Thursday 31 December 2015

Arthurian Review 2015

A few highlights of what made the news in 2015 with several myths surrounding Glastonbury and Stonehenge challenged by new studies.

Magna Carta Celebrates 800 years
2015 marked 800 years of the Magna Carta. On the 15th June 1215 King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede, by the bank of the river Thames near Old Windsor.
Magna Carta 800

River pageant - Magna Carta celebrations
Richard III reburial
King Richard III was finally laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral on 26th March at the end of a seven-day program of events to honour the last Plantagenet king. On Sunday 22nd March a procession starting from the University of Leicester, including a short ceremony at Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, ended at Leicester Cathedral where the coffin lay in state until Thursday 26th March when the mortal remains of Richard III were re-interred within the Cathedral. From Saturday 28th March the Cathedral will be open to the public as normal to view the sealed tomb of King Richard III. There were objections to a state funeral for the King's suspected involvement with the disappearance of the two young Princes in the Tower.
The last Plantagenet king laid to rest

Henry I could be the next ‘car park king’
Following the discovery of the remains of Richard III, researchers are now looking for the sarcophagus of Henry I. The Hidden Abbey Project aims to uncover the full extent of Henry I’s ‘lost’ abbey at Reading where the king was interred after his death in 1135. The abbey was largely destroyed in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries and the last abbot Hugh Cook of Faringdon hung, drawn and quartered outside the abbey gates.
The Hidden Abbey Project

Reading Abbey
New light on the Arthurian Legend?
Scholars from Cambridge’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNC), using a combination of ultraviolet light and photo editing software, revealed erased additional verse, doodles and marginalia which had been added to the manuscript of the 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen (MS Peniarth 1) which was particularly heavily annotated before the end of the 16th century. We wait publication of these additions to the BBC poems.
Ultraviolet light reveals erased poetry

Black Book of Carmarthen
The Real King Arthur Discovered: A Dark Age General from Strathclyde
Widely reported in 2015 (March and again in September) was the revelation that the legendary British King Arthur has been identified as a historical figure, a general from 5th and early 6th century Strathclyde who fought all his battles in southern Scotland and Northumberland.
Andrew Breeze's paper, The Historical Arthur and sixth-century Scotland, is published in the University of Leeds journal Northern History, Volume 52, Issue 2, September 2015.
Breeze bases his argument on his positive identification of the Arthurian battle list in the unreliable 9th century Latin chronicle known as The History Of The Britons (Historia Brittonum), often referred to as 'Nennius' after the monk who claimed to make a pile of all he could find on the Britons, as detailed in the prologue in some versions of the text.
The Real King Arthur Discovered?

Old Oswestry hill fort under threat from housing development
The Iron Age Hill fort said to be where King Arthur’s Queen Guinevere was born has lasted 3,000 years: now it’s under threat from planners who want to build more than 100 homes nearby.
Old Oswestry hill fort under threat

Rare Roman jewellery found at Maryport
The civilian settlement at Maryport, north-east of the Roman fort overlooking the Solway Firth, is believed to be the largest along the Hadrian's Wall frontier. A team of archaeologists and volunteers has spent five years investigating the origins of 17 altars found at Maryport Roman fort in 1870.
Now a rare piece of rock crystal from the 2nd or 3rd Century, believed to be the centrepiece from a ring, has been found at the site, with the head of a bearded man carved into the back.
Excavations at Maryport uncover rare Roman jewellery

The Battersea Shield
Celts: Art and Identity Exhibition
24 September 2015 – 31 January 2016
The Gundestrup cauldron will make a rare appearance in Britain when it will be displayed with other rare Celtic treasures including St Chad gospels from Lichfield, The Torrs Iron Age pony cap,  a hoard of gold torcs found at Blair Drummond in Stirling, The Horned helmet from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, The Battersea Shield, The Hunterston brooch, found in north Ayrshire at the British Museum in a joint venture organised with National Museums Scotland.
The exhibition will also look at the re-invention of the term “Celtic” in the early 1700s and contemporary ideas about what the term Celtic means today.
British Museum Celts Exhibition

The Search for Alaric's Tomb
On the 24th August 410 AD the Visigoths led by King Alaric entered Rome through its Salarian Gate and pillaged the city. After three days Alaric left Rome and headed for southern Italy taking with with him the sister of emperor Honorius, Galla Placidia, as hostage and the wealth of the city.
Only months later Alaric died of an illness was buried in a new tomb constructed at the town of Cosenza, in southern Italy, at the confluence of the rivers Busento and Crathis.
The famed treasure that went into the tomb with the Visigoth king is thought to worth a billion Euros and includes several tonnes of gold and silver looted by the Romans from Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Italian archaeologists have identified 5 possible sites for further investigation.
Italian archaeologists start search for the tomb of Alaric.

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon gold and garnet pendant discovered in South Norfolk
UEA landscape archaeology student Tom Lucking's metal detector found a large and deep signal; he dug down just far enough to reveal the top of a bronze bowl. The bowl turned out to be the foot of a grave with the badly-preserved bones of an adult Anglo-Saxon, determined as a high status a female because of the jewellery found in the grave.
Norfolk student makes 'royal' find

The Anglo-Saxon pendant from South Norfolk
Sutton Hoo - Historia Talk - Paul Jameson: The Battle of Hatfield 
A talk by Paul Jameson Chairman Battle of Hatfield Investigation Society
A talk at the Sutton Hoo Historia questioned whether the archaeological discovery of hundreds of bodies will solve the mystery of the fate of one of the great Anglo-Saxon kings' On October the 14th, 632AD in an unknown hinterland referred to as ''Haethfelth'' Edwin, King of Northumbria (and friend to our own King Raedwald) met a joint advance by Penda of Mercia and King Cadwallon. Here he fell with his son Prince Osfrith and Godbold, King of the Orkneys. Are over 200 skeletons first unearthed in 1950 testament to this Saxon battle in North Nottinghamshire'
There have been clues before - at the time of the battle, the Cuckney area was known as Hatfield, while nearby Edwinstowe mean’s Edwin’s resting place.
Then there is St Edwin’s Cross, which marks the site of a former chantry chapel erected in 1201 by King John, where a hermit was installed to pray for the soul of Edwin, who was made a saint by the Catholic Church in the years following his brutal demise.
The Site of the Battle of Hatfield Chase 

Crammond's Dark Age Secret
A mass burial in Cramond, a village on the outskirts of Edinburgh, uncovered in 1975 during the excavation of a Roman Bathhouse found at the site of a car park has been re-evaluated by a team led by the City of Edinburgh Council. Forty years on from the original discovery, a two-year investigation  has re-examined the remains of nine individuals found in the grave using modern scientific methods disproving an early theory that the bodies were victims of bubonic plague.
The results of the new study have determined that the individuals date back a further 800 years than first thought to the 6th Century AD with three of the bodies displaying wounds indicating a violent end. It is now being questioned if this grave was the burial crypt of a noble family suggesting Cramond may have been a Royal stronghold of the Gododdin.
Could Cramond hold the secret of Scotland during Dark Ages?

The Glastonbury Deception Unveiled
Glastonbury Abbey's myths were invented by medieval monks
An archaeological study dismissed Glastonbury Abbey’s links to King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea, saying that many stories were created to raise funds after a fire.
A four year study by archaeologists has comprehensively demolished many cherished myths about one of the most romantic religious sites in England; Glastonbury Abbey.
A team of 31 specialists, led by Roberta Gilchrist, professor of archaeology at the University of Reading, found that generations of her predecessors working at the abbey were so bewitched by the legends that they either suppressed or misinterpreted evidence that did not fit.
Four year study concludes that Glastonbury myths made up by 12th century monks

Craig Rhos-y-felin - one of the Stonehenge bluestone quarries
Stonehenge quarries found in Wales 
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Stones from the west?
Excavation of two quarries in Wales by a UCL-led team of archaeologists and geologists has confirmed they are sources of Stonehenge’s ‘bluestones’– and shed light on how they were quarried and transported. The team think the bluestones were first used in a passage grave monument somewhere between the two quarries and intend to return in 2016 for further excavations.
Stonehenge bluestone quarries confirmed 140 miles away in Wales

Durrington Walls Super-henge
Barely a mile from Stonehenge an enormous row of 90 megalithic stones have been detected buried beneath the prehistoric super-henge of Durrington Walls earthwork.
The discovery of the huge line of megalithic stones 3 feet under the surface made using sophisticated radar equipment went undetected during excavations on the site by the Stonehenge Riverside Project 2004-06. The find has been interpreted as evidence of a huge "super-henge" ritual monument. However, the purpose of the huge stone row and the relationship of Durrington Walls to Stonehenge remains uncertain and seemingly contradicts previous conjecture in which the "timber" circles within Durrington were said to represent the land of the living.
Row of Megaliths detected at Durrington Walls

Thanks for reading and best wishes for 2016.

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Tuesday 29 December 2015

The Sword that killed Thomas Becket

On 29th December 1170, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, age 52, was murdered in cold blood by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral. The knights had overheard King Henry II's angry outburst whose long-standing feud with Becket has resulted in a desire to rid him of this troublesome priest. The knights travelled to England seeking out Becket at the Cathedral.

Destined for Martyrdom
Thomas Becket had been a favourite of Henry II who made him Chancellor of England in 1155, but all changed when Becket became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. The following year Becket fell out with King Henry II over the king's desire to banish Church courts. The problem was brought to a head by cases such as that of Philip de Brois, a canon of Bedford, who was acquitted in the court of the Bishop of Lincoln of the charge of murdering a knight. After several months of wrangling, both sides met at the Council of Clarendon in January 1164 to discuss the issue. There, Henry presented the bishops with the infamous Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket told the bishops they had no choice but to give in, but then publicly repented his oath.

Becket Window, St Davids
In October 1164, the king had Becket condemned on trumped-up charges of contempt of court over a land dispute and ruled that the archbishop should forfeit all his goods. This was followed up with charges of embezzlement, and Becket was summoned to Northampton to answer for his crimes. When the Council delivered its verdict, Becket refused to hear it, maintaining that they had no right to judge him. That night, he slipped away and fled to exile in France.

The dispute dragged on with claim and counter-claim throughout the years 1165-70, while Becket was in exile at the French court all his money and lands had been sequestered and at least 400 of his dependants were thrown out of the country.

On 1st December 1170 Becket returned to England. Henry's patience must have reached breaking point when at his court at Bures in France he heard that Becket had returned to England and excommunicated his old ecclesiastical opposition including the Archbishop of York who had crowned the heir apparent, Henry the Young King, at York in a direct breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation.

At news of this Henry is said to have gone into a rage and asked who would rid him of this troublesome priest. Overhearing this the four knights Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton (or Brito), crossed the Channel separately and met up in Saltwood Castle, Kent, to plan their attack on Becket.

Shortly after his return to Canterbury, Becket preached a sermon in which he referenced the murder of Saint Alfege, the 29th Archbishop of Canterbury, that had been murdered by the Danes at Greenwich in 1012, as if foretelling his own death. As he walked to the high altar he is reported to have said “one martyr, St. Alfege, you already have; another, if God will, you will have soon.

Clearly Becket knew he had pushed the king too far and anticipated his fate, knowing it would only be a matter of time until Henry sent men to kill him. Indeed, when the four knights arrived one of Becket's own monks Hugh de Horsea, later named as 'Hugh the evil clerk', led the knights into the church to seek out Becket. The knights levied charges against him, but Becket replied calmly that “you cannot be more willing to kill me, than I am to die.

The monks of Canterbury attempted to safeguard Becket from the knights, but he continually walked back into the path of the knights. Refusing to hide from them he made his way to the Chapel where vespers were in process. He sat in the Archbishop's chair and prepared for the suffering of his martyrdom and waited for the knights to arrive.

Edward Grim had arrived at Canterbury only a few days before the murder of Becket. He was an eyewitness to the martyrdom and nearly lost his own life in an attempt to save the Archbishop. After all the clerics and monks had fled from the chapel Grim stood firm with the Archbishop, holding him in his arms. Grim's arm was nearly severed in two by a savage sword blow wielded by one of the four knights which shaved off the summit of Becket's crown.

In Vita S. Thomae Grim recounts, “Then, with another blow received on the head, he remained firm. But with the third the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church I am ready to embrace death.'”

“But the third knight inflicted a grave wound on the fallen one; with this blow he shattered the sword on the stone and his crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood.”

“The fourth knight drove away those who were gathering so that the others could finish the murder more freely and boldly. The fifth - not a knight but a cleric who entered with the knights - so that a fifth blow might not be spared him who had imitated Christ in other things, placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr and (it is horrible to say) scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, 'We can leave this place, knights, he will not get up again.'”

The Site of Becket's Murder, Canterbury
Saint Thomas
The monks washed the body and interred it in the crypt. They kept the bloodstained clothing as relics. It was not long after Becket's murder that miracles occurred at Canterbury. The first was recorded on 4th January 1171 and Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander on 21 February 1173.

In defence of King Henry it is claimed he never told the knights to go and kill Becket. They are said to have interpreted the king's words ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?!’ as wanting him dead (there have been many variations of the King's words reported over the years). Indeed, when he realised that the knights had gone to kill Becket, Henry despatched a rider to stop them.

Pope Alexander excommunicated the four knights and prohibited Henry from taking mass until he had made reparation for his sin. These were testing times for Henry; in addition to the feud with Becket and the church, he also faced the crisis with his son, the future Richard I. In 1155, the Pope had asked Henry to invade Ireland to clean up a corrupt and lax Christianity.  But it wasn't until after Becket's murder, in the winter of 1171, that Henry crossed the Irish Sea to the establishment of an Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland. Henry returned to England in 1172.

On Sunday 21 May 1172, Henry performed a ceremony of public penance at Avranches Cathedral, where he swore to provide money for 200 knights to crusade in the Holy Land and restore all property to the church of Canterbury. Henry also agreed not to obstruct any appeals to Rome by the clergy, effectively allowing Church courts to continue.

Henry accepted his part in the death of Becket and in 1174 allowed himself to be whipped on a public pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.

Candle marking the former spot of the shrine of Thomas Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral,
where it stood from 1220 to 1538 when it was destroyed by order of King Henry VIII
From Canterbury to Jerusalem
Henry never punished the knights for the murder. They were advised to head north to Scotland for their own safety. But they arrived at Knaresborough Castle, which was held by Hugh de Morville, where they stayed for a year.

All four assassins were excommunicated by the Pope at Easter in 1171 but despite popular demands for their execution the knights were banished to the Holy Land to visit the Holy Places barefoot and in hairshirts and spend the rest of their days on the Black Mountain near Antioch.

There is much speculation as to what then happened to Becket's assassins. Some accounts claim the knights spent the rest of their lives on the Black Mountain and never returned. After their death, their bodies were buried at Jerusalem before the door of the temple. Another account claims they were buried under the portico in front of the Templar Round Church built on the site of the Temple of Solomon. Another tradition claims that the bodies of the knights were returned to Brean Down, Somerset, and buried there.

Although there is general agreement that Fitzurse died and was buried at Jerusalem, another tradition claims he fled to Ireland where he fathered the McMahon clan. Richard le Breton, who is said to have broken his sword when slashing Becket's head, is said to have eventually retired to the island of Jersey, while de Tracy is said to have retired to a hermitage in the Holy Land, yet another alternative account claims he never reached the Levant but died in 1174 of leprosy at Cosenza in southern Italy. There is a tomb in the parish church at Mortehoe, Devon, which bears an inscription to a certain “Sir William de Tracy”; however this is said to be the tomb of a man who died 1322. The fate of the assassins seems very confused to say the least.

Hugh de Morville is said to have left the country on pilgrimage for his part in the murder of Becket but was dead within three years and buried in the porch outside the church of the Templars (afterwards the Mosque el Aksa) at Jerusalem. The tomb would now be inside the building. The Lordship of Westmorland is reported to have passed to Hugh de Morville's sister Maud, in 1174, confirmation that de Morville died in 1173. The Cumbrian knight was one-time owner of Pendragon Castle, in the Vale of Mallerstang near Outhgill in Cumbria along the banks of the River Eden, which according to legend, was built by Uther Pendragon, father of King Arthur, who is said to have unsuccessfully tried to divert the river to provide its moat.

A Hugh de Morville appears in the service of the Crusader-king Richard I and was named as the king's hostage in 1194, when the Lionheart had been arrested by Leopold V, Duke of Austria. This was apparently the same man who provided Ulrich of Zatzikoven with an Anglo-Norman poem which formed the basis of his medieval romance ‘Lanzelet.’ But clearly too late to be the murderer of Thomas Becket if he died in 1173.

The Becket Sword
Following Becket's murder legends soon attached to Hugh de Morville's sword.

The Becket Sword, Carlisle
On display in the south aisle of the choir of Carlisle Cathedral is a replica of one of the swords that was used to kill Thomas Becket. The sword at Carlisle belonged to Hugh de Morville and was passed to the care of the Cathedral. The Becket Sword became an object of veneration and on 22nd June 1307 King Edward I offered seven shillings at the sword of St Thomas the Martyr at Carlisle Priory Church. The sword was still in the city in 1536 when the Royal Commissioners reported that the priory of St Mary had “the sword with which Thomas of Canterbury was martyred”.

The cult continued until the Reformation when such relics were banned by Henry VIII. The sword then disappeared and later efforts to trace it have proved fruitless.

At St Andrew's Church near the village of Aikton, Cumbria, is the De Morville Grave Slab which was dug out of the church during the last restoration in 1869, and is now placed outside on the east wall of the south aisle. The cross head is much too badly worn to be deciphered, but the stem is a well-defined two-handed sword about 3 feet 5 inches long, with a cross piece 8 inches long. The sides of the slab are ornamented with foliage. The sword and foliage are in high relief, some of the leaves closely resemble oak leaves.

Canon Bower, in his account of this grave slab, states: “this is said to be the tombstone of Sir Hugh de Morville, one of the assassins of Thomas â Beckett whose sword is now in the possession of Sir Wilfred Lawson of Brayton Hall.”

However, there is no direct evidence to connect this tomb monument with the De Morville family, but as the character of the carving fixes its date as a 13th century work, and the De Morville's were one of the most important families in Aikton at that time, it is very likely that the tombstone was a memorial to a distinguished member of that family, possibly Hugh de Morville, Lord of Burgh who is often confused with his more notorious namesake and murderer of Thomas Becket. But it is a muddied picture as there were several Hugh de Morville's in Cumbria.

Among the first Norman landowners to arrive in this area was Hugh de Morville, of Kirkoswald, born c.1085 in Normandy. He was father of Guillaume (William) de Morville of Bradpole; Hugh de Moreville, of Lauderdale and Cunningham (Constable of Scotland, d.1162) and Simon de Morville. Simon fathered Hugh de Morville, Lord of Burgh, who died at Knaresborough 1202.

According to K J Stringer (Earl David of Huntingdon, Edinburgh, 1986) in the 1140's King David had settled the lordship of north Westmorland upon his Constable, Hugh de Moreville of Lauderdale and Cunningham (d.1162), son of Hugh of Kirkoswald. But when the northern shires were surrendered in 1157, Henry II would only recognise the Moreville title on the condition that Hugh, the Constable, stood down in favour of his son and namesake, subsequently a member of Henry II's military household, an Angevin royal justice, and one of the assassins of Thomas Becket.

Confusion between Hugh de Morville, Lord of Burgh (d.1202) and Hugh de Morville, the Becket assassin, has led to the incorrect suggestion that the murderer survived into the 13th century. It has also been suggested that when Hugh's castle at Knaresborough was committed to the custody of William de Stuteville by Easter 1173 it was the result of Morville's involvement in the northern revolt of 1173.

However, Roger of Howden asserts that Hugh died while on the pilgrimage to the Holy Land c.1173, and was probably in the Levant, or at least on route, at the time of the revolt. As Hugh died without an heir at least part of his lands in Westmorland passed to his sister Maud in 1174. It seems likely that if Hugh was buried in the Holy Land that some of  his belongings, including his sword, were sent back to his family in England.

It seems the same sword was at one time kept at St Michael's Church at Isel, in the parish of Blindcrake, built c.1130.  As both Isel and Brayton were owned by Sir Hugh de Morville, Lord of Burgh, it is likely it is the same sword that had been moved from one place to the other. After being kept at Isel for a long time the sword was subsequently transferred to the Arundell family. It is said to have been destroyed later in a fire at Brayton Hall.

However, the sword Canon Bower claimed was at Brayton, described as a basket hilted broad-sword, bearing the inscription “Gott bewahrt die aufrecht Schotten” [God preserve the upright Scots] was identified as a much later Jacobite sword. Possibly a remnant from when Jacobite forces captured the city of Carlisle in November 1745. This cannot be the sword that belonged to Hugh de Morville.

According to Benedict of Peterborough, Hugh de Morville was the most eminent of the four knights who participated in Becket's murder, although he did not strike a blow himself.

In the entry for Thomas Becket in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography the details of the assassination suggest that Hugh de Morville played no part other than keeping “the watchers at bay while Fitzurse and de Tracy struck him in turn and Richard le Breton then delivered the coup de grace”.

It would appear that the blade of the sword venerated at Carlisle, and owned by Hugh de Morville, considered a holy relic of Becket's martyrdom, never actually bore the blood of the Archbishop.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

>> The Mystery of Becket's Bones

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Tuesday 22 December 2015

Midwinter at Merlin's Monument

Sun and Stones
Today, 22nd December, is the midwinter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day of the year. Headlines throughout the country will report that the sunrise was witnessed by thousands of pagans and Druids, one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world marking the end of darkening nights.

The midwinter solstice, from the Latin word 'solstitium', meaning 'Sun standing still', marks the longest night with less than 8 hours daylight. This is the moment the North Pole is tilted furthest from the sun as the Earth continues on its orbit.

Midwinter sunset at Stonehenge
The one iconic monument that immediately brings the solstices to mind is Stonehenge, a monument surrounded in mystery and myth and yet for all the excavations and words written about the site it remains an enigma. The ring of stones on Salisbury Plain has attracted solstice pilgrims for millennia. Today numbers attending the summer solstice sunrise celebrations at Stonehenge number some 40,000 but significantly fewer numbers attend the winter solstice sunrise celebration; an estimated 7,000 people made the journey to the ancient site this year.

The midwinter solstice occurs every year when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees, when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun, delivering the fewest hours of sunlight of the year, while the sun is closer to the horizon than at any other time in the year. On this day the sun appears to stand still on the horizon for about three days before reversing its direction, growing in strength until it reaches its peak at midsummer. Hence the Teutonic term 'sunturn'.

It is the midwinter sunset that is the significant feature in the design of Stonehenge. At summer solstice pilgrims stand inside the stone circle and watch the sunrise on the horizon above the Heelstone. This misconception was first noted by Dr John Smith, remembered as the 'smallpox inoculator', who was the first to provide a solar interpretation for the Heelstone following his survey in 1770 and it has stuck ever since.

Yet there is no known back-marker at the centre of the stone circle to define the spot where the observer should stand to witness this event; it is a simple matter to position oneself within the circle to frame the Heelstone between two sarsens and photograph the sun rising above the top of the monolith. However, the Heelstone was originally one of a pair with the midsummer sun rising between the two, the solar axis aligning between the two major Trilithons, stones 55 and 56. At no sacred site do you turn your back on the inner sanctum to witness an event outside.

But at the midwinter solstice watchers should be standing outside the stones, perhaps by the Heelstone itself, and witness the sun setting between the main Trilithons to the south-west and sinking into the recumbent Altar Stone. This moment marks the death of the sun which has been growing weaker and weaker since reaching the height of its power at midsummer. The following dawn bears witness to the birth of the new sun.

Antiquarians and Archaeologists
The first mention of Stonehenge appears in the Historia Anglorum of Henry of  Huntingdon in about 1130 AD, in which he refers to the monument as ‘Stanenges’; the name 'Stonehenge' was not recorded until 1610. Henry lists the monument as the second of his wonders, being made of stones like doorways, which no one can imagine, he says, how they were raised or why.

Six years later Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae), calling the monument the 'Giants' Dance', had the answer saying that Merlin brought the stones from Ireland and erected them on Salisbury Plain by magic arts and claimed the kings of Britain were buried inside the stone circle. Geoffrey's tale is dismissed as pure fantasy, a product of an over-active imagination, as the monument was erected around 3,000 BC, yet he placed the event in the Dark Ages, around 500 AD. Although his chronology was hopelessly muddled, had Geoffrey stumbled across a trace of an oral tradition that had survived across millennia?

800 years after Geoffrey's fanciful claims Herbert Thomas identified the source of the Stonehenge bluestones as the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales in the 1920s. The stones of Geoffrey's Giants' Dance had indeed come from the west in an area occupied by the Irish during the timeset of his story, indeed in the ensuing battle the Irish king was killed near St David's, very close to the source of the Stonehenge bluestones. This year a  team of archaeologists and geologists claim to have positively identified the bluestone quarries for the first time at Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin. Dating material suggested the quarrying took place between 3,400 BC and 3,200 BC. Is it possible that recollection of an event such as the movement of the bluestones 140 miles from South Wales to Salisbury Plain could survive such a great expanse of time?

In 2008 the Stonehenge Riverside Project excavated Aubrey Hole 7, just inside the Stonehenge ditch, much to the dismay of the Stonehenge Druids. The Aubrey Holes are a ring of 56 pits distributed around the inside of the area enclosed by Stonehenge's earthen bank, named after the 17th Century antiquarian John Aubrey who first recorded them.

This pit contained all the human remains found by Colonel Hawley during his excavations at Stonehenge during the 1920's. In Hawley's time museums were reluctant to curate the remains so they were re-interred in Aubrey Hole 7 in several bags and identified by a lead plaque. Study of the remains suggest that they would have been interred over a period of more than 200 years, interpreted as an elite group, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth had claimed.

A legal challenge by the Stonehenge Druids, launched for the remains to be returned to Stonehenge, failed in 2011 and now the remains of this select group, possibly the ruling elite of Stonehenge,  grace a cardboard box in a dark room in a museum store instead of their intended esteemed position at Britain's most important megalithic monument. We still await news of the great scientific advance resulting from the removal and study of the guardians of Stonehenge in an act that can only be described as archaeological trophy hunting. It is time for their return.

Stonehenge by William Stukeley 1722

The Druid Revival
As with Geoffrey's story of the movement of the Giants' Dance surviving across the millennia, the concept of astronomical alignments at sacred sites also persists. The phenomena of astronomical alignments at ancient monuments is recorded in the 14th century French work called Perceforest, described, at over a million words, as one of the largest and most extraordinary of the late Arthurian romances. The anonymous author creates a prehistory of King Arthur's Britain in which Perceforest is the first of Arthur's Greek ancestors. The work is notable for its detailed description of megalithic stone temples.

In one episode a round stone temple is described. Through the doorway a ray of light from the setting sun falls on a throne. Placed on the throne is the withered corpse of the last high-priest wrapped in a sheepskin. A similar phenomena occurs at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland which faces the midwinter solstice sunrise. For a few short minutes the sun's rays penetrate the tomb and strike the inscribed monolith at the rear of the passage.

At Chartres Cathedral, famous for it pavement labyrinth and well known for its Black Madonna veneration, the summer solstice is marked by a gleam of sunlight passing through a small hole in the stained-glass window named for Saint Apollinaire, on the western side of the transept, and, exactly at midday, strikes a gilded metal tenon that rises slightly above the natural level of the floor. This setting is clearly to establish the moment of the Summer Solstice. On the midwinter solstice, a light beam enters Chartres, near its South Porch, and alights on a column leaving the building on a stone wagon featuring the Ark of the Covenant.

The Cathedral at Chartres is said to have been built on the site of an ancient Druidic temple, the sacred mound of the Carnuti, erected in honour of the “Virgo Paritura” (The Virgin who will conceive); is it possible that the solstice alignment was maintained from the original layout of the site?

However, there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the claims of a former Druid temple on the site, but before you dismiss this as pure nonsense it worth considering the fact that Chartres is not aligned east-west like most Christian churches but aligned to the solstices like Stonehenge, a pagan temple.

Pagan groups traditionally celebrate the midwinter solstice, the so-called birth of the new sun, at sunrise. The new sun emerging the morning after solstice (standing still) as it starts its journey along the horizon, growing in strength each day, toward the midsummer point. It is a seasonal shift; after the winter solstice, the days get longer, and the nights shorter.

Latter-day Druids have been attracted to Stonehenge since antiquarians such as Aubrey and Stukeley named stone circles 'Druidical temples' and monoliths were so-named  the 'Slaughter Stone' and the 'Altar Stone' suggestive of barbaric rites.

In the 1660s John Aubrey suggested that the megalithic remains of Britain were built by the Druids, and intrigued by this William Stukeley visited Stonehenge in 1719. For the next five years he made annual visits to Wiltshire carrying out a detailed study of both Stonehenge and Avebury. In his book 'Stonehenge Restored to the British Druids', he popularised the notion that the Druids built the most famous of stone circles, and that they were also responsible for the other megalithic monuments that were so well distributed throughout Britain.

Aubrey and Stukeley's works inspired the formation of The Ancient Order of Druids in 1781. One hundred and twenty years later, Stonehenge was the scene for a mass gathering of Druids on the summer solstice in 1905 when the Druids initiated some 250 novices inside the stone circle, returning every year since.

Druid ceremony 1905
But of course everyone knows that modern Druids have no claim on the megalithic monument on Salisbury Plain as it was constructed in the Neolithic period, whereas the Druids do not appear in the historical record until the musings of classical authors on the Iron Age Celtic peoples. Yet antiquarians were aware that these stone circles were built prior to the Roman arrival on these shores. In these times the Ancient Britons were considered a Celtic race with the Druids their priestly class as described in the writings of Julius Caesar.

The Roman Destruction of Stonehenge
At Stonehenge there is no evidence of medieval destruction, it seems that from as long as it was first recorded, outside of early imaginative manuscript illuminations, it was depicted as a ruin. The destruction may have begun in Prehistoric or Roman times; there is certainly no record of the robbing and wrecking that occurred at Avebury just 20 miles to the north. Today Stonehenge has the appearance of a half-wrecked religious house, such as the many abbeys put out of use during the Dissolution.

Indeed, in 1956 Richard Atkinson noted that the distribution of missing and fallen stones is “curiously uneven and looks like the result of deliberate destruction rather than chance collapse”. Atkinson observed that that the stones at Stonehenge were set much deeper, some up to five foot, than is common in other British stone circles and they would not have toppled easily

In excavations carried out within the stone circle of Stonehenge in 2008 Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright found structural evidence for the use of Stonehenge in Roman times, mainly in the late 4th century or a little later and a series of Post-Roman cuts into those earlier features.

Earlier excavations recovered Roman coins, half of which are also of fourth-century date. All together there is a substantial collection of Roman material; 1,857 sherds of Roman pottery from previous excavations, and several items of Roman metalwork. In the past this has been interpreted as the result of Roman tourism; however, Darvill and Wainwright suggest that this material should be reconsidered in the use of the site as a place of ritual or ceremony in the first millennium AD.

Stone 34 adjacent to the Darvill and Wainwright 2008 excavation trench showed clear flake-beds resulting from the removal of substantial pieces of stone, perhaps in later prehistoric or Roman times. In the case of Stone 35a almost all the rock that originally protruded above ground was removed leaving just a stump; certain evidence that some bluestones were broken  up on the site.

Stonehenge - Lucas de Here (Wikimedia commons)
The evidence suggests two early episodes in the destruction of Stonehenge; Roman souvenir taking preceded by purposeful wrecking of the monument.

Classical writers claimed that for the most part the Druids conducted their religious ceremonies in clearings in sacred groves. These ill-defined, dim, rural sanctuaries were regarded by the Romans, always eager to justify conquest, as evidence of the lowest form of barbarism. Tacitus gives us a glimpse of the Druids, the Celtic priestly caste, besieged in their island headquarters on Anglesey in 61 AD. It seems likely that Stonehenge was sacked at around this time.

The Romans may have first found Stonehenge functioning as a Druidical temple, adopted as a ceremonial site for sacrificial offerings and other such acts of barbarism. During the Roman campaign on Druidism in 60- 61 AD in Britain the Legions may have descended on Stonehenge and perceived it as a threat to imperial authority, giving them a powerful motive for dismantling it.

Atkinson noted that the filling of the Y and Z holes, probably the last phase of construction at Stonehenge, is indicative of these events. At the bottom of theses pits there are a few bluestone chips which were probably purposefully placed in the bottom of the pits. This was followed by relatively clean accumulation of debris suggesting the pits were left open. But toward the middle and top of the filling, the number of bluestone chips increases again. Similarly, the numbers of fragments of Roman pottery increase towards the top of the filling matching the distribution of the stone chips indicating that they must be contemporary with one another. This can only be explained in terms of the destruction of some of the bluestones during the period of the Roman occupation.

The Triumph of the Moon
The Roman historian Pliny observed that Druids worshipped by the moon in their sacred groves and were not known to use enclosed temples. However, it is possible that the Druids had adopted open air temples such as Stonehenge prior to the Roman invasion of Britain.

It is without doubt that the First Stonehenge was a lunar observatory. In 1922 Hawley  had uncovered rows of stake holes on the north-east entrance causeway, generally about 0.5m across and 0.6m deep. He thought they might have formed a palisade and paid little further attention to them.

In 1924 he discovered four large post holes 25m outside the entrance causeway and parallel to the stake holes discovered two years earlier. These ‘A posts’ must have been massive tree-trunks about 1m in diameter and spaced an orderly 1.8m apart, their huge girth suggests that they were very tall, possibly 4m or more. Hawley's excavation stopped just short of where the fifth post should be under the Avenue bank. There would have been a sixth but the most northerly hole was lost when the Avenue ditch was cut. At the same time as the construction of the Avenue the north-east entrance was widened and the axis skewed to the solstice line running through the site between the major Trilithons and the Heelstone and its partner on the causeway, around 2,200 BC, a thousand years after Stonehenge I.

It was not until 1972 that Peter Newham proposed that these causeway posts were markers for tracking the northern moonrises. The moonrise, then as now, shifted along the horizon, so the Stonehenge observers had to plant a stake each year to track it; watching the rising moon from the circle’s centre; each stake marked the northernmost position of the rising moon in a particular year. The most northerly stake in the row marking the major northern moonrise, completing the lunar cycle in 18.6 years.

The Causeway post holes (after Castleden)
The existence of six rows of stakes shows that they tracked the moon through six cycles (6 x 18.6), at least 112 years, until they were absolutely certain they had found the overall northernmost moonrise position. The southernmost stake of this row marked the moonrise at what is called the ‘mid-swing’ point. There are no stake-holes beyond this point so we know the observers were not interested in the ‘minor’ moonrises. The large 'A posts' must have served as summaries of the stake-hole observations.

Several metres out from the 'A posts', the builders raised the first two megaliths of Stonehenge, stones 96 and 97. Stone 97 was removed long ago, but stone 96 still stands today, known as the Heelstone, 77m from the centre of Stonehenge. Along with the Station Stones these were the earliest megaliths on the site, possibly found not far from where they now stand, easily identifiable from the later sarsen circle stones by their rough, gnarled, undressed appearance. Newham saw a relationship between this early arrangement of the first Stonehenge megaliths and the car park post holes which date to the Mesolithic. Most archaeologists have dismissed the probability of any Mesolithic activity at Stonehenge, but in their 2008 excavation Darvill and Wainwright uncovered pine charcoal which has returned a date of 7330–7070 BC.

Today it is still believed that the Heelstone indicates the alignment of the midsummer sunrise, as first suggested by Dr Smith in 1770, although this was certainly not its purpose in antiquity. It is clear the Heelstone was intended to mark the moonrise at mid-swing.

At Stonehenge the sunrise reaches its northernmost position on the midsummer solstice, around 21 June each year, standing still between the position of stones 96 and 97 for about three days before heading back southwards again. It is incorrectly assumed by many today that the Heelstone, and possibly the whole monument, was specifically raised to mark this solar event.

Stukeley suggested that the entrance to Stonehenge faced North-East to align with the summer solstice but refused to go as far as saying the Heelstone was aligned to the midsummer solstice sunrise and noted that ‘The interest of the founders of Stonehenge was to set the entrance full north-east, being the point where the sun rises, or nearly, at the summer solstice.’

A few years later John Wood considered the Heelstone marked the point where the New Moon first appears when the Druids began their Festivals. It appears that Stonehenge was a lunar observatory from its earliest days.

The author of the 13th century Gesta Regum Britannie, a verse rendering of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, in Latin hexameter, usually attributed to the Breton monk William of Rennes, in describing the place were Aurelius Ambrosius is crowned following the erection of the Giants' Dance at Mount of Ambrius exactly as they had been set up in Ireland, refers to the King's court as decorated with merely 'nemus et frondes' (woodland and leaves).

This implies Stonehenge was a sacred enclosure in a woodland clearing as such used by Druids.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Richard Atkinson, Stonehenge, Penguin, 1979.
Aubrey Burl, Great Stone Circles: Fables, Fictions, Fact, Yale University Press, 1999.
Aubrey Burl, The Stonehenge People, Barrie & Jenkins, 1989.
Rodney Castleden, The Making of Stonehenge, Routledge, 1993.
Christopher Chippendale, Stonehenge Complete, Fourth Edition, Thames and Hudson, 2012.
John Darrah, Paganism in Arthurian Romance, Boydell Press, 1997.
Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, Stonehenge Excavations 2008, The Antiquaries Journal, 89, 2009, pp.1–19, The Society of Antiquaries of London, 2009.
Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge: Exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery, Simon & Schuster, 2012.

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Monday 21 December 2015

Midwinter Solstice at Stonehenge

Oh, well, the night is long, the beads of time pass slow,
Tired eyes on the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow. 

This Year's Event
This year the precise moment of the Midwinter solstice occurs on Tuesday 22nd December at 04:48 (Universal Time) but  sunrise at Stonehenge in Wiltshire does not occur until 08:04.

Entrance to the stone circle at Stonehenge is free on 22nd December from about 7.45am until 10am for celebration of the first sunrise following solstice.

Midwinter sunset
After the shortest day has passed we would expect the mornings to start getting lighter earlier, but the latest sunrise doesn't fall on the solstice, in fact the mornings continue darkening until early in the new year. The winter solstice does not mark the earliest sunset either as this occurs a couple of weeks sooner in early December.

The exact dates vary, but the sequence is always the same at mid-northern latitudes: earliest sunset in early December, shortest day on the solstice around 21-22 December, latest sunrise in early January. It is only at latitudes close to the Arctic Circle that the earliest sunset and the December solstice occur on or near the same day.

So check your diary; it is a common myth the solstice occurs on 21st December ever year. In 2009 about 300 people turned up a day early!

After damage to the stones with chewing gum and graffiti was revealed at Stonehenge during last year's solstice celebrations conservationists have called for a ban to be put in place preventing people from walking among stones on longest and shortest days of year.

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