Tuesday 28 December 2010

Arthurian Review of 2010

On 9th December it was widely reported through the press that the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury had been vandalised, hacked down during the night. The mindless vandalism of the Glastonbury Thorn must be the most baffling event of the year. Seen by many as an anti-Christian act the motives are beyond me in what is arguably the pagan capital of England where there is tolerance of all faiths.

There are other Holy Thorn trees in Glastonbury: the Chalice Well Gardens, another in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, and the churchyard of St John's Church in the high street. These and the one on Wearyall Hill are all claimed to be descendants of The Holy Thorn associated with the Legend of Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus. On arriving in Britain by boat after the crucifixion, Joseph landed on the Isle of Avalon and having climbed Wearyall Hill, thrust his wooden staff into the ground where it took root and grew into the Glastonbury Holy Thorn, nearly 2,000 years ago.

This tree (Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’) is not native to Britain but originates from the Middle East. Its biennial flowering with white blossoms and red berries at Easter and Christmas time is a source of wonder to many. Every year for the last one hundred years a flowering sprig has been cut from the Glastonbury Thorn at St John's Church and sent to the Monarch. This year, just hours after the sprig was cut for the Queen’s Christmas table the tree on Wearyall Hill was attacked. All of the branches were hacked off and left in a pile around the base of the tree with only the base of the trunk now remaining.

The original thorn tree was cut down during the English civil war and this tree had been replanted in 1951. Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads felled the tree whilst waging a vicious war against the Crown. However, locals salvaged the roots of the original tree, hiding it in secret locations around Glastonbury, later replanting it on the hill. Other cuttings were also grown and placed around the town.

While this is one of the many holy thorns at Glastonbury it is believed to be one of the most important symbols of Christianity because it is on the site that Joseph of Arimathea, thrust his staff into the Glastonbury earth. Some claim he also brought the Holy Grail to Britain, but wherever, or whatever, the whereabouts of the Grail, the Holy Thorn is certainly linked to the origins of Christianity in England.

The site is visited by thousands every year and those visiting shortly after the vandalism were reduced to tears; regarded as sacred it has become a pilgrimage site for many and holds a special significance for Christians across the world. It is hoped that the thorn tree on Wearyall Hill should sprout again from the stump.

Sadly 2010 has also been a year of great loss of some the great Arthurian writers who have put forward original theories on the legendary king.

Laurence Gardner, born in Hackney, London on 17th May 1943, passed away on 12 August 2010. Gardner's first book Bloodline of the Holy Grail was published in 1996. The book was serialized in the Daily Mail and very quickly became a best seller. He used his books to propose several theories, including a belief that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had married and had children, whose descendants included King Arthur and the House Of Stuart.

Peter Clement Bartrum, renowned Welsh scholar, although an Englishman, died on 14 August 2008 at age 100. His books included A Welsh Classical Dictionary and Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, must-haves for every Arthurian and Early Medieval Welsh literature enthusiast.

C. Scott Littleton, co-author with Linda Malcor of From Scythia to Camelot, passed away in Pasadena, California, on 25 November 2010. This ground-breaking book proposed that the core of the Arthurian and Holy Grail traditions derived not from Celtic mythology, but rather from the folklore of the peoples of ancient Scythia, that is, the western portion of the great "sea of grass" that stretches from the Altai Mountains to the Hungarian Plain, lands that are now the South Russian and Ukrainian steppes.

Rachel Bromwich, passed away on 15th December. The depth of her knowledge was absolutely stunning; The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) bears testament to this, a truly monumental work.

I can't think of any notable Arthurian movies that have been released on the silverscreen this year, which after the last King Arthur film starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley (2004) is probably no bad thing. July saw the first television screening of King Arthur's Round Table Revealed on the History Channel. Historians, on the program led by Christopher Gidlow, believe that they may have pinpointed the exact location of the famous Round Table inside the former Roman amphitheatre at Chester, claiming that the 'table' was in fact the circular space inside Chester Amphitheatre and that this was indeed the site of Nennius' 9th Battle, The City of the Legion.

Gidlow claimed the “clincher” was the discovery of a Christian shrine within the amphitheatre, a wooden structure over the gladiatorial hitching stone; but archaeologists who had led the excavations at the site attempted to distance themselves from the sensationalism of the television program. These were not new discoveries and there is absolutely no evidence of a shrine within the amphitheatre. See: The Round Table Revealed?

New Arthurian books this year have seen the publication of Christopher Gidlow's second Arthurian book Revealing King Arthur was published in May by the History Press. Gidlow's earlier work The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend (The History Press, 2004) discussed how a Dark Age historical figure became the substance of legend in the later sources such as the Mabinogi, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Saints' Lives. Much of the theme of Revealing King Arthur is aimed at scholarship of the last thirty years which has declared that the enigmatic Arthur should be banished from our history books altogether. Here Gidlow attempts to redress the balance and argues for a historical Arthur.

In much of a similar vein is the second edition of King Arthur: Shadows in the Mist by August Hunt his second Arthurian book of the year. In reality little more than an updated edition of the 2006 Hayloft publication Shadows in the Mist: The Life and Death of King Arthur in which the author set out to try to reverse the current academic trend of what we might call 'Arthur denial', the apparently increasing tendency by scholars to question the historical existence of either Arthur or even an Arthur-type figure. In this 2010 edition, Hunt claims to re-consider the source material with a new and original approach, exploring the historical evidence, looking at place names and local folklore, to provide a challenging argument for the actual existence of King Arthur.

After reading Hunt's online articles on Faces of Arthur, through the Vortigern Studies website, I looked forward to his first publication of 2010 which claimed to be an introduction to Arthurian Druidism, whatever that is? Published on the 1st May and entitled The Secrets of Avalon the book claims to set out to illuminate the connections between the traditions of both Arthur and Druidsm, but left me in the dark.

Whereas The Secrets of Avalon wallows in Celtic mythology The Druids and King Arthur by Robin Melrose looks at the subject from a more historical and factual perspective. This book examines the role the Druids may have played in the story of King Arthur and the founding of Britain. In exploring the beliefs and origins of the Druids, the author sets out to explain how the Druids originated in eastern Europe around 850 B.C., bringing to early Britain a cult of an underworld deity, a belief in reincarnation, and a keen interest in astronomy. Concluding that Arthur was originally a cult figure of the Druids whose descendants may have founded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex but in reality provides very little detail on either the Druids or Arthur. For those sceptical of a viewpoint like Melrose who see everything coming out of the east the next item may be of interest.

Although not directly Arthurian but certainly of interest to Celtic scholars and anyone interested in Arthurian origins, perhaps the most important book of 2010 is Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature edited by John Koch and Barry Cunliffe. The book explores the new idea that the Celtic languages originated in the Atlantic Zone during the Bronze Age, approached from various perspectives of pro and con, archaeology, genetics, and philology. This Celtic Atlantic Bronze Age theory represents a major departure from the long-established, but increasingly problematical scenario in which the story of the Ancient Celtic languages and that of peoples called Keltoí Celts are closely bound up with the archaeology of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures of Iron Age west-central Europe. The Celtic from the West proposal was first presented in Barry Cunliffe's Facing the Ocean (2001) and has subsequently found resonance amongst geneticists. It provoked controversy on the part of some linguists, though is significantly in accord with John Koch's findings in Tartessian: Celtic in the South-West at the Dawn of History (2009).

Born out of a multidisciplinary conference held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth in December 2008, Celtic from the West presents a collection of articles intended to pursue the question further in order to determine whether this earlier and more westerly starting point might now be developed as a more robust foundation for Celtic studies. Fascinating stuff.

Best wishes for the New Year.

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Sunday 19 December 2010

Rachel Bromwich

It is with great sadness that we learn Rachel Bromwich passed away on December 15th at the age of 95. An emeritus reader at Cambridge's Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, focusing on Old and Middle Welsh literature where her impact cannot be underestimated; she influenced generations of Arthurian scholars, her works quickly became the standard reference texts in the discipline.

Bromwich began specialising on medieval Welsh literature in the 1930's when in 1934 she attended Newnham College, Cambridge, studying the Anglo-Saxon language before shifting departments to focus on Middle Welsh, moving to the University College of Wales, Bangor in 1938 and studied under the tutelage of Ifor Williams. Indeed, it was Williams that encouraged her most important contributions to the study of Welsh literature; Trioedd Ynys Prydein, (1961). The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) went into a second edition in 1978 and quickly became a standard resource for the study of nearly all Old Welsh literature with the appendix of Notes on Personal Names became the reference source for most historic and legendary figures of Old Welsh literature.

In 2006, a substantially revised Third edition demonstrated her continued mastery of the subject at age 90, and proved to be essential reading for Celticists and for those interested in early British history and Arthurian studies.

Early Welsh literature shows a predilection for classifying names, facts and precepts into triple groups, or triads. ‘The Triads of the Isle of Britain’ form a series of texts which commemorate the names of traditional heroes and heroines and which would have served as a catalogue of the names of these heroic figures. The triads are of course 'threes', groups of three names and in some cases three somewhat longer texts devised by the Welsh bards. The names are grouped under various imprecise but complimentary epithets, which are often paralleled in the esoteric language of the medieval bards, who would have used the triads as an index of past history and legend.

The Introduction discusses the significance of the Triads in the history of Welsh literature, and examines their traditional basis. The Third edition contains 97 triads in the original language and in English translation, 46 of which are already attested in manuscript Peniarth 16 from the third quarter of the thirteenth century, together with copious notes and commentary. In addition to the 246 page Notes on Personal Names, further Appendices include The Names of the Island of Britain, The Descent of the Men of the North, The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain and The Twenty-four Knights of Arthur’s Court.

This monumental work has long won its place as a classic of Celtic studies, being the standard edition for scholars of Welsh, but historians and non-specialist Celtic literary scholars will find here a wealth of material, presented in accessible form, giving an insight into the oral culture and poetry of medieval Wales and certainly providing essential reading for Arthurian studies.

In 1971, Bromwich produced an English translation of Sir Ifor Williams' Armes Prydein (The Prophecy of Britain from the Book of Taliesin), and in 1978 was co-editor with R. Brinley Jones of Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (Studies in Old Welsh Poetry), a volume prepared in tribute to Sir Idris Foster on his retirement as Professor of Celtic in the Jesus University of Oxford, containing significant articles such as 'The authenticity of the Gododdin: a historian's view' by Thomas Charles-Edwards and 'Early Stages in the Development of the Merlin Legend' by AOH. Jarman

In the significant Arthurian article 'Concepts of Arthur', (Studia Celtica, No 10/11, pp. 163-181, 1975/1976), Bromwich discusses the “magical meaning” of Arthur, quoting from The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, (Nottingham Medieval Studies #8, 1964) by Thomas Jones:

“How exactly did it come about that a figure about whom we know nothing with certainty, and whose historical existence we cannot prove, should have grown into the centre of so many tales throughout the whole of Europe, and how was it … used, both orally and in writing, not only as a medium for social entertainment, but also as a means of giving literary expression to some of the deepest aspirations and highest ideals of humanity”.

Bromwich follows Jones in questioning how a figure that may or may not have existed could have inspired such depth of literary interest that spanned far beyond the original sphere of the legend both geographically and over the generations. Bromwich continues, stating that by the seventh century, Arthur had become the great national hero of the entire British people “...a defender of his people against witches, monsters, giants, and external invaders”. No doubt her article became the inspiration behind articles such as 'The Nature of Arthur' by O J Padel, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (1994), and Thomas Green's book 'Concepts of Arthur', (2007).

Bromwich's long-standing interest in Arthurian literature produced authoritative editions of the major medieval Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen in both Welsh (1988) and English (1992) along with D. Simon Evans.

Bromwich was also a co-editor, with A.O.H. Jarman and Brynley F. Roberts, of The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature (1991), an anthology of scholarly essays on the major Arthurian works from medieval Wales, launching a series by Wales University Press containing later works such as Arthur of the English (2001), Arthur of the Germans (2002), and Arthur of the French (2009).

Perhaps best viewed as a continuation and update of Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by R S Loomis which first appeared in 1959, Arthur of the Welsh contains a collection of essays by such eminent scholars as Thomas Charles-Edwards, Patrick Sims-Williams, O J Padel, presenting an account of Arthurian literature produced in Wales, in both Welsh and Latin, during the Middle Ages. Essays include 'The Arthur of History', 'The Early welsh Arthurian Poems', 'Culhwch ac Olwen: The Triads, Saint's Lives' , Geoffrey of Monmouth' and the 'The Merlin Legend'. Other chapters include a discussion of the Breton connection and the first transmission of the legend to the non-Celtic world in England and France. Essential reading for anyone attempting to trace the origins of the Arthurian legend.

Eloquent and authoritative, Rachel Bromwich's works will continue to provide superior reference for anyone studying the Arthurian legend. We have reaped the benefits of her generosity in sharing her vast knowledge on the subject. She will be sadly missed by all students of Arthuriana and Welsh literature but right now our thoughts are with her family.

Rachel Bromwich
1915 - 2010


Saturday 4 December 2010

The Druids and King Arthur

A New View of Early Britain
Robin Melrose

Paperback, 220 pages
McFarland & Co Inc., October 2010
ISBN 0786458909
Retailing at around £30 this is expensive for a paperback of 220 pages.

This book examines the role the Druids may have played in the story of King Arthur and the founding of Britain. In exploring the beliefs and origins of the Druids, the author sets out to explain how the Druids originated in eastern Europe around 850 B.C., bringing to early Britain a cult of an underworld deity, a belief in reincarnation, and a keen interest in astronomy. Concluding that Arthur was originally a cult figure of the Druids whose descendants may have founded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The author's research draws upon a number of sources, including the medieval Welsh tales known collectively as the Mabinogion and ancient Welsh poetry such as the The Spoils of Annwn.

In exploring the archaeology of Stonehenge's Salisbury Plain, Melrose came across a work by Barry Cunliffe, which claimed that the All Cannings Cross pottery, which appeared in Wiltshire around 800 BC, may have come from eastern France, possibly the Jura region, and possibly from limited foreign infiltrations from further afield.

From here he learnt from Graham Anderson’s book ‘King Arthur in Antiquity’, that the name Arthur is based on Arcturus, the name for the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, and found in early Greek poetry around 700 BC. Anderson goes on to show that many elements of the Arthur story have parallels in Greek mythology relating to Arcas, the mythical founder of Arcadia.

Melrose traces the transmission of this story across Europe and finally to Britain, putting forward the proposal that the Arcturus story originated in the early Greek Mycenean civilisation and spread westward via the Thracians and Cimmerians to Switzerland, and then on to the Jura in eastern France, the source of Cunliffe's Wiltshire poetry.

Table of Contents:

1. The Dragon Star
2. The Severed Head and the Bone Cave: Religion in Roman Britain
3. Arthur’s Voyage: The Spoils of Annwn
4. Magic Mounds, Sea People and Shape-Shifters: The Wonderful World of the Mabinogion
5. Mounds, Mounds, Mounds: Rubbish Heaps, Hillforts and the Prehistory of Southern England
6. Visitors from the East
7. Brutus of Troy Town
8. Arthur, King of Wessex?

Robin Melrose is a retired senior lecturer in English and linguistics at the University of Portsmouth in England.

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Tuesday 30 November 2010

Chronicles and Scribes

The Round Table Revealed? 
Part IV

The Slaughter of the Saints (2)

Continued from: Slaughter of the Saints (1): The Lost Monastery

“There is no reason to doubt the existence of an important ecclesiastical foundation at Bangor Isycoed, or its practical annihilation by ‘Ethelfrith about the year 615. There is equally little reason to doubt the foundation of the ecclesiastical supremacy of the church of St. Asaph, and the churches named in Domesday must have been in existence long before the compilation of that record. But of them not a vestige that can be recognized remains". [1]

Chronicles and Scribes
We must exercise caution in attempting to reconstruct history from traditional accounts but it must be stressed that we are searching for memories of the monastery at Bangor Is-y-coed. The history of the destruction of the monastery by Æthelfrith's Northumbrian army appears to have been neatly wrapped up in the account of the Battle of Chester. Apart from the mass grave at Heronbridge, which may or may not be connected, no evidence has yet been unearthed for the Dark Age battle of The city of the Legion actually occurring at Chester.

However, an account of such a battle does survive in traditional Welsh accounts. Geoffrey the author of Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) certainly had an affinity for Wales as he identifies himself as "of Monmouth" (Galfridus Monemutensis) in all three of his published Arthurian works. [2] Although he undoubtedly spent most of his working life in Oxford, it is thought he was was most likely born in Monmouth in south east Wales of Norman/Breton stock, and was appointed as Bishop of St. Asaph's in 1151 AD, although it is thought he never visited his see before he died c.1155.

River Monnow at Monmouth

Geoffrey certainly had access to some vernacular sources such as the Gildas' De Excidio Brittaniae, and Historia Brittonum, for example, from which he surely took elements, such as the story of the Dragons of Dinas Emrys, but is generally accused of “inventing” much of the remaining narrative, although in the prologue to the Historia Regum Britanniae, he insists that his work is a translation of a most ancient book in the British tongue presented to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford which he then translated in Latin. Many modern historians doubt the “most ancient book” ever existed, and in his own time he was accused of fabricating his “history”.

Writing before the end of the 12th century, William of Newburgh, claimed:  "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur ….. was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons."

Although now considered by many to be little more than a fictional pseudo-history at the time Geoffrey’s opus appeared, regardless of comments by the likes of William of Newburgh, it was met with approval by most and generally considered a master piece of medieval literature, which many claim put King Arthur at the centre stage of British history. Indeed, it was not until the 17th Century that the veracity of the contents of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae as authentic history began to be seriously doubted.

Massacre of the Holy Men
In the History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey tells us that following the massacre of the holy men all the princes of the Britons met at Legecester (Chester) and made Cadwan (Cadfan) their king and under his command pursued Æthelfrith and his Anglian army as far as the Humber. They prepared for battle but came to an agreement that Cadwan should enjoy the part of Britain south of the Humber and Æthelfrith the part beyond it. In the meantime, Æthelfrith banished his own wife and married another. She, being with child, went to live with Cadwan in Gwynedd. She had a son called Edwin who grew up with Cadwan's son Cadwalla (Cadwallon). Needless to say, after a period of exile in Brittany, eventually Cadwalla and Edwin fall out over who will wear the crown of Britain. At first glance Geoffrey's chronology appears to be at fault here if Æthelfrith's pursuit of Edwin in exile at Gwynedd was the motive for the Battle of Chester as proposed by many historians. However, the account of Reginald of Durham, thought to derived from sources independent of Geoffrey, also has Edwin's Welsh exile after the Battle of Chester. [3] The chronology of events surrounding the battle is very significant in determining the motive for the destruction of the monastery and is something we will return to later.

The Brut Tradition
Following Geoffrey's Arthurian story several chronicles were produced which generally followed his account but added 'corrections' and additional material. Wace's Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut followed in c.1155, the first to introduce the Round Table. It is thought that Wace's source for much of his chronicle appears to have been a Breton variant of Geoffrey’s Historia, of anonymous authorship, which condensed and rephrased Geoffrey’s story. The Roman de Brut started, as did Geoffrey, with Brutus the Trojan a descendent of Aeneas and the mythical founder of Britain tracing the lineage of British rulers through the years to the time of Cadwaladr Fendigaid (Cadwaladr the Blessed), the last Dark Age Welsh king of Britain.

Thus, the Brut tradition had begun; a chronicle of British history always following Geoffrey's account and named after its first hero Brutus. Layamon, a cleric from Arley Regis in Worcestershire, England, followed around 1190, producing a translation of Wace into alliterative verse marking the first appearance of Geoffrey's story in English, further developing the theme of the Round Table.

These adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia became extremely popular throughout Western Europe during medieval times. Wace's chronicle, no doubt, was later used by many French writers of Arthurian romance, but the Brut proved especially influential in medieval Wales, where it was largely regarded as an accurate account of the early history of the Britons. Indeed, the Welsh people looked upon Geoffrey's account as preserving the true history of their race, so that Henry VII made some political gain out of his Welsh ancestry and found it to his advantage to claim descent from Brutus, the first king of the Island, and to trace his lineage through the heroes of Geoffrey's book. [4] Henry, Harri Tudor to the Welsh, came from an old-established family from Anglesey which claimed descent from Cadwaladr, Geoffrey's last ancient British king. Henry was known to display the red dragon of Cadwaladr on occasion and took it with the standard of St George on his victory procession through London following the Battle of Bosworth.

St Cadwaladr's Church Llangadwaladr, Ynys Môn

Consequently, the term Brut has come to mean collectively the Welsh redactions of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae. However, Geoffrey’s work was guilty of confusing many traditional names and places in the translation into Latin. Perhaps he deliberately changed them to fit his story, but we will never know for certain if he was plainly incompetent or remarkably creative.

Welsh writers attempted to rectify these ‘mistranslations’ and produced their own, 'corrected', versions of Geoffrey’s story. However, we should not regard the Welsh renderings as straightforward translations; as such they are generally close to their Latin source text although the redactor of the Brut may have been following an early Welsh tradition. The task of the redactor was essentially to prepare a document for publication, which may require editing or revision, and was therefore at liberty to add some brief commentary of his own to correct locally known omissions, or append additional material from traditional lore to the text. For example, several Brut manuscripts include a version of the tale of King Lludd, an important character in Welsh tradition, known as 'Lludd and Llefelys', a tale which Geoffrey omitted from his chronicle but the redactor clearly felt should have been included.

The collective group of Middle Welsh variant versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin chronicle, is known as Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), tracing the time from Brutus to Cadwaladr, and translated into Welsh from the 13th century onwards. About 60 versions of the Brut y Brenhinedd survive, the earliest dating to the mid-thirteenth century. These Middle Welsh variants of the Brut have been classified as: Llanstephan; Peniarth (Ms 44); Dingestow; Peniarth (Ms 21); Cotton Cleopatra (B); and the Brut Tysilio. [5] The Welsh extended Geoffrey's chronicle from the death of Cadwaladr in 682 up to 1332 in Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes), thought to be a translation of an original Latin version, which has not survived.

The Cotton Cleopatra (B) version of the Brut y Brenhinedd, is generally accepted as being compiled in the 15th Century but there is considerable disagreement regarding the date of this manuscript. Although not of great literary value, the Cotton Cleopatra (B) is a composite of various elements not found elsewhere together; the dedicatory chapter for example appears in Welsh for the first time, whereas in earlier versions that include it at all it appears in Latin. The text contains many alterations and additions from Geoffrey's version, as such that it could almost be considered as presenting a new work in much the same vein as the works of Wace and Layamon.

An inferior copy of the Cotton manuscript is found in the Black Book of Basingwerk (Llyfr Du Basing), manuscript NLW MS 7006D, which circulated in North East Wales. This manuscript contains an imperfect version of the Chronicle of the Kings, written about the end of the 14th Century. Although the Cotton version generally provides a better text than the Basingwerk book there are passages where it is clearly at fault and occasionally the Basingwerk version preserves what appears to be the correct rendition, thereby demonstrating that it could not have been copied from the Cotton Cleopatra but both are probably derived from a common source. [6]

The Black Book of Basingwerk version, in addition to the Brut Tysilio, was used for the Welsh historical compilation attributed to the late 15th Century poet Gutun Owain (Gruffudd ap Huw ab Owain). Owain seems to draw heavily from local tradition and departures from the Cotton Cleopatra text are more numerous in his redaction of the Basingwerk variant than in the earlier part of the book and tend to increase as he continues.

Basingwerk Abbey

Originally thought to have been copied at Basingwerk Abbey, near Holywell, (St. Winefride's Well), Flintshire, it is now generally accepted that the Black Book manuscript was copied not at Basingwerk but at Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen, in Denbighshire, as the redactor, Gutun Owain, had spent nearly forty years of his life there and one of the sources he used in compiling this volume was a Valle Crucis manuscript (Peniarth Ms 20). [7] Significantly, The Black Book of Basingwerk circulated in north-east Wales immediately in the vicinity of Bangor Is-y-coed, situated some 25 miles from Basingwerk and only 15 miles from Valle Crucis.

In the Black Book of Basingwerk we find the following reference to the Battle of Chester:

“And after the coming of Ethelfrid had been told to Dunod, he sent to him two hundred of the wisest monks to ask him for his mercy to 'that holy house' and to offer him every good thing that might come to him as a return for leaving them in peace in their monastery to praise God and to serve God, for they had done him no harm. And after their message was told to Ethelfrid he had those saints killed. And he came with his army against the monastery, and against him came Brochwel, and fought with him boldly and fiercely and killed many on all sides. And that fight (?) was called the Battle of Bangor Orchard. [8]

Surely, it is beyond coincidence that a rendition of the Brut y Brenhinedd that circulated in north-east Wales and written a short distance from the site of the massacre of the holy men at Bangor Is-y-coed, where memory of the event would remain strong, refers to the Battle of Chester as Gweith Perllan Vangor, the Battle of Bangor Orchard, indicating that the redactor was aware of a local tradition that this conflict took place at Bangor not Chester.

Continued in Part V: The Battle of Bangor Orchard


1. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire, ii – County of Flint, The Royal Commission on The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire. 1912
2. The Prophetiae Merlini c.1136 AD, Historia Regum Britanniae c.1139, and Vita Merlini, c.1150. Although later included in the Historia at Book VII The Prophetiae Merlini was originally circulated independently.
3. The Life of St Oswald, thought to have been written by Reginald of Durham c.1165, provides an account of Edwin's exile in Wales immediately following the Battle of Chester “where the monks of whom Bede wrote were slain”. Although Reginald's account follows Geoffrey of Monmouth on several points, there are many differences in the two, suggesting they are both drawing independently on traditions which had much in common and not found in Bede. Cited in Nora Chadwick – The Conversion of Northumbria in Celt and Saxon; Studies in the Early British Border, Cambridge, 1964, pp. 149 – 151.
4. Brut y Brenhinedd, Cotton Cleopatra version - edited and translated by John Jay Parry, the Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1937.
5. Brynley F. Roberts, Brut Y Brenhinedd, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1971, pp.xxiv-xxxix.
6. John Jay Parry, Op. Cit.
7. The core of manuscript NLW MS 7006D is a version of Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), sometimes referred to as the Brut Gruffydd ab Arthur, (the Chronicle of Geoffrey son of Arthur, an alternative name for Geoffrey of Monmouth), a Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, prefaced by Ystoria Dared, (The History of the Trojan War), a Welsh version of the Latin Dares Phrygius, the account of Dares a Trojan priest, retelling of the events leading up to the destruction of Troy. Gutun Owain continues Geoffrey's history with another chronicle, Brenhinedd y Saeson (Kings of the English), which provides a record of events in Wales and England up to 1197. The continuation from 1197 to 1332 is based on two versions of Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes). Owain continues the text to 1461 AD, a date probably close to the time when he was writing – The Black Book of Basingwerk (NLW MS 7006D), The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
8. John Jay Parry, Op. Cit.

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Saturday 20 November 2010

Shadows in the Mist

King Arthur

Shadows in the Mist
August Hunt

“August Hunt brings a bold new interpretation to Arthur’s military sphere, in the process adding his voice to an increasingly large chorus of voices that place the famous war-leader not in the West Country, which has claimed him for many hundreds of years, but in the north of Britain, along the borders between England and Scotland.” - John Matthews

The publication of August Hunt's new book King Arthur: Shadows in the Mist by Avalonia Books, due 31 October 2010, is said to be imminent.

The book claims to re-open the debate on the historical existence of the legendary King Arthur, with August Hunt joining the rank of modern authors [1] arguing for the actual existence of a war leader in Dark Age Britain called King Arthur. Recently Hunt provided a critical treatise on his blog of Thomas Green's Concepts of Arthurthe most recent opponent of the idea of a historical Arthur”. [2]

In this work, Hunt is said to re-consider the source material with a new and original approach, exploring the historical evidence, looking at place names and local folklore, to provide a challenging argument for the actual existence of King Arthur.

The blurb on the author's Facebook page promotes this book as “thoroughly considering the place names associated with Arthur’s battles and other significant contemporary sites like towns and Roman forts, the author shows through onomastics, geography, archaeology and philology how they are all based on real historical places on the English-Scottish border. Not only this, but they also point to both the location of Camelot and to Arthur’s final resting place of Avalon, near to Hadrian’s Wall.” [3]

I certainly find it hard to see how the author can claim to bring “academic rigour to the study of and quest for the historical King Arthur as opposed to the mythological figure who developed from folk memories and legends.[4] Much of Hunt's work is typically based on medieval romance and poetry and not original source material simply because none exists for an historical Arthur. [5] Owing to the absence of available source material any attempted reconstruction not reliant on conjecture is inevitably forced to delve into myth and folklore. Consequently, using medieval romance and poetry it is possible for anyone, and everyone, to reconstruct an account of “King Arthur”. However, all of these Arthurian works claiming to have identified the king, leave the reader thinking, “perhaps, maybe” but fail to present any solid evidence whatsoever to be convincing in providing a conclusive “yes, definitely”.

Hunt's constant rewrites are frustrating; the articles on Faces of Arthur were continually updated and much of that material was included in the original Shadows in the Mist: The Life and Death of King Arthur (Hayloft, 2006). Indeed my copy of the book included a 'Corrigendum' referring the reader to the website for updates; for example the 4th article “the identification of Noquetran with Tanberry, pp 111 -115, is incorrect. The real site, Windy Edge, is discussed at” [the website]. I can understand corrections to production errors and omissions due to restrictions of space, but this seems like a complete change of mind post-publication and leaves one with a nasty taste in the mouth wandering how much of the book the author actually believes in, or will he change his mind – again!

In the Shadows in the Mist the author set out to try to reverse the current academic trend of 'Arthur denial', the increasing tendency of scholars to question the historical existence of Arthur. And like other books claiming to reveal the real King Arthur 'Shadows in the Mist' could not resist identifying his final resting place.

From the publisher on Shadows in the Mist: “What little we can learn about a possible historical King Arthur must be gleaned from accounts of his battles recorded in written form in the ninth century AD. Other than these accounts, which are really nothing more than listings of place-names, there is the doubtful testimony of heroic poems, pseudo-histories, medieval romance, modern fiction and Celtic Reconstructionism. Valuable as these first early sources on Arthur's battles would appear to be, their veracity has been brought into question by a generation of scholars. Rather than seeking firm identifications for the battle sites, an exercise in philological and geographical investigation which might well point the way to a viable historical candidate for Arthur, scholarly opinion in general now rests content with concluding that no historical Arthur ever existed. "Shadows in the Mist" seeks to reverse this academic trend in an effort to return the field of study to its proper sphere of endeavour: the eventual discovery of a genuine historical Arthur. To accomplish this goal, the author embarks on a systematic treatment of the battle site place-names. Identifications made for these battle sites will display an obvious pattern of military activity and suggest not only a power centre, but the most probable location for the king's final resting place. With Arthur's territory clearly defined, a critical re-examination of the Arthurian genealogy preserved by Welsh tradition will reveal the true identity of the great Dark Age king”. [6]

Inevitably, this new book, King Arthur: Shadows in the Mist is said to be a new edition of that 2006 work. No one could be a bigger fan of the elusive Arthur than me, I've studied the Arthurian legend for over thirty years, and I really wish someone could show me some incontrovertible evidence for his existence as a Dark Age war leader. We await publication of this new edition to see what evidence is contained in the new material; hopefully not the poorly reproduced black and white photographs from the previous publication.


1. See Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot a review of Revealing King Arthur by Christopher Gidlow in which the author set out to reverse the academic trend of the last 30 years denying the actual existence of a Dark Age warlord named Arthur.
2. Thomas Green versus King Arthur by August Hunt.
3. August Hunt's Facebook page.
4. Ibid.
5. Writing in the early 6th Century and within memory of the Seige of Mount Badon, Gildas fails to mention Arthur; odd if he had been the battle leader at the Britons greatest Dark Age victory over the Anglo Saxons. The English sources such as Bede and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle also fail to mention him. The earliest historical account we have is the list of Arthur's battles in the 9th Century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) written down several hundred years after the events and even by then it contained Arthurian folkloric elements in the Mirabilia, The Wonders of Britain.
6. Shadows in the Mist - Hayloft Publishing.

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Saturday 6 November 2010

Dead Men Tell No Tales

Recently isotope analysis has identified 51 decapitated skeletons found in a mass grave in Dorset as Vikings. Now recent research has shown that the 'Headless Romans' found in a cemetery in York came the from distant lands of Eastern Europe.

Mystery of York's 'Headless Romans'
York Archaeological Trust undertook excavations during 2004 and 2005 in advance of construction work on two sites close to the line of one of the main roads out of the Roman town. Archaeologists suspected the probability of finding further burials there as Roman graves had been previously found in the area on the outskirts of Eboracum, the name of the Roman town of York, and Roman cemeteries were often placed alongside roads outside the city walls.

These excavations at the site of a 3rd century Roman burial ground at Driffield Terrace in York revealed 80 burials, of which 60 were mostly complete. The vast majority were well-built adult males, averaging some 2 cms (one inch) taller than the average male from Roman Britain, their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion; most of these people had died violently. About 45 of the 60 mostly complete skeletons, showed signs of decapitation, with about 20 showing evidence of injuries that had penetrated bone which would have almost certainly been fatal blows. About a third had suffered wounds and fractures that had healed and no doubt there were probably other wounds that had penetrated only the soft tissue leaving no evidence.

Decapitated and mutilated burials similar to these are known from other cemeteries in Roman Britain, but the York cemetery seems to have an unusually high proportion; a very unusual type of population for a typical Roman cemetery. However, despite the evidence for a generally hard and violent life and brutal death, these people had all been carefully buried between the late 1st and early 4th centuries AD, sometimes with grave goods such as pottery and food, at a cemetery
Although headless burials are not unknown, to see so many in the same place is unprecedented anywhere in the Roman Empire. Most intriguing is what had been done with the skulls of the skeletons; of the decapitated skeletons, about 30 were buried with their heads placed on their shoulders but others had their heads placed between their knees, on their chests or by their feet. In one double burial the two bodies even had had their heads swapped over.

In 2006, isotope analysis of tooth enamel suggested that the men came from from every corner of the Roman Empire; Britain, the Mediterranean, the Alps and even as far away as North Africa. This has led to suggestions that the 80 men could have been elite Roman soldiers. In 2006 the BBC Timewatch program 'The Mystery of the Headless Romans' put forward the proposal that the men could have been from Emperor Severus' household, executed by the Emperor Caracalla who died, stabbed to death by his own body guard in 217 AD. But this is pure conjecture.

June this year (2010), it was announced York's headless Romans might have been Gladiators and portrayed in the Channel 4 program 'Gladiators: Back from the Dead' with Driffield Terrace being cited as the 'worlds only well-preserved gladiator cemetery'. The key evidence for the gladiator claim is the discovery of a large, carnivore bite mark and a high incidence of substantial arm asymmetry due to prolonged weapon wielding from an early age. Further evidence in support of the gladiator claim is the healed and unhealed weapon injuries and possible hammer blows to the head; a feature attested at the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey, the first authenticated gladiators graveyard.
The remains of 67 individuals was discovered in 2007 at Ephesus, Turkey, nearly all aged between 20 to 30. Many with evidence of healed wounds, suggesting they were prized individuals receiving expensive medical care; one body even possesses signs of a surgical amputation. Pathologists discovered various unhealed wounds on bones, for example tell-tale nicks in the vertebrae, suggesting at least some of the bodies suffered a fate of execution being consistent with depictions on reliefs from the time showing a kneeling man having a sword rammed down his throat into the heart. A very quick way to die.

Bioarchaeological Analysis
To shed some light on these mysterious skeletal remains a scientific team under Gundula Müldner, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Reading with colleagues from Reading and the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham, recently carried out multi-isotopic analysis of the skeletal remains.

Scientists normally only examine strontium and oxygen isotopic systems to calculate an individual's origins but on this occasion the scientists took samples of teeth and bone and analysed isotopes of strontium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, combining information about the individual's diet with the type of climate and geological setting. Isotopes are absorbed by our teeth and bones from our food, drinking water and the air. Their proportions vary around the world due either to differences in regional geology or climate, so they provide important clues about where individuals spent their childhood years. Oxygen (O) and strontium (Sr) are fixed in dental enamel as our teeth form. The enamel does not alter significantly with age, therefore oxygen and strontium levels can be matched fairly closely to the geology and climate of the place an individual grew up. The oxygen and strontium isotopes indicated that just five of the men tested had probably grown up in York.

Müldner's team also tested 68 individuals for carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) in order to obtain clues about their diet. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes are absorbed from our food and can be measured in dentine or bone collagen samples, providing scientists with information about land and sea foods in an individual's diet as well as the balance of plant and animal protein. They also distinguish plants that photosynthesis in different ways to produce different proportions of the isotopes known as C3 and C4.

In addition, there are two stable carbon isotopes known as C-12 and C-13. The common isotope that makes up about 99% of all natural carbon is C-12 with C-13 only accounting for only about 1%. Plants of the C4 group, which are adapted to hot, dry climates and include maize, sorghum and millet, tend to fix C-13 more readily than C3 group plants, such as wheat, rice and barley, which do better in temperate climates. Thus by measuring the ratio of C-13/C-12 in bone it can be possible to derive the proportion of C3 and C4 plant groups in the diet of the sample.

Of the 68 individuals tested for carbon and nitrogen two in particular had eaten diets with distinctly high carbon isotope ratios, indicating the consumption of C4 plants, or the products of animals raised on them. To have consumed enough of their distinctive diets to produce these unusual isotope results, the scientists concluded that these two individuals must have come from abroad. The only 'C4 plant' cultivated in Europe at the time was millet, but it was almost certainly not grown in Britain during this period, possibly because the climate was too wet. Indeed, millet is not known to have been cultivated in Britain in the Roman period or at any time before.
They discovered that five of the headless Romans ate very different foods from York's local population. The results revealed that at least two had a diet rich in plant during their childhood, consuming C4-plant based protein probably millet, that wasn't grown in Britain at that time. Dr Müldner said, “This approach was very important in this case, because it has given us information about these unusual burials that would have been missed if only strontium and oxygen had been analysed.”

Müldner deduced that as we had not seen similar values in Britain before, nor much in Europe in the Roman Period, the "Headless Romans" likely came from as far away as Eastern Europe, with the evidence of previous combat scars suggesting that the men led violent lives. He added, “the headless Romans are very different [physically] than other people from York, coming from all over the place. Some of them are quite exotic."

Dead Men Tell No Tales
Far from solving the enigma of the 'Headless Romans' the results seem to have deepened the mystery; if they were not local people it raises the question who they were and what were they doing in Roman York?

It has been suggested that if these decapitated individuals who died a violent death were not gladiators or a warrior elite they may have been executed criminals or members of a religious cult who suffered a ritual killing. Post-mortem decapitation is known to have been carried out by superstitious Romans to prevent some people returning as ghosts; the head is thought to be the seat of the soul, consequently if the head is separated from the body the soul escapes and the dead will not be able to walk the earth.

Non-Roman citizens would normally undergo a harsh and degrading execution, such as crucifixion or being thrown to wild animals in the gladiatorial arena. But some, such as early Christian martyrs, appear to have been buried after their execution. Roman citizens could be executed by decapitation although authorities sometimes prevented certain individuals being given a decent burial, perhaps in order to prevent them reaching the afterlife. The suggestion that at least some of the York individuals may have been executed criminals is supported by one of the skeletons being found with heavy lead leg-shackles. A few of the ‘decapitated’ burials show no signs of cuts on the vertebrae possibly as a result of hanging, which would have been followed by burial some days afterwards when the head may have become detached from the body. The site at Driffield Terrace rises above the Mount and this may be significant as death by execution often takes place at a place of prominence where it can easily be seen by many. But it is unlikely criminals would have been given such a burial.

Ritual Killings
The Celts venerated the head as the seat of the soul and are well attested for their cult of the head and these beliefs persisted into the Roman period. It has been suggested that the decapitations and the additional injuries are reminiscent of ritual killing by way of the triple death of human sacrifices as practised in the pre-Roman world of the Celts. The sacrifice of adults for religious reasons was banned by the Emperor Augustus, however this does not necessarily mean that such practices did not continue and deposits of horse and other animal bones with some the burials, along with other grave goods, suggest that ritual played a part in many of the burials.

Warrior Elite
The vast majority of the burial group being well-built adult males, taller than the average male, with their bones showing signs of extreme physical exertion with most bearing evidence of a violent death, immediately suggests an elite group of warriors provided with special status amongst society.

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the 1st Century AD, describes how the Catti warriors were given elite status amongst the tribe and took part in Arminius' Germanic tribal coalition that annihilated Varus' legions in 9 AD in the Teutoburg Forest. Soldiers were executed for desertion and other court martial offences, which could result in punishment by decapitation. Alternatively, the injuries may have been the result of soldiers killed in battle and whose bodies were recovered by their own side and given a decent burial. But this would not explain the pelvic injury apparently caused by a large carnivore as seen on one of the skeletons.

It is estimated that up to a million gladiators are thought to have died in arenas across the Roman Empire. Roman Britain was second only to Italy in the number of purpose-built gladiatorial arenas in Europe. It is assumed York had its own amphitheatre, although evidence of it remains elusive, so the presence of gladiators here should not be surprising.

All the Driffield Terrace individuals were male and the majority killed by decapitation, suggesting an unusual group of people. These people were taller than the average Romano-British male and more robust. Significantly in about a third of the skeletons, one arm slightly longer than the other, the right humerus of one skeleton being 18mm longer than the left, suggesting one-sided work from an early age, perhaps representing prolonged sword practice. Although we cannot rule out the possibility of other occupations, such as archery or blacksmithing, which may also cause the over-development of one arm, it would seem unlikely to be a group of smiths. Men with similar asymmetry, muscular arms, have been excavated at the gladiator cemetery at Ephesus in Turkey.

Blunt force trauma, i.e. a blow to the head, found on a number of the York skeletons appears to be evidence of methods that were used to kill vanquished or dying gladiators by a slave in the arena dressed as the god of the Underworld and armed with a large iron mallet who despatched any fatally wounded gladiator with a sharp blow to the head.

The Injuries to the pelvis are consistent with carnivore toothmarks, evidence perhaps of a gladiator being bitten about the hip by a large carnivore such as a lion or a bear. Gladiator versus animal fights were common events in the arena and undertaken by a specially trained and equipped fighter known as the bestiarii or venatores. However, we cannot rule out the possibility of a common Roman method of execution, in which criminals were tied to a post in the arena and left to the mercy of beasts.

The 'gladiatorial' explanation of these decapitated burials at York seems the more likely with the use of the cemetery at Driffield Terrace being continued for some time in different phases, dating from the early 3rd to 4th century, indicating that this was not a single mass event, but occurred over a number of years and corresponds with deaths from gladiatorial combat which appear to have risen in Roman Britain at this time. Evidence from tombstones suggest an average age of 27 for gladiators.


New technology helps piece together story of York’s Roman ‘Gladiators’
Cutting edge genome technology, hailed as being the next step on from DNA analysis, has cast more light on a mystery that has perplexed archaeologists for more than a decade. The origins of a set of Roman-age decapitated bodies, found by York Archaeological Trust at Driffield Terrace in the city, have been explored, revealing a Middle Eastern body alongside native Europeans.
Tracing the origins of Roman-age decapitated bodies found in York

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Sunday 10 October 2010

The Real Vikings

Time Team Special

8pm Monday 11th October 2010 on Channel 4

The 45th Time Team Special will be screened on Channel 4 on Monday 11th October 2010 at 8pm. Tony Robinson, Mick Aston and Phil Harding will look for the Real Vikings by following digs around the UK, reporting from excavations across the country, from Orkney to the south coast, but it is at Hungate in York that the biggest discoveries are made. This huge dig uncovers the thousand-year-old Viking remains of streets, houses and a trading centre.

The Viking's, notorious as fearsome, axe-wielding warriors who relished their reputation as bloodthirsty invaders, initially commencing with seaborne raids in the 8th century, then turned to intentional occupation of these Isles, shaping the Britain we live in today, influencing our culture, place-names and language.

Hopefully the program will provide an update on the discovery of the fifty-one headless bodies, confirmed as Vikings, discovered in a mass grave at Ridgeway Hill, near Weymouth, in June 2009, one of the largest examples of executed foreigners buried in one spot. Any mass grave is a relatively rare find, but to find one on this scale, from this period of history, is extremely unusual. Archaeologists from Oxford believe the men were probably executed by the local Anglo Saxons sometime between 910 AD and 1030 AD.

However, the Vikings were not just seaborne raiders; it is often overlooked that they were also successful global traders, technological pioneers and world-wide mariners. Using all this research, Tony and the Team are said to paint a new and much more complex picture of these skilful and enterprising people.

See: Mass Viking Execution in Dorset

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Thursday 7 October 2010

Slaughter of the Saints

The Round Table Revealed?
Part IV

The Slaughter of The Saints (1)

Continued from Part III: The Reason for the Battle

Bangor! o'er the murder wail!
Long thy ruins told the tale,
Shatter'd towers and broken arch
Long recall'd the woeful march:
On thy shrine no tapers burn,
Never shall thy priests return;
The pilgrim sighs and sings for thee,
O miserere, Domine!

The Lost Monastery of Bangor
Bangor on Dee lies in a natural hollow on the right bank of the river Dee between Wrexham and Whitchurch just off the modern A525 road, about 20 minutes south from Chester by car. The site alongside the Dee lies no more than a couple of miles from the curious Wat's Dyke earthwork running through the northern Welsh Marches, onto Basingwerk Abbey, possibly constructed as a linear boundary to the early kingdom of Powys. Bangor on Dee is well known today for its racecourse south-west of the village. But underneath the natural beauty of this quiet setting persists the faintest glimmer of a Dark Age atrocity.
Bangor on Dee is a contender for the Roman site of Bovium, later Banchorium, sited on the ancient road leading northwards to Deva (Chester), and south towards Uriconium (Wroxeter) in Antonine's Second Itinerary, the 3rd century Roman road listing. The line of the Roman road here, known as Watling Street, is said to run northwest from Whitchurch, the Romano-British town of Mediolano, through Bovium on to Deva[2]

However, it is by no means certain that Bangor on Dee was Bovium; other contenders such as Holt, Tilston and Grafton have all been suggested. Bangor on Dee would certainly be in the optimum position to be Bovium providing a fast route along the Roman road to Deva. This is is the same Roman road that Chester archaeologists found the large Romano-British industrial strip settlement at Heronbridge, 8 miles north of Bangor-on-Dee and two miles south of Chester, standing on the west bank of the River Dee, between the river and the line of Watling Street. It is at Heronbridge that archaeologists unearthed evidence of a Dark Age battle with excavations revealing a mass grave with a number of warriors originating from north-east England thought to be members of the army of the Northumbrian king Æthelfrith who took part in the early 7th century battle of Chester.

It has been suggested that the site of the Roman camp of Bovium was in a field called ' lolyn's Strand ' or ' lolyn's Beach', on the bank of the Dee, near Bangor Bridge at Sesswick in the Parish of Bangor. This field is liable to periodical flooding and was laid totally flat after “all kinds of mounds and hillocks” were cleared away in the mid-nineteenth century; there being no record of any remains resembling the walls or ramparts of a Roman camp being found. Seemingly the main reason for locating the camp at 'lolyn's Strand ' is that along one side of it runs a narrow drainage ditch with the Roman name of "The Foss," derived from the Latin fossa, meaning 'ditch' and a word sometimes used for Roman roads. But this is very similar to the Welsh word 'ffós' for 'ditch' so may well have no connection and to date no remains have been found that indicate that at one time a Roman camp actually stood at Bangor. [3] The fact that the site lies on the flood plain of the river Dee which periodically bursts its banks and changes course over time may have resulted in any remains being washed downstream and the archaeology lost.

In Bede's time he called it 'Bancornburg,' which over the course of time has developed into the modern anglicised name of 'Bangor on Dee' referring to the village's location on the river, but 'Bangor' is a Welsh term. The earliest recorded use of the Welsh name 'Bangor Is-y-coed' or more commonly 'Bangor Is-coed' is found from seventeenth century documents. The name 'Bangor Monachorum' ('Bangor of the monks'), was the preferred form in legal documents, first recorded in 1677, indicating that for the local people the memory of the ecclesiastical establishment that once stood at Bangor Is-y-coed persisted throughout the centuries; the account reported by Bede telling of the monastery and its abbot's dealings with Augustine and their failure to comply with the Roman church resulting in its subsequent obliteration in what history has termed 'the Battle of Chester'.

The tradition of the lost monastery at Bangor prevails although, like the Roman camp of Bovium, there is little evidence of it on the ground today. It is said that a large monastery existed here in ancient times, but the date of its foundation and founder's name remain equally uncertain. It is said that the monastery at Bangor was founded as a seat of learning by the legendary good king Lucius, said to be the first Christian king of Britain. In the last quarter of the 2nd century Lucius, a son of Coel, was converted by the preaching of one of the Christian Fathers. Bede included the story of Lucius, king of the Britons writing to Eleutherius, bishop of Rome, requesting to be made a Christian, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Eleutherius became pope around 174 AD. A welsh version of Lucius' (Llewrug Mawr) letter to the Pope is first mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis (Book of Popes), c.685 AD, which would appear to be Bede's source, who adds “he soon obtained his pious request, and the Britons preserved the faith, which they had received, uncorrupted and entire, in peace and tranquillity until the time of the Emperor Diocletian, [303 AD]”.

The Welsh name "Bangor" seems to suggest that there was a monastery here as the name is generally explained as meaning “High Choir”; 'ban' = high, and 'cor' = choir, or church; therefore Bangor = high choir.

But the Welsh word 'bangor' is also commonly used for 'wattling', as in fencing or barrier forming an enclosure; the traditional Welsh name Bangor-Is-y-Coed meaning a settlement within a wattle fence (bangor) below the wood (is y coed). It was originally built with wattles from the local marsh, which in the course of time would have been replaced with a timber construction centuries before a permanent stone building would have been erected on the site.

Indeed, the word 'bangor' may have had a dual meaning here as early Christian ecclesiastical centres were built of wattle; interwoven branches packed with clay (daub). As with Bangor-is-y-coed, the first Christian establishment at Glastonbury was said to be a simple church constructed of wattle and daub on the site of the present Lady Chapel by Joseph of Arimathea in the 1st century. Good King Lucius is said to have established an ecclesiastical institution at Glastonbury in the 2nd century accompanied by missionaries from Rome, which he raised out of the ruins of a former church on the site that had been previously dedicated to St. Mary. According to traditional sources King Lucius was responsible for establishing several major ecclesiastical centres in Briton. [4] For centuries the story of Lucius as the 'first Christian king' of Britain was widely held and considered an accurate account of the early establishment of Christianity in Britain and was recounted by many medieval historians.

The Mother of all Monasteries

The red sandstone church standing today at Bangor-is-y-coed was built about 1300 AD and said to be on the site of the monastery, dedicated in the name of St. Dunawd (Saint Dunod, Bede's 'Dinooth'), who, according to some accounts, was the first Abbot of the ancient monastery thought to have been established in the mid-sixth century, the only Welsh ecclesiastic mentioned by name by Bede in the episode of 'Augustine's Oak'. Little is known of St. Dunawd but some have identified him as king Dunaut Bwr (the Stout) who was forced out of his kingdom of Dunoting in the Northern Pennines by the Bernicians and fled to north Wales. The Welsh Annals record the death of king Dunaut (Dunod) at the hands of the Bernicians in 595 AD. There is clearly much confusion here as the chronology does not fit: king Dunaut carried out a failed invasion of northern Rheged the year following Urien's assassination c.591AD. If he was fighting the northern British in Rheged at this date he could hardly be the same man who established the monastery at Bangor-is-y-coed thirty or forty years earlier in the mid-sixth century in Powys.

As we have seen above, a religious centre probably existed here long before St. Dunawd (Dunaut?) arrived. It must have been in existence before this date as St. Deiniol (Daniel), traditionally the son of St. Dunawd, established a monastery at Bangor (anciently known as Bangor Vawr = Great Bangor) on the south side of the Menia Straits, in Gwynedd (formerly Carnarvonshire) north Wales, c.525 AD some 70 years before the Abbey at Canterbury was established by Augustine which marked the rebirth of Christianity in southern England. The story goes that having been given land by king Maelgwn, Deniol enclosed it with a fence constructed by driving poles into the ground and weaving branches in between them, typical wattling or a 'bangor'. Within this enclosure Deiniol built his church, from which the city derived its name. He may even have been the founder of the monastery of Bangor-is-y-coed. St. Deiniol was certainly active in Flintshire as there are nearby churches dedicated to him; Worthenbury originally a chapel attached to Bangor Is-y-coed and Hawarden only sixteen miles distance. Deiniol died on 11th September 584 AD, and according to the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), he was taken to be buried on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), the legendary "Island of 20,000 saints”.

The monastery at Bangor-is-y-coed is said to have produced the heretic Pelagius, who some say was the twentieth abbot, with Gildas ('the wise') also claimed to have been a one time Abbot there. Saint Tudno, one of the seven sons of King Seithenyn whose legendary kingdom in Cardigan Bay was submerged by tidal activity, was said to have been educated there too. Tudno had a cell in a small cave on the headland, and later established a church on the northern side of the Great Orme, from which the name of Llandundo is derived.

Bangor's monastery certainly seems to have been a substantial establishment by the middle of the 6th century, when Cyngen Glodrydd, King of Powys, is said to have granted lands. [5] Cyngen, known as 'the Renown' and sometimes identified with Gildas' tyrant Aurelius Caninus, the 'lion's whelp', is shown in the genealogical tables in the Harlian Manuscript 3859 as the son of the Powys king Cadell Ddyrnllug, 'of the Gleaming-Hilt', the Catel Drunluc of the Historia Brittonum who St Germanus blessed saying "from henceforward thou shalt be a king all the days of thy life” and thus established the Cadelling dynasty of Powys. [6]

It is thought that the monastery at Bangor-is-y-coed became such an important religious centre in Britain that during the 5th and 6th centuries the number of monks had increased to over 2,000. However, for such a large ecclesiastical centre no trace of the monastery remains today and its site remains uncertain; some authorities believe that it lies under the present course of the River Dee. But the tradition of the lost monastery persisted. Writing in the early 12th century the medieval historian William of Malmesbury stated that:

“Another proof of his [Æthelfrith] success is afforded by the city of Carlegion, now commonly called Chester, which, till that period possessed by the Britons, fostered the pride of a people hostile to the king. When he sent his exertions to subdue this city, the townsmen preferring any extremity to a siege, and at the same confiding in their numbers, rushed out in multitudes to battle. But deceived by a stratagem, they were overcome and put to flight ; his fury being first vented on the monks, who came out in numbers to pray for the safety of the army. That their number was incredible to these times is apparent from so many half- destroyed walls of churches in the neighbouring monastery, so many winding porticoes, such masses of ruins as can scarcely be seen elsewhere. The place is called Bangor; at that day a noted monastery, but now changed into a cathedral.” [7]

Although William Malmesbury does report ''half- destroyed walls of churches” and  "masses of ruins”, which would not seem unreasonable for the remains of such a large monastery, his account is usually discredited by historians who suspect that he did not actually visit the site and therefore does not provide a first hand account; he is accused of confusing the tradition of the ancient monastery of Bangor-is-y-coed, near Chester, with the more modern see of Bangor Vawr (Great Bangor) then in Carnarvonshire (now Gwynedd) with its cathedral and invented his account of the ruins at Bangor-is-y-coed. But in the passage above Malmesbury is clearly referring to the Battle of Chester (Carlegion) and the monks from “the neighbouring monastery,”. Bangor-is-y-coed is only 12 miles up stream from Chester, whereas Bangor Vawr is some 60 miles along the north Welsh coast and can hardly be considered as“neighbouring”.

This monastery at Bangor Vawr, established by St. Deiniol as we have seen above, was sacked in 634 and again in 1073 AD. Nothing of the original building survived, the Cathedral being rebuilt on several occasions; the first stone building being erected by Bishop David between 1120 and 1139 AD. It was restored in the 12th century but was destroyed by the English and then badly damaged when King Edward I invaded Gwynedd in 1282 AD. Although not a large cathedral by modern standards the first stone construction was contemporary with when Malmesbury wrote down his Chronicle in the first quarter of the twelfth century.

The reference to the cathedral is seen as the flaw in Malmesbury's account; the church at Bangor-is-y-coed could hardly pass as a cathedral and by all accounts was not constructed until c.1300 AD. However, in his Gesta pontificum Anglorum, (Deeds of the English Bishops), c.1125 AD, Malmesbury makes no mention of a cathedral at Bangor; “a monastery once grand and so populous that, as Bede reports, if it had been divided into seven, each portion would have housed no fewer than 300 men, Certainly the existing remains there, including half-ruined walls of churches, are on a scale seen almost nowhere else”. [8]

We can forgive William's apparent confusions; it would appear that he visited the site at Bangor-is-y-coed and witnessed first hand the ruins of the monastery before he wrote the first edition of Gesta regum Anglorum, c.1120. In writing Gesta pontificum Anglorum, c.1125, he again described the ruins at Bangor-is-y-coed. It is only in the later edition of Gesta regum Anglorum which he expanded up to 1127 that he adds the monastery had now changed into a cathedral. This correctly corresponds with the first stone building being erected at Bangor Vawr by Bishop David between 1120 and 1139, after William had penned the first edition of Gesta regum Anglorum. William is generally considerable a reliable historian for his time and seems likely that he based his later addition of the building of a cathedral at Bangor on an oral account that he heard after his visit that he interpreted to mean the site at Bangor-is-y-coed.

At Bangor Is-y-coed we should not be expecting to see large scale Gothic style ruins with tall pointed arches like at many of the sites of the destroyed abbeys and monasteries across the country such as Glastonbury and Valle Crucis for example. Most of these magnificent buildings went up in the golden era of abbey and cathedral construction which commenced following the return of the Knights Templar from the First Crusade early in the 12th century and thereafter appeared throughout the Christian west. Most were wrecked by order of Henry VIII in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. However, we would hope to find some trace of the 'mother of all monasteries' in this valley by the river Dee.

Seven hundred years after William Malmesbury's time only traces of the foundations could be found. According to 'A Topographical Dictionary of Wales', third edition published by Samuel Lewis in 1849, “....the only vestiges that can be traced, are parts of the foundations, extending for a considerable distance along the eastern bank of the river Dee, which flows between the sites of two of the ancient gates.”

In 1972 a partial excavation of the site at Bangor-is-y-coed failed to reveal anything significant and nothing now remains above ground. [9] Is it possible for such a large monastery to disappear without trace? One could be forgiven for wondering if it had actually ever existed at all; the destruction of the monastery certainly seems to have been eradicated from our history books.

But although hard evidence of the monastery at Bangor-is-y-coed remains elusive the memory of it has prevailed and it appears a Welsh account of the destruction this seat of religious learning has survived.

Next: Slaughter of the Saints (2): Chronicles and Scribes

1March Of The Monks Of Bangor by Sir Walter Scott.
2. a. Iter II lists the land route from Blatobulgio (Birrens) north of the Wall to Portum Ritupis (Richborough) on the south east coast of Kent, some 500 miles of Roman road. Bovio being listed as item 469.3 between Medialano 469.4 (Whitchurch), 15 miles, and Deva 469.2 (Chester), 10 miles. It has been suggested that the main legionary pottery works of Legio XX Valeria Victrix housed at Deva, was at Holt in Clwyd, and is in fact Iter II 469.3 which would agree with the mileage but must be doubted because it does not lie directly on the route but about two miles west of Watling Street, sited on a suspected branch road running west from Bovium to the fort at Ffridd. The name Bovium may be derived from British *bou- 'cow' implying perhaps a Romano-British 'cattle market'.– see A.L.F. Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, Batsford 1979.
b. The Roman settlement at Tilston, Cheshire, is also a possible site for Bovio – A.C. Waddelove and E. Waddelove, The Location of Bovium, Britannia 15, 1984.
c. That the Roman road passed through Bovium or Banchorium a little to the south of the church seems without doubt when it it is reported that when 'digging graves in the churchyard, Roman pavements are occasionally found' - 'A Topographical Dictionary of Wales' 1849.
3. Alfred Neobald Palmer, On the Early History of Bangor is y coed - Y Cymmrodor, VOL. X.1890.
4. Following Bede, versions of the Lucius story appeared in the Historia Brittonum, c.830, which stated that “one hundred and sixty-seven years after the birth of Christ, king Lucius, with all the chiefs of the British people, received baptism,” and William of Malmesbury included the story in his Gesta pontificum Anglorum, c.1120, but the most influential was Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae, c.1136, which provided a detailed account of the spread of Christianity during Lucius' reign.
The English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller (1608 – 1661) credits Good king Lucius with establishing several major Christian institutions in the 2nd century:
a) St. Peter’s Cornhill in London.
An inscription in the churchyard here claims that the church of St Peter upon Cornhill is the earliest Christianised site in Britain, founded by the first Christian King, Lucius,
b) A chief Cathedral Church in Gloucester,
c) A Church at Winchester,
d) A Church and College of Christian Philosophers at Bangor-on-Dee,
e) A Church dedicated to St. Mary in Glastonbury,
f) A chapel in honour of Christ in Dover Castle,
g) The Church of St. Martins, Canterbury.
- Thomas Fuller, The church history of Britain, from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year MDCXLVIII, (published 1655).
5. Alfred Neobald Palmer, On the Early History of Bangor is y coed - Y Cymmrodor, VOL. X.1890.
6. a. This is of course no more than a foundation legend of the Cadelling dynasty which ruled Powys in the 9th century, the time the Historia Brittonum was written from the house of Gwynedd against the descendants of Vortigern, whose claim to these parts of Powys are stated on The Pillar of Eliseg. Set on the lower slopes of the Horseshoe Pass, standing on a mound in Valle Crucis (Valley of the Cross), overlooking the ruined Abbey, about 2 miles North of Llangollen in Clywd, stands the remains of the pillar dated between 800-25 AD. The faded inscription on the cross is recorded as stating that the monument was erected in memory of his great-grandfather Eliseg, by Concenn, the last native king of Powys, who according to the Annales Cambriae died in Rome in 854 AD. Concenn appears to have been asserting not only his inheritance of Eliseg's kingdom, but celebrating his rights of dominion back to the Roman period and the Emperor Magnus Maximus. Much of the inscription contains genealogical matter, which, seems to agrees with the Harleian Genealogies, except that at the beginning Britu is said to be son of Vortigern, not of Catigern ('son' of Catel Drunluc), conflicting with the account in the Historia Brittonum. In identifying Britu as the son of Vortigern, (Gildas' `superbus tyrannus') and Severa (the daughter of Magnus Maximus), the inscription seems to imply that it was Britu who was blessed by Germanus of Auxerre not Catel Drunluc. However, the monument is damaged and we depend largely on a 17th century reading by the antiquarian Edward Llwyd in 1696.
b. In July 2010 archaeologists from the University of Chester started a two week excavation at the 9th century monument, the first time the site has been dug since 1773 when the pillar was re-erected, to gain a better understanding the history behind the monument and why it was erected. The site has never been subject to modern archaeological investigation but the ancient monument is protected by Cadw and stands directly on top of a barrow, an ancient burial mound, which archaeologists are not permitted to disturb. For news from the excavation see: http://www.chester.ac.uk/node/6516.
7. William of Malmesbury's Chronicle Kings of Kngland - From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c.1120. Translated by J A Giles, 1847. ( Gesta regum Anglorum originally spanned from AD 449–1120 which he later expanded this in to a "second edition" up to 1127, which is now considered by modern scholars to be one of the great histories of England). William's first edition of the book was followed by the Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops) in c.1125 in which he describes the ruins again.
8. William of Malmesbury Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, The History of the English Bishops, Volume 1 by – Editors Michael Winterbottom, Rodney M. Thomson, Oxford University Press, 2007
9. L Laing, The Archaeology of Late Celtic Britain and Ireland c.400 – 1200 AD, London, 1975 - quoted in History of the English kings, Volume 2 of Gesta Regum Anglorum, William of Malmesbury - Roger Aubrey Baskerville Mynors, Rodney M. Thomson, Michael Winterbottom, Oxford University Press, 1999.

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