Monday 29 February 2016

Vote for the Staffordshire County Flag

The Flag Institute has received two applications for the County Flag for Staffordshire, one from Staffordshire County Council and the other from the Staffordshire Heritage Group, an umbrella organisation for all the local history, genealogy and archaeology groups within Staffordshire.

The Staffordshire Heritage Group promote, maintain, and encourage good practice, research, preservation of records and collaboration with other interested bodies in connection with local history, genealogy and archaeology.

Having received applications which both meet the Institute’s design guidelines, the Flag Institute has decided that the only fair way to choose between them is to give the people of Staffordshire an opportunity to vote for the county flag of their preference.

County Flags are based on the historic counties of the UK, rather than the modern administrative areas.

The Staffordshire County Council’s design is based on their coat-of-arms, and is gold with a red chevron that bears the Stafford Knot at the top, and along the top edge of the flag a blue band with a gold lion on it.

Staffordshire County Council administer less than 40% of the total population of Staffordshire, excluding some of the county's most major towns and cities, including Stoke-on-Trent, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton.

The Staffordshire Heritage Group consider the County Council’s proposal, complete with lion, to have the wrong emphasis; the lion has never been associated as the symbol of the Staffordshire people, put simply it represents the authority of government.

Staffordshire Heritage Group's proposal for the Staffordshire County Flag
The Staffordshire Heritage Group’s alternative design (shown above) is similar, but omits the blue bar and lion in order to make the chevron and Stafford Knot larger and more prominent. The simple, bold and ancient Stafford knot-on-Chevron design is historic and can be traced back to at least the early 17th century.

The vote opened at 9am today, 29th February, and closes at 9am on Sunday 27th March 2016. The result will be announced the next day, in plenty of time for perparations for the first Staffordshire Day on 1st May 2016.

You can vote by going to the Flag Institute’s website and clicking on the 'Vote' button.

Only people who live or work in the historic county of Staffordshire are entitled to vote in the selection process.

To promote their proposal featuring a simple historic design Margaret George, Staffordshire Heritage Group Chair, accompanied by members such as Stafford Burgesses, has arranged a press release with the 3 main local newspapers for tomorrow (Tuesday 1st March) outside St Mary's church, Stafford at 3.30pm.

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Saturday 27 February 2016

Guardians of Heritage?

Recent developments at our historic sites has revealed that English Heritage appear to be in two  minds about protection of our historical sites. In many cases they carry out essential conservation work but can never resist the opportunity to add a little something with a commercial interest.

The English Heritage (EH) website boasts of membership that provides Unlimited Access To Over 400 Historic Places spanning six millennia and include palaces, houses, hill figures, castles, abbeys, industrial sites, Roman forts and even deserted medieval villages.

EH claim the generous support of many donors has enabled them to have embarked on the largest conservation program in their history which will be carried out on an unprecedented scale.

This includes a series of new projects such as work to improve the visitor experience at sites along Hadrian's Wall, including the Roman forts at Corbridge and Birdoswald, plus essential maintenance to the medieval fortress at Dover.

Maintaining Authenticity?
Quoting their “Vision and Values” EH claims to “offer a hands-on experience that will inspire and entertain people of all ages. Our work is informed by enduring values of authenticity, quality, imagination, responsibility and fun. Our vision is that people will experience the story of England where it really happened.

“We seek to be true to the story of the places and artefacts that we look after and present.  We don't exaggerate or make things up for entertainment's sake. Instead, through careful research, we separate fact from fiction and bring fascinating truth to light.

Evidence of this work can be seen with the recent improvement works at Stonehenge which bears witness to this statement with the closure and grassing over of the A344 road in an effort to return the monument back to perhaps something like its original setting.

Stonehenge solstice arrow (Timothy Daw -
But what of the great brass arrow laid in the ground by the Heelstone at Stonehenge in 2013, just to remind us of the solstice alignment of the monument? Authentic?

This is clearly not the case at Tintagel either where creeping commercialisation has led to the carving of Merlin's face on the rock face outside Merlin's cave; a tale that can only be traced back as far as Tennyson. This sculpture was commissioned by EH with the promise of more to come at the island. Authentic?

Merlin at Tintagel (English Heritage)
Surely the Merlin sculpture is in direct contradiction of EH's "Vision and Values" statement:

" We don't exaggerate or make things up for entertainment's sake. Instead, through careful research, we separate fact from fiction and bring fascinating truth to light."

This is hardly separating fact from fiction, in fact it is quite the opposite and exploiting fiction!

In another generation or two when the Merlin sculpture will be weathered and nicely faded, looking ancient perhaps, guides will be telling visitors that we don't know the origin of the sculpture on the rocks. We must question why EH is creating an Arthurian presence at Tintagel when there is none outside the fables of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Contrasting Principles?
And this is clearly not the case at Old Oswestry Hillfort where EH has given approval to the Shropshire councillors decision to open its ancient landscape to development and the building of new houses that will destroy the historic setting forever.

On  17th December 2015 Shropshire Council voted unanimously to adopt the local plan known as SAMDev for development of the site, termed OSW004, a nationally criticised site for 117 houses in the setting of Old Oswestry hillfort destroying the eastern landscape.

Built during the Iron Age the multiple rampart hillfort of Old Oswestry (Hen Dinas) encloses a central area of 8.4 hectares, abandoned after a thousand years, it was incorporated into the earthwork known as Wat's Dyke.

Old Oswestry Hillfort
EH describes the ramparts of Old Oswestry as “among the most impressive of any British hillfort” and “…one of the greatest archaeological monuments of the nation”. But apparently not great enough to prevent EH signing up to Shropshire Council's development of site of OSW004. And now that they have gained a foothold with OSWOO4 being given the green light by the Council, the developers’ agents have already started the process to develop the other areas such as OSW005, OSW006 and OSW007. Sceptics might link this apparent show of support to the fact that Old Oswestry makes no money for EH as entry to the fort is free.

EH now charge a whopping £14.50 for the Stonehenge visitor experience, the only stone circle site in England where you have to pay for entry. This is by far their biggest attraction and earner; witness the continuous coach loads of tourists arriving at the site day after day.

The new Stonehenge Visitor Centre
Only two days ago (25th February) it was announced that the World Heritage Site (WHS) of Ironbridge in Shropshire is to receive £1.25m English Heritage funding for essential maintenance work. So clearly there is money available in the EH coffers.

Ironbridge WHS
An Opportunity for EH
Here's a suggestion for EH; instead of paying for permanent Merlin sculptures and ruining the authenticity of Tintagel forever why not put the money to better use and save Bede's World, which would cost a fraction of the £1.25M allocated for Ironbridge.

Bede's World is a museum in Jarrow dedicated to Anglo-Saxon culture and the life and times of the monk and historian the Venerable Bede who lived at the twin monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Wearmouth and Jarrow.

In 674 King Ecgfrith of Northumbria granted land for a monastery. He provided a large estate for St Peter’s, Wearmouth, and then in 681 granted land for St Paul’s at Jarrow. The twin monastery is thought to have once owned much of the land between the rivers Tyne and Wear and during the 7th and 8th centuries was one of Europe’s most influential centres of learning and culture

Bede entered St Peter’s in about 680 at the age of seven, and spent his life in the twin monastery which he described as “one monastery in two places”.  Here Bede wrote his famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 AD). Bede died in 735 and was buried at St Paul's. In the 1020s bones thought to be Bede’s remains were taken from Jarrow to Durham Cathedral.

Part of the Anglo-Saxon monastery survives today as the chancel of the St Paul’s church, constructed with stones taken from the nearby Roman fort of Arbeia and Hadrian's Wall at Wallsend. The monastery was re-established in the 11th century and survived until the Dissolution when St. Paul's became the Parish Church. The remains of the medieval monastery that can be seen adjoining St Paul’s church today, adjacent to Bede's World, are listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and in the care of English Heritage.

The Board of Trustees of Bede's World took the decision to cease operation from Friday 12 February 2016 due to a lack of funds.

So here is an opportunity for English Heritage to step in and show they are genuine guardians of our national heritage and save Bede's World.

Updated 28/02/16

English Heritage Vision & Values
Tintagel Castle and Merlin Carving English Heritage 15 February 2016
Hands Off Old Oswestry Hill Fort
BBC News Shropshire Ironbridge 25 February 2016
Bede's World
Sign the Petition to Save Bede's World

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Sunday 21 February 2016

The Mystery of Becket's Bones

Brutally murdered on 29 December 1170 in his own Cathedral by four of the king's knights, Thomas Becket was canonized by the Pope on 21st February 1173. The whereabouts of the Saint's relics remain a mystery despite several excavations in the cathedral.

The Tomb of the Martyr
The night of his murder, Thomas Becket's body was laid before the High Altar in the Trinity Chapel before being interred in the crypt below between two marble pillars the next day.

The crypt in which Thomas Becket was laid remained locked for three months after his death. In April 1171, it was opened for the first time to the public and almost immediately the site became one of miraculous cures. When he was murdered local people managed to obtain pieces of cloth soaked in Becket's blood. Word soon spread that, when touched by this cloth, people were cured of their ills. Benedict of Peterborough described that after the death of Becket some of the blood was carefully collected and kept in a vessel in the church. The Canterbury monks were soon selling small glass bottles or flasks (Ampulla) of water containing Becket's blood to pilgrims. By the end of the 12th century no fewer than seven hundred miracles had been recorded at Becket’s tomb.

Canterbury Pilgrim Ampulla, 13th Century, Bergen
The sudden overwhelming interest in Becket's remains made the Canterbury monks fearful that his old adversaries might attempt to steal them, so they removed them and hid them behind the altar of Our Lady in the Undercroft for safe keeping in a wooden chest. Subsequently, to protect the Archbishop's remains, a tomb was constructed protected by four strong walls of stone, reinforced with iron. A large slab was placed across the top with two holes were left in one wall so that pilgrims could reach inside.

Gervase of Canterbury records that on 5th September 1174 the Cathedral was ravaged by a fire that damaged the roof, stone walls, columns and several buildings of the Priory but it left Becket's tomb intact and unharmed. Pilgrims continued to visit Becket’s tomb as the Cathedral during the rebuilding by William of Sens.

Four years later he was injured after falling from some scaffolding at the site of the reconstruction work, William the Englishman took over. In 1179 work began on extending the eastern crypt under the Englishman's direction so that it would align with an improved Trinity Chapel above it. He extended the church to the east and raised the Trinity Chapel higher than the choir, increasing the height of the crypt. Completed in 1181, Becket’s tomb was now symbolically located in the central aisle of the eastern crypt and directly below where William the Englishman planned to build the new shrine.

The shrine of Thomas Becket
from Shines of British Saints by J. Charles Wall (1905)
Becket's Shrine 
In 1220 the work was completed and on 7th July Becket's remains were translated to the new shrine in the Trinity Chapel which was to become the most popular and richly adorned shrine in England. In “Shrines of British Saints" (1905) J. Charles Wall writes that the completed shrine “was the work of that incomparable officer, Walter de Colchester, Sacrist of St. Albans, assisted by Elias de Dereham, Canon of Salisbury”. The shrine was constructed in three parts. Mounted on a stone plinth base was a richly decorated wooden casket containing Becket's relics. A painted canopy could be raised up and down on a pulley to hide the shrine from view.
The easternmost part of the new work  was called “The Crown of St. Thomas” or “Becket’s Crown” some claimed it derived its name of “Corona” because it was circular and the ribs of the vault suggested a crown, yet others claim is was named after Becket's skull which was kept there.

According to Wall when the Dutch scholar Erasmus, visited the shrine shortly before the Dissolution he claimed the “perforated skull of the martyr” was exhibited in the crypt with “the forehead is left bare to be kissed, whilst the other parts are covered with silver.” When he went into the chapel at the extreme east end (the Corona?), he was shown the whole face, “tota facies” of St. Thomas, gilt, and adorned with many jewels, by the “attendant of the holy head.” Erasmus observed that the gold was the least valuable thing about Becket's shrine but the most valuable precious part was the jewels; “Everything here,” he said, “glittered, shone and sparkled.”

Canterbury Pilgrim Becket's Shrine badge, mid-14th century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

In 1538 this magnificent shrine was destroyed and the bones of Becket were said to have been burned and scattered to the four winds. The jewels and the gold were taken back to the King’s own treasury; the Régale of France, a large ruby donated by Louis VII in 1179, was made into a thumb ring for the king. Becket's bones were taken from their wooden casket, arrested and tried for crimes against Henry II and found guilty of treason.

Today a solitary candle on the floor of the Trinity Chapel marks the spot where Becket's shrine stood from 1220 to 1538, the steps leading up to it worn and polished by the feet of countless pilgrims.

Did the Monks Rescue Becket’s Bones? 
Rumours persisted that Becket's remains had been switched with the bones of the Abbott of Evesham before the king’s agents could arrest Becket’s remains. The Canterbury monks had expected the arrival of the King’s Commissioners at least three months beforehand allowing them plenty of time to hide their most valuable relics as other religious houses had done up and down the country.

The monks probably expected Becket's bones to suffer a far greater fate than those of other saints across the land. After all, at this time Becket was  probably the most popular saint in the country with more parish churches dedicated to him and thousands of pilgrims flocking to his shrine. And he had humiliated the king's ancester Henry II. And the king's henchman Thomas Cromwell was certainly a vindictive man.

Cromwell and the king appear to have singled out Becket and his cult for strict suppression. It was fairly common to find saints deleted or struck out from English medieval manuscripts, but many early Royal Injunctions that sought to abolish the “most detestable sin of idolatry” mention St Thomas by name.

Much of the argument of the survival of Becket's bones is based on whether they were actually burnt or not? No eyewitness accounts have ever come to light. The story of the burning comes from the Pope who announced on 17 December 1538 that Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Catholic church.

We must bear in mind that this was the time of the English schism with Rome and it is likely that the Pope promoted the idea of a much loved saint's bones having been burned and his wicked treatment of relics and shrines of other saints across the country to influence public opinion against the King.

The fate of Becket's bones may have been left to the discretion of the king's commissioners. It is of course possible that Becket's remains were simply transferred to another part of the Cathedral to remove them from the public consciousness and prevent their continued veneration.

in 1539, Thomas Derby, Clerk of the Privy Council, had written a rather contradictory statement. “.....the shryne of Thomas Becket, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury......was arrested that his shrynes and bones shuld be taken away and bestowed in suche place as the same shuld cause no superstition afterwards, as it is indeed amongst others of that sorte conveyed and buried in a noble tower.
Canterbury Cathedral

The Vault called Becket's Tomb
In 1546, just eight years after Becket's shrine was destroyed, the crypt of the Corona, together with the whole of the crypt of William the Englishman, received unique treatment and was assigned as a cellar for the personal use of the First Prebend, an administrative post in the Cathedral.

The eastern part was walled off from the rest of the Crypt and appropriated to Richard Thornden, the second Bishop of Dover, under the name of the “Vault called Becket's Tomb”. Thornden was formerly a monk of the Priory of Christ Church (Canterbury) from 1512 until its dissolution, when he became one of the Prebendaries of the Cathedral. Thus, the public were excluded from the this part of the crypt, containing the site of Becket's first tomb, for almost 300 years, between 1546 and 1838.

The 1888 Exhumation
On Monday 23rd January, 1888, and during an archaeological excavation to locate an earlier Norman church, a coffin containing a very old skeleton was discovered very close to where St Thomas Becket’s original tomb had been located in the eastern crypt, buried just a few centimetres below the surface.

The bones were taken to the home of the Cathedral’s architect, Mr HG Austin. On January 25th, the bones were presented to Dr Thornton, who then spent three days examining them. Thornton determined that the bones belonged to a male aged between 45 and 55 years old, close to two metres tall. Already they seemed to fit the description of Thomas Becket.

Thornton reported a fracture of the crown that had most likely occurred when the skull was removed from the stone coffin. On the right side, there was a fracture, which he thought might have been caused by an axe or a mace, and on the left side there was a severe fracture that he thought was possibly caused by a two-handed sword.

Of course, when compared with modern methods Thornton’s analysis does not seem at all accurate and it is easy enough, for those wishing to dismiss Thornton's finds, to argue that Becket's bones must have been burned in 1538 as the Pope claimed. Sixteen days later the bones were re-interred on 10th February 1888. But debate raged on as to the true identity of the bones without any firm conclusion being reached.

In 1895 a member of the original Investigating Committee of the 1888 exhumation, Canon Routledge, argued in defence of the skeleton, claiming that the 'crown' or 'corona' referred only to the tonsure, i.e. the shaven part of a monk’s head, which was regarded as sacred and injuring it would therefore have been considered sacrilegious. He suggested that it was possible the entire crown of Becket's skull had not been severed at all but wounds were inflicted to the tonsure.

However, this contradicts eye witness accounts of Becket's martyrdom, such as Edward Grimm who clearly states the top of Becket's head was sliced off. Furthermore, the skull is thinly covered, any contact with a sharp, heavy sword would have inflicted damage to the bone beneath.

A Second Look
A new shrine was planned by The Dean and Chapter of Canterbury who were clearly of the opinion that the remains exhumed in 1888 did indeed belong to Becket. But at the last minute seemed to have doubts and ordered the grave be re-opened.

On 19th July 1949 Professor Cave removed the bones and transported them to the Anatomy Department at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College where he examined the bones for two years before reburying them on 15th June 1951.

The following May Professor Cave issued a 31 page report in which he argued that “all the cracks, breaks, fractures, and erosions are most emphatically of a post mortem nature” and certainly not consistent with perimortem sword wounds.

Cave noted that the coffin contained several animal bones and some other human bones suggesting the body had originally been buried in the ground and was damaged during a hasty exhumation. There is no evidence to suggest that Becket was ever buried in the ground and this certainly did not seem to reflect the treatment expected of saintly relics. This tends to suggest that these bones were dug up in a hurry and substituted for whoever's bones were really in the coffin. Is this evidence that the monks did indeed switch the bones before the king's commissioners arrived?

Cave came to the conclusion that unless the contemporary accounts of Hugh de Horsea (the evil clerk) sticking his sword inside Becket's skull were totally incorrect it was not possible that the bones discovered in 1888 could be Becket's.

Becket was first interred  between the two marble pillars
in William the Englishman's lofty Crypt beneath the Trinity Chapel

Are Becket's Bones still in Canterbury Cathedral?
However, there were still those who believe Becket's remains are in the Cathedral. It seems there have been several exhumations in Canterbury Cathedral that have not been made public; the last time that we know of was in 1966; the findings unknown.

On an August night in 1990 two French men armed with crowbars, bolt cutters, chisels, a torch and a map of the interior layout were arrested in Canterbury Cathedral suspected of attempted burglary. Peregrine Prescott and Risto Pronk, both veterans of the French Foreign Legion, insisted that they had no intention of stealing anything, but were merely searching for the bones of Thomas Becket.

Their plea was that the French Cardinal Odet de Coligny was forced to flee to England during the Catholic persecution of Huguenots. When he died it was claimed that he was buried in Canterbury Cathedral, his assigned tomb wedged at a peculiar angle between two pillars very close to the place of Becket’s original shrine in the Trinity Chapel. Prescott and Pronk claimed that Coligny’s death had been faked and that he actually returned to France alive. They were freed by the Magistrates. But this leaves the enigma of Coligny's tomb unsolved; is it empty or does it contain someone's remains – if so whose?

In 1997 Cecil Humphery-Smith, an English biochemist, claimed that Canterbury canon Julian Bickersteth, had witnessed the exhumation of a skeleton near the cathedral’s Chapels of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Nicholas. Bickersteth claimed that he and three other men, including canon John Shirley, cut into a stone slab in the 1940s (during or immediately after WWII) to confirm their suspicions that it covered Becket's bones in an unmarked grave, buried there for safe-keeping during the 16th century. Oddly, this was before the second exhumation in 1949; is it likely that Bickersteth's find was indeed kept secret between the four men and not known outside their circle at the time?

Humphery-Smith told the Sunday Times 22 June 1997, that Bickersteth, his godfather, saw the bones of a tall man that had the right hand missing. He added that he also saw fragments of Becket’s episcopal vesture and seal ring. It is of some interest that Bickersteth and Shirley paid for the renovation of these two chapels in the 1950s.

When Shirley died his ashes were later interred in St. Mary Magdalene’s chapel, where he had paid for the installation of a red perpetual lamp, the colour symbolising the presence of a martyr.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

By far the most detailed account of Becket's bones is contained in John Butler's 'The Quest for Becket's Bones' (Yale Univerity Press, 1995) but later events such as the 1966 exhumation and Cecil Humphery-Smith's statement in 1997 appeared after it had gone to press. However, in his book Butler seems to suspect that Bickersteth and Shirley were on to something.

Further reading:
Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket, University of California Press, 1990.
Canon Scott Robertson, The Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. Part II, Archaeologia Cantiana -  Vol. 13  1880.
Report (1888) on the Discoveries in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral by Canons Routledge and. Scott Robertson, and Dr. Sheppard Archaeologia Cantiana -  Vol. 18  1889
John Butler, The Quest for Becket's Bones, Yale Univerity Press, 1995.
Bess Lovejoy, Rest in Pieces, Gerald Duckworth & Co. (Kindle Edition) 2014
J. Charles Wall, Shrines of British Saints, 1905
William Urry, Thomas Becket: The Last Days, Sutton, 1999.

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Tuesday 16 February 2016

Merlin reappears at Tintagel

As part of English Heritage's plan to improve the visitor experience at Tintagel Castle they have designed a new exhibition exploring the history surrounding Tintagel Castle and the legendary King Arthur.

EH have also refurbished the Beach Cafe and from late spring a new trail packed with exploration games and activities planned to help families and children discover the many stories at the castle. In addition a new link bridge will provide better access to the cafe from the shop and visitor centre.

For 2016, a highly imaginative new outdoor interpretation will extend right across the site bringing its history and legends to life telling the story of the Dark Age rulers of Cornwall and how the legends of King Arthur inspired Earl Richard to build his castle on this site.

It will feature interactive exhibits and informative panels as well as a range of striking artworks crafted in bronze and stone as the first part of a project by English Heritage to re-imagine Tintagel's history and legends across the island site. Further works will be revealed later this spring.

From February visitors can see the sleeping face of Merlin carved into the rocks on the beach:

Copyright English Heritage

Merlin's Face revealed at Tintagel Castle - English Heritage 11 February 2016

Vandalism or a work of art? - Cornish Guardian 16 Feb 2016

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Saturday 6 February 2016

Staffordshire's Flag

This is a copy of an email received from Staffordshire Heritage Group:

Within the next couple of days, Staffordshire County Council wish to register its banner of arms as the county flag of Staffordshire with the British Flag Institute. Some will believe this design is already the Staffordshire Flag as it is sold as this by commercial outlets, however this is untrue. We strongly believe that this is not a suitable county flag for Staffordshire at all for the following points...

•The banner of the Council features a lion which represents authority (The Council!), lions are far from unique on flags across Europe , and the lion does not represent the county in any way, shape or form. A county flag is there to represent the people of the county, not an authority.

•The world-famous Stafford Knot is clearly the symbol most associated with Staffordshire, however on the banner of the Council, the Stafford Knot is reduced to a tiny element, we think this is very wrong!!! The Stafford Knot should of course sit proudly centre stage on any county flag of Staffordshire!

•Finally, County flags in the UK represent the traditional counties. Staffordshire County Council administer only some 40% of the total population of Staffordshire, excluding some of the county's most major towns and cities, including Stoke-on-Trent, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton!

We believe the simple, bold and ancient Stafford Chevron design, which dates back to 1611, should become the county's flag which can be proudly displayed across all Staffordshire....

This proposal is simple, bold, historic, doesn't represent authority. Most importantly the symbol of the county, The Stafford Knot, sits centre-stage on the flag, and boldly proclaims Staffordshire's heritage. It has all the makings of the perfect county flag.

The information panels attached, below, display our opinions on the County Council's banner further, and the reasons why our traditional proposal makes for a much more suitable county flag for Staffordshire.

Please contact the Flag Institute at with urging them not to register the Council's Banner as the county flag, and to consider our proposal, the Stafford Chevron, instead. Unfortunately time is not on our side.

Thank you once again,
Brady Ells

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Monday 1 February 2016

St Brigid at Beckery

1st February St Brigid's Day

The Causeway
The A39 road from Street to Glastonbury crosses the River Brue at Pomparles Bridge following an artificial “Causeway” through the Somerset marsh. It is here, according John Leland antiquary to Henry VIII, that King Arthur's sword Excalibur was cast into the water as he crossed to the Isle of Avalon after being mortally wounded at the battle of Camlan. The name of the bridge is said to have derived from the French pont perilleux, or “perilous bridge.”

The first stone bridge was constructed in the 12th century to transport local Blue Lias stone from quarries at Street to rebuild the Abbey at Glastonbury after the fire of 1184. In 1881 while drains were being laid in the fields to the east of this Causeway a long forgotten ancient road was discovered running parallel to it at a distance of 50 or 60 yards. Local antiquarian John Morland observed massive horizontal oak beams and deeply-sunk oak piles just south of the river, which he considered to be the southern causeway onto the peninsula of probable Roman origin as suggested by the name Street, from the Latin 'strata' for a paved road. Roman pottery was recovered from beneath the structure and a 12th -13th century spur from the road surface.

However, carbon dating suggests that construction of the Causeway took place between 650 AD and 780 AD. From the date of Pomparles Bridge it is concluded that a Medieval causeway, connecting Street with Glastonbury island, replaced an earlier causeway crossing the Brue at the North end.

The earliest known name for the settlement at Street was “Lantokay” meaning the sacred enclosure of the Celtic saint Kea. The parish churchyard is on the first flood-free ground near the river Brue and considered one of the oldest churches in Somerset. The oval form of the large churchyard suggests a “llan” a sacred enclosure typical of an early 6th century construction surrounded by marshland.

Situated southwest of Glastonbury, below the ridge of Wearyall Hill, is a small mound known today as “Bride's Mound” where the remains of an ancient chapel have been found. Both Beckery Chapel and Street church stand 10m above sea level, significantly it would seem, at each end of the ancient causeway.

Brigid's Bell
 It is claimed that Brigid left relics here when she returned to Ireland; her purse, collar, bell and weaving instruments. Stories tell of Gildas making a bell for Brigid at her request, although it is not necessarily identified as the bell she left at Beckery. The Life of St Kea states he also received a bell from Gildas before he left Somerset for Cornwall.

In the early 20th century a Glastonbury man purchased a wooden box in local sale which was found to contain a small bell wrapped in linen. He took the bell to the British Museum where experts described it as an ancient Celtic bell. In the 1920s the bell passed to the man's great niece who lent it to Alice Buckton who was impressed by the possibility that it may have belonged to St Brigid. In 1907 Buckton became interested in the spiritual and creative movements in Glastonbury after meeting Wellesley Tudor Pole, an occultist and visionary. In 1913 Buckton purchased Glastonbury's Tor House from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and transformed the old schoolhouse and former inn into “The Chalice Well”.  Dion Fortune, perhaps the most important figure in the revival of occultism in Britain, stayed here with Buckton and wrote about her in her book “Avalon of the Heart”. Buckton used the bell in ceremonies at Chalice Well but after her death in 1944 its whereabouts are unknown.

Alice Buckton with Bride's Bell (L) compare with St Patrick's Bell from National Museum, Dublin

The area today known as “Beckery” (from the earliest recorded name of Beckeria) has been variously called “Bride's Hay”, “Bride's Hill” or “Bridget's Island”. However, the etymology of Beckery has caused much debate over the years. Both William of Malmesbury and John of Glastonbury call it “Beckeria, which is called Little Ireland”. Modern scholars accept this meaning giving the origin of the name as “Becc-Eriu” from the Irish “Little Ireland”. Yet, not all agree and suggest an English origin derived from the Old English “beocere” and “eg” meaning simply bee-keeper's island.

In deciding which of these derivations may be correct we need to consider why Brigid would come to Beckery. It is argued that Brigid came to visit St Patrick at Glastonbury who the Abbey claims as its own and was buried there; there is certainly a strong argument that Patrick may have been born in Somerset before being taken to Ireland by raiders. A strong Irish presence is known to have existed at Glastonbury, indeed the biographer of St Dunstan, known simply as “B”, claims that Dunstan was educated by Irish monks in the 10th century. In addition, Glastonbury sat conveniently on the pilgrimage route from Ireland to Rome.

Beth Frances makes the suggestion that monks from Wexford in south-east Ireland may have fled to Glastonbury following attacks by Vikings on their monastery. Beggerin (or Beggery) Island near Loch Garman harbour (Wexford town) shares a number of commonalties with Beckery. Frances states both are sites of early Christian monasteries, both are on islands in marshy areas but with access to important river routes and the coast.

On a mound at Beggerin is a small 13th century stone chapel surrounded by a graveyard. This island is thought to be a monastic settlement founded by St Ibar in the late 5th century. The monastery was raided by Vikings in 819/821 and closed during the middle of the 12th century. Ibar was a bishop working in Ireland around the same time as St Patrick and came into conflict over who should be the leader of the church in Ireland. However, legends associated with Beggerin Island in Wexford, appear to be as muddled as those attached to Beckery.

In the 5th century the area around Wexford was apparently under the control of the clan Ui Bairrche and their neighbours the Fortharta. St Brigid was from the Kildare section of the Fortharta, where she founded her community at “the sacred place of the oak tree” (Cill Dara). Reports claim that a very old oak tree grew on the island at Beckery. An island in Loch Garman was known as Oak Island.

There is ample evidence of an Irish presence in south-west Wales during the 5th century, such as the Déisi. Brigid may have travelled from the Loch Garman area and arrived in south-west Wales where there is a church dedicated to the saint in the Pembrokeshire village of St Brides, the traditional spot for her arrival in Britain. It is claimed by some that she may have established a convent at St Brides, the remains of which can be seen on either side of the driveway to St Brides castle. The church as St Brides dates from the 13th century replacing an earlier chapel and cemetery that stood closer to the sea and has now been eroded away.

St Bridget's Church Brean
At Brean on the Somerset coast there is another church dedicated to St Brigid, also dated to the 13th century, but the dedication to the Irish saint suggests a possible early Celtic Christian settlement. The isolation of the church and the presence of a sacred spring coupled with its association with Brigid supports an early foundation. About a mile from the church is what appears to be a Dark Age cemetery, dated to about 650 AD, although possibly not connected to the church.

Frances suggests that Irish monks fleeing to Britain to escape the Viking raids at Wexford in the 9th century may account for the dedication of these churches to the Irish saint, bringing with them the memory of the name of their “Little Ireland” and providing an explanation for the Irish monks who educated St Dunstan at Glastonbury.

Yet the question remains unanswered as to whether these Irish monks came to Somerset because of the Glastonbury associations with St Patrick and St Brigid, or if the monks brought tales of these saints with them?

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Beth Frances, Did Saint Bridget Visit Glastonbury, 2008 (privately published).
Profits go to the Friends of Bride’s Mound.

Edited once or twice

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