertility in women and easing childbirth. It is also said that wearing the brát would prevent young children from being carried off by the Good People. 

This tradition of a cloth being bestowed by the Goddess as she sweeps the land on her annual return from the Otherworld on the eve of her festival day may have a basis in the claim that it was Brighid who wove the first cloth in Ireland and worked into it white healing threads which were said to have kept their healing power for centuries. 

Seán Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint, Columba Press, 2005.
Brian Wright, Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint, The History Press 2009. 

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Sunday, 31 January 2021

The Fate of the Ninth Legion

The question of what happened to Rome’s Ninth Legion is one of the great mysteries of history. The sudden disappearance from all records at the start of the 2nd Century AD has brought about a multitude of theories about the fate of the Ninth.

The History
The Ninth legion, Legio IX, was among the oldest units in the imperial Roman army, first attested from evidence found at the Italian stronghold of Asculum in southern Italy 89 BC.

In 59 BC it was one of the four original legions led by Julius Caesar for his famous Gallic invasion. Caesar finally disband the battle weary veterans of the Ninth in 46-45 BC.

Octavian led the Ninth and six other legions into northern Spain in 29 BC to subjugate the tribes of the region. The ten year campaign resulted in the Ninth receiving its honorific title, Legio IX Hispana.

The Ninth legion was then sent to the Roman frontier in Pannonia in the early part of the first century AD. In 21 AD the Ninth was relocated to North Africa by the emperor Tiberius to combat a revolt led by Tacfarinas, a Berber. Following the successful defeat of Tacfarinas the legion was recalled to Pannonia where they remained until 43AD when it then formed part of Emperor Claudius’ invasion force that sailed for Britannia.

After battling hostile Celtic tribes for several years the Ninth was then stationed at Lindum Colonia, modern day Lincoln, in 55 AD.

Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, their territory centred on modern day Norfolk, assembled a huge force and led a revolt against the Romans in Britain. Her campaign began in 61 AD with an assault on the Roman colony at Camulodonum, now Colchester.

At this point, the Ninth marched south to relieve the besieged Camulodunum but Boudicca's army attacked the legion before it reached the city; she annihilated the Ninth destroying the foot soldiers with just the cavalry escaping. 

Boudicca had come very close to defeating the Romans but her revolt was eventually crushed by the well disciplined fighting machine of the Legions. The Ninth was reinforced and relocated to Eboracum, modern day York. The Legion's northern base was to defend Rome's northern frontier.

Under the command of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Ninth marched into the unconquered north, modern-day Scotland, with the aim to consolidate Roman rule as far as the river Forth.

In 82 AD, as part of Agricola’s plan to defeat the Caledonians and secure the Forth-Clyde frontier, Agricola divided his force into three separate divisions, the Ninth formed part of the smaller force. The Caledonians duly attacked the smaller force ill-prepared in a turf and timber camp, subsequently the Ninth suffered massive losses. Agricola came to the aid of the Ninth with his other forces.

This is the last literary mention of Legio IX Hispana; following its serving with Agricola, all mention of the Legion in the literary sources vanishes without trace. 

The Mystery
The disappearance of the Ninth has long baffled historians and is one of the most enduring legends of Roman Britain; how could 5,000 of Rome's finest soldiers be lost in the Caledonian mist and disappear from the record without trace?

The legend of the Ninth stirred the public imagination in modern times by Rosemary Sutcliff in her 1954 bestselling novel "The Eagle of the Ninth" which detailed the story of Marcus Aquila, a young Roman officer, who ventures north of Hadrian's Wall to reveal the truth about his father, lost with the Ninth, and the whereabouts of the Legion's battle standard, the Eagle.

In 2011 the theme of Sutcliff's book was turned into a film, titled simply "The Eagle". 

The unknown fate of the legion has been the subject of considerable research and speculation. Historians argue that the Ninth did not disappear in Britain at all, claiming that both book and film are wrong, asserting that the legion was transferred to the Middle East, where, sometime before AD 160, they were wiped out in a war against the Persians.

In 1864 an inscribed stone tablet was discovered which records the last attested activity of the Ninth in Britain during the rebuilding of the legionary fortress at York (Eboracum) in 108 AD.

Now on display at York Museum the tablet reads:  'The Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus, son of the deified Nerva, Conqueror of Germany, Conqueror of Dacia, pontifex maximus, in his twelfth year of tribunician power, six times acclaimed emperor, five times consul, father of his country, built this gate by the agency of the 9th Legion Hispana.'

Furthermore, recent research has shown that an element of the Ninth was stationed at Nijmegen in Germania Inferior for a brief period after 121 AD. 

The York tablet and the Nijmegen inscription suggest that the legion was not destroyed in Scotland. However, an inscription dated from the time of Marcus Aurelius records all extant legions during his reign (161-180 AD) and significantly, Ninth Hispana is missing indicating that the Legion was lost before his reign. And yet, there still is the problem of the lack of evidence for the Ninth Legion ever leaving Britain.

The Book
Simon Elliot is the latest historian to tackle the enigma of the Ninth in his book "Roman Britain's Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispana?" due publication on 28 February 2021 (Pen & Sword Military)

Dr Elliot’s book explores the theory that the Legion was massacred in Caledonia and suggests their defeat could have prompted the construction of Hadrian's Wall, as well as the sending of reinforcements from Rome to replace the lost men of the Ninth Legion. 

He then investigates three alternative theories with regard to the fate of the Ninth: the legion was wiped out by rebels in Roman London; they were transferred to the Rhine; or that they were dismissed after failing to suppress an uprising in what is modern-day Palestine.                                                           

From the publisher:

"Legio IX Hispana had a long and active history, later founding York from where it guarded the northern frontiers in Britain. But the last evidence for its existence in Britain comes from AD 108\. The mystery of their disappearance has inspired debate and imagination for decades. The most popular theory, immortalized in Rosemary Sutcliffe's novel _The Eagle of the Ninth_, is that the legion was sent to fight the Caledonians in Scotland and wiped out there. But more recent archaeology (including evidence that London was burnt to the ground and dozens of decapitated heads) suggests a crisis, not on the border but in the heart of the province, previously thought to have been peaceful at this time. What if IX Hispana took part in a rebellion, leading to their punishment, disbandment and _damnatio memoriae_ (official erasure from the records)? This proposed ‘Hadrianic War' would then be the real context for Hadrian's ‘visit' in 122 with a whole legion, VI Victrix, which replaced the ‘vanished' IX as the garrison at York. Other theories are that it was lost on the Rhine or Danube, or in the East. Simon Elliott considers the evidence for these four theories, and other possibilities."

Dr Simon Elliott is an historian, archaeologist and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent where he studied for his PhD in Archaeology on the subject of the Roman military in Britain. He also has an MA in War Studies from KCL and an MA in Archaeology from UCL. For a day job he runs his own PR company, and is a former defence and aerospace journalist at titles including Jane's Defence Weekly and Flight International. He frequently gives talks on Roman themes and is co-Director at a Roman villa excavation. He is also a Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology. His website can be viewed at:

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