Saturday 21 April 2012

St Brice's Day Massacre or Viking Execution?

The grisly remains of nearly forty Scandinavian bodies discovered at St John’s College, Oxford, initially thought to be evidence of the the well documented St Brice's Day Massacre, may be a band of tenth century Viking raiders.

The King of England Æthelred the Unready, c.968 – 1016 AD, had paid tribute, or Danegeld, effectively a tax to the Danish King, from 991 in order to prevent the land from being ravaged by Viking raiders. On 13th November 1002, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish settlers in England. The St Brice's Day Massacre ultimately led to King Sweyn Forkbeard's invasion of England in 1003 following the death of his sister Gunhilde in the storm.

Justifying the massacre Æthelred displayed a complete lack of remorse in exploiting popular ethnic hatred, recording the events in Oxford himself in a Royal charter to St Frideswide’s church two years later:

“For it is fully agreed that to all dwelling in this country it will be well known that, since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt [in Oxford],in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ [St Frideswide’s], having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books. Afterwards, with God's aid, it was renewed by me."

The Massacre of the Danes’.
Engraving after a drawing by Samuel Wale
Historians generally regard the massacre as a reaction of people who had been continually slaughtered and pillaged for a decade, yet not directed at the inhabitants of the Danelaw but at mercenaries who had turned on their employers, arguing the massacre could not have been carried out in the Danelaw with any success where the Danes would have been too strong and was probably confined to frontier towns such as Oxford, and larger towns with small Danish communities.

This view seems to be upheld by the findings of the excavation during 2008 at St John's College, Oxford. Prior to commencing construction work of new student accommodation at the Oxford University college archaeologists were summoned to investigate the site in January 2008. Following  just a few hours of digging the archaeologists discovered the remains of a Late Neolithic earthwork enclosure, or henge, close to the north-south road.

The previously unknown henge monument, constructed c.2300 BC, highlights the fact that the Neolithic monument was still a feature in the landscape during these turbulent times. The ditch excavated here is up to 8m across and at least 2.5m deep and based on the small part of the plan exposed would have enclosed an area of at least 150m diameter, encompassing all of what is now Keble College and the Pitt Rivers Museum, qualifying the earthwork as one of the largest of Britain’s prehistoric henges.

The skeletons of between 34 and 38 young men, aged 16 to 25, were found disrespectfully dumped in the henge ditch. They were more robust and taller than average, some bearing older scars indicative that they were professional warriors and all initially thought to be Danes killed during the St Brice's Day Massacre. The severity of the wounds suggests the young Viking men were brutally slaughtered, the skeletons showing evidence that each individual was stabbed many times shortly before death.

There is also evidence of charring on some of the skeletons, showing they may have been exposed to burning before burial and thrown into the makeshift grave of the henge ditch. The evidence of knife wounds and the burning of the bodies is consistent with the documented account of the St Brice's Day Massacre at St Frideswide’s Church, rather than having died in combat.

Following further study of the skeletons Oxford University academics have suggested that the victims may have been Viking raiders who were captured and then executed rather than settlers of the Danelaw. Chemical analysis of the teeth suggests they could have been a group of professional warriors, rather than a group of residents of Danish origin who were later rounded up and executed. They also had a substantial amount of seafood in their diet which was higher in marine protein than that found in the typical local Oxfordshire population. Radiocarbon analysis fits the date of 1002 AD.

The study team compared data to previous research in which isotopic analysis of 51 decapitated skeletons found in a burial pit at the Weymouth Ridgeway in Dorset had identified the victims as Viking raiders from Scandinavia, dated between 970 and 1025 AD. The isotopic analysis of the Dorset group compared favourably with the individuals found in the mass burial site at St John’s College, Oxford, suggesting similar origins for the groups of raiders and indicates that the Saxons were capable of being quite ruthless when dealing with Viking raiders.

A Viking Mystery - David Keys, Smithsonian magazine, October 2010

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Sunday 8 April 2012

Arthur's Stone

The last resting place of King Arthur? 

Arthur's Stone is one of the most notable of all Neolithic burial monuments in western Britain. Located at Grid Ref: SO319431, between the villages of Dorstone and Bredwardine, west Herefordshire, England. This dolmen is associated with the legend of the last resting place of King Arthur and set within a picturesque area of gently rolling countryside lying in the lee of the Black Mountains of Wales, with stunning views to the north-east over the Wye valley.

To find the tomb leave Dorstone by the B4348 heading towards Peterchurch. As the road crosses the river, turn off left at a sharp right-angled bend and head uphill past Dorstone Hill Wood. Some distance further up the western slope of the ridge turn into Arthur's Stone Lane. Continue along the lane, here on your left, overlooking the natural depression of the River Dore known as the Golden Valley, is Arthur's Stone. 

Arthur's Stone is Herefordshire's oldest man-made structure, constructed between 3,700BC and 2,700BC, meaning this stone chamber is older than Stonehenge. Excavations by George Nash in 2006 established that Arthur's Stone was a long mound and not a round mound as officially stated by English Heritage on the site information board.

Arthur's Stone is one of eighteen tombs that dominate the Neolithic landscape of the northern reaches of the Dore, Upper Wye and Usk valleys of Breconshire and neighbouring Herefordshire, that lie within the fertile hinterlands of the Black Mountains of mid Wales and the English Marches and is considered the best preserved of the group. The first phase of this monument comprised a circular mound with a 10ft passage with a sharp right-angled turn leading to a small rectangular gallery with antechambers either side. There appears to be intentionally no visual access between the chamber and the facade beyond; the 90˚ kink in the passage alignment presenting a restriction which appears to be a deliberate demarcation between the realms of life and death; it is at this point that the living would have come into contact with the dead.

The site is a northerly outlier of the Cotswold-Severn Group of chambered tombs yet similar to other monuments of the Black Mountains Group, such as Gwernvale and Pipton Long Cairn but contrasts to other members of the group in the form and nature of the chamber and passage which faces the distinctive mountain spur of Hay Bluff (Penybegwn) at 2,221ft on the northern tip of the Black Mountains providing a dramatic view when emerging from the passage. As with many other chambered tombs from this period Arthur's Stone is not on the highest point of Merbach's summit but slightly below. Significantly the tomb cannot be seen from any part of the Golden Valley; as with many other chambered tombs, clearly visual access played a major part in the siting of these monuments.

The northern edge of Arthur's Stone Lane runs past the monument and across the spine of Arthur's Stone ridge from Merbach Hill to Dorstone Hill which forms part of the Parish boundary between Dorstone and Bredwardine leading to suggestions that the monument may have once served as a territorial marker. The chamber and passage were originally incorporated into a long mound, aligned north-south, which extended well over 100ft in length with a south facing entrance. In the fields to the east of the lane is a selection of stones that do do not appear to be natural and may have comprised one end of the monument, the destruction happening at least before the early 18th century with one piece reputedly taken away for use as altar in the church at Peterchurch.

The low exposed burial chamber is topped by a huge cracked capstone, measuring 18ft x 8ft,  estimated to weigh between 25 – 30 tons resting on nine upright orthostats. A large section has fallen from its underside indicative of its decline in recent times; a century ago it measured 19ft x 12ft  and the mound is now almost completely eroded. The Old Red Sandstone capstone is oriented north-east/south-west, the line of the solar solstices, with the south-western end end directed toward the southern section of the Golden Valley.

Once referred to as 'Artil's Stone', other accounts refer to the tomb as Thor's Stone or Thor's Altar, locally it is know as Arthur's Stone. The name of the village Dorstone seems to be derived from 'dwr' meaning simply 'water' in Welsh, referring to the river Dore. We see similar usage of the word such as in the waterfall Pistyll Rhaeadr, one of the seven wonders of Wales, from Rhaea + dwr, 'the water of Rhea'. The massive capstone in all probability was originally referred to as the Stone at Dore, or Dore-Stone; it is not a massive leap to see the Thor element as a later corruption of this name. Like many chambered tombs and megalithic monuments of Wales and western Britain the site has a secondary name associated with the legendary King Arthur.

Legend claims the site is either the tomb of Arthur himself or a giant that he killed. One stone bears the marks of the giant's elbows when he fell dying,  another slab has marks said to have been made by Arthur's knees where he knelt in thanksgiving after the duel. Alternatively the identations may have been made by Arthur's fingers as he played quoits with the capstone; many cromlechs in Wales are named Arthur's Quoit and it is tempting to think that the name may once have also been used for the mighty capstone at Dorstone. By implication Arthur must have been a giant of a man himself; these huge beings were said to be the first inhabitants of the Island of Britain, indicative of Arthur's great antiquity and rightful association with these ancient monuments.

We find another Arthur's Stone, also known as Maen Ceti, or Coetan Arthur, in West Glamorgan, South Wales. One day, so the story goes, when Arthur was walking through South Wales near the site of modern Llanelli he became irritated by a pebble in his shoe. He removed it and threw it towards the sea. The pebble finally landed several miles to the south on a ridge of land in the Gower Peninsula just below the summit of Cefn Bryn. The pebble forms the capstone of another exposed burial chamber, a huge slab of granite measuring 14ft x 6ft, overlooking the estuary of the river Lougher.

All the guidebooks will tell you that these ancient monuments were in use some 4,000 years before the time of Arthur. But they fail to explain the association. Yet the names attached to these landscape features of natural rocks and prehistoric antiquities are the visible remains of the tales of  Arthur’s adventures and as such have had a remarkable persistence through the centuries in their portrayal of the earliest Arthur as attested by the Mirabilia of the 9th century Historia Brittonum.

As Oliver Padel points out, what is so impressive is the vitality and consistency of the tradition in the various Brittonic areas and the fact that this folklore remains largely unaffected by the later Arthurian literary cycle and retained its character throughout the period.

Copyright © 2012 Edward Watson

Notes & References
Mary Andere, Arthurian Links with Herefordshire, Logaston Press, 1996.
Neil Fairbairn, Kingdom's of Arthur, Evans Brothers, 1983.
George Nash, The Architecture of Death, Logaston Press, 2006.
O J Padel, The Nature of Arthur, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No 27, 1994.

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