Monday 23 December 2013

Mabon and the Solstice

The Exalted Prisoner
In the Book of Taliesin poem Preiddeu Annwn1 and the tales included in Culhwch and Olwen 2 and The Four Branches of the Mabinogi 3 we find the common theme of a raid on the Otherworld involving a magic cauldron and release of an exalted prisoner, with only seven returning in two of the tales.

Preiddeu Annwn is a sea-borne raid to release the exalted prisoner and retrieve the cauldron of the chief of Annwn from the Otherworld by Arthur and his entourage. The first stanza recalls “the prison of Gweir in Kaer Sidi, throughout the account of Pwyll and Pryderi.” Pryderi is one of the seven survivors, along with Arthur and Taliesin, which holds similarities to the tale of Branwen Daughter of Llyr in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi which tells of a raid on Ireland.“The account of Pwyll and Pryderi” features in the First Branch.

Gwydion illustration from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi
Tales of Mabon
The collection of medieval texts initially edited and translated by Lady Charlotte Guest in the early 19th century was published as “The Mabinogion”, although the name first appears in the Cambrian Register of William Owen Pughe in 1795. However, the term 'Mabinogion' is somewhat of a misnomer yet it has persistently adhered to this collection since Guest popularised it. The collection usually consists of the 'Four Branches of the Mabinogi', 'The Three Romances' and 'Four Native Tales'. Guest's collection also included the Hanes Taliesin. Pughe argued that 'Mabinogion' meant ‘juvenile tales, tales written to while away the time of young chieftains’. However, the term Mabinogi should correctly only be used to describe the Four Branches.4

Although The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are dated c.1060-1120, it is generally accepted that they preserve much older material, remnants from a complete cycle of tales centred on Pryderi, who appears in all four branches although he is not always the central character; Pryderi is born in the First Branch and dies in the Fourth. However, the term “Mabinogi” is usually translated as "tales for youth” derived from "mabon" or "meibon", meaning a boy, young man or youth.

Alternatively, Eric Hamp has argued that the term mabinogi has nothing to do with 'youth' 'boy' or 'son' but is a collective of material pertaining to the ancient deity Maponus, 'the Divine Son', of Matrona 'the Divine Mother'. Thus, the term Mabinogi may also mean "tales of Mabon". Mabon is a character who appears in the native British tales included in Guest's Mabinogion collection; the exalted prisoner in How Culhwch won Olwen and briefly in The Dream of Rhonabwy, as one of the chief counsellors of Britain.

Hamp concludes, that the Mabinogi is so-called because it contains material derived from myths of the earlier Brythonic deities, such as those reflected in the names Rhiannon, 'the Divine Queen,' and Teyrnon, 'the Divine King' of the First Branch.5

Rhiannon and Pwyll have a son which is stolen. The boy is found in  in a stable in another part of the country by Terynon, who named him Gwri Golden Hair (Gwri Gwallt Euryn) and is raised away from his family, his true identity unknown. The boy grew at an alarming rate, and when his foster father Terynon went to Pwyll for another matter he realized that this was the missing son of Pwyll and Rhiannon, at which point he was returned to court and his name changed from Gwri to Pryderi. If we accept Hamp's argument then the abducted child Gwri/Pryderi of the Four Branches is synonymous with Mabon.

The Prisoner of  Caer Loyw
Also included in the Mabinogion compilation is the tale of 'How Culhwch won Olwen', the oldest Arthurian tale. Culhwch is the most archaic text in the Mabinogion collection and one of the most important texts in the study of the Arthurian cycle. In this tale we again find Mabon, stolen from his mother when three days old, and held prisoner at Caer Loyw, (Gloucester), said to mean the of "city of light." He can only be found by asking the oldest animal. Mabon is said to be a great hunter and his release is essential in hunting the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth.6

The Black Book of Carmarthen poem 'Pa gur yv y Porthaur?' (What man is the gate-keeper?), is told as a dialogue between Arthur, the leader of a war band, and Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr the porter (gate-keeper), bearing close parallels to Culhwch's attempt to enter Arthur's court.7 The listing of Arthur's warriors in Pa Gur includes Mabon fab Mydron (Modron) described as a "servant to Uther Pendragon" and later includes Mabon fab Mellt, (Son of Ligntning), usually interpreted as the same Mabon (Maponus, the divine son) but with the added patronymic of his father Mellt (Meldius).8

The magical prisoner motif found in How Culhwch Won Olwen continues in Tryoedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Isle of Britain), where Mabon son of Modron is one of the Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain along with Llyr Half-Speech and the third Gweir son of Geirioedd.  Evidently, this account has its roots in the same story of Mabon being stolen from his mother when three nights old in Culhwch.9

Just to throw further confusion on the matter,in Culhwch, Arthur's four uncles of are invoked and all named Gweir: Gweir Dathar the Servitor, and Gweir son of Cadellin Silver-brow, and Gweir Falsevalour, and Gweir White-shaft. But oddly Mabon does not feature in the Court List in Culhwch.10

The captive held as the Exhalted Prisoner, who's release is central throughout these ancient native tales, is always named either Mabon or Gweir. This is essentially the same account that features in Preiddeu Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen and The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. W J Gruffydd 11 has argued, convincingly, that Mabon's role as the abducted prisoner is synonymous with Pryderi/Gweir (Gwri Gwallt Euryn of the The First Branch). Clearly, Pryderi/Gweir/Mabon all appear to derive from a common origin.

Mabon ap Modron is a prominent figure from Welsh literature and mythology, the son of Modron and a member of Arthur's war band. Both he and his mother were likely deities in origin, descending from a divine mother-son pairing. His name is related to the Romano-British god Maponus, whose name means "Divine Son"; Modron, in turn, is seemingly related to the Gaulish goddess Dea Matrona, the “Divine Mother”, the goddess of the river Marne in Gaul.12

As Maponus he is seen as the personification of youth. The epitome of a beardless, athletic youth, thought to represent the Olympian deity Apollo, is seen in the kouros sculptures dating from the Archaic period in Greece. Unsurprisingly, Maponus became identified with Apollo; one depiction identifies him with Apollo the Harper, but mediaeval tradition also identifies him (i.e. Mabon) as the greatest hunter in Britain, and probably also reflects Apollo's role as a hunter, Apollo Cunomaglus, literally “Hound Lord" the epithet of a Celtic god attested in south-west Britain. In the traditionally Celtic lands, Apollo was most often seen as a god of healing and the sun. He was often equated with Celtic gods of similar character, leading to a local fusion of Apollo and Maponus; Apollo Maponus is a deity known from inscriptions in Britain.

We find epigraphic evidence for the Romano-British Maponus and Matrona cults chiefly in the north of Britain and well developed in regions around Hadrian’s Wall. The cult  is attested at Brampton, Corbridge (ancient Coria), Ribchester (In antiquity, Bremetenacum Veteranorum) and Chesterholm (in antiquity, Vindolanda), such as Deo Mapono (to the god Maponos).

Place-name evidence also attests to Maponus in Northern Britain; The survival of the Mabon tradition in the area in post-Roman times is indicated by the village name Lochmaben in Dumfriesshire and the place-name Clochmabenstane near Gretna. The 7th-century Ravenna Cosmography cites 'Locus Maponi' or "the place of Maponos", thought to be between Lochmaben and Lockerbie.13

Mabon and the Solstice
There are many concordances in the story of Mabon but it is of no coincidence that the Romans equated Maponus with Apollo, a god of light and the sun.

The period of three days imprisonment appears to be significant in the tales of Mabon and the Exalted Prisoner; in Culhwch Mabon was taken from his mother when three nights old but is found and released from his prison. In a later, expanded version of the Triad, the Three Exalted Prisoners of the Island of Britain, Arthur is included as an Exalted Prisoner who spent three nights in Caer Oeth and Anoeth in an enchanted prison under the Stone of Echymeint before he was released by Goreu, son of Custennin, his cousin.14 Both Mabon and Arthur being imprisoned for three days then released.

Significantly, the tale of How Culhwch Won Olwen starts on 1st January; it can be of little coincidence that this is the time of the mid-winter solstice, the shortest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the time when the sun appears to stop its journey along the horizon before it swings-back and heads toward the mid-summer solstice, the longest day; imprisoned for three days then released.

The word solstice is derived from the Latin 'sol' (sun) and 'sistere' (to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun appears to stands still and its path comes to a stop before reversing direction.  At the mid-winter solstice the ancients considered that the sun had actually died but the sun never actually stops moving, simply the closer it gets to the solstice point the slower it appears to move. The exact time of the solstice is not easy to determine, the movement of the sun along the horizon being hardly detectable with the naked eye when it's moving at its slowest; observations would need to be made over a period of several days to determine the swing-back point when the Sun begins to return to the Northern Hemisphere.

Mid-winter in the northern hemisphere occurs on 21 or 22 December, when the sun appears to standstill for three days before daylight begins to increase again. It can be of no coincidence that three days after the solstice the celebration of the new Solar year begins, a celebration we now call Christmas.

Mid-Winter Solstice  sunrise at Newgrange
The solstice itself may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year even during Neolithic times attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned to the mid-winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the mid-winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). In Irish mythology we find the nearest parallel to Mabon/Maponus is Óengus mac ind-Óg, the 'Son of Youth'. Óengus resides in the Neolithic chambered tomb of Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), which is well known for the illumination of its passage and chamber by the light of the mid-winter Solstice sunrise.

In recent times Mabon has become associated with the autumn equinox in September since Aidan Kelly attached it to the Neopagan calendar around 1970. But I can find no evidence for an autumnal Maponus or justification for this deity's association with the late summer harvest.

Mabon/Maponus, and his various identities discussed above, notably the association with Apollo the sun god, should be attached to the mid-winter solstice without doubt. At solstice the sun literally 'stands still' on the horizon for three days before it is 'released' and recommences its journey through the solar year, as in the tale of the Exalted Prisoner. Any celebration of Mabon should surely be held at the mid-winter solstice.

Mabon, the Divine Son of the Divine Mother, reborn three days after the mid-winter solstice; sound familiar?

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References
1. Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, CMCS Publications, 2007.
2. Rachel Bromwich & D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, University of Wales Press, 1992.
3. Sioned Davies, The Mabinogion, Oxford University Press, 2008.
4. Proinsias Mac Cana, The Mabinogi, University of Wales Press, 1977.
5. Eric P. Hamp, Mabinogi,Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1974–1975, pp.243–249.
6. Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch.
7. Patrick Sims-Williams in ‘The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems’, in Rachel Bromwich et al, The Arthur of the Welsh: Arthurian Legend in Mediaeval Welsh Literature, University of Wales Press, 1991,  pp. 33-71.
8. Proinsias Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, Bounty Books, 1992.
9. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain, University of Wales Press; Third Revised Edition, 2006.
10. Morris Collins, The Arthurian Court List in Culhwch and Olwen, The Camelot Project, 2004 .
11. WJ Gruffydd, Rhiannon: An Inquiry into the Origins of the First and Third Branches of the
Mabinogi. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1953.
12. Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology.
13. John T Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
14. Mary Jones, The Welsh Triads - Llyfr Coch Hergest, from the Celtic Literature Collective

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Sunday 15 December 2013

The Tomb of Amr

“There is another wonder in the country called Ergyng (Ercing). There is a tomb there by a spring, called Llygad Amr (Licat Amr); the name of the man who was buried in the tomb was Amr. He was the son of the warrior Arthur, and he killed him there and buried him. Men come to measure the tomb, and it is sometimes six feet long, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever measure you measure it on one occasion, you never find it again of the same measure, and I have tried it myself.”1

Battle Leaders and Magic
The early 9th century Historia Brittonum is the earliest document we have that can be considered a historical text referring to Arthur the warrior. As such the Historia lists Arthur's twelve battles in Chapter 56. The Arthurian battle list is typically cited as the departure point for any investigation into the historical Arthur, typically seen as twelve encounters between the native Britons and second generation English settlers.

There are several manuscript versions of the Historia Brittonum but the version contained in the Harly collection, known as Harlian 3859, is one of only two versions which contains the additional sections known as the Mirabilia, (Marvels, or Wonders of the Island of Britain), the Annales Cambriae (The Welsh Annals), and a collection of genealogies. The Welsh Annals also lists Arthur's battles at Badon and Camlann in a simple chronicle list as if authenticating these events.

Typically the Historia Brittonum ends at Chapter 66. However, the Harlian 3859 manuscript includes Chapters 67-75, the Mirabilia, which contain various items of topographical folklore that the author is familiar with or even personally experienced. From twenty Marvels, or Wonders of the Island of Britain listed, covering such oddities as the hot springs of Bath, the floating altar of St Illtud and the sixty islands of Loch Lomond each with an eagle's nest, two Mirabilia refer to Arthur; the paw print of his dog known as Carn Cabal, and the tomb of his son Amr. On both occasions these Marvels, in line the Arthurian battle list of Chapter 56, refer to Arthur as a warrior, not a king or emperor of later Romance; “Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander [dux bellorum].” By implication it appears Arthur was not regarded as a king himself. If we read the twelve battles of Chapter 56 as a historical record of a Dark Age military campaign we find Arthur in a very different world in the Mirabilia.

Here in our earliest historical Arthurian text the legend is already in a two-fold state with the 'historical' Arthur, 'dux bellorum' the military leader of the battle list of Chapter 56 on one hand and the 'folkloric' Arthur attached to landscape wonders of the Mirabilia on the other.

The second Arthurian marvel in Chapter 73 of the Historia Brittonum cites the variable length of the grave of Arthur's son, Amr, slain by the warrior himself. We know little more of this son of Arthur from early Arthurian tradition apart from a brief mention in the Welsh Romance Geraint ac Enid in the Mabinogion as ‘Amhar son of Arthur’ one of Arthur’s four chamberlains along with  'Amhren son of Bedwyr'. We find Amren son of Bedwyr in Culhwch and Olwen, presumably the same Long Amren, a servant of Arthur, who features later in the tale during the task (anoeth) of obtaining the blood of the of the Black Witch, daughter of the White Witch, from the head of the Valley of Grief in the uplands of Hell. But Amr is absent from the text and fails to achieve any later fame in the Continental Arthurian Romances; the story of Arthur's slaying of his own son is otherwise lost to us.

Another son, Llacheu, features in early Welsh poetry, Pa Gur, and the later Black Book of Carmarthen, and just once in the early Version of the Triads (Three Well-Endowed Men of the Island of Britain). Another son of Arthur, Gwydre, is named in the early Arthurian tale Culhwch and Olwen as having been killed by the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth at the battle of Cwm Cerwyn in the Preseli  mountains, South West Wales, commemorated by the Stones of the Sons of Arthur.

The Mirabile bears witness to the survival of an onomastic topographic tale drawn from local, popular folklore designed to explain the name Licat Amr and an associated tomb. Perhaps reminiscent of the grave of Walwen (Gwalchmai) as recorded by William of Malmesbury in his Gesta Regum Anglorum of c. 1125 as fourteen feet long on the shore at Rhos in South Wales. Gwalchmai's grave in mentioned in the Englynion y Beddau (The Stanzas of the Graves) but is silent on the whereabouts of Amr's grave.

Copyright Ordnance Survey
The Eye of Amr
The usual identification of  Licat Amr (Llygad Amr), the eye of Amr, is the source of the river Gamber by the A466 road, just north from Llanwarne, in the ancient region of Ercing, Archenfield, situated between the River Monnow and River Wye in south west Herefordshire on the Welsh Marches. Herefordshire is also host to the ancient sites of the chamber tomb Arthur's Stone, claimed to be the tomb of Arthur, and King Arthur's Cave in the Wye valley.

The tomb by the source of the Gamber was a long barrow known as Wormelow Tump, some five miles south of Hereford, from which the village today claims its name. The tump itself was a mound which was demolished in 1896 to widen the road. Today the village pub, the Tump Inn, stands opposite the spot where Amr's tomb once stood.

'Licat' is a corrupted form of the Old Welsh 'llygad' meaning an 'eye'. We find an example of the word used for a spring in Lllygad y ffynon, 'the eye of the spring' meaning the source or place where the water issues from the ground or 'first sees the light'.3 We find the name Ffynnon y Llygaid, the Well of the Eyes, used for sacred springs or Holy wells across Wales: Pembrokeshire in South Wales; The Great Orme, North Wales; and one of the five ancient wells of  Dolgelly (Dolgellau).

Gamber Head has for centuries been equated with Licat Amr (Llygad Amr), the spring being some distance from the site of the former long barrow, or tump. However, the direction for anyone seeking Amr's tomb would be to direct him to the spring. The ever-changing size of the mound is said to be explained by the ebb and flow of the waters issuing from the spring. The water rising at the spring is believed to come from some considerable distance away, suggestions range from the Malvern Hills to the Black Mountains.4

Hetty Pegler's Tump
The word 'tump' survives in the neighbouring Worcestershire dialect as a term used for a small hillock or barrow, derived from the Old Welsh 'twm' (tomb), as in Uley Long Barrow, known locally as Hetty Pegler's Tump, a Neolithic burial mound, in Gloucestershire overlooking the Severn.

Gamber Head is shown on Ordnance Survey (OS) maps as north of Llanarne between the A466 and B4348 roads, just south of Wormelow Tump. However, to the west Garway Hill, which abuts the Welsh Border on its south western edge, has been suggested as the true source of the Gamber. Just north of Llangarron, the Gamber flows into the Garren Brook which rises on the north-east flank of Garway Hill, before running south-eastwards on its journey into the Wye near Symonds Yat. In The Place Names Of Herefordshire Coplestone-Crow suggests that the Gamber may have been the older and original name of the complete course of the Gamber and Garren rivers.5

Yet the OS map does not display any ancient tombs on Garway Hill; indeed the description of the Marvel of Licat Amr in the Historia Brittonum fits perfectly with Wormelow Tump and the not so distant Gamber Head to the south. Furthermore, allowing for variance in the water table, it is quite possible that the source of the Gamber could have been further uphill in the past.

It seems that the tale of Arthur slaying his son Amr was attracted to this site by the local topographic and onomastic folklore of the Head of the Gamber becoming attached to a prehistoric site, as with many other ancient monuments that attract Arthurian associations; in Welsh the river Gamber is 'afon Amr,'  therefore Licat Amr is simply the source of the Gamber. Amr's Tomb is that rare piece of Arthuriana can be located with a reasonable degree of confidence.

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References
1. John Morris, editor and translator, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Phillimore, 1980. The Mirabilia are absent from the Historia Brittonum translation by J. A. Giles in Six Old English Chronicles, Henry G. Bohn, 1848, the version widely available online.
2. O J Padel, Arthur in Medieval Literature, University of Wales Press, 2002.
3. Mary Andere, Arthurian Links with Herefordshire, Logaston Press, 1996.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.

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Saturday 23 November 2013

The Cult of St Bertelin

“The philosophers and the orators have fallen into oblivion; the masses do not even know the names of the emperors and their generals; but everyone knows the names of the martyrs, better than those of their most intimate friends.” 1

Little is known of the obscure Anglo Saxon Saint Bertelin that legend claims founded Stafford c.700 AD. Bertelin is said to have been a Mercian Prince who established a hermitage on a secluded marshy island called Bethnei in a crook of the river Sow in central Staffordshire. The local authorities maintain that the remains of a wooden preaching cross was found during excavations buried under the foundations of Bertelin's chapel in the centre of the town in the 1950s.2

Some two hundred years after this mysterious Bertelin is said to have founded the town, Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred the Great, established a fortified burh at Stafford in 913 AD. The town started life as a frontier post in the Anglo-Saxon's struggle against the Danes, forming a part of a chain of earth and timber fortresses that included Tamworth and Chester in the Mercian strategy to reconquest the Danelaw.

A reappraisal of the 1954 excavation findings by Martin Carver in the 1980s3 determined the so-called wooden cross was more likely the remains of a tree-trunk burial dating to the period 800-1,000 AD. The oak coffin found under the site of St Bertelin's chapel adjoining the west end of the Church of St Mary in Stafford may well have been an object of veneration, its central position suggests a significant burial; Martin Biddle suggests it may have even held the bones of the Saint himself.4

Following Local Government reorganisation in 1974 new arms were granted to Stafford Borough Council. The crest of the arms depicts the figure of St Bertelin, holding a staff. Yet the identity of the saint after whom the first church was dedicated remains elusive and like so many foundation legends much of what we read of St Bertelin is mixed up in a fusion of several different traditions.

The Legend 
The legend of Bertelin, variously named Beorhthelm, Bertram or Bettelin, as we have it today is a merging of all the various material available for this enigmatic Mercian saint assembled in the 14th century account by Capgrave in his 'Nova Legenda Anglie', first printed by Wynkyn de Worde in the 16th century and retold by Dr Plot in the 17th century in his 'Natural History of Staffordshire':

Bertelin is said to have been the son of a Mercian king, the friend and disciple of St Guthlac of Croyland, Lincolnshire, who, after the saint's death in 714 AD, continued his holy vocation on the isle of Bethenei, the historic core of Stafford town. Here, he remained until forced to retreat from the ill-will of jealous detractors, when he withdrew into “the mountains" and retired to Ilam, near Dovedale, on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border where ultimately he died. He was buried at Ilam and his tomb soon became the place of pilgrimage to the saint named Bertram.

The Church of the Holy Cross, Ilam
The Bertram legend provides an alternative explanation for his arrival at Ilam; Bertelin travelled to Ireland where he fell in love with an Irish princess, who he brought back to Mercia while she was pregnant. While travelling through the Moorlands, the princess went into labour. While Bertelin/Bertram went in search of a midwife, his wife and child were killed by wolves. He became overcome with grief and spent the rest of days living the life of a hermit in a cave by a well on Bunster Hill, which along with Thorpe Cloud form the gateway to Dovedale.

The Church of the Holy Cross at Ilam is still visited by many today who leave prayers at the saint's shrine. The 12th century Saxon font in the church is decorated with iconography said to depict the story of Bertram and the wolves. Between the Church and St Bertram's Bridge is St Bertram's Well, a more recent addition to the legend, the original Holy Well is located on the side of Bunster Hill. In the churchyard are two Anglo-Saxon preaching crosses, one being a typical Mercian-style cross, although both are now without their cross-heads. A third rather battered cross shaft stands half a mile to the south-west of the church beside the River Manifold said to mark the site of a battle between the Saxons and Danes, it is known as ‘The Battlestone’. Frances Arnold-Forster makes the suggestion that “Battle stones" may be a corruption of "Bertellin-stones " and that they were raised as memorials of the holy man's journeys.5

St Bertram's Shrine, Ilam
Bertelin/Bertram is also linked to the village of Barthomley in present day Cheshire close to the Staffordshire border. The church, dedicated to St Bertoline (another form of the same name) who performed a miracle here, is said to stand on an ancient burial mound. It is said that Bertram was sought out by the devil who tempted him to turn stones into bread but instead he turned bread into stone. It was said that those stones were still at the church at Barthomley in the early 16th century but today they can no longer to be found.

The Lives
The St Bertelin legend is associated with both Croyland in Lincolnshire and Bethnei (Stafford) in Staffordshire, evidently a mix of local folklore and parts from Felix’ Life of St Guthlac. The vita of a Bertellinus or Beccelinus was drawn up from material based on Felix with additional content included in subsequent editions of the Nova Legenda Angliae.6

The Life of Guthlac, was written by Felix a monk of Croyland on the request of King Ælfwald of the East Angles, to whom it was dedicated, within 35 years of Guthlac’s death; presumably after 731 as Bede provides no mention yet before 749 when Ælfwald died. The vita features a disciple of St Guthlac named Beccelinus. Guthlac as a young man of a noble Mercian family fought in the army of Æthelred of Mercia until the age of 24 when he became a monk at Repton monastery. After two years he sought the life of a hermit and took refuge on the island of Croyland (modern Crowland) in the marshland of the Lincolnshire fens. Guthlac built a small oratory and cells on the site of an ancient barrow on the island. When Guthlac is dying Beccelinus becomes the confidant of the saint in his last hours. Beccelinus takes Guthlac's last words to his sister Pega who lived as an anchoress at Peakirk (Pega's Church) in the Cambridgeshire fens. Guthlac is buried in his oratory until a year later when his uncorrupted body is translated by Pega to a nearby chapel. Beccelinus plays no further part in Felix's story.

A cult quickly developed after Guthlac's death and his shrine was later ornamented by King Æthelbald. Accounts of his life soon followed, being written in both Latin and Old English. Two poems (known as Guthlac A and B) are believed to be derived from Felix's Life of St. Guthlac, and written sometime between 730 and 740. The Guthlac B poem recalls the saints last words as a dialogue with Beccelinus (Beccel). The Guthlac Roll, comprising 18 roundels on vellum is believed to have been drawn by the monks at Crowland Abbey in late 12th or early 13th Century and based on Felix and the Crowland tradition.

Illustration from the Guthlac Roll:
Beccel finds Guthlac lying near the
 altar of his chapel and is given his last instructions
By the 14th century our man is now known as Bettelinus or Bettelmus. According to the Chronicle of Croyland Abbey (Historia Croylandensis), at one time attributed to the 11th century Abbot Ingulf (pseudo-Ingulf), Bettelmus was one of Guthlac's four disciples, the others being Egbert, Cissa and Tatwin who had formerly been his guide and steersman to the said island, who lived to the end of their days in their cells not far from the oratory of St Guthlac.

In 870 Croyland was among the many monasteries, including Bardney, Repingas, Threekingham, Weedon, Wermundsey, Peterborough and Ely, destroyed by the Danes. Guthlac's relics had been removed into the safety of the fens by Abbot Theodore fearing an attack.8 But the Croyland Chronicle reports that all the shrines of the saints situated around Guthlac's tomb were broken open, including the four disciples BettelmusEgbert, Cissa and Tatwin; the most holy virgin Etheldritha; Celfreda, the former queen, and Wymund, the son of king Wichtlaf. Not finding the treasures they expected in the shrines the Danes burnt all the bodies of the saints in one heap.9 Clearly this cannot be the same Bertelin if his relics came to rest at Stafford.

One Saint or Two?
The legend of St Bertelin in its final form is clearly a conflation of a number of sources; the comparatively late account found in the Nova Legenda Angliae appears to be an attempt to combine all the material into the vita of one Saint. There appear to have been two saints mixed up in this legend, two hermits in Mercia with similar names. Indeed, Farmer records in his Dictionary of Saints:

Bettelin (1) (Beccelin, Bertelin, Berthelm, Bertram), early 8th century, hermit of Crowland, disciple of Guthlac. Feast: 9 September.

Bettelin (2) (Bertram) of Ilam (Stafford), where a chapel, font and well preserve his memory and substantial fragments of his shrine survive. Very little is known about his life; likely Anglo Saxon hermit who lived and died in this neighbourhood and was venerated locally. Feast: 10 August.

Farmer adds that the legend attached to Bettelin of Ilam is probably fictitious, such as that he was the son of a Mercian prince, fell in love with an Irish princess, brought her back to England and left her in the forest in urgent need of a midwife. On his return a pack of wolves were devouring her, so he became a hermit the rest of his life. Farmer concludes “This story is borrowed from the Legend of St Bertelme of Fécamp.10

Beccelmus, the form of the name Beccel which is found in the Guthlac B poem and the Guthlac Roll, appears to have been the traditional form at Crowland. It occurs in the D manuscript (the Peterbrough MS) but no other. The name appears to have been misread by some earlier writer as Beccelinus and that was the form copied and adopted by later writers.11 The composite legend of St Bertelin, as found in the Nova Legenda Angliae, claims that following the death of Guthlac he retired to the Isle of Bethnei in the Stafford marshes, a topography very similar to the marshes in Lincolnshire where Guthlac spent his last days; is it possible this masks a tradition that his relics were conveyed to Stafford before the destruction of Croyland by the Danes?

As the patron of Stafford his relics were presumably kept with great veneration; typically saint's relics would be placed by, or in the high altar – but no trace of the whereabouts survives in Stafford; the town makes no claim today to possess the saint's relics. Furthermore, we have no means of fixing the precise date of the death of this Saint. Both Bettelin entries from Farmer's Dictionary of Saints have different feast days; it is possible a second feast may signify the date of translation.

Hugh Candidus of Peterbrough (d. c.1175) made a list of saints’ resting places so that “whosoever desireth to visit some saint may know where he may seek him” and included the reference "in Stetford sanctus Berthelmus martyr". Martyrs were the saints 'par excellence' but if this Bertelin of Stafford was a martyr we have lost an episode of his history; his martyrdom does not appear in the accounts of the Nova Legenda Angliae with no record of a martyrium at Stafford or Croyland. Significantly St Bertelin does not appear in the Old English text 'Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande aerost reston' (The Resting-Places of the Saints), compiled in the 11th century, but containing older material.  Hugh Candidus seems to have spent most of his life at Peterborough, barely 10 miles from Crowland, which forces one to question which Bettelin he was referring to in his text.

This mixed-up legend appears to be borrowings from several different personages, suggesting that the Stafford St Bertelin did not possess his own account but attracted elements from saints lives with similar sounding names from hermitages surrounded by marshland. Bertelin, an elusive Mercian saint, defies recognition in the Secgan, the list of saints' resting places, where we should expect to find him recorded as a martyr as claimed by Hugh Candidus of Peterbrough. It is difficult to uphold the claims that he was a very localised minor saint from a Merican royal family.

As Alan Thacker states, “Bertelin's legend is worthless; it seems to have been borrowed from that of St Berthelme of Fécamp, and at most preserves a tradition that Bertelin was a Mercian prince. Nevertheless the cult itself seems to have been genuine.12

A Cult in West Mercia
Perhaps Bertelin was simply a minor saint with a very localised cult ranging from mid-Staffordshire to the modern boundaries of southern Cheshire. Yet Bertelin re-appears in the 10th century at Runcorn in north Cheshire. This was another burh established by Æthelflæd in the early 10th century and thought to be sited on Castle Rock, a promontory jutting into the Mersey valley from the south. No doubt the fortification was intended to defend the river crossing from raiding parties from Danish Northumbria. The dedication of what was almost certainly a new church there to St Bertelin at Runcorn suggests Æthelflæd's responsibility given her recent acquaintance with this obscure Mercian cult at her new burh at Stafford just two years earlier,13 which appears to confirm her contact with this cult.

The archaeological evidence tends to support the argument that the Stafford site had only seen minor activity prior to Æthelflæd's construction of the burh there in 913 AD. As Martin Carver has shown there was very little activity at Stafford prior to the creation of the Anglo Saxon burh in the 10th century. Æthelflæd. is well known for the translation of Anglo Saxon saint's relics into Mercian sites deeper into the west of the country as protection from the Danes in the east: Oswald to Gloucester, Aldhelm to Shrewsbury, Werburg to Chester, being typical examples of saints translations in which Æthelflæd is known, or strongly suspected, of being instrumental in their relocation. However we are at a loss to the origins of Bertelin and there is no record of his translation into Stafford, Ilam or Runcorn. Suspicions of Æthelflæd's involvement with perhaps bringing the saint's relics into Stafford and the possibility of a later translation of some Bertelin's relics to Runcorn when she built the burh guarding the Wirral cannot be dismissed. Indeed as holy relics were required to consecrate the first timber church at Stafford, it seems likely Bertelin was introduced to Stafford by Æthelflæd herself, and again at Runcorn.

This elusive Mercian saint seems to defy recognition, however there is a saint that bears a remarkable set of coincidences to the Stafford tradition.

Crossing the Water
The Abbey of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer, France, was founded on the banks of the river Aa in the 7th century by the bishop of Thérouanne, who sent the monks Bertin (c.615 – c.709 AD), Momelin and Ebertram from Omer to spread the 'Word' among the pagans of the region.

About the year 638 AD Bertin set out, in company with two companions for the extreme northern part of France in order to assist his friend and kinsman, Bishop St. Omer, in the evangelization of the Morini. This area was a huge marshland studded with small hillocks; consequently Bertin's symbol was a boat. On one such hillocks, Bertin and his two companions built a small dwelling whence they went out daily to preach among the natives.

The Ruins of Saint-Bertin Abbey 1850 (Wikimedia Commons)
Bertin built and became abbot of Sithiu Abbey in 659 AD, which later took his him. The fame of Bertin's learning and sanctity was so great that in a short time more than 150 monks lived under his rule. St.Winnoc and three companions joined him to assist in the conversion of the heathen. As an old man he resigned his dignity in the year 700 AD. Soon after his death on the 5th of September, 709 AD, Bertin began to be venerated as a saint. His relics were exposed in a silver shrine, enriched with gold and precious stones.

The Abbey of Saint-Bertin soon became one of the most influential monasteries in northern Europe and one of the principal sources of 9th century Francia, producing the Annals of St. Bertin, covering the period 830-82 AD, notable for recording the raids of the Norsemen who plundered the abbey in 845 and 861. It was also damaged by fire several times in the 9th and 10th centuries.14

Bovo's Relatio recorded the recovery of St Bertin's relics in 1050 and their subsequent translation in 1052. Abbot Bovo states the abbey buildings had been hastily restored after the blaze in 1033 and started to crumble after just a few years. Four years into his abbacy, Bovo decided to rebuild and enlarge the church. During these works, by the main altar, they found a leaden casket containing bones and a silver cross identifying the relics as “Sanctus Bertinus Abbas”. But another set of relics had already been previously designated as St Bertin's and the discovery of these additional bones during Bovo's rebuilding raised serious questions. That the abbey already possessed relics said to be St Bertin's was not contested; his cult had been continuous throughout the period; the monastery had never been abandoned or so severely damaged it needed to be refounded. However, Bovo asserted that when the abbey had been threatened by the Vikings in 845/6, St Folcuin translated the relics. Bovo's explanation was supported in the Vita Folcuini which claimed the relics were buried very deeply in a place of safety. The Archbishop's solution was to place both sets of relics in the same shrine and translate them together. Two years later Archbishop Wido of Reims performed the translation on 1st May 1052.15

There is too much similar information here to be purely coincidental: the date is remarkably close to the Stafford St Bertelin's floruit; St Bertin resigned his abbacy at Sithiu c.700 AD which is also the traditional date St Bertelin founded Bethnei (Stafford); the names Bertin and Ebertram are remarkably similar to Bertelin and Bertram at Stafford and Ilam; the saint lived on a hillock surrounded by marshland as at Stafford, Croyland and Sithiu; a double identity – two sets of relics identified as Bertin; even the Feast Days are very similar. Is it possible this tradition could have travelled to west Mercia from Francia?

Route of Transmission
Frequent visits by English ecclesiastics to the Abbey of Saint-Bertin's on their way to and from Rome in the Late Anglo Saxon period led to the introduction of the cult of Bertin into England 16 and must have been known to King Alfred's family, including his daughter Æthelflæd. Alfred must have certainly been introduced to the story of St Bertin when he stopped at the Abbey on route to Rome. Through Fulk of Reims, Alfred invited his host at Saint-Bertin, a cleric named Grimbald, back to England in 887. Grimbald joined the community at Saint-Bertin's c.840, was ordained a priest in c.870 and went to Reims in 886. Alfred pressed Grimbald to accept the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 889 but was obliged to allow him to retire as Dean to the church of Winchester until his death on 8th July 903. Grimbald was appointed first professor of divinity at Oxford when he is said to have founded that university. His life was written by Goscelin, a monk of Saint-Bertin’s.17

Saint Bertin (Wikimedia Commons)
It is very likely that the young Anglo Saxon princess Æthelflæd was exposed to Grimbald's tales of St Bertin at her father's court and the possibility that she was responsible for the introduction the St Bertelin (Bertin) cult to west Mercia, on construction of the Stafford and Runcorn burhs, accompanied with a translation of some St Bertin's relics, cannot be ruled out. And with the relics came the tales of the saint in the marshes.

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References
1. Theodoret, Curatio affectionum graecarum 8.67, PG 83.1033A, quoted in Peter Brown, The Cult of Saints, University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 50.
2. Adrian Oswald, The Church of St Bertelin at Stafford and its Cross, Birmingham Museum, 1955.
3. Martin Carver, Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
4. Martin Biddle, Archaeology, architecture and the cult of saints in Anglo-Saxon England, in ed L A S Butler and R K Morris, The Anglo-Saxon Church, C B A Research Report, 60, 1986, pp 9-10.
5. Frances Arnold-Forster, Studies in Church Dedications or, England's Patron Saints, Volume 2, 1899.
6. Bertram Colgrave, Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac: Texts, Translation and Notes, Cambridge University Press, 1956.
7. Lyall Seale, Saint Guthlac, His Life and The Guthlac Roll, published by St Guthlac’s Church, Market Deeping, 2004.
8. John Crook, Medieval English Shrines, Boydell Press, 2012, p.67.
9. Ingulph's Chronicle Of The Abbey Of Croyland, translated from the Latin with Notes by Henry T. Riley, George Bell And Sons, 1908.
10. David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1978, Fifth Revised Edition,  2011.
11. Colgrave, op.cit.
12. Alan Thacker, Kings, Saints, And Monasteries In Pre‐Viking Mercia, Midland History, Volume 10, 1985 , pp. 1-25.
13. N J Higham, The Origins of Cheshire, Manchester University Press, 1993, p.111.
14. Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of the Saints, Volume IX: September, 1866.
15. Karine Ugé, Creating the Monastic Past in Medieval Flanders, York Medieval Press, 2005, pp79-84.
16. Farmer, op.cit.
17. Butler, op.cit.

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Sunday 13 October 2013

St Bertelin's Chapel

The obscure Anglo Saxon Saint Bertelin is said to have founded a hermitage on the Isle of Bethnei in the marshes around the River Sow where the town centre of Stafford is now located. St Bertelin’s chapel was excavated in the 1950s where a 1,000 year old wooden cross was discovered buried at the centre of the site. Is this evidence of the legendary hermit's first church?

St Bertelin's Chapel lay immediately west of the Church of St Mary in the centre of Stafford. The medieval chapel was demolished in 1801 and the site incorporated into the cemetery. The blocked former west entrance into St Mary's was the only surviving evidence for the existence of the chapel until the local authority decided to clear the gravestones and create a garden of remembrance. Ahead of the clearance the first recorded archaeological investigation at Stafford was carried out in 1954 at the site of St Bertelin's Chapel by Adrian Oswald, of Birmingham City Museum. Oswald claimed to have found the post-holes of a late Saxon chapel, and a wooden cross buried in a pit, within the foundations of the chapel of St Bertelin.

During the excavations at the west end of St Mary's Church, Oswald found a set of stone foundations interpreted as belonging to St Bertelin's medieval chapel. Beneath the stone was a set of post-holes with a central grave-shaped pit in the centre of the structure containing a large lump of oak with a cylindrical base that had been placed in a pit. This was initially interpreted by CA Ralegh Radford as a wooden cross of the Mercian period and subsequently the reconstruction was put on the site that we see still today.

Martin Carver argues that the shape of the wood lump, with a cylindrical base, and the leather attached to the top (i.e. inside), all suggest that this was a coffin, not a cross, resembling the tree-trunk coffins known from the 7th century onwards in East Anglia. Yet local literature still maintains this to be St Bertelin's preaching cross as the plaque at the site of the chapel reads:

Still, it's good for tourism. A re-assessment by Carver in 1984 considered the finds in the context of other archaeological investigations at Stafford. Following demolition, the site of St Bertelin's chapel had been largely destroyed by 19th century burials with only patches of wall and floor and several early graves definable but the general sequence reported by Oswald was largely endorsed, i.e. a timber structure succeeded by a later stone chapel. However, the earliest part of the sequence associated with the timber structure and coffin was found to be inverted in respect of the dates; a layer of 9th century charcoal (830 - 845 AD) lay above the layer containing a Saxon farthing of Athelred II (971-1016) lost before 1,000 AD, which in turn lay above the 12th century log coffin. Hence it could be argued that the coffin was buried in a late 12th century stone chapel, set centrally to the nave of the chapel, back-filled with Late Saxon debris and a floor laid over the top, indicating the coffin was simply part of a late 12th century foundation process. Yet other finds from the site indicate a Late Saxon presence; a dress hook, book clasp and the farthing are all of a pre-Conquest date.

Given that the context of the coffin is insecure it must be considered that it is manufactured from an oak tree; consequently a range of dates is possible from the same trunk. However it would still be expected that the preserved heartwood could date considerably earlier than its deposition. Further, the 1971 dates were not calibrated. From other dates collected for Stafford a date of 1120 BP would calibrate to around 800-1000 AD. Similarly, the dates from the samples of charcoal fit comfortably within the expected Late Saxon occupation for Stafford.

The site of St Bertelin's chapel
An alternative interpretation proposed by Carver allows for the log coffin to have been buried within a timber structure dated to the period 800 - 1000 AD, too late to be used to endorse 8th century foundation legends associated with an 'Isle of Bethnei'. This timber chapel, or possible mortuary house, may have burnt down in the 9th century which would account for the charcoal layer. Carver has rejected the 1180 AD date for the log coffin as it cannot be certain to what it refers. The timber chapel was superseded by a stone chapel with a truer E-W alignment. The floor of this stone chapel would have sealed the log coffin and the layers above it.

This stone chapel appears to have fallen into disuse and was probably demolished around the time of the Conquest and then rebuilt in stone on an improved alignment. A layer of brown soil, interpreted as a layer of "disuse" appears to separate the floor of the first stone chapel from the second, later stone chapel rebuilt on the same site, slightly offset to the south, laid out in dressed stone indicating small nave and narrower chancel, with a tiled floor laid in the 14th century.

In conclusion, the best interpretation of the muddled evidence suggests the first chapel was constructed of timber in the period 800 - 1000 AD. A tree-trunk burial was placed centrally in this structure, and presumed to be an object of veneration. The dress hook, book clasp and farthing sit comfortably within the Late Anglo Saxon period. This date range allows the construction of the timber chapel to belong to the foundation of the burh by Æthelflæd in 913 AD, as with the majority of finds from Stafford, and seems likely to have been constructed during the reconquest of English Mercia.

The first building on this site seems to have been a Late Saxon timber chapel, commemorating an individual who may have been designated as St Bertelin whose shrine became a place of pilgrimage throughout the Medieval period. This interpretation concurs with the first historical reference we have for St Bertelin at Stafford which appears in a list of tombs of saints for pilgrims by Hugh Candidus of Peterbrough (d. c.1175) in a reference "in Stetford sanctus Berthelmus martyr".

© Edward Watson 2013


Notes & References
Consecration marks final act of independence for Stafford church – Staffordshire Newsletter, 12 October 2013.
St Bertelin’s in Holmcroft, Stafford, was originally dedicated 57 years ago on 13th October 1956, and has always been part of the parish of St Mary’s, but today, 13th October 2013, the Bishop of Stafford, the Rt Rev Geoff Annas, will lead a service of consecration to mark the new parish of St Bertelin's in the Church of England,  comprising Creswell Manor and the Eccleshall Road, Holmcroft, Trinity Fields, Stone Road and Parkside.
M Carver, Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
A Oswald, The Church of St Bertelin at Stafford and its Cross, Birmingham Museum, 1955.
M Greenslade et al, A History of Stafford, Victoria County History of Staffordshire, London, 1979, pp.238-42.

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Monday 30 September 2013

The Location of the Stafford Burh

Searching for the Stafford Burh – Part IV

There appears to have been no prolonged human activity or settlement in the crook of the Sow, the historic core of the Stafford town centre. However, despite several excavations in the 1970s-80s and more recent archaeological interventions and desktop assessments our understanding as to whether Stafford was settled prior to the documented establishment of Æthelflæd’s burh in 913 is still unclear.

The Prehistory of Stafford
So far in this exploration of the origins of the county town of Stafford we have uncovered only traces of activity throughout the Prehistoric Ages. The earliest activity appears to be centred on the area around the site of King's Pool. Environmental evidence from core samples taken from peat deposits lying within the former King’s Pool suggests episodes of the burning of oak, pine and elm woodland over a sustained period during the Mesolithic (around 10,000 to 6,500 years ago). It is assumed that such burning was the result of human activity, creating discrete areas of open land. There is little further evidence for human activity in the Mesolithic period in the area other than one flint core from Clarke Street.

Woodland clearance for agricultural use intensified into the Neolithic period through to the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age and Roman period. A scatter of flint tools and debitage found 800m north of the King’s Pool site was initially identified as Mesolithic but re-appraisal suggests a Neolithic or  Bronze Age date. Scattered finds of Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts attest to some wider activity although there is currently little evidence for settlement during the Bronze Age in the area.

There is some evidence for the processing of grain in the area during the Iron Age immediately to the north of St Mary’s church in the town centre. At St Mary's Grove, evidence of two or three Iron Age granaries were uncovered during excavations indicating that wheat was being grown and stored in the Stafford area. In addition, the possibility of an Iron Age causeway to the east of the town at Lammascote Road, across the eastern marshland, must be considered. However, we cannot dismiss the possibility that these three timber piles could have been part of a flood defence system as they were found directly along the north bank of the Sow. Two red deer antlers picks, of probable Iron Age date, discovered to the north of Lammascote Road may have been related to the construction of this timber structure. Apart from Berry Ring hillfort, two miles south west of Stafford, there is little evidence for settlement within the Stafford area in the Iron Age. It is conceived that Iron Age Stafford, surrounded by water, may have been similar in appearance to this excellent reconstruction of The Berth hillfort, based on an aerial photograph by the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, in neighbouring Shropshire.

A Roman Presence in the Town
As with the scant evidence for prehistoric occupation within the centre of Stafford, the evidence for Roman activity is also meagre but suggestive that human activity was continual, if somewhat limited, and steadily increasing in the area over time. Evidence of agricultural activity during the Roman period is seen in land reclamation from the notorious Stafford marshlands on the eastern side of the town at Clarke Street. Further evidence for Roman activity at Stafford consists of some 50-60, 2nd to 4th century pottery sherds from Clarke Street, in addition to several Roman pottery sherds found at Bath Street and Tipping Street. A small number of Roman coins have been found within the modern town, but the context was unclear leading to some being dismissed as recent losses. However, two mid 4th century coins were found to the north of St. Mary’s Church in a secure context. Two Roman coins, dated to 330-335 AD, were found during excavations at Clarke Street in 1961 and an almost complete 2nd century Roman jar was discovered at a depth of over 3m during construction work in the Market Square.

Outside of the historic core of the town centre over 1,000 sherds of Roman pottery, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries, have been found by Stafford castle, possibly representing the former existence of a small farmstead or villa. In 1985 the site of a Romano-British villa was discovered at Acton Trussell, most of of the villa buildings being inside the confines of the grounds of the village church of St James. Further finds of pottery sherds and 39 Roman coins, have provided dating evidence to the 2nd to mid-4th centuries. Occupation of the villa site dates back to at least the Neolithic period indicating a long period of small-scale continuity.

Although the complete extent of Roman activity within the historic core of the town is not fully understood yet, there is enough evidence from across the wider area to suggest that it was a significant place by this period. The Roman model of a fortified town appears to been significant in selection of burh sites by the Anglo Saxons.

Doxey Marshes, north west Stafford
It has been suggested that the significance of the Stafford site may lay in the fact that it provided a safe crossing through the surrounding marshland to an important crossing point of the River Sow. This safe north-south route, Gaolgate and Greengate Streets, was possibly the line of a Roman road, presumably leading to a ford across the River Sow at the southern end of the high street at Green Bridge. This seems a more plausible explanation for the place-name rather the conjectured Iron Age causeway. It is of course possible that during the Roman period there was a crossing of this north-south route by an east-west route, departing the town at Broad Eye in the west and along the line of the Lammascote Road, at the Eastgate, presenting the possibility that Stafford may have been the meeting point of two long distance routes by the Roman period. However, this is not reflected in the street plan  of the historic town centre.

After the Romans
Stafford appears to have entered a Dark Age with the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain. There appears to have been a decline in human activity to c.300 AD – 600 AD, coinciding with the Late Roman period and the beginnings of the early Anglo Saxon period. The evidence suggests we enter a relatively quiet period until the construction of the burh.

However, there is evidence that arable farming returned to the area in the Early Medieval Period. Excavations within the town centre have revealed cereal production in at least four ovens or grain drying kilns, and the associated remains of wheat, barley, rye and oats, discovered in an archaeological excavation c.50m north of St. Mary’s Church. Initially these ovens were dated to the early to mid 9th century but a reappraisal suggests that they more correctly represent activity during the period of the burh; the early 10th century. It is not known how far the grain was travelling to get to this site but it is indicative of Stafford being used as a central collection point and possibly linked to a burh supply policy.

On the eastern side of the town, at Tipping Street, pottery kilns, and associated waster pits, were excavated in the 1970s and 1980s. These were again initially dated to the early-mid 9th century, but a review of the dating evidence has suggested that this activity relates to the period of the burh. Excavations at Clarke Street suggest that the pottery site was located towards the periphery of the habitable portion of the settlement and there was evidence for domestic activity on the site to the north of Tipping Street. The pottery kilns at Tipping Street appear to have gone out of use and the industry moved northwards to Salter Street where evidence of a later kiln, dated to between 1,000 – 1,080 AD, was discovered during an extension to Marks and Spencer. The pottery recovered from these sites within the town has been appropriately labelled as 'Stafford Ware'; typical examples include jars, cooking pots and bowls. Stafford Ware type pottery has been recovered from excavations at other burh sites such as Chester, Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester, suggestive of a distribution network.

St Bertelin's Chapel
Excavations in the 1950s at the west end of St. Mary’s Church uncovered a wooden cross which lay beneath a coin minted between 991- 997 AD suggesting that the cross had been buried c.1,000 AD. Subsequently, the cross has been re-dated to 12th century. The excavations concluded that the first wooden church on the site probably dated to the earliest period of the burh. This wooden church was replaced by a stone structure in the early 11th century. There is no convincing case for a minster at Stafford before the 10th century, but not impossible; burials were being carried out in this area prior to its foundation.

The idea of St. Bertelin, a Mercian prince, founding a hermitage in an uninhabited area called the Isle of Bethney (i.e. Stafford) c.700 AD is regarded as purely legendary. St. Bertelin is not documented as being associated with Stafford until the 12th century; Æthelflæd herself appears to have had a hand in creating the legend as she is known for establishing Mercian cults in newly founded burhs.

The Location of the Stafford Burh
The available evidence forces the conclusion that the centre of Stafford was originally known as a safe crossing point through the marshes of the Sow valley, an important route, if minor, on the Roman road network linking Watling Street in the south, through Pennocrucium and passing the villa at Acton Trussell, to join the Rykeneld Street in north Staffordshire. There is little evidence of activity after the Roman period; there is even less evidence for any significant settlement until Æthelflæd constructed the burh in 913 AD.

The account in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle suggests the speed of construction was completed in a matter of weeks. Therefore the burh defences at Stafford must have initially been a relatively simple construction consisting of outer ditch with an inner bank topped by wooden palisade. Yet evidence for the site of the burh remains elusive. The burh defences must not be confused with the later medieval town walls, constructed from stone and timber, that enclosed the town to the extent of the gravel deposits in the floodplain of the Sow, although this appears to provide a clue.

The last remaining section of the Stafford medieval town walls
The lack of evidence for a ditch within the town for the original burh defences may give some credence to the suggestion that owing to the natural defences of the surrounding area, open only to the north, no further defences were needed. Indeed, medieval town maps do not depict any defence works along Chell Road and at Tenterbanks it appears to be of timber construction; the Medieval walls appear to have been constructed exactly as named; North Walls and South Walls. However, this may have no reflection on the original burh and evidence for a 10th century defensive system across the northern entrance to the town has not been found.

There has been little archaeological work carried out to establish the extent to which the surviving street pattern may relate to that which would have existed within the burh, as has proven to be the case in Winchester, as many Wessex burhs were laid out to a set street plan. It has been speculated that the Stafford burh was smaller than the later town and may have been preserved within its layout, possibly only encompassing the area to the west of the north-south axial roadway of Gaolgate/Greengate Street, around the site of St Mary’s Church, enclosed within Earl Street and Crabbery Street. This gives an approximate side length of c.1500m in accord with other Midland burhs.

An archaeological excavation carried out on the northern side, i.e inside, of South Walls in 1999 discovered a large ditch on the same alignment as this street. The c.1600 map of Stafford also clearly shows a ditch but only on the far side of the walls, i.e. outside, and only on the eastern and southern sides. Between the North Gate and the East Gate it is identified as “Town Ditch” and as “Thieves Ditch” between East Gate and South Gate. The ditch found on the inner side of South Walls in 1999 was initially interpreted as the town ditch which pre-dated the medieval town walls, infilled before the medieval maps were drawn, which concurs with the dating evidence of 12th and 15th centuries, although its full depth was not investigated.

This ditch appears to be too far north to represent the limits of the medieval town, and being inside the wall is the wrong side to be part of the medieval defensive system, and therefore may relate to the original ditch enclosing the burh. Similarly, a road aligned east-west was interpreted as the line of the military inner road which would have followed the burh defences. This military road is situated c.20m to the south, i.e. inside, of the later medieval defences. These two finds appear to confirm that the burh covered an area larger than encompassed by the proposed side length of c.1500m but smaller than the later medieval town defences which appear to have closely followed an expanded alignment of the burh defences. This interpretation also places St Mary's Church, more securely, nearer the centre of the burh.

Thus, an alternative interpretation provides for a larger burh, as it seems unlikely the first church, built on the site of St Mary's, would have been at the edge of the burh; more likely that the Saxon minster would be located in the centre of the burh, such as at Tamworth. St Mary's Church in Stafford aligns directly with Martin Street; if this was the centre of the burh it would have extended across the line of Salter Street, Eastgate Street and Tipping Street.

A larger burh site provides the most satisfactory explanation of the archaeological evidence which sees a fortified site created in the early 10th century for grain processing and pottery manufacture. As Stafford Ware has been found at other burhs it is a reasonable presumption that these activities were in support of the Mercian military. The actual alignment of the burh defences has not yet been positively identified, but the expanded interpretation, mirrored by the larger medieval town walls, enclosed within the boundary of Crabbery Street, Earl Street, Tipping Street, Eastgate Street and Salter Street would appear to be the most likely alignment taken with the context of the ditch found inside South Walls in 1999.

The archaeological record has meagre evidence for early activity in the historic core of the town centre, when compared to the more abundant evidence for later grain processing in the town, manufacture and distribution of Stafford Ware, and St Bertelin cult, concurs with the historical record that the first town of Stafford was created by Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, in the early 10th century.

© Edward Watson 2013


Notes & References:
David Hill, The Shiring of Mercia - again, pp.144-159, in N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill, editors, Edward the Elder: 899-924, Routledge, 2001.
Philip Rhatz, The Archaeology of West Mercian Towns, pp.107-130, in Mercian Studies, ed. Ann Dornier, Leicester University Press, 1977.
Sarah Zaluckyj, Mercia: The Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Central England, Logaston Press, 2011, pp.207-215.
The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
L C Bowkett, The Stafford Hinterland, 1986
Martin Carver, Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
Martin Carver, Birth of a Borough. Archaeological Investigations in Stafford 1954-2004, Boydell and
Brewer, 2010.
David Horovitz, A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire, 2003.
John Darlington, Stafford Past, Stafford Borough Council, 1994
Susan Laflin, Roman Roads And Ford Place-Names In Shropshire, 2002.
A R Mountford, The Lightwood Hoard, The North Staffordshire Journal of Field Studies, Volume 3, 1963.
Chris Wardle, Roman Staffordshire: the Five Towns and Beyond, 2002.
Staffordshire County Council & English Heritage - Staffordshire Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), Stafford Historic Character Assessment, June 2009, Revised August 2011.
Alan Thacker, Kings, Saints, And Monasteries In Pre‐Viking Mercia, Midland History, Volume 10, 1985 , pp. 1-25.

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Friday 27 September 2013

A Roman Road in Stafford?

Searching for the Stafford Burh – Part III

If the conjectured Iron Age causeway following the line of the eastern exit from the Stafford town centre, modern Lammascote Road, is to be identified as the 'ford' element in the place-name, it might also hold another explanation for 'stæþ' in the original name of Stæþford. As discussed in Searching for the Stafford Burh - Part I  identifying 'stæþ' with 'landing place' is problematic. However, the 'ford' element is one of the most common topographical terms found in English place-names, in most cases denoting a settlement next to a crossing-place of a stream or river, but in some cases referring to a causeway.

The first  record of the name of the town appears in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle C and D manuscripts which give 'Stæfforda', in the entry for 913. OE 'Stæf' means, staff, stake or post which would give the meaning 'place of the ford (or causeway) through wet ground, marked by stakes or posts' which certainly supports the notion of an Iron Age causeway. (Horovitz, 2003)

Yet the etymologists insist that there is no doubt about the identity of the first element of the word: it is 'stæþ' (Horovitz, 2003). The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary gives 'a bank, shore, the land bordering on water'; consequently we are forced to abandon the suggestion that the place-name reflects a prehistoric wooden trackway at the site of Lammascote Road.

Compound OE words using stæþ as the first element are often found associated with stability and firmness, such as a paved ford (or causeway) or a settlement on firm ground by a river crossing. The meaning 'the firm road, or causeway, through land bordered by water' is perhaps best suited for Stafford; the causeway being identified with a suspected Roman road, crossing the Sow at the south end of Stafford town centre, running out southwards in the direction of Pennocrucium and the Watling Street.

A study of Roman roads and ford place-names in the neighbouring county of Shropshire (Laflin, 2002) noted that almost a third of 'ford' place-names were associated with Roman roads built primarily for the Roman military but later to serve towns and settlements. The 'ford' place-names were given at the time English became the main language in the area, probably during the 7th and 8th centuries in Staffordshire. The modern English term 'to wade', i.e. walk with the feet immersed, is derived from Old English 'wadan' which is clearly similar to the Latin 'vadum' for 'ford'.

Furthermore, the environmental evidence from the site of King’s Pool (Kings Mead Marshes) suggests that a prehistoric human presence in this area of the town, in the form of agricultural activity, continued into the Roman period. (EUS, 2011) Further, the north-south axial road (Goalgate to Greengate Streets) running through the centre of this peninsula, the crossing through the marsh, is suggestive of a Roman origin.

The Crossing Point
Four Roman roads are known to cross this corner of Staffordshire. The first, the main route of Watling Street, now the line of the A5, was constructed in the early days of the Roman conquest, linking Londinium with Viroconium (Wroxeter) near Shrewsbury in Shropshire. The second ran to the west of Stafford, from  Pennocrucium (Water Eaton, near Penkridge) to the fort at Mediolanum (Whitchurch) and on to Deva (Chester). A third road, Rykeneld (sometimes 'Ryknield') Street ran along the course of the modern A50 at Blythe Bridge, crossed the northern Midlands of England from Deva (Chester) to Derventio (Littlechester, near Derby) through north Staffordshire, linking the fort at Rocester with the auxiliary fort at Mount Pleasant (Chesterton). (Wardle, 2002)

In 1960 about half way between Hollywood, near Stone, and Blythe Bridge, a red-brown earthenware pot was found by a man digging in his garden in Lightwood Road, Longton, Stoke on Trent. Inside the pot was a hoard of over 1,700 various 3rd century coins and pair of silver snake bracelets with the terminal of a third silver snake bracelet. This find became known as The Lightwood Hoard. The site is approximately one mile south-west of Rykeneld Street. (Mountford, 1963) Significantly, the largest find of Anglo Saxon gold, The Staffordshire Hoard, was found buried in fields not far from Watling Street.

The original settlement at Blythe Bridge developed along the Rykeneld Street, the historic core of the village being aligned on the Roman road. Excavations at Blythe Bridge have revealed a fourth Roman Road, which to the north, heads off in the direction of Aquae Arnermetiae (Buxton), in the Peak District. To the south the road appears to have travelled from Blythe Bridge as evidenced by raised banks and field boundaries, passing through the villages of Fulford and a rectangular earthwork near Hilderstone, which produced a Roman coin, before arriving at the Roman camp at Hollywood, just south-east of Stone. (Bowkett, 1986)

The course of the road is lost south of Hollywood but probably ran to the site of a temporary camp, identified by cropmarks, at Aston (near Stone) on the west bank of the Trent. Thus, we are left with a gap between Aston and Pennocrucium; it is a reasonable conjecture that the southerly path of this road ran straight through Stafford, passing near the site of a Roman villa at Acton Trussel, likely following a line similar to the modern A449 Wolverhampton Road, south to Pennocrucium before joining Watling Street further south. (Darlington, 1994)

Indeed, from Stone the line of the A34 travels southwards until it reaches a bend at the junction of Whitgreave Lane at Yarlet. From this point it then runs dead straight for 4 miles directly into Stafford town centre, along the line of Goalgate and Greengate streets, to Bridge Street at the southern end of the town centre where it crosses the Sow, the spot often said to account for the 'ford' element in the place-name.

Archaeology has revealed little more than a passing Roman presence in Stafford. In 1974 a quantity of pottery was found during excavations at Clarke Street, near the site of the East Gate, in advance of the anticipated construction of the Queensway ring road. This was initially identified as "Roman" by the the local archaeological society. However, the following year Martin Carver, excavator of Sutton Hoo, identified the pottery as late Saxon. (Carver, 2010) Positive grounds for Roman activity at Stafford is limited to three structures unearthed during excavations at St Mary's Grove in the 1980's. The structures were made up of four posts, each interpreted as representing the corner of a rectangular building. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal, grain and other unidentified organic remains from the fill of a posthole which lay beneath a sealed layer containing Romano-British pottery at St Mary's Grove confirmed a Roman date for the site. These three structures have been interpreted as single celled granaries; given that they were found in isolation it may suggest that Stafford was a Roman supply or storage centre, perhaps not so far removed from its current role with the huge warehouses we find at the north and south ends of the town situated at junctions 13 and 14 of the M6 motorway respectively. Two Roman coins, dated to 330-335 AD, were found during excavations in Stafford at Clarke Street in 1961 and an almost complete Roman jar was discovered at a depth of over 3m during construction work in the Market Square. Over 1,000 sherds of Roman pottery, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries, have been found by Stafford castle, possibly representing the former existence of a small farmstead or villa. (Carver, 2010). Firm evidence for a Roman road through Stafford has never been uncovered, yet it is inconceivable that Æthelflæd would select a site for a burh not on a major byway.

Archaeological excavations in the town have revealed little evidence of activity after the Roman period. Shadowy claims that Stafford was founded by a Mercian prince called Bertelin c.700 AD, who, according to legend, established a hermitage on the peninsula surrounded by water named the Isle of Betheney (or Bethnei), have little historical support. According to the archaeological record, after a seemingly long pause from the Roman period, activity at the site erupted in the 10th century.

>> The Location of the Stafford burh

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References
The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
L C Bowkett, The Stafford Hinterland, 1986
Martin Carver - Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
David Horovitz - A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire, 2003.
John Darlington, Stafford Past, Stafford Borough Council, 1994
Susan Laflin – Roman Roads And Ford Place-Names In Shropshire, 2002.
A R Mountford, The Lightwood Hoard, The North Staffordshire Journal of Field Studies, Volume 3, 1963.
Chris Wardle - Roman Staffordshire: the Five Towns and Beyond, 2002.
Staffordshire County Council & English Heritage - Staffordshire Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), Stafford Historic Character Assessment, June 2009, Revised August 2011.

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