Wednesday 31 August 2016

Crusaders, Cistercians and Templars

"Go forth confidently then, you knights, and repel the foes of the cross of Christ with a stalwart heart. Know that neither death nor life can separate you from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ, and in every peril repeat, 'Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.' What a glory to return in victory from such a battle! How blessed to die there as a martyr!" - St. Bernard of Clairvaux, In Praise of the New Knighthood.

The White Monks
Monasticism as a form of religious life, usually conducted in a community under a common rule, had been in existence in Britain since the 5th century. When Saint Augustine arrived in Canterbury in 597 AD, he introduced the Benedictine Rule to England. The Rule, written by Benedict of Nursia (c.480–550), considered the founder of Western monasticism, was widely popular for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot and popularly known as the 'black monks' by the colour of the choir robe (cuccula) worn over their habits.

However, by the 12th Century many Benedictines houses were considered to have become lax and no longer strictly followed the Rule of Saint Benedict. As a consequence the Cistercian Order was founded favouring solitude and the building of their monasteries in the remote places such as moors and mountain valleys. Around this time the Augustinian Order was also founded, followed by the Orders of Friars in the 13th Century.

The Cistercian Order, known as the 'white monks' for their undyed woollen habits, derives its name from Cistercium, the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux in eastern France. Here, in 1098, a group of Benedictine monks, under Robert of Molesme, founded Cîteaux Abbey with the focus on a return to literal observance of the Benedictine Rule.

In the early 1110s a young Burgundinian nobleman named Bernard, with 30 or so companions, entered the monastery at Citeaux. Bernard was to become one of the most admired and influential churchmen of his age and instrumental in the rapid proliferation of the Order. Three years later he left Citeaux and established an Abbey after Hugh, Count of Champagne, gifted a wild tract of land to the Order, in the Vallée d’Absinthe in the Diocese of Langres, some forty miles east of Troyes. Bernard cleared land here and named the abbey Clairvaux, meaning 'Valley of Light'.

Rievaulx Abbey
The first Cistercian Abbey in England was established in 1128 at Waverley on the River Wey in West Surrey by 12 monks from France.  In 1132 the first Cistercian house in northern England was established by twelve monks sent out from Clairvaux who founded Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. In the same year 13 monks who were expelled from the Benedictine house of St Mary's Abbey, in York, after attempting to return to the Rule of St Benedict, established the second Cistercian house in the north at Fountains Abbey in 1135. At its peak there were over 50 Cistercian Abbeys in England, most of these were dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530's. Today there are just three active Cistercian houses in Britain.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre 
The Greek historian of Christianity Eusebius of Caesarea records in his 'Life of Constantine' that in the 2nd century AD in the Old City of Jerusalem the Roman Emperor Hadrian had a temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite deliberately built over the rock-cut tomb of Jesus. Around 326 Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, ordered the pagan temple be destroyed and a Christian church to be built in its place. It is here that Helena is said to have rediscovered the "True Cross". The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed as two connected churches over the two most important sites in the Christian religion; Cavalry, the site of the crucifixion, and the site of Jesus's empty tomb.

The Church suffered badly from damage by fires and earthquakes over the ages, yet early Muslim rulers, such as the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, protected the city's Christian sites after Jerusalem's submission following the siege of 636-7. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained a Christian church, and when Umar visited the Church he is said to have stopped there a short while to pray.

However, in 1009 the most important site in Christianity was razed to the ground when the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the complete destruction of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in his intent to remove all Christian places of worship from the Holy Land. Reaction in Europe led to expulsions of Jews from many French towns. In 1027–8 the Fatimids and the Byzantine Empire reached an agreement in which the new Caliph Ali az-Zahir (Al-Hakim's son) allowed the Church to be rebuilt. The rebuilding was complete by 1048 with the Church site consisting of a court of resurrection with five small chapels attached to it, commemorating scenes from the Passion.

Yet, pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem during the 11th century reported finding much of the sacred site in ruins as control of Jerusalem continued to change hands  between the Fatimids and the Seljuk Turks. Christians had been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the 6th century to witness the birthplace of their religion but when the Seljuk Turks took control of Jerusalem Christians were barred from the Holy City. Loss of access to the most important site in Christianity was unacceptable to the Latin West.

The First Crusade
History insists that Pope Urban's motive in calling for the First Crusade was in response to the appeal of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos to the threat of Seljuk Turkish invasion of Asia Minor. However, there can be little doubt that the fate of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was of major concern, if not openly declared as the ultimate goal of the First Crusade.

Migrating tribes of Seljuk Turks began arriving from the East in the late-10th century and by 1055 they had taken Baghdad. In 1071 they defeated the Byzantine army at Manzikert in eastern  Anatolia which opened the whole of Asia Minor to conquest by the Turks, threatening the capital city of Constantinople. The same year the Turks also went south, taking territory in northern Syria from the Byzantines and Jerusalem from the Fatimids.

In 1074 the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII sent a request to Pope Gregory VII for military assistance, in desperation, willing to overlook the differences between the Latin and Orthodox churches that resulted in the Great Schism of 1054. However, Gregory did not feel it was the right time to send a crusade to fight in the east, although the papacy had approved the crusade in Spain eleven years earlier.

The Seljuk Turks westward advance continued and by 1076 they had taken Damascus from the Fatimids. In the same year, after the Fatimids had retaken Jerusalem, the entire Muslim population and a large number of Jews in the city were massacred by the Turks. Christians were spared from slaughter but expelled from the city. Clearly Anatolia and the Middle East was not a safe place for pilgrims venturing to the Holy Christian sites.

The Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus had recovered land along the Black Sea coast and around the shores of the Sea of Marmara during the 1080's, now made a special appeal to Pope Urban II asking for mercenaries from the West.

On 27 November 1095, at the Council of Clermont, in France, at which several hundred clerics and noblemen gathered, Urban delivered a rousing speech summoning the people to embark on a righteous war and go to the aid of their fellow Christians in the East and take back Jerusalem, preserve the holy sites from desecration and to ensure continued freedom for pilgrims to journey to them.

Four main crusader armies, estimated at around 30,000 Christian warriors, left Europe in August 1096. After taking Edessa and Antioch on the way, they marched along the Mediterranean coast reaching Jerusalem in early June 1099. Following the siege of Jerusalem a massacre ensued as the knights of the First Crusade entered the holy city, taking The Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Fatimids on 15 July 1099. In the aftermath Godfrey of Bouillon was established as the new King of Jerusalem and, significantly, as Protector of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The First Crusade had been a remarkable success, even if eyewitness accounts of the bloodbath appear to demolish claims by historians of exaggeration in the scale of the slaughter. Failure would almost certainly have resulted in no hope of any further crusades, but the First Crusade proved that Latin armies could venture into foreign lands and take back control of Christian sites. It is often said that Pope Urban II died in 1099 after receiving news of the conquest of Jerusalem in July 1099, but he died two weeks before news of the Christian victory was received in Europe.

The call for the First Crusade has been interpreted as Urban's attempt to reunite the churches of Rome and Constantinople, however there is little evidence from his own writings to support this.  Historians argue that there was no immediate threat from the Islamic world with Islam and Christendom coexisting in relative stability for centuries.

The concept “to crusade” is rooted deeply in the theology of Medieval Roman Catholicism of Western Europe and has been the subject of much debate. The concept of the “crusade” was to engage in a war which was both holy and penitential; a war believed to be waged on God's behalf and from the belief that acts of penance could be performed because it was authorised by the Pope as the Vicar of Christ.

The First Crusade (1095–1099) was the first of seven major military campaigns fought over the next two centuries and succeeded in establishing the “crusader states” of Edessa, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Tripoli, easing Seljuk Turk pressure on the Byzantine Empire. Yet from Egypt to Syria there were calls for the expulsion of the crusaders; the war for the Holy Land had only just begun.

The Crusader States in Outremer

Soldiers of Christ
The Historian's view is that The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ (the first name of the Templars) had been born from the need to provide protection to pilgrims en route to Jerusalem in the aftermath of the First Crusade. However, gaps in the Templars history has led to a multitude of conspiracy theories with claims that they were a secret society holding a secret agenda for staying on in Jerusalem.

However, we do know that after Jerusalem had fallen to the crusaders in July 1099 a small group of Latin soldiers stayed on and began to follow a religious way of life in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place of worship built on the site of Christ's empty tomb. The group led by Hugues de Payens, from Champagne, and Godfrey of Saint-Omer proposed to Baldwin II, the Patriach of Jerusalem, that they should form a lay community for the salvation of their souls.

Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to visit the Holy Sepulchre frequently came under attack from bands of Muslims. Baldwin II was well aware of the dangers facing travellers to the holy city and persuaded de Payens and his companions that they should save their souls by protecting these pilgrims. The Latin soldiers decided that the New Kingdom of Jerusalem needed arms more than monks and subsequently formed a military-religious Order vowing to protect pilgrims on their journeys to Christian sites in the Holy Land. Christmas that year de Payens and his companions took vows in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to protect pilgrims, and the order of The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ was born. The risk to pilgrims was underlined at Easter 1119 when 300 Christian pilgrims were slaughtered on the road to River Jordan.

In 1120 The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ received approval at the Church Council at Nablus and Baldwin II granted them his palace in the former al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. As this building was known as The Temple of Solomon the group became known as “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon” with its members known simply as “Templars”. The new Order now seeked approval from the Pope; this was to come at the Council of Troyes in 1129.

The Templars were not only to give protection to pilgrims but also defended the new crusader states in Outremer ('the land overseas'). By the time of the Second Crusade their military power had grown to such an extent that they were instrumental in directing the military campaign.

In 1125 Hugh, Count of Champagne, embarked for a third time to the Holy Land, joining the Knights Templar which then barely comprised of more than a dozen knights or so, with their first Grand Master (magister militum Templi) Hugues de Payens who had accompanied him as vassal in Jerusalem 1114-16. With Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, de Payens created the Latin Rule, the code of behaviour for the Order of the Knights Templar. In 1129 at the Council of Troyes, convened by Pope Honorius II, Bernard of Clairvaux obtained official recognition and approval for the Order of the Knights Templar, seen as a defining moment in the origin of the movement. The Templars now answered directly to the Pope.

In the early 1130's Bernard of Clairvaux, realising the crusades needed fighting men not wailing monks wrote “In Praise of the New Knighthood”. After all Bernard had a vested interest in the Order as his maternal uncle Andre de Montbard was one of the founding members.

The Second Crusade
When the first crusader state of Edessa fell to the Selijuk Turks in 1145 Pope Eugene III (1145-53) wrote to  to King Louis VII of France (1137-80) calling for a Second Crusade to recover the territory. It seems Louis was already minded to go to the Holy Land, but his barons did not share his ambitions. Louis called on Bernard Abbot of Clairvaux, considered the greatest spiritual authority of the time, for support. On 31st March 1146 Bernard preached to a large crowd in a field at Vézelay, in Burgundy, with King Louis VII present. Unlike the First Crusade, the new venture attracted much nobility; inspired by Bernard's speech thousands took the cross and enthusiasm for the crusade soon spread across Europe.

Odo of Deuil, a witness to Bernard's stirring speech at Vézelay recorded that, “[Bernard] mounted the platform accompanied by the king, who was wearing the cross, and when heaven's instrument poured forth the dew of the divine word, as he was wont, with loud outcry people on every side began to demand crosses. And when he had sowed, rather than distributed, the parcel of crosses which had been prepared beforehand, he was forced to tear his own garments into crosses and sow them abroad.”

The choice of  Vézelay was no accident: it stood at the beginning of one of the four major pilgrimage routes through France to Santiago de Compostela, the shrine of St James in north-western Spain; around 1050 the monks of Vézelay claimed to be in possession of relics of Mary Magdalene. The potent spirituality of the place clearly held great significance. In 1166, while in exile, Thomas Becket had delivered his Whitsunday sermon at Vézelay announcing the excommunication of the main supporters of his English King, Henry II, and in 1190 Richard I of England (The Lionheart) spent several months at Vézelay Abbey before departing for the Third Crusade.

A few months later in the summer of 1146 Bernard went to Germany to bring a halt to the anti-Jewish pogroms of Radulf, a fellow Cistercian. While there he also persuaded the German emperor, Conrad III (1138-52), to join the crusade. No reigning monarch had previously taken the cross but now, in a matter of months, Bernard had recruited two.

Following Bernard's call the Crusaders would embark on a Holy War from all corners of Western Christendom and journey by sea or land from the tip of England, down through France and Italy, crossing to Greece and Constantinople on course for the Holy Land. In the end the overall objective of the Second Crusade (1145-49) was to free Iberia from Muslim control and defeat pagans in north-eastern Europe in addition to the recovery of Edessa (Urfa).

On his election as the Third Grand Master one of Everard des Barres first tasks was to convene a meeting of the General Chapter of the Templars in Paris in April 1147 to discuss plans for the Second Crusade. King Louis VII, Pope Eugene III, several Archbishops and around 130 Templar knights gathered at the European headquarters of the Templars, the Paris Temple. It was around this time that Pope Eugene authorised the use of the Red Cross on the Templar uniform; the Templar Knights wore a white mantle over their chain mail, as the Cistercians had worn a white choir robe over their monk's habits.

This can leave little doubt that the Templars were the driving force behind this crusade from the very beginning. Indeed, Everard de Barres had gone ahead of the crusade to Constantinople to negotiate the passage of the French and German Latin armies with the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel I Comnenus.

In mid-May 1147 Conrad III and his German army departed for the Holy Land. The French contingent under Louis VII and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, left a month later in mid-June. Conrad arrived in Constantinople in September, followed by Louis in early October. Conrad and his army then left Constantinople without waiting for Louis, only to have his main force destroyed by the Turks at Dorylaeum.

Louis opted for a more westerly route toward Attalia, but while passing through the passes of Pisidia in the Cadmus Mountains, his army suffered badly in the harsh winter conditions and he incurred heavy losses to the Seljuk Turks. Louis's army was on the verge of breaking up and he had little choice but to surrender control of the French Latin forces to The Master Templar Everard de Barres who divided the force into units, each under command of a Templar, and arrived safely at Attalia on the Mediterranean. Louis intended to take his main force to Antioch by sea, but there were so few Byzantine ships that he had to abandon the infantry, most of whom perished as they marched overland through Seljuk territory.

Arriving at Antioch in March 1148 Louis took what was left of his forces directly along the coast to Jerusalem instead of Edessa, the recovery of which had been the catalyst for the crusade. Now without any financial resources, Louis sent a request to the Templars for a loan of 2,000 marks. Everard des Barres set off to Acre to amass the funds. This loan was the first recorded financial deal made by the Templars who were to become bankers for the nobility of Europe.

Conrad, who had returned to Constantinople after being taken ill, finally arrived at Acre by sea with the remnants of his army. On 24 June 1148 both he and Louis met with Baldwin III, the king of Jerusalem (1143-63), and the Templars to plan strategy at the Council of Acre. King Baldwin and the Templars preferred target was Damascus because of its Christian history. Everard des Barres led his Templar knights along with the Latin forces on an unsuccessful siege of Damascus between 24 July and 29 July 1148. The siege ended in a humiliating defeat which led to the disintegration of the Crusade. Opinion differs as to whether the crusaders were beaten by the harsh desert conditions with no shade or water outside the thick walls of Damascus, or that many turned away on hearing that King Baldwin had promised to hand the city over to the Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders.

The Second Crusade failed in its primary objective, the recovery of Edessa, and failed to make any significant impact in the Holy Land with the unsuccessful siege of Damascus. The only positive results were in Iberia with the recovery of Lisbon and Almeria in 1147, and in Tortosa in which 400 years of Muslim rule came to an end when the Count of Barcelona took the city in December 1148 with the aid of crusaders returning from the East.

Andre de Montbard, now the Templar Seneschal, remained in Jerusalem after the Crusade. He despatched several letters to the Grand Master Everard des Barres requesting his return to Jerusalem with financial and military reinforcements. However, a reply was never received as des Barres had decided to give up his position as Grand Master, officially abdicating in April 1151, and becoming a Cistercian monk at Clairvaux Abbey where he died on 12 November 1174. In 1156 de Montbard gave up his role as the fifth Grand Master (1153–1156) of the Order and followed des Barres into retirement at Clairvaux, demonstrating the closeness between the two Orders.

Blame for the failure of the Second Crusade was placed firmly with the papacy who had inspired the crusade, but had done little to organize or coordinate it; yet historians tend to agree that the root cause of the failure was due to Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany being poor and inexperienced commanders who did not cooperate in their battle tactics.

Bernard's Apologia
After the failure of the Second Crusade Bernard felt compelled to issue an apology to the Pope in which he blamed the sins of the crusaders as the cause of their misfortune and failures. Consequently this was to be the last Crusade in which the armies were accompanied by large groups of pilgrims and other non-combatants; from now on the Crusades were to become more strictly military expeditions, with military objectives.

Bernard died on 20 August 1153, aged 63; Canonised twenty years later by Pope Alexander III in 1174; he was the first Cistercian monk to be named a Saint. By the end of the 12th century, the Order of the Cistercians had spread throughout Western Europe, supplanting the  Cluniac Order as the most influential and powerful Monastic Order. Such was the influence of Bernard of Clairvaux that he was regarded by many as the true founder of the Cistercians, who have often been called Bernardines. Bernard was buried at Clairvaux Abbey. When the abbey was dissolved by the French revolutionary government St Bernard's remains were transferred to Troyes Cathedral.

Significantly, the first Grail romance, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, written between 1181 and 1190, by the poet Chrétien of Troyes, is dedicated to Philip, Count of Flanders. Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders from (1168 to 1191), was also buried at Clairvaux Abbey. Philip had succeeded his father Thierry of Alsace, who was frequently away on crusade. Thierry participated in four pilgrimages to the Holy Land, including the Second Crusade. Tradition claims thar Thierry returned to his capital Bruges on 7th April, 1150, with the relic of the “Precious Blood” a cloth that Joseph of Arimathea had used to wipe blood from the body of Christ after the Crucifixion. The Basilica of the Holy Blood was built under the direction of the Count of Flanders to house the venerated relic of the Holy Blood.

Chrétien left his story of the Grail unfinished, perhaps purposefully, and never fully developed the objects of his 'graal procession'; opinion tends to agree that if he had finished his Story of the Grail then he would have described the items of the Grail Procession as relics of the Passion; Chrétien hints as much in writing that 'un graal' ('a grail': a serving platter) contained a single mass wafer that sustained the Fisher King.

Certainly the Grail stories following Chrétien feature relics of Christ's Passion as the items of the Grail  Procession. Following Chrétien, a Bavarian knight and poet known as Wolfram von Eschenbach (c.1170-1220) wrote a version of the Grail story entitled “Parzival”. In the Parzival, Wolfram refers to the Order of Graal Knights as “Templeisen” which is usually interpreted as a reference to the Knights Templar.

The Order of the Knights Templar was formed to defend pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, but their history is not exactly overflowing with examples of the Templars salvation of Christian travellers. Instead, it records many massacres and much bloodshed in their conquests, massive financial and military power; the gaps filled in by theories of arcane practices and covert agendas. And underneath all this lies the story of the Holy Grail, inescapably tied to the Templars.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Edited 03/09/16

Thomas Ashbridge, The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land, Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Thomas Ashbridge, The First Crusade: A New History, Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Barbara Frale, The Templars: The Secret History Revealed, Maverick House, 2009.
John France, The Second Crusade: War, Cruel And Unremitting, pp.60-63, in Thomas F. Madden, editor, Crusades: The Illustrated History, Duncan Baird Publishers 2004.
Michael Haag, Templars: History and Myth: From Solomon's Temple to the Freemasons, Profile Books, 2009.
Helen Nicholson, A Brief History of the Knights Templar, Robinson, 2000.
Jonathan Phillips, Martin Hoch, editors, The Second Crusade: Scope and Consequences, Manchester University Press, 2001.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, 2nd Revised Edition, Continuum, 2009.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Atlas of the Crusades, Times Books, 1991.
Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: Volume 1 - The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Penguin, 1991
Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: Volume 2 - The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187, Penguin, 1990.
Conrad Greenia, trans. In Praise of the New Knighthood (Liber ad milites Templi: De laude novae militae), St. Bernard of Clairvaux, from Bernard of Clairvaux: Treatises Three, Cistercian Fathers Series, Number Nineteen, © Cistercian Publications, 1977, pages 127-145.

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Sunday 21 August 2016

Valle Crucis and the Grail

The massive success of Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code (2003) led to a huge upsurge in interest in the Holy Grail and its so-called guardians, the Knights Templar.

In the introduction to 'Valle Crucis and the Grail' author Ian Pegler recalls a BBC website article from 2006 that said owing to the town's links with the Grail legend, Llangollen hoped to benefit from the success of the Da Vinci Code. In this book Pegler's objective is an examination of the Grail connections at Valle Crucis Abbey, barely a mile and a half from the Denbighshire town.

The BBC article made reference to 'The Keys to Avalon' by Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd (Element, 2000), a controversial book that claims to relocate Arthur's true kingdom (Ynys Pridein) west of Offa's Dyke, an earthwork forming the ancient land boundary of Wales that the author's claimed was constructed by the Emperor Severus in the Late 2nd Century AD.

In 'Keys' it was claimed that the Grail was linked to Castell Dinas Bran sited on the hill high above Llangollen. Blake and Lloyd also claimed that 'Glaestingaburh' (the Saxon name usually used in reference to the Somerset town of Glastonbury) originally referred to a location in the Eglwyseg Valley; the site now occupied by Valle Crucis Abbey.

Those of us not convinced by Blake and Lloyd's alternative Arthurian history will perhaps read Pegler's work with some caution from the introduction onwards. (For a critique of The Keys to Avalon see this article by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews). But stick with it as Pegler raises some interesting points from Valle Crucis that certainly whet the appetite.

Glyn Egwestl
Any claims of confusion with Glastonbury is really unnecessary as the area around Llangollen offers plenty of heritage and legend of its own: Castell Dinas Bran; Eliseg's Pillar; Croes Gwenhwyfar; St Collen's Well; Craig Arthur on the limestone escarpment of Eglwyseg Mountain; and of course the sacred River of the Goddess flows through the centre of the town.

Pegler's book offers many tantalising glimpses of these mysteries, such as the possibility of a Roman villa underneath the cloister area located in the early 1900s by Reverend Owen. Burnt timber remains under this were speculated by Blake and Lloyd as the site of Joseph of Arimathea's first church in Britain. Pegler locates anomalies in this area by dowsing, but does not speculate on the possibilities.

found in the SW corner of the refectory at
Valle Crucis Abbey during excavations in 1970
The author hints at the Abbey's potential links with the Holy Grail such as the mysterious talking statue of Christ which gets all but a brief mention, as does the 'MORVS' head, and a 13th Century copy of the Koran found 'bricked up' at the Abbey possibly brought back from the Holy Land by a crusading Knight Templar. The author raises the possibility that a number of grave slabs at Valle Crucis may identify Templar burials at the site.

The poet Guto'r Glyn spent his last days at Valle Crucis and refers to the Grail in an elegy to Robert Trevor (c.1452) in which he mentions a 'man buried at Egwestl with the Holy Grail'. Sometime after 1480 Guto'r composed a letter on behalf of the Abbot of Glyn Egwestl (Valle Crucis) requesting the loan of a copy of the 'Sain Greal' owned by Trahaearn ab leuan ap Meurig, a nobleman of Penrhos Fwrdios near Caerleon.

Almost certainly this text was the Welsh translation made in Glamorgan, c.1400, of two French Grail Romances of c.1300, La Queste del Saint Graal and Perlesvaus, now known as Y Seint Greal. A copy was made of it sometime after 1485 which bears a colophon stating it was made from a book owned by Trahaearn. Why was the Abbot of Valle Crucis desperate to get his hands on this Welsh Grail text?

Pegler weaves a web of many loose threads but fails to bring any of them to a conclusion; I really expected some revelation that he had discovered some anomaly under the Abbey turf during his dowsing, but instead he writes that there were one or two other dowsed features which he felt was more discrete to deliberately leave out of the book.

This tantalising little book barely scratches the surface of the mysteries of Valle Crucis Abbey; the full story is yet to be told. 

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

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Saturday 13 August 2016

Warriors, Warlords and Saints

West Midlands History has announced the forthcoming publication of a major new work on the story of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia by Dr John Hunt from the University of Birmingham.

Warriors, Warlords and Saints

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia

John Hunt

From the publisher:

“Anglo Saxon Mercia was a great power in its day, although many aspects of it have been shrouded in myth and mystery. 

However, recent discoveries, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and the Lichfield Angel, have shone a fascinating light into the world of Mercia and the Mercians. In the richly illustrated Warriors, Warlords and Saints: The Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, author John Hunt uses this evidence to paint a vivid picture of this political and cultural powerhouse which, at the height of its influence, ruled over much of England, and reached out across Europe into the Middle East. 

The Mercians themselves were complex. They were a force capable of both great violence and great art, fostering the embryonic English Church and yet fighting bloody wars with the rival kingdoms of Wessex, Northumbria and East Anglia. 

The story of the Mercians is integral to the story of Anglo Saxon England, from the end of Roman rule to the Norman invasion. It was a land peopled by ruthless kings, great ladies, brave warriors and famous saints who lived at a vital and compelling time in English history with Mercia at its heart.”

The Author
Dr John Hunt is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham and a member of the Centre for West Midlands History. He is the author of numerous books and articles on medieval history and archaeology.

West Midlands History 
History West Midlands (HWM) is an independent website providing free access to a variety of media exploring the rich and fascinating past of the historic counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Warwickshire & Worcestershire.

The initiative was designed for anyone wanting to know more about the West Midlands region. All content is reviewed by academics led by Dr Malcolm Dick, providing a useful resource for students, tutors and anyone with an interest in the history of the region.

In 2013 West Midlands History published the first issue of History West Midlands magazine written by historians and researchers from the region.  Entitled “The West Midlands Enlightenment”  the inaugural edition explored the time of the 18th and 19th centuries when industrialists such as Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and John Wilkinson were changing the face of manufacturing and thinkers such as Erasmus Darwin were challenging the established view of the world. Later editions included Glass and Glassmaking, The Power of Steam, and a special edition featuring Anglo Saxon Mercia and the Staffordshire Hoard.

The publication of the magazine ceased on 1st April 2016, the Spring Issue 11 'Art and Industry' was sadly the last. Although the content and quality of the magazine had been universally praised, it failed to generate sufficient income to sustain the project.

However, their website states that History West Midlands will continue to actively support programmes and activities which enhance understanding and enthusiasm for the region's unique history and heritage and will be expanding their book publishing.

It is still possible to order a special gift package "Unravelling the mysteries of the Staffordshire Hoard" from the Online shop.

The package includes an Online version of the Anglo-Saxons & Mercia: Special edition magazine (Issue 6, Autumn 2014) revealing the story of Mercia; Beasts, Birds & Gods: The Staffordshire Hoard Booklet explaining the meaning of the art of the Hoard; and The Staffordshire Hoard DVD which describes in detail 10 objects from the Hoard.

The Anglo-Saxons and Mercia (Issue 6 Autumn 2014) features the Staffordshire Hoard, which since its discovery in 2009, has drawn mass attention to the rich culture of the so-called Dark Ages between the end of Roman Britain and the time of King Alfred, resulting in an explosion of public interest in the culture and art of the Anglo-Saxons. Long queues formed wherever The Staffordshire Hoard was exhibited, amazing people with the incredible artistry of the Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship and intrigued by the enigmatic creatures hidden within the decorations of these precious objects.

The articles in this special edition of the magazine focus on the kingdom of Mercia and explore the ways in which historians and archaeologists are currently building the picture of the origins of the kingdom with a special feature on the Material Culture of the Anglo Saxons, culminating in an exploration of the latest thinking about the Hoard.

WMH has recently published a children's book on the Staffordshire Hoard entitled “Saxon Gold”.

Further details can be found on the History West Midlands website.

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Friday 5 August 2016

St Oswald's Travels after the Battle of Maserfelth

AD 642.  This year Oswald, king of the Northumbrians, was slain by Penda, king of the Southumbrians, at Mirfield, on the fifth day of August; and his body was buried at Bardney.  His holiness and miracles were afterwards displayed on manifold occasions throughout this island; and his hands remain still uncorrupted at Barnburgh.1

The Battle of Maserfelth
Bede writes affectionately of Oswald's wonderful piety; a king, saint, and martyr who unified Bernicia and Deria. But the 8th century historian only shows interest in two of Oswald's major battles which mark the beginning and end of his reign; the first, the victory at a place Bede calls in the English tongue Heavenfield in 634 AD, where Oswald defeated and killed the British king Cadwallon; the second, at Maserfelth, where Oswald himself was slain at the hands of the Mercian warlord Penda eight years later on 5th August 642 AD.2

In celebration of his victory Penda ordered that Oswald's head and forearms be hacked off and fixed on stakes. The Mercian must have had reasons for mutilating Oswald's corpse, in what bears indications of some sort of pagan sacrificial tradition of desecration.

On the way to Oswald's Well in Oswestry
Penda is well known for regicide; five kings fell to his sword. Bede writes that when Sigbert of East Anglia went into battle armed only with a stick 'mindful of his monastic vows' he was killed, along with his kinsman Egric, by the heathen Mercians. According to the Historia Brittonum Penda 'treacherously killed' Anna of East Anglia. The Northumbrian king Edwin, meanwhile, was beheaded after falling in battle against Penda at Haethfeld (Hatfield Chase) in 633 AD. Penda is also said to be responsible for the death of Edwin's son Edfrith. However, Oswald's death is the only one described in any detail by Bede.3

Heavenfield  has been identified as Denisesburna, near Hexham by Hadrian's Wall where Oswald erected a wooden cross as a place of worship prior to the battle. Today a replica of the cross stands beside the B6318 road near Hexham. Following Oswald's victory over Cadwallon the original cross soon became a secondary relic with pilgrims collecting splinters and placing them in water as a curative potion.

Since at least the 12th century Maserfelth has been identified with Oswestry in Shropshire, and it has remained the popular choice for the site of Oswald's martyrdom. Yet, although Reginald of Durham first recorded this connection in his vita of Oswald, c.1165 AD, Bede never made such a connection. The derivation of Oswestry from Old English Oswaldestreow, “Oswald's Tree” coupled with the Welsh name for Oswestry, Croesoswald, “Oswald's Cross”, it has received general acceptance.

St Oswald's Well, Oswestry
However, it was not unusual to find Northumbrian kings campaigning this far south; Edwin is recorded as fighting the Welsh at Meigen on the borders of Powys and besieging the Isle of Anglesey; Aethelfrith is recorded as attacking Chester in 616 AD and killing two thousand monks. Yet scholars continue to debate the location of the battle of Maserfelth.4 Welsh sources refer to the battle as bellum Cocboy ( Historia Brittonum) and Maes Cogwy which provides no further help in identification of the battle site. If the battle was indeed fought at Oswestry then Oswald must have penetrated deep into Powys at Old Oswestry; yet his motive for arriving at such an isolated position far from his fatherland remains unclear.

The Journeys of St Oswald's Relics
A year after the battle of Maserfelth Oswald's brother Oswiu journeyed to the battle site and collected Oswald's head and forearms. The head went to Lindisfarne priory and was interred with St Cuthbert, finally resting at Durham Cathedral where it remains to this day. An uncorrupted arm went to Bamburgh and Peterborough claimed another. The stake on which his head had been impaled at Maserfelth bacame a secondary relic and was later used to cure a man in Ireland

Some years later, between 675 – 697, Osthryth (Oswald's niece) collected his remains, presumably just the torso and legs, from the battlefield and brought them to Bardney Abbey in Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire).

When St Oswald's body (minus the head and forearms) was first brought to Bardney the monks refused to accept it, because the Abbey was in the Kingdom of Lindsey, a disputed territory, the war zone, between Northumbria and Mercia, which Oswald had once conquered. St Oswald's relics were locked outside the Abbey gates, but during the night a beam of light shone from his bier reaching up into the heavens. The monks declared that it was a miracle and accepted the body, hanging the King's Purple and Gold banner over the tomb. When the monks washed the bones the ground onto which the water fell is said to have gained curative powers. Bede records that when a boy with the fever kept vigil by the tomb he was cured of his illness. St Oswald's shrine at Bardney was later covered in gold and silver and embellished with jewels by King Offa of Mercia.

Bardney lies a long way from Oswestry; indeed it is on the otherside of the country. If the battle of Maserfelth was fought at Oswestry then is it conceivable that Osthryth could journey across country and retrieve Oswald's body some 30-50 years later? The same doubt must be expressed for Oswiu's earlier collection of the head and forearms; could the Northumbrian king travel, apparently freely and unchallenged, through a frontier zone, crossing the hostile realm of Merica to the battle site on the Welsh border?

Oswald's Well, Oswestry
Tim Clarkson draws our attention to the fact that Bede writes that Oswald died “fighting for his fatherland,” (pro patria dimicans)5 which, he suggests, indicates that Maserfelth was a battle fought in defence of Oswald's 'core territory.' A unified Northumbrian fatherland would have extended to the Humber in the east and probably to the Mersey in the west; surely Clarkson is correct and it is likely that Maserfelth was on this border. A good candidate is Makerfield in Lancashire which sits on this frontier zone and preserves the name of the battle, but has been discarded on etymological grounds.6

Major conflicts between Northumbria and Mercia, such as Aethelfrith's final battle in 617, Edwin's demise in 633, Oswiu's defeat of Penda in 655, and the Mercian victory on the Trent in 679, were fought in this zone or along its periphery. Clarkson suggests that the lost battlefield of Maserfelth should be envisaged as a site in the Northeast Midlands.7

The recovery of Oswald's remains by Osthryth echoes a similar initiative undertaken by her sister Aelfflaed. Sometime after 680 AD the headless body of Edwin of Deira was discovered at the site of his final battle on Hatfield Chase, the location, apparently unknown to his kin although their Dieran territory shared a frontier with Hatfield, was finally provided by a local layman said to have lived in the vicinity of the battlefield. Aelfflaed shared the abbacy of Whitby Abbey with her mother Eanflaed. The relics became the focus of a cult at Whitby. Alan Thacker suggests that the finding and translation of the remains of Edwin and Oswald by two powerful women of the Northumbrian royal family is indicative of a single initiative rather than two distinct events.8

The Eagle and St Oswald's arm, sculpture above the well, Oswestry
In the early 10th century the retrieval of a saint-king's body is mirrored again by a powerful Mercian lady. In the year 909 AD the Mercian Register records the body of St. Oswald, under threat from Viking raiders, was translated from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire into the furthermost corner of Mercia. Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, and Æthelred ealdorman of Mercia, brought Oswald's remains to the New Minster at Gloucester and housed them in an extended crypt, itself perhaps a reflection of the Royal Mercian crypt at Repton.

The translation was seemingly to empower the new burh, sited in the ruins of the former Roman town. It would appear that Æthelflæd may have been responsible for the early development of Oswald cult here. The New Minster at Gloucester, made substantially of masonry from the ruins of Roman Glevum, was founded by Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred in either the last years of the 9th century or the first decade of the 10th century at the same time as the new burh.

The translation of St Oswald's relics was not an isolated event; Æthelflæd is thought to have been responsible for the relocation of the relics of several saints during the early 10th century in the establishment of her defensive chain of burhs within Mercia.

St Werburg’s relics were brought to the church of St Peter and St Paul in Chester from Hanbury in Staffordshire, in 907 AD when it too became a burh. The relics of St Ealhmund were brought to Shrewsbury from Derby and those of St Guthlac were probably moved from Crowland to Hereford. Æthelflæd was also responsible for establishing the cult of St Bertelin, said to be a Mercian Prince, during the construction of the Stafford burh. Significantly, each of these saints had a connection with the Mercian nobility.

Significantly Werburg was the daughter of Wulfhere, a Christian convert, and the Kentish princess St Eormenilda, and granddaughter of Penda, the slayer of St Oswald.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, translation by Rev. James Ingram (London, 1823). Mirfield is situated on the north bank of the river Calder, near Huddersfield in west Yorkshire.
2. Bede - Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD) Book  3.9.
3. Alby Stone, Penda the Pagan: Royal sacrifice and a Mercian king, Mercian Mysteries, No.16 August 1993.
4. Tim Clarkson, Locating Maserfelth, The Heroic Age, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006); Stancliffe, Clare. 1995. Where was Oswald killed? In Oswald: Northumbrian king to European saint, edited by Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge. Watkins, 1995.
5. Bede, HE 3.9.
6. According to AD Mills in the entry for 'Ashton' (A Dictionary of British Place-Names, Oxford University Press,2003) 'Makerfield' derives from the Celtic name for a 'wall' or 'ruin' and the Old English word 'feld' meaning 'open land'. Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire, is in the parish of Winwick which is situated just north of Warrington on the Mersey. At Winwick the church is dedicated to St Oswald and bears an ancient inscription to the Saint. About a mile north of St Oswald's church at Winwick we find 'St Oswald's Well' in a field alongside the A573 road.
7. Tim Clarkson, Locating Maserfelth, The Heroic Age, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006).
8. Alan Thacker, Alan, Membra disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult. In Oswald: Northumbrian king to European saint, edited by Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge, Watkins, 1995.

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