Saturday 28 November 2015

The Eleanor Crosses

When Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I, died at Harby, near Lincoln, on 28 November 1290, the king ordered the building of 12 elegant crosses to mark each of the resting places of his wife’s funeral procession as it travelled from Lincoln to her burial place at Westminster Abbey.

Eleanor of Castile (1241 – 28 November 1290) was Queen consort of Edward I of England, and Countess of Ponthieu, an area of Normandy much fought over during the Hundred Years War. Eleanor was the only daughter from the second marriage of Ferdinand III of Castile, who after fathering ten children in his first marriage to Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen, then married Joan, Countess of Ponthieu.

It seemed at one time Eleanor was destined to marry Theobald II of Navarre but to avoid Castilian control of the area an oath declared that Theobald would never marry Eleanor. Instead she was betrothed to Prince Edward, who would become King of England from 1272 to 1307. Edward and Eleanor married at the monastery of Las Huelgas, Burgos, in Spain, on 1 November 1254.

At over six feet tall Edward, (1239 – 1307), was known as “Longshanks” and later in his reign as “the Hammer of the Scots,” war seemed to be one of his favourite pastimes. And he did it well. He raised the greatest armies of the English Middle Ages, and summoned the largest parliaments; notoriously, he expelled all the Jews from his kingdom. The longest-lived of all England's medieval kings, he fathered no fewer than sixteen children with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, including the future Edward II of England

In 1277 Edward had beaten Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, grandson of Llywelyn the Great, in the first of his Welsh campaigns. Within a few months of humbling Llywelyn, Edward took his court to Glastonbury Abbey to visit the tomb of King Arthur at Easter in 1278.

Two days after Easter the king ordered the tomb to be opened. At twilight Edward had the remains removed to the Abbey's treasury while a grander tomb was constructed. The following morning Edward personally wrapped Arthur's bones in silk, while Eleanor similarly prepared Guinevere's remains for reburial. After carefully wrapping the bones in precious cloths they placed them in decorative caskets. Finally Edward and Eleanor affixed their seals as if to authenticate the contents. The remains were transferred to a finely decorated black marble tomb before the high altar where they remained until the Dissolution.

Perhaps unusual for an arranged Medieval marriage, Eleanor and Edward appear to have been totally devoted to each other. Edward is among the few medieval English kings not known to have fathered children out of wedlock from extramarital affairs.

The couple were rarely apart; Eleanor even accompanied Edward on military campaigns. They joined Edward's uncle Louis IX of France on the Eighth Crusade and journeyed to the Holy Land, where Eleanor gave birth to a daughter known as Joan of Acre.

Louis IX built the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris as a shrine to house relics of the Passion such as Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross which he purchased from Emperor Baldwin II of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Baldwin had obtained these sacred relics during the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.

Their daughter Joan died on 23 April 1307, at Clare in Suffolk where she was interred in the Augustinian priory. In 1357 her daughter Elizabeth De Burgh is said to have inspected her body and found it to be intact, seen as a sign of sanctity. Later miracles are said to have occurred at Joan's tomb.

On campaign in Wales Eleanor gave birth to their son Edward on 25 April 1284 at Caernarfon Castle, the only one of four sons to survive childhood, later to become Edward II of England from 1307 to 1327.

On her journey north to Scotland to meet her husband in 1290 Queen Eleanor was not in the best of health and only capable of travelling about eight miles a day. Less than 7 miles from Lincoln, the village of Harby, Nottinghamshire, turned out to be her final stop where she died on 28 November 1290, aged 49 and after 36 years of marriage to Edward.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor's body was carried in state from Lincoln to Westminster Abbey, through the heartland of her properties and accompanied for most of the way by Edward, and a body of mourners. Following her death Edward erected memorials, the Eleanor Crosses, at locations he stopped over while taking her body to London, during the twelve days to reach Westminster Abbey.

Based on crosses in France marking Louis IX's funeral procession, Edward gave orders that memorial crosses be erected at the site of each stop between Lincoln and Westminster, the most elaborate series of funerary monuments to any queen of England, marking a trail of sorrow that bears witness to Edward's grief.

Edward had the spire-shaped crosses erected over three years, from 1291 to 1294, in memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile, at the places where her funeral procession stopped overnight along the route taken when her body was transported to London: Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham (now Waltham Cross), Westcheap (Cheapside), Charing (Charing Cross).

Many of the Eleanor Crosses were destroyed during the Reformation; today only three crosses still stand, those at Geddington, Hardingstone, just outside Northampton, and Waltham Cross, although remnants of the lost ones can also be seen at other sites. On the anniversary of Queen Eleanor’s death, prayers were said at all of the crosses but the practice ceased during the Reformation.

The best-preserved cross is at Geddington where the cross is in the care of Historic England (formerly English Heritage). It was erected opposite St Mary Magdalene Church, where the procession rested overnight on 6 December 1290. Standing at 42 feet tall the cross is built in three tiers of local limestone.

Below the tapering pinnacle at the top are three canopied niches, each containing a Caen stone figure of Eleanor. Beneath these figures are six shields, two on each face, bearing the arms of Castile and Ponthieu in France, of which Eleanor was countess. Originally, the pinnacle was crowned by a cross.

Eleanor Cross -Charing Cross

At Charing Cross in London a Victorian replica of the Eleanor Cross today stands outside the station. The replica Cross was built on the site of the lost original in 1863. The 13th century original was built in marble and located a few yards away in what is now Trafalgar Square, marking the point to measure distances to London, but was destroyed in 1647 at the instruction of Parliament. The 150 year old replica was renovated in 2009-10 and subsequently removed from the Heritage at Risk Register.

Charing Cross is named after the original Eleanor Cross that stood on the site. Romantic tradition claims that 'Charing' derives from French 'chère reine' meaning 'dear queen' in French. However, an alternative explanation claims the name derives from the Old English word 'cerring' a bend, as it positioned by a sharp twist in the River Thames.

Several replica Eleanor Crosses were erected during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including one at Ilam on the Staffordshire border near Dovedale. The Market Cross in Glastonbury was built in the style of an Eleanor Cross, standing opposite the Abbey gates the Glastonbury Cross replaced a much earlier and more elegant monument.

Edward ordered that two wax candles were to burn for all time beside her tomb in Westminster Abbey. They burned for two and half centuries until extinguished at the time of the Reformation. However, Eleanor’s gilded bronze effigy continues to shine in Westminster Abbey.

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Tuesday 24 November 2015

Glastonbury Abbey's myths were invented by medieval monks

A Four-year archaeological study concludes that 12th century monks spun mythical links to make it one of the country's richest monasteries in the land inventing many stories to raise funds after the devastating fire of 1184.

The Glastonbury legend claims the site was founded by Joseph of Arimathea, shortly after the days of Christ, and King Arthur was buried in the Abbey grounds. Later generations of monks became so engrossed by the legends that they either suppressed or misinterpreted evidence that did not fit.

Sites in the town became linked with the legend of the holy grail, One story says that Christ himself came and built a church in honour of his mother and that Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury from the Holy Land and planted his walking stick which flowered miraculously.

The Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey
Concluding a four year study that commenced with a One-Day Symposium in  2011 Rediscovering Glastonbury Abbey Excavations 1908 – 1979 the Glastonbury legend has been dismissed by the team of 31 specialists, led by Roberta Gilchrist, professor of archaeology at the University of Reading, which re-examined all the unpublished records of 20th-century excavations.

The study has revealed how the medieval monks spun the abbey’s mythical links to make Glastonbury one of the richest monasteries in the country. New analysis has highlighted how the monks crafted the legends to restore the abbey’s fortunes after a devastating fire in 1184.

Professor Gilchrist said: “The monks needed to raise money by increasing the numbers of visiting pilgrims, which meant keeping the myths and legends alive. They also found evidence that the monks laid out the buildings in a very distinctive way to emphasise the ‘earliest church’ story."

Gilchrist added: “We took a step back from the myth and legends and used 21st-century technology to expose the abbey’s true history.”

However, new discoveries suggest a previously unknown glassworks dating from as early as the 7th-century was in operation at Glastonbury, the earliest archaeological evidence of glass-making in Britain. Ceramic fragments were also found at the site proving that wine was imported from the continent even earlier.

A key focus for the study team was a re-examination of the work of Ralegh Radford, who excavated the site in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr Radford claimed to have discovered Britain’s earliest Christian cemetery as well as the site of King Arthur’s grave, allegedly located by monks in 1191.

However, on re-examining the excavation records Gilchrist argues that this feature was merely a pit and its identification as Arthur’s grave was based entirely on medieval accounts of the excavation.

The disastrous fire of 1184 had left the monks with the problem of rebuilding with little resource and no major relics to attract pilgrims. The solution was the identification of Glastonbury as the legendary isle of Avalon and the supposed discovery of the grave of Arthur and Guinevere, conveniently found together with a leaden burial cross bearing a Latin inscription naming the king and identifying Glastonbury as Avalon.

The Burial Cross of King Arthur has been lost for centuries, but Gilchrist says that images suggest it was a 12th-century forgery based on an Anglo-Saxon original.

Gilchrists argues that the pit discovered by Ralegh Radford that he claimed to be Arthur’s “grave” has now been found to contain material from the 11th to the 15th centuries, with no evidence whatsoever to link it to the mythical king.

Ralegh Radford may have been "clouded" by the Glastonbury legends but it is fair to say he did not have the "luxury" of 21st-century technology.

Glastonbury Thorn growing in the Abbey grounds
Gilchrist could find no early accounts of a special tree in the abbey, and no evidence for the "Holy Thorn" before the 17th-century. The gnarled thorn now seen in the grounds is nothing more than a common hawthorn which naturally flowers in midsummer and midwinter.

The 12th-century historian, William of Malmesbury, wrote a description of an ancient wooden church which Gilchrist believes he clearly saw, probably an Anglo-Saxon wooden church, which could have dated back to the 7th-century but of course at that time William had no means of securely dating the building.

However, in William's original account he was careful to say that he had only been told that it was built by Christ’s disciples. Later versions of William's work has had much additional material inserted, probably by the monks retrofitting an ancient history to further boost their status.

Gilchrist concluded; "This project has rewritten the history of Glastonbury Abbey."

The book:
Glastonbury Abbey - archaeological investigations 1904-79 
by Roberta Gilchrist and Cheryl Green

(Society of Antiquaries of London, 2015)

In the Press:
How Glastonbury Abbey's myths were invented by medieval monks on the make - The Independent 24 November 2015
Glastonbury myths 'made up by 12thcentury monks' - The Guardian 23 November 2015
New research 'rewrites' Glastonbury Abbey history - BBC News Somerset 24 November 2015
Medieval monks spun up myths surrounding Glastonbury Abbey to help raise funds - Western Daily Press 24 November 2015

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Sunday 22 November 2015

King Arthur's Round Table, Eamont Bridge

“He pass’d red Penrith’s Table Round,
for feats of chivalry renown’d
left Mayburgh’s mound and stones of power,
by druids raised in magic hour,
and traced the Eamont’s winding way…”1

Arthurian Cumbria
There are many Arthurian connections with Cumbria, not least Chrétien de Troyes' who mentions Camelot for the first time in his Arthurian romances, said to be a northern city based on Carlisle. Later writers came to identify Carlisle with "Carduel" the Arthurian capital of the French romances.

Pendragon Castle in the Vale of Mallerstang was traditionally the abode of Arthur's father Uther Pendragon, who attempted to divert the river Eden for his moat.

Tennyson is said to have been inspired by Bassenthwaite when he was writing his poem “Morte d’Arthur,” the lake into which Arthur's sword Excalibur is thrown in the poem. Others argue that Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake at Ullswater, the second largest lake in the English Lake District.

The outflow from Ullswater is the  River Eamont at Pooley Bridge, to its confluence with the Lowther where it crosses the A66 at Brougham Castle, the site of the Roman fort Brocavum. For much of its length the modern road follows the course of the Roman road from Scotch Corner to Penrith. From Brougham the Roman road journeyed onto Carlisle, or Roman Luguvallium, the City of Lug.

The narrow bridge at Eamont Bridge dates from the 1400's, lying on the  historic route of the A6 road, running from its junction with the Great North Road south of Luton, northward to Carlisle. Until 1974 this was the border between Cumberland and Westmorland; over a thousand years ago on 12 July 927 it was the meeting place of five kings. Eamont Bridge (‘aet eamotum’) is the traditional location where King Athelstan of England held conference with the Kings of Scotland, Wales, Northumbria and Cumbria.

Antiquarians and Arthurians
At Eamont Bridge, barely a mile south of Penrith near the crossing of the River Eamont by the A6 trunk road, is a complex of henge monuments said to date from the Neolithic period. Charles Dymond (1832 – 1915), Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, states that Eamont is locally pronounced as “Yammon” and speculates that, perhaps, “Yeoman's bridge” may have been the old form of the name.

At the junction of the A6 and the B5320 road to Yanwath is King Arthur's Round Table, the northern end now obliterated by the minor road and the Crown Hotel. The Round Table is part of a complex of monuments, including Mayburgh henge 400 yards northwest and the now completely obliterated Little Round Table, a couple of hundred yards southward. Both the Little Round Table and Mayburgh are visible from Arthur's Round Table, indeed Mayburgh's single entrance looks directly toward it suggesting that this henge complex may have formed the centre of an ancient ritual landscape.

Pennant's plan of 1769
The antiquarian William Stukeley (1687 - 1765) records that the Scots army that accompanied King Charles II on his way to Worcester for the final battle of the English Civil War camped here for some time, the marks of the tents could still be seen on the ground in his time. He adds that they drew a small line across part of the southern circle.

In 1725 Stukeley described the monument as“On this plain stands the antiquity commonly called King Arthur's Round Table : . . . . it is a circle inclosed with a ditch, and that with a vallum.” However, John Leland, antiquary to King Henry VIII, was the first to record this earthwork nearly two hundred years earlier in 1538 stating “The Ruine is of sum caullid the Round Table, and of summe Arture's Castel.

In 1769 the traveller Thomas Pennant (1726 –  1798) wrote; “At a small distance beyond the bridge, near the road side, is a circle called Arthur's round table, consisting of a high dike of earth, and a deep foss within, surrounding an area twenty-nine yards in diameter. There are two entrances exactly opposite to each other ; which interrupt the ditch in those parts filled to a level with the middle.”

A comprehensive account of this monument complex which is readily accessible is “Mayburgh and King Arthur's Round Table” by C. W. Dymond, FSA, from surveys he carried out in October, 1889,  which I will refer to throughout this post.2

King Arthur's Round Table
Arthur's Round Table consists of a circular earth work with a flat inner platform surrounded by a ditch enclosed by an earthen bank, exhibiting the characteristic layout of a prehistoric henge. I find it immediately reminds me of Arbor Low in the Peak District, but without the stones.

This Class II henge monument at Eamont was thought to have been constructed between 2000 - 1000 BC by digging out a ditch around an oval area forming a circular platform with the excavated material forming an enclosing embankment. The continuity of the ditch was broken at two opposite points,  by leaving causeways to the interior of the work; in line with which were two passages through the embankment. The northern of these two entrances was all but completely destroyed during construction of the Yanwath road.

The enclosed area is about 50 metres across, with a 16m wide ditch, and bank of 13 metres. Within the enclosed area is a low circular platform about 24 metres across. Geoffrey Ashe writes that this would be the appropriate size to seat the full complement of 150 knights.3

Others believed this to be a jousting arena frequented by King Arthur and his knights, others still suggested a cock pit or a ring to wrestle, but according to Celia Fiennes 1698 Travel book, a Record of Journeys through England including parts of the Lake District, it was the dining table of a giant.

Stukeley states that “one end of the Round Table is enclosed in a neighbouring pasture,” presumably here he is referring to the northern end now under the present road constructed toward the late 18th century, some years after Stukeley's visit. A further slice was taken off from the eastern side of the embankment by straightening and widening the Clifton road around the same time.

The inner platform is nearly level which reflects the general appearance of the whole earthwork; it looks too tidy, too clean cut to be ancient. Stukeley tells us that the composition of the bank is “coggles and gravel, dug out of the ditch” and adds that the local people “carry it away to mend the highways.” Today it is very grassed over and kept trim by some Friesian cattle.

Arthur's Round Table – after Dymond
Dymond recalls that the owner of the Crown Inn (as it was known then), a man called Bushby, either the same who built it in 1770, or his son, deepened the ditch, and threw the earth on the banks. Dymond adds that in the inn-yard, is a circular tank of red sandstone, 38 ins. in diameter, and about 36 ins. in depth, which serves as a water-butt, has been called “King Arthur's Drinking-cup” said to have been dug up at the centre of the Round Table. However, his informant admitted it had been in the yard of the inn as long as he could remember and he had lived in the village for the last 60 years. Dymond admits that some antiquaries have been misled by confiding too easily in statements made to them, and such baseless stories, by repetition, can quickly become fixed tradition.

Parts of the earthwork were "enhanced" in the late 18th to early 19th century, apparently with a view to using the site as a tea garden by the Inn opposite the road. Around 1820 the innkeeeper William Bushby raised the central platform by adding several tons of sand and gravel on it from the inner bank of the henge. It is claimed he also deepened the ditch. Today the central platform does look flat and round and perhaps too neat to be of ancient appearance and may not represent its original form although it is recorded by antiquarians from the 16th century.

A sketch by William Dugdale in 1664 apparently showed two large standing stones either side of the north-western entrance. When Stukeley visited the site some sixty years later in 1725 he failed to record the stones, presumably by then taken away for building materials like those at Mayburgh.

In 1937 RG Collingwood excavated the monument uncovering a long, shallow trench near the centre of the circular platform, laying on the axis of the monument, considered a cremation trench. He also identified several postholes indicating the presence of timber structures and what he considered to be evidence for two standing stones at one entrance. However, two years later, excavations by Bersu refuted Collingwood's interpretations arguing that the postholes had no archaeological significance and there was no evidence of standing stones or burning in the so called cremation ditch although he did concede it could have been a shallow grave. No datable prehistoric objects were found during these excavations although a Roman coin of Gallienus (253-68 AD) was found a foot below the surface in the central platform. In 1988 a geophysical survey was carried out but the results were inconclusive, no doubt owing to disturbance caused by the extensive landscaping of the  site during the 18th - 19th centuries.

Aubrey Burl describes Mayburgh as having more in common with monuments across the Irish Sea. However, he calls King Arthur's Round Table an “English henge” that can be matched with sites in Yorkshire to which many Langdale axes were transported. A ritually deposited Langdale axe was found at Mayburgh and in 1875 an unpolished stone axe was found at Castlerigg stonecircle near Keswick leading to the notion that stone circles and enclosures were trading places. Burl names “kindred earthworks” at Cana, Castle Dykes and Nunwick. The similarity is strengthened by the presence of a cremation trench, a feature often found in the long barrows of the Yorkshire Wolds. If Mayburgh seems close to an Irish enclosure and Arthur's Round Table a typical henge from Yorkshire, the Little Round Table resembles neither.4

The Little Round Table
About 200 yards due south from Arthur's Round Table, near Lowther Bridge, there formerly existed a slight annular embankment, known as the “Little Round Table.”

Stukeley's engraving of the Little Round Table to the right
 and Arthur's Round Table, left.
The Beauties of England and Wales” (1814) describe this smaller enclosure as a ring with low ramparts, and perhaps a series of rings, as scarcely visible. A few years later the last traces were obliterated in widening the approaches to the new lodge-gates of Lowther park in 1878.The Little Round Table was described as a low circular ridge, no more than 6 to 9 inches above the level of the surrounding ground, and from 3 to 5 feet broad at the base. Stukeley describes the monument as having a small vallum with the ditch outermost, about 100 yards across. This is the reverse arrangement to a true henge monument which has the bank on the outside with the ditch innermost, as Stukeley said it was “made contrariwise to the former” (i.e. Arthur's Round Table). Stonehenge has the same arrangement; an outer ditch with a small inner bank. It is a misnomer that England's most well-known ancient monument is not a true henge, the ditch and bank arrangement having more in common with the early Neolithic causewayed enclosures.

According to the Pastscape entry on the northern side of the monument there is a bank barely discernible bank and faint traces of a low earthen bank with some stone visible on the south side. These remains suggest that the size of the monument corresponds well to Stukeley's sketch of 1725 showing a roughly circular enclosure with a bank with outer ditch.5

From scaling the illustration from Pennant's First Tour in Scotland, 1769, Dymond suggests the diameter of the Little Round Table is nearer 80 yards, with a gap, presumably an entrance a little to the east of the north point (not shown on Stukeley's sketch) out of line with  Arthur's Round Table which is sited slightly west of north to the Little Round Table.

High Street Roman Road
The damage to the north end of Arthur's Round Table is perplexing; on first thoughts it is usual to blame the construction of the B5320 road and the Crown Hotel in the 18th century. In these times ancient monuments had no legal protection and were there for the pickings as witnessed by Stukeley's record of the systematic destruction of Avebury in Wiltshire.

The course of the Roman road known as High Street travels across mountain and moor from  Ambleside (Galava) through Yanwath and Eamont Bridge to the Roman fort at Brougham (Brocavum) and its impact on these Round Table monuments is problematic yet may have implications for the date of their construction. Much of High Street can still be seen on the ground today, but it has not been traced between Yanwath and Brougham. In a map within the Lapidarium Septentrionale (Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-on-Tyne, 1875) the Roman road is shown as taking a north-easterly direction from Yanwath, and terminating at Brougham (Brocavum), a mile east of Eamont Bridge.

However, there appears to be some difference of opinion as to its course between Yanwath and Eaumont Bridge, yet it is certain that if the Roman road came in this direction and it must have passed either to the north or to the south of Arthur's Round Table.

Bishop Gibson, in his 1695 edited issue of Camden's Britannia, makes the Roman way leave Brougham and head “directly to Lowther-bridge, and so over Emot into Cumberland.” Collingwood agrees with Gibson stating “... we can hardly be wrong in assuming that it crossed the Lowther where Lowther Bridge now stands, traversed Brougham Park much as the modern road does, and so reached the Roman fort of Brocavum.”6

Yet, if it travelled directly to Lowther Bridge it surely would have impacted on the Little Round Table but according to Stukeley's sketch of 1725 and Pennant's plan of 1769, both monuments are shown complete with no impact by any trackway, Roman or otherwise.

Dymond suggests the Roman Road may run along the line of the existing Tirril to Eamont Bridge road, through Yanwath, the line of the modern B5320 that today truncates the monument. Dymond suggests the line of the Roman road was lost between Yanwath and Eamont Bridge and grassed over. Later the B5320 was constructed along the same line and therefore, he argues, Arthur's Round Table must be post-Roman, i,e. built between the two phases of construction of the two roads.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson 

Notes & References
1. - Sir Walter Scott, The Bridal of Triermain. Scott wrote part of The Bridal of Triermain while staying at the Royal Oak in Keswick, Cumbria.
2. C. W. Dymond, FSA, Mayburgh and King Arthur's Round Table, 1889.
3. Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller's Guid eto Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image, 1997.
4. Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland & Brittany, Yale, 2000.
5. The Little Round Table - Pastscape, Historic England, National Record (NRHE).
6. R. G. Collingwood, Two Roman Mountain-Roads, 1937.

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Thursday 5 November 2015

St Catherine and the Wheel

Today is November 5th, Guy Fawkes night, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, known popularly as Bonfire Night. The first recorded fireworks display in England was in 1486 at the wedding of King Henry VII. The word ‘bonfire’ is said to have its origins in the term 'bone-fire' when the remains of witches and other non-conformists were burned on a pyre as they were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. Today, traditionally we put a 'guy' on the top of the bonfire, representative of the leader of the Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

Typical fireworks are known as Roman Candle, Fountains and Rockets with self-explanatory names. Yet, the origins of the spinning firework from which sparks fly off in all directions known as the Catherine Wheel go back over a thousand years ago.

The Chapter House, Haughmond Abbey, with carvings of Saints set into the arches.
From left to right, St Augustine, St Thomas Beckett, St. Catherine of Alexandria,
St John the Evangelist,  St. John the Baptist, St. Margaret of Antioch, St Winifred and St Michael.
Legend claims that Catherine was of noble birth, the daughter of the  governor of Alexandria. She converted to Christianity and protested against the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Maxentius (reigned 305–313 AD) and successfully argued her cause with fifty of the Emperor's philosophers tasked with convincing her of the errors of Christianity. She was scourged and imprisoned. The Emperor 's wife visited her and converted to Christianity, along with two hundred soldiers. Maxentius had his wife put to death. He offered Catherine a Royal marriage if she would deny her Faith, but she despised the thought of marriage to the Emperor as she was a 'bride of Christ'. Standing by her beliefs she was subjected to torture and finally condemned to 'breaking on the wheel'.

This was a particularly cruel method of torture; the charged would be strapped to a wheel and their limbs beaten with an iron cudgel so that their unsupported bones between the spokes would be shattered. It was a extremely slow and painful method, with the victim often taking up to three days to expire. But when Catherine touched the wheel it shattered injuring bystanders. The Emperor had her beheaded, when milk flowed from her severed head instead of blood.

St Catherine with the Wheel
 Detail from Chapter House, Haughmond Abbey
There appears to be no ancient cult of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, no mention of her in the early Martyrologies or early depictions in art. The earliest English 'Life' was not written until the 13th century.

Her cult began in the 9th century with the rediscovery of her relics at the foot of Mount Sinai where her body was transported by Angels, the site of Saint Catherine's Monastery becoming a place of pilgrimage. The cult built up around this legend and flourished throughout Europe in the Middle Ages from Crusader influence. In England her cult was as strong as anywhere in the West with over sixty churches dedicated to Saint Catherine. Yet vigorous research has failed to identify Catherine with any historical personage.

However, Catherine is ranked one of the fourteen most helpful Saints in Heaven. She is commonly depicted with her symbol, the spiked wheel, and commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on 25th November.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Edition Revised, OUP, 2011.

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Tuesday 3 November 2015

Gawain and St Winefride's Well

In the 14th century Middle English alliterative romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur's best knight sets out on his journey for the Green Knight's Chapel on the day after All Saint's Day, the 2nd November. The poem is generally considered a masterpiece of English Medieval literature.

The tale is written in a north-west Staffordshire dialogue, providing a strong argument for the author having been a monk at Dieulacres Abbey just north of Leek. For this reason Luds Church in the Staffordshire Moorlands has long been a favoured location for the Green Knight's Chapel.

Gawain's adventure starts at Christmastide at Camelot, presumably somewhere in Wales, where the best men of the kingdom, the brotherhood of the Round Table, are feasting, a celebration that had continued for fifteen days. On the eve of New Year's day all fell quiet with Arthur unable to eat until he heard the tale of some marvel, as was his custom.

Then an awesome being burst through the hall doors, dressed entirely in green, the same colour as his skin and even his horse. In one hand he held a holly twig, “that is greenest when the groves are bare”, and in the other he held a great axe of green steel and beaten gold.

This Green Knight requested a game for Christmas; any knight may strike a blow on him if he will grant the Green Knight the boon of returning the blow in twelve-month and a day. None of the knights would accept the challenge until Arthur steps up, then Gawain jumps in and agrees to strike a blow on the Green Knight.

Gawain swings his axe and beheads the Green Knight who promptly picks up his head and remounts his steed, and holding his head in his hand charges Gawain to meet him at the Green Chapel on New Years day next for the return blow. Then with a wild rush flew out of the hall with sparks flying from his steed's hooves. Arthur and Gawain laughed at that green man but this was truly a marvel among men.

The year soon passes until the time of the Michelmas moon (Hunter's moon) when Gawain thinks of the voyage ahead of him and departing to find the Green Chapel.

Arthur is holding a feast on All-Hallows day (1st November). Yet Gawain lingers in court until the day after before setting out to reach the Green Chapel. On 2nd November Gawain sets off for the realm of Logres on his horse Gringolet. He travels north, then east along the North Wales coast, keeping all the isles of Anglesey on his left side, and fared over the fords by the forelands, to Holy Hede, until he arrived at the wilderness of the Wirral.

On crossing the Dee Gawain appears to have embarked on an Otherworld journey, wandering until Christmas Eve, travelling through many strange, supernatural landscapes, some vividly described, when he arrives at a weird, wild forest where the hazel and hawthorn are entwined together. He finally comes to a clearing through the oaks and sees a pinnacled castle. This is the home of Sir Bertilak de Hautdesert where Gawain stays for three days. Bertilak tells Gawain that the Green Chapel is but two miles distant.

Beeston Castle (copyright English Heritage)
Perched on a rocky sandstone crag 350 feet above the Cheshire Plain, just east of Chester, is Beeston Castle, built in the early 13th century by Ranulf, 6th Earl of Chester shortly after his return from the Crusades. The castle may have been the inspiration behind the castle of Sir Bertilak in the tale of the Green Knight.

Gawain visits the Green Chapel on New Years day and stretches his neck to take the blow from the Green Knight.  He feigns the first two blows but on the third the axe merely nicks him on the neck. At the end of the poem it is revealed that the Green Knight is actually Bertilak.

Stations of the Sun
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain's ordeal is a journey through the solar calendar. In Malory, Gawain is a sun god; his power increases to its height at midday then drops off as the day goes on. In can be no mere coincidence that Gawain's adventure starts at the winter solstice, when the sun is at is weakest, before standing still on the horizon for three days, before slowly increasing in strength, reaching it maximum at the summer solstice in June.

And it is surely beyond further coincidence that Gawain sets off on his adventure to the Green Chapel at the time of Hallowtide (Hallowmas) encompassing the Western Christian observances of All Saints' Eve (Hallowe'en), All Saints' Day (All Hallows') and All Souls' Day from 31st October to 2nd November.

Yet the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is full of pagan motifs carefully given a Christianised mix. Even Gawain's shield bears the pentangle, a talisman protective of the supernatural.

However, many will argue that today the modern Hallowe'en, commencing on the eve of All Hallows Day, is a Christianised celebration of the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year.

Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31st October to sunset on 1st November; it is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice Samhain is on of the so-called Cross Quarter days of the solar year.

The Beheading Game
One of the few geographical places that can be positively identified in the poem is Holywell in Flintshire, named Holy Hede in the text, which recalls the story of Winefride (Gwenfrewi in Welsh), patron Saint of Wales.

The legend of St. Winefride claims that she was beheaded in the mid-7th century by a local nobleman named Caradoc for denying him her virtue. Her head rolled downhill, and where it stopped, a spring erupted. The Saint herself was miraculously restored to life by her uncle St. Beuno, who placed his niece’s severed head back on to her shoulders and by his prayers raised her to life again. A white scar is said to have encircled the virgin’s neck for the rest of her life. Winefride lived for a further twenty two years as abbess of Gwytherin and has been venerated as a Saint ever since the moment of her death.

After her death Winifred was interred at her abbey at Gwytherin. In 1138 her relics were translated to Shrewsbury to form the basis of an elaborate shrine in the new Abbey. On her way to Shrewsbury Winifred's body was laid to rest overnight at Woolston near Oswestry in Shropshire. Here another spring is said to have sprang up out of the ground. The water is claimed to have healing powers and is today covered by a 15th-century half-timbered cottage.

St Winefride's Well, Holywell
The shrine at Holywell was first mentioned as a place of pilgrimage in 1115; nowhere else in Britain has such a long, unbroken tradition of public pilgrimage survived, even Royalty visited the site. Before leaving on Crusade Richard I visited the site to pray for success and Henry V made a pilgrimage of thanksgiving following his victory at Agincourt in 1415.

In 1862 the holy well was enclosed with a new entrance building and a gatehouse either side of the late 15th Century shrine. In 1985 the wall was removed and the gatehouse converted to a chapel. Here a stained glass window by the entrance doorway shows St Winefride with the scar on her neck.

Stained glass at St. Winefride's Well, Holywell
showing the scar on her neck
Both “Lives” of St Winefride stress the scars that she bore to the end of her life and claim that people came to visit the maiden who had returned to life, and to see the scars that witnessed her restoration. Pictures and statues of her, in accordance with the legend traditionally bear this white scar around her neck showing where her head had been reattached by St Beuno.

The Roman Martyrology lists Winefride under 2nd November commemorating the day of her death. However, today St Winefride’s Day is celebrated on 3rd November as All Souls' Day falls on 2nd November. A second festival is celebrated at Holywell on 22nd June which commemorates her translation.

There are a remarkable number of similarities between the tales of Gawain and Winefride; Gawain starts off on his journey to find the Green Knight's Chapel the day after All Saints day, the 2nd November, otherwise known as All Souls day. He must have arrived at Holy Hede, the place of Winefride's beheading, at the time of her feast.

Winefride is depicted with a scar on her neck; it is precisely the same scar that the Green Knight cuts into Gawain’s neck with his axe. Winefride's story seems curiously tied to Celtic tales of the Beheading Game.

A knight named Caradoc features in the First Continuation of Chretien's Story of the Graal. This is clearly an intrusion into the text with the story heavily reliant on Celtic tradition featuring another version of the beheading game. The knight who beheaded Winefride was also named Caradoc.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

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